I first became aware of Dana Cowin through my love affair with Top Chef where Cowin, the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, is a guest judge every season. Then last fall came her first cookbook, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen, which went on to become one of our picks for the Best Cookbooks of 2014.
Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen is a collection of over 100 recipes that Cowin has become proficient in with the help of some of the best chefs in the country. Having someone with such a high profile in the food world admit she's not a great cook is really inspiring and reassuring. And you can't beat the opportunity, through the pages of her book, to learn how to perfect simple recipes from people like Eric Ripert and David Chang.
When Dana Cowin was here in Seattle, Erin and I had lunch with her at a fantastic local restaurant, Sitka and Spruce. Cowin is as lively and fun a person as you could want, and Erin and I had the best time talking to her about cooking, her book, Top Chef, and life in general while enjoying an amazing meal. Below is a transcript of some of that conversation.
Seira Wilson: So, tell us what it's been like to have your first book published?
Dana Cowin: When your book is out in the world the amount of actual feedback from people is gigantic. In the magazine world and the digital world--Instagram or blog posts--it's all different time frames, so you get feedback but it’s completely different. This may sound dumb but...I own a lot of cookbooks but I own them to read them. They go to bed with me, they travel with me, I sort of live through them but I don’t cook with them. But people who buy cookbooks, the next day they're like, "I made this last night and tomorrow night I’m making this, and I’m having a week cooking through your book"--and I’m like, really?? [big smile]. It’s immediate feedback for something that I thought of as such a long term project, so it’s been really fun.
SW: What made you decide to write this book?
DC: A couple of things: I did wake up one day and say, "am I ever going to fix all these dumb mistakes I’m making in the kitchen?" If I am, there’s no time like right now because all these chefs that could help me really are friends, and I’m beyond the point of being able to go to cooking school without being embarrassed. Although I’ve just written a whole book of humiliations so not sure how that jibes, but that was my thinking--I should hang out with these chef friends of mine and learn something from them. I took recipes that I love and make all the time and learned specific and general lessons for them.
So part of it was timing: it’s about time to learn to cook. And then, once I realized I was going to do this for myself, I thought this would be so great to share. I’m making mistakes on very simple recipes, so it's not like I would be doing an advanced book. I’d be doing sort of a passionate food person and a beginner person book of recipes. The sharing part wasn’t hard but I did ask a couple people, am I an idiot? Should I not be telling the entire world that I don’t know how to cook? And there were some people at Food & Wine that said, are you sure? I obviously decided it wasn’t too embarrassing and in fact it turns out to be all kinds of good things. It’s liberating, it’s educational, and I’m so much on a mission now to learn stuff. At the end of the day, admitting you're making mistakes is one thing, but the learning from them is the fun part.
SW: That's so satisfying when you make something and it doesn’t turn out well and you can figure out what went wrong and then do it again and have it work out.
DC: A lot of chefs, when I told them I was making mistakes and asked them to help me, half of them said, "oh you’re just being hard on yourself" and half of them said, "yeah cooking is really difficult, it’s not always easy."
SW: How did you decide which chefs to work with for each recipe?
DC: The idea was that I would master these recipes, so I went to chefs that really are masters of whatever the heart of the recipe was. So for example, Michael Symon to do meat, he’s so amazing with meat, or Mario Batali on a baked pasta. Or Alex Guarnaschelli on anything French or Andrew Zimmern on Asian food. Because of working with the chefs so much on the magazine, and eating at their restaurants, and calling them obsessively, I felt like I really understand what in their heart they cared the most about and where they would have the most experience to share. And some of the things I thought, maybe there isn’t so much to teach here, but the chefs, because they do know their topics so deeply, they can go on for hours. Like José Andrés--I was just trying to make a tomato bruschetta, which is really easy, and sometimes I’d be embarrassed to call and say, hey this is what I’m having a problem with. But he transformed the bruschetta! I mean, you end up with tomato jewels, and he told me to use sliced bread instead of the beautiful bread from the market. He was transformative. Instead of saying, well you should spread the olive oil in a more even layer and be more careful when you toast-- which is sort of what I thought--no! he completely started over, from the beginning. The bread-- you’re using the wrong bread; then the method--you’re using the wrong method; then the tomatoes-- here's a new way to do tomatoes. So I had these three revelatory things on what I thought was the simplest recipe in the book.
SW: Do you have a favorite recipe that you’ve mastered as a result of working with the chefs.
DC: There’s only one recipe in the book that I hadn’t tried before I began and it’s my favorite thing to eat in the whole world, which is fried chicken. I was really afraid of fried chicken, the bubbling oil... If you can imagine, someone who has trouble toasting bread--I can burn bread really easily--the idea of bubbling oil and chicken was really scary. But it turns out the method that I use is a shallow fry, so you flip it, and it’s not scary at all. So I feel like that was the biggest challenge because I was most afraid of it, but it turned out well and that was the greatest day. I love that I can actually now make fried chicken.
SW: How fun is it being a guest judge on Top Chef?
DC: It's so fun. I love Top Chef for so many reasons...for one thing, getting exposed to all the cooking styles of all these different people. I try to remember who’s who after I leave the set, because inevitably many of them--not all but many--go on to have really interesting careers. Like, randomly, when I was on set judging whatever season Kristen Kish was on, I remember her dish so well--it really, really stood out among 20. Sometimes I’m at the end and sometimes at the beginning [of the season], but it really stood out. I told myself: remember this girl, remember this girl. And among the whole, she turned out to be so talented.
EK: The creativity is always so stunning too, under pressure and the things they come up with.
DC: Yes, and the guest judges are often really fun. I did a Top Chef Duels and I was at the table with Pink. How cool is that!? So I’m sitting here with Pink--I’d read about her in New York magazine and I looked her up once I knew she would be there, but she’s amazing! She really does love food, but she was really delicate about offering her opinion because she’s surrounded by people who do nothing but talk about food all day. But she had great insights and great humor. And of course I love Gail Simmons, and Tom [Colicchio]. And wherever you travel is fun, they try to make it fun for the viewers and it’s fun for the guests.
DC: Actually, the last time I was here [in Seattle] was for Top Chef. I love Renee Erickson, anything she does I think is so great. And we have a bunch of Food & Wine best new chefs from Seattle that I’m very partial to, of course. And Canlis, and Ethan Stowell, and Matt [Dillon, chef at Sitka and Spruce and past winner of Food & Wine's Best New Chef award], of course.
We started talking about the bounty of good cookbooks that had come out or were about to release, including Dominique Ansel's gorgeous cookbook (also a Best of 2014 selection), Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes
DC: He’s the most creative chef in America and he applies it all to pastry. And, he has a great backstory. We did a piece on him for the magazine where I learned a bunch of this…so he grew up very poor and he ended up working for Fauchon, launching Fauchon in Russia, and certain things mystified him--like these women who would come to work at like 3:00 in the morning, which is when bakers come to work, but they’d come in full make-up and skimpy clothing and he was like, you guys, you’re working the line, you’re making pastry here, these clothes are not appropriate. But it turned out they were hookers!
SW: Hooker slash baker?
DC: Yes, a new job hybrid we hadn’t heard of before: the hooker-baker. He’s so well known for the cronut--a cross between a croissant and a doughnut and layers of something delicious in it as well, it’s not just pastry. But everything he does is amazing. Everything. It’s almost unfair that he’s so well known for one thing because he has so many other things that are so good.
EK: Is the cronut everything they say? Is it just amazing or?
DC: It is, it’s delicious. And I think it’s great to have that much of what my daughter would call "a thing.”
SW: What do you think is going to be the next “thing?”
DC: I think it’s the éclair. Not in the cronut way, where it’s one person’s genius idea--I think that strikes about once every 5 years... So first it was the cupcake, then the doughnut tried but never really made it…now we think it’s going to be éclairs.
SW: Variations of the éclair?
DC: That’s it. Because there’s so many amazing variations, you can fill it with anything. It’s such a perfect delivery system for layers of cream and butter and pastry and something that’s slick and glossy and sweet on it. It’s got a lot going on.
Dana Cowin also has a lot going on--traveling, eating, making our mouths water via her Twitter posts, and no doubt mastering more recipes.