Amanda Hesser

Amanda HesserNew York Times writer Amanda Hesser has published two books, The Cook and the Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings from the French Countryside and most recently Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes. She was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and attended Bentley College as an Economics and Finance major. While in Boston, she began working (volunteering) in various kitchens and studying culinary history at Radcliffe with Barbara Wheaton. She applied for and received a scholarship from Les Dames d' Escoffier that took her on a cook's tour of Europe, and she continued her culinary studies at Ecole de Cuisine La Burgundy and later at Chateau du Fey. Amanda Hesser joined the New York Times in 1997 and in 2001 introduced the Food Diary in the New York Times Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn Heights with her husband, New Yorker staff writer Tad Friend.

Cooking for Mr. Latte is based on Hesser's Food Diary column, where she tracked her budding relationship with Mr. Latte, aka Tad Friend, and the dinner parties and dining experiences and cooking that comprised the backdrop and context. The text includes over a hundred recipes and is skillfully interwoven with honest and personal commentary about affairs of the heart and the palate.

Robert Birnbaum: Are you a super-taster?

Amanda Hesser: I don't know. I have never been tested. I don't think I am. From what I understand, it's not all that desirable. Because you experience such extremes in tastes.

RB: You would know it if you were?

AH: I think I would know it. That's why I think I'm not.

RB: Know any super-tasters?

AH: I don't. I don't. Maybe they won't admit it.

RB: I know one. Barbara Haber over at the Schlesinger Library.

AH: Is it unpleasant for her?

RB: I don't think so. Cooking for Mr. Latte is an odd kind of a book.

AH: [chuckles]

RB: In addition to your own observations and experiences with food and cooking, which is the basis of your authority in the modern world, you have exposed a part of your personal life to the world.

AH: Yeah?

RB: Do you have the same feelings about writing the columns that are the basis for this book as when you first began? What were your reservations when you first started?

AH: I was worried my life might be too boring. That it wouldn't be able to carry—I wouldn't be able to find or gather fully formed stories that really said something. Because I didn't know what was going to happen in the future. I didn't know this relationship was going to work out. I didn't know if I was going to have experiences that really made me—that inspired me to write, to connect the dots in a way that you really need to when you are writing a diary. I didn't want it to be just self-involved blather about my life. But to really tell stories that people could relate to. In retrospect, I don't have any regrets because the most gratifying part of it has been making that connection with people. I have written for the newspaper for six years, and I have probably gotten ten times the amount of mail over the year I wrote the column than I did the previous five years. When you are writing personally, people, negatively and positively, make these connections and relate, because they have experienced these things in their own lives and feel strongly about them. And they want to talk about it, and that's been great. In food writing there have been great food memoirs and increasingly good food journalism, and there is also this wonderful odd genre that maybe doesn't exist in other forms of culture, like dance or music—which is this fantasy aspect. You know, how I'd really like to cook or entertain. How I wish it would be, that sort of perfection that we are all striving for but never or rarely attain. I was trying to capture that real life slice of how we live and how we really eat, how we really cook, with all the flaws and sort of satisfaction bundled into one.

RB: This didn't necessarily have to become a book?

In the past decade, a lot of lifestyle subjects from home design to food have been put up on this pedestal, and there is a lot of social pressure that goes along with that now.

AH: Right.

RB: Had the relationship failed or floundered or come to a flat line there wouldn't have been a book, I guess?

AH: No, I guess not. Before I started doing the column, I had talked to my editors, and we discussed the goals for the column, and it really was to have a beginning, middle and an end. We had the beginning; it was a strong beginning. It wasn't a bad date, it was just this date at a bad restaurant, and we had to see where it went. We joked around that it would be a great if we end up with a wedding. The relationship was on solid ground, but we certainly weren't engaged. So, yeah, it didn't have to be, but when I actually went to make the book, I thought, "This is going to be easy. I will just slap these columns together and add a few recipes that got cut from the magazine and there you go." I realized that doesn't make a book. So I actually combined chapters and cut chapters and really tried to make a cohesive story.

RB: How was your column edited along the way? This is a different kind of narrative for a newspaper, were you to follow newspaper conventions, a strong nut graf [the short summary paragraph at the top of a newspaper story] and such?

AH: [chuckles] No, thankfully. A lot of the appeal to me was that I had been writing with nut grafs for six years and it was a chance to break from that style and try something new. Because it was experimental for the Times, definitely, to deal with a personal column, and they were very supportive. It was great because we were figuring it out as we went along, but it gave me a good amount of freedom. Because it was so personal it ended up being a really fun project because they wanted me to be involved in all aspects. On the second page there was always a photograph of the food.

RB: So you styled the photo?

AH: We did this at my house. They were my plates, I cooked it. We had this team of photographers…

RB: Who ate it?

AH: We all did. After the shot we all dug in. (laughs)

RB: So you became popular with the photo staff.

AH: Exactly. It was really this nice…sometimes when you are writing, particularly newspaper stories, you are one piece of the puzzle and this was nice to be involved in all aspects and feel like when it came out, "I did this."

RB: I didn't want to say this before [and risk alienating you so quickly], but I have some familiarity with the restaurant world over the last boom, and I have found it increasingly unattractive and unsatisfying. Something has happened, at least for me, that has taken the joy out of it. I wonder what happens to someone like you who really has to live a professional life attached to the overripe food world. Ever get tired of it?

AH: Oh sure. It's definitely an issue I face professionally because the natural path that people try to follow at the Times is they become a reporter and eventually a critic. I never wanted to be a critic. I love eating and love dining, but I love cooking at home and being at home. I find that I have done stories where I have to go out four nights a week or to two or three restaurants a night. It's kind of grueling and unpleasant. You get jaded. You find yourself being super critical about what really is just a meal. [chuckles]

RB: In Manhattan it must be a very brittle experience?

AH: There is definitely a foodie culture that's very competitive, and there are people who really just love going out every night. You know, good for them. [laughs] I don't want to do it myself.

RB: How many times a year can you eat with Jeffrey Steingarten [Vogue food writer]?

AH: I’d say a handful. [laughs]

RB: Why is he the only person in the book who is mentioned with a surname? In the food world isn't he like a super model?

AH: Probably, maybe in future editions I should think about that. I felt that if people knew whom I was talking about they would have read his work. He is well read and he is truly a special character. I just love his whole name. Part of it is, I love saying, "Jeffrey Steingarten." It has a kind of…

RB: Forcefulness to it?

author of cooking for mr latteAH: Yeah.

RB: The Morning News has a department called "People We Like," and in that you mentioned him as your only hero.

AH: He definitely is.

RB: Do you care to expand the list?

AH: You mean in the food world?

RB: The whole wide world.

AH: The whole wide world. Ahhh...[long pause] It's not something I think about much, but Jeffrey just leaps to mind. He is a fabulous writer, and he is an excellent reporter, which he doesn't always get credit for. He is a tireless reporter. And he is just funny. He is larger than life. And I wish there were more people like that. Like in old-style food writing, AJ Liebling, people like that. You read them now and you can't believe it.

RB: Liebling was a master. He was great writer, about boxing, politics.

AH: There is something about boxing and food, too, which is really odd. There is a writer at Food & Wine, a woman who has written about boxing and she writes about food. And Alan Richman has written a fair amount about boxing.

RB: There's a connection to explore. They are both sensual and direct.

AH: Visceral. [laughs] Yeah, for myself, maybe that's a flaw for me, I am not a big boxing fan.

RB: Does it strike you that food had become very much more significant than it ought to be in the world, in life and lifestyles?

AH: I guess so. In the past decade a lot of lifestyle subjects from home design to food have been put up on this pedestal, and there is a lot of social pressure that goes along with that now. It's not just about being able to make the perfect tarlatan but having the Viking stove to bake it in.

RB: [laughs] Right.

AH: I'm sure that it has to do with the economy in the '90s. People had more disposable income and…

RB: Thus Sub Zero and Viking became must haves.

AH: In the magazine business, there was a lot more advertising budgeted, so there was a lot of writing about these things. There were magazines starting, lots of television shows starting and just as this kind of…

RB: Has all this been good for the world?

AH: In the long term it's been very good. I just did this story for the Dining section of the paper about college students. It was fascinating to me. That is definitely a product of this [food boom]. In the past two decades America's awareness of good food has really altered, and now this generation that was raised with parents that were hyper alert about good food are now becoming adults, and it's a regular part of their lives to go out to restaurants or to cook or to watch cooking shows.

RB: I like the quote in that story from the University of Alabama where someone said about sushi that in the past they would have thought it was fishing bait. [both laugh] And in the short term one goes to restaurants and sees the entree prices rising to the where you could feed a Central American village for a week for the cost of one. What are you paying for? Debt service for all the extras that go into the comic opera of fine dining: an expensive build out, a public relations firm, designer waitstaff uniforms and on and on. Doesn't all that change the dynamic and the attitude involved?

AH: It's so rare that a restaurant can really pull that off. Have this high design and high concept and really do it well because when comes down to it they are hiring waiters who have other professions and things like that. It's a thing as a diner that bugs me to go into a restaurant where you feel like when the word 'concept' comes to mind you, walk in and you think, "That's what they have been working with, the concept." At the same time, in terms of design, if you are into architecture and interior design, they have made great strides--in the past decade, there has been a lot of money channeled into restaurants. That's one of the things I both like and like to make fun of in New York. It’s great, but it is taken a little bit too seriously at times. Yes, it is frustrating when you know what good food is all you need is a simple room and a good cook in the kitchen that you see all this fluff surrounding and you know that you are paying for it.

RB: The last time I went out to dine was with some friends visiting, and they were on their expense account. So we went to an expensive place and though I could have ordered any entrÈe and not been concerned about my scribbler's finances, I ordered the couscous which was the least expensive entrÈe on the menu. The waiter exclaimed, "Really?"

AH: [laughs] My favorite line from waiters is, "I really like the…" [laughs]

RB: What are you doing these days at the Times?

AH: I'm a generalist reporter. I have been writing more about wine. I will continue in that direction. It's something I've been wanting to write about for a couple of years now and I really love and am interested in. It is a beat that takes a while to get up to speed.

This generation that was raised with parents that were hyper alert about good food are now becoming adults, and it's a regular part of their lives to go out to restaurants or to cook or to watch cooking shows.

RB: You have to drink a lot?

AH: You have to drink a lot. Also, it’s international. It's enormous. California alone has 2000 wineries. To keep up, on top of everything is a lot of work.

RB: Is that a macho world?

AH: Ah, yeah. It has definitely been dominated by men. Jancis Robinson is a well-respected female wine writer and critic. But there are fewer women. It's changing but it's slow. Interestingly, in Spain some of the best wine makers are women. Also, in California. So they are making strides. But I am coming from restaurants to wine; it's still a man's world in restaurants. There are very few top female chefs. There are a growing number, but it’s still dominated by men.

RB: Odd.

AH: It is odd. It's very strange. I don't really know why it is.

RB: Alice Waters… Is Lydia Shire in that weight division?

AH: Sure, she is extremely well known and successful. There is a handful in New York. When you think of the four-star restaurants in New York, they are all run by men. There are plenty of women in the kitchens, but in terms of being the chef, it's at a slower pace than other professions, the shift to equality.

RB: I read a piece on you, and you were sitting on a panel, and the piece ended with you asking a question, and it was an interesting question, and I wished the answers were included. You asked, "What was the maximum work load that chefs would take on?" What I thought you were getting at was how many new restaurants were they comfortable opening and running?

AH: Yes, exactly. At what point do you determine that you have to compromise on integrity for financial success? Is it one restaurant? Is it one restaurant and a cafe, is it three restaurants?

RB: And a chicken farm?

AH: I didn't get a clear answer. I think it's something a lot of chefs struggle with. As a diner it's frustrating when you go into a restaurant and you feel like it's been franchised, and you are not really getting that chef's clear vision and that he or she is in the back overseeing things. But then again, even at a restaurant run by a chef who only has one, they are not there all the time. But you just feel like they can have more control.

RB: There was piece ["Brigade de Cuisine"] that John McPhee wrote in Giving Good Weight about a place, a wonderful restaurant that he refused to name and the chef didn't want to be famous.

AH: Hmmm. That's unheard of. [laughs]

RB: A very improbable integrity suggested in his piece.

AH: You do see a little bit more of that now. You are getting cooks who have worked for chefs like that and they see what it's like or they can't identify with it [fame and the limelight] in their own personality. Of course, after I say this she is going to go and franchise herself, but there is Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune. She is an excellent cook, but the food at her restaurant is extremely simple, and it's a tiny sliver of a restaurant, and she's gotten tons of press, and I don't think she is planning on going anywhere with it.

RB: The pressures must be incredible. I wouldn't blame anyone for the taking the big-money path…

AH: Kitchen life is tough. It's really difficult to have a social life outside of it. The hours are grueling. It's hot. It’s physically tiring. If you have done it for a decade and someone is telling you…it must be really seductive. Also, even top chefs don't make that much money. And if you can expand—if you are living in New York City and living on a typical chef's salary and you can open three more restaurants, and then actually have bedrooms for your children or send them to a decent school. It definitely makes a lot of sense.

RB: Easy for me to say, but it may be a mistake to live in NYC to begin with…

AH: [laughs]

RB: Living there does raise the ante.

AH: For everyone.

RB: Yeah. I have had the opportunity to see a number of different models in the so-called hospitality business, and I most admire someone like Chris Schlesinger [East Coast Grill, Back Eddy]. He seems to know his own limits or something like that.

AH: I always felt like he does what he knows. And instead of writing about a billion different things, he has written in this narrow circle, but he is literally an expert who has great things to tell people, and maybe that's the secret—understanding yourself before you go and…

RB: Well, now that's a deeper subject and big issue. But it would seem to take a long time for some people and some people never get to that. In your writing you are pretty Eurocentric. You are not concerned with regional cooking, or with Latin American or Asian.

AH: Yeah, I write what I know. [laughs] I worked in Europe. Yeah, people think of New York as truly being the melting pot, but the restaurant culture is definitely European oriented, the high end. You would think by now that there would be fancy Chinese restaurants.

RB: There are some in Boston, and even some forays into so-called fusion menus… Is the word 'cuisine' reserved for European menus?

amanda hesser author photoAH: No, definitely not. Interesting diner food that you find in the Midwest. I think that's cuisine too.

RB: Like macaroni and cheese?

AH: That kind of thing. Fried bologna sandwiches. Little regional

RB: Where does bologna come from?

AH: I don't know. You would think it was Italian, but for some reason I think it comes from the German culture and settlers in Pennsylvania. But I'm not sure.

RB: Back in this conversation you said something about a heightened food awareness as a benefit of this food boom. I don't know which comes first…but the recent flap in which the sugar grower's association was lobbying against the World Health Organization because their guidelines suggested that there should be a reduction in sugar intake as part of a healthy diet and that sugar intake contributed to obesity. I thought of that when I read one of the more charming chapters in your book where you were shepherding an Indian tourist around New York and he took note that there were many fat people. On the one hand, you have the heightened consciousness of better foods and diets, and on the other hand lots of obese people who are not eating right.

AH: Yeah, I don't know how to explain it. Sadly, I think it's largely socio-economic. There was a study done that was published in the New York Times, about a study on weight in NYC. It was fascinating that basically the lower-income boroughs people's weights increased, the average weight increased by a fair amount. Whereas on the Upper East Side was where the lowest average weight was...I don't know how to explain it. It's not something I study myself. Is it something you have observed?

RB: Years ago I taught in urban public schools, and the kids would eat the funkiest snack foods, bacon rinds being a popular item.

AH: I don't know if it's the choice or it's also comfort, you know when everything else in your life is not so stable.

RB: Like that sad kid in Monster's Ball.

AH: Exactly, really devastating, and if you couple that with bad choices of food, it's a really a bad situation. I think Americans have made great strides, but really, I'd like to see it hit the mainstream. Which I don't think it has.

RB: It is promising that McDonald's and some of the other fast-food chains have suffered their first losses ever in the last few years.

AH: Excellent.

RB: The foodie world is a world inhabited by a relatively small and exclusive group of people.

AH: Definitely.

RB: What's the criterion for a fine restaurant in New York, Zagat's?

AH: The New York Times has a four-star system.

RB: How many restaurants in New York have three or more stars?

AH: Ah, hmm, just a couple of dozen, maybe. Not even, maybe a dozen or so. There are four four-star restaurants now. And one recently closed because of the economy.

RB: Really? A four-star restaurant closes because of the bad economy?

AH: Everyone is struggling. Even good restaurants are opening for breakfast, Sunday brunch. They are using all ways to make a few extra dollars. The period before this downturn saw unprecedented growth in the restaurant industry in New York. You just could not keep up with the number of restaurants opening, every time you turned around.

RB: I had acquaintances in the business who told me stories of impromptu parties thrown by young financial services hotshots and the bill would come to thirty-thousand dollars plus.

AH: Yeah, it was pretty incredible. There was sort of this heat in the restaurant business, and it was fun while it lasted [laughs] but it got a little tiresome towards the end.

RB: Do you have a long-term plan of what you intend for your career?

As a diner it's frustrating when you go into a restaurant and you feel like it's been franchised and you are not really getting that chef's clear vision and that he or she isn't in the back overseeing things.

AH: I don't. I realized shortly after I arrived at the Times that I would like to eventually write about wine. Although, I still love writing about food. I knew that I didn't want to become a restaurant reviewer and so I don't know. This book just happened and it made sense at the time. My last book was a much different book. Sure, sometimes I wish I had a plan.

RB: What's it like living with another writer?

AH: It's great.

RB: [laughs]

AH: He's a much better writer, and so when he reads my stuff he is very helpful. [both laugh]

RB: It's great for you. [laughs]

AH: Yeah, it's great for me, but not great for him. [laughs] Whenever he writes something I say, "Oh, its great." [laughs] Actually, it's fabulous. We are on the same schedule. We work a half a block apart. We go to work together. It's very sweet. We have lunch together sometimes.

RB: One of the ultimate New York writing couples…

AH: There are lots, Frank Rich and Alex Witchel, and my friend Jennifer who is a reporter at the paper who set us up, her husband is a writer.

RB: May be there is a book there?

AH: There are lots of writing couples. [giggles]

RB: What informs your life beyond the foodie culture? You like old movies, right?

AH: Well, I like both, I all movies. My husband, he is kind of a movie buff, so we do go to the movies a lot. We are not theater people, but also I love to read fiction, and we both love to travel. He is much more well-traveled than I am. One thing we have discussed is that one day, we would like to take some time off and travel around the world. Get one of those around-the-world tickets.

RB: That's a beautiful thing.

AH: He's done it, so he knows how wonderful it is.

RB: And what about life in New York? It's the current hot word, kind of snarky, isn't it?

AH: The Observer reviewed my book—they took three books, and they assigned a plant to each one. I am so bad at math that at first I thought I lost, but my husband told me that actually mine did grow the most. But anyway, it was so Observer style. Thank god. It was funny.

RB: You would never see that in Boston periodicals.

AH: Why is that? Are they afraid of losing advertising?

RB: So it would seem.

AH: Oh really. That's too bad.

RB: Craig Unger, an ex-Observer editor, was at Boston magazine for a few years, and occasionally he would roil the waters with cover stories like "Henry Louis Gates: Head-Negro-in-charge" or "Where are the Good Restaurants? They're in New York." It was very calculated to get attention, not to inform anyone… Have you thought of another book after this one?

AH: No. I have lots of little ideas, but they are not well formed. Any ideas? Anything you want to read about?

RB: Are you looking to be affiliated with a newspaper for your whole career? Or are you considering branching off it to do longer works and other media?

AH: Well, I'm happy at the newspaper. I really love the Times.

RB: I won't tell them if you …

hesser by birnbaumAH: No, I am. It’s a really great company to work for. And the one thing that is nice is that I could change beats entirely if I became miserable. And that's nice to know. There is a temptation when you are writing for the soft sections of the paper to get some experience in some of the other sections of the paper, so that you are taken seriously. I thought about that in the past. I am leaning against that. Ultimately I don't think I'll do it. Maybe it will pop up again in a couple of years or something that I really should do it for my own satisfaction. To see if could write about crimes in the Bronx or whatever.

RB: How many deadlines a week are you dealing with?

AH: It's not like that. You are always working, and it's more like, can you get it in yesterday? One of the things I like about the Times is that productivity is definitely rewarded. It's interesting that I ended up there. I come from a family that definitely did not encourage going to a liberal arts college or any kind of career that didn't involve a weekly paycheck with benefits.

RB: You went to Bentley and studied financial analysis…

AH: Yeah. So I rebelled and went the other way and ended up becoming a writer, and then I ended up at a place where I do work for a large corporation and have benefits and am rewarded for hard work and discipline and things like that. It's like I'm a writer, but I am doing what I was trained to do as a child by my family. [laughs] So I feel very comfortable at the Times. In terms of longer pieces, there aren't really many places for longer food pieces. Calvin Trillin has done great things at The New Yorker, but he is one of a kind.

RB: Do you like to read books on food?

AH: That's one of the things I should be doing in my spare time. When I have time off I want to read fiction.

RB: Like?

AH: Right now I am reading White Noise by Don DeLillo. Tad thought I would like it.

RB: Are you liking it?

AH: Yeah. I am liking it. I am fascinated with the way his brain works. The story is not totally captivating. I recently read Anna Karenina. I just couldn't put it down. I felt like I was living in that world. I was fully absorbed. I don't feel that way [with White Noise]. He is extremely skillful at capturing home life, that sense of all the little things that are happening and adding up to the actual emotions you are feeling. I just finished the part where the toxic event has taken place and I found that less interesting.

RB: DeLillo and some others seem to take their lumps from some portion of the reading public. I often wonder if it's just the shock of the new?

AH: It’s interesting that the food page had been happily going along for twenty years in kind of a monotonous way, and we did this little thing, and people freaked out. Because it was like change, and they don't want that new thing.

RB: Didn't Francis Kline do the Metropolitan Diary? That's the future of newspapers. That's the only thing that will make newspapers viable for readers, that you have personal voices. The rest of the news can be gotten elsewhere and quickly… Anyway, it's been a pleasure.

AH: It's been so nice. Great.

© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing

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