With all new years comes new ideas and new people to meet. Well, we were so excited to to start this new series “Lunch With” we didn’t want to wait until the new year to start a new thing or wait to introduce you to our good friend Suzanne Lenzer.
At the end of the summer we had lunch with the talented Suzanne Lenzer, a food stylist, cook book author and all around amazing person. We took a journey across the Hudson river to arrive at her Connecticut house. As we arrived, we were greeted by lush gardens, beautiful pathways and natural rock clusters that felt so zen like. Suzanne’s landscaping skills are as on point as they are with her food styling skills. Did I mention that Suzanne and her husband also built an outdoor pizza oven!
Let me back up for a minute and mention that we’ve known Suzanne for years. We’ve spent time together on a photo set discussing the placement of beans in a burrito and the qualities that make a delicious salad. And while we are used to eating Suzanne’s food with our eyes, on photo shoots, it was nice to get together for an afternoon and actually EAT with Suzanne at her home.
We were interested in what Suzanne was up to at her home because of her book, Truly Madly Pizza. We crossed paths many times during the process of her writing the book and couldn’t wait to check it out. After reading the book we realized Suzanne is simply ‘our type of people’. You know, when you meet someone and it just clicks? Suzanne thinks about food the same way we do, however she articulates it much better with her culinary background.
Q: What is your point of view on food and how does that relate back to your book?
A: This is such an interesting question for me, right now specifically because I’m working on my second book and spending a lot of time trying to articulate my point of view on food succinctly—and struggling! I think the best way I can put it is to say that food should be a comfort and cooking food should be a pleasure, at least most of the time. It shouldn’t be something we have to talk about endlessly or fetishize, but something that we enjoy daily and with intent. The whole point of Truly, Madly Pizza is to show home cooks how easy it can be to make great meals—specifically pizza—simply by using the pantry ingredients we have on hand or the leftovers we might otherwise toss, and how by putting in a bit of effort one morning a week or even once a month, we can eat really well, even after a long day. And, how by taking the time to open a bottle of wine, or throw together a simple salad, and actually sit down and talk to your partner or kids or roommate or whoever instead of click on the television, you can make dinner a really centering part of your day. But it all comes back to home cooking—to feeding ourselves, no matter how simply, for both physical and emotional nourishment.
Q: Tell us about your philosophy on entertaining and how do you put those ideas to work for you?
A: I am a recovering over-doer when it comes to entertaining—meaning it’s taken me years to realize and embrace the idea that you don’t need to make three courses, serve four appetizers, bake three tarts, and do it all by hand. In fact, by watching others I’ve come to believe that doing too much not only stresses out the cook, but makes it tough for your guests to relax too. Now when I entertain, I’m totally fine setting out a dish of sliced soppressata and olives, or a few sliced figs and some cheese or marinated beans for everyone to snack on. I also don’t feel the need to serve courses—that’s what restaurants are for. I like to make one main dish that really soothes the soul and that can be done a day or more in advance so I’m not putting on a show in the kitchen, but sitting with a glass of wine with everyone else. A pot of cassoulet, a good braise of beef short ribs or lamb shanks, something that’s easy to reheat and pair with a salad is my parlor trick—I don’t spend a lot of time at the stove once the guests arrive and I get to enjoy the party too. I am a big baker so I do always make something for dessert, but that’s just me; I see nothing wrong with buying a nice dessert if you’re so inclined. The key is to focus on the people you’re with not the slightly overcooked crème brulee or underseasoned vegetables. The hostess I strive to be lives by the mantra: no-matter-what-ends-up-on-the-table-a-good-time-will-be-had-by-all. That’s what entertaining should be about.
Q: Who are your creative influences?
A: Well I could never answer this question without starting with Mark Bittman as he’s been such an integral part of my culinary life. From the day we met his attitude toward food has influenced not just my understanding of what home cooking is and can be, but also how food should fit into our lives. His ability to translate dishes, to simplify them, and to empower people to get into the kitchen and make dinner is something I admire immensely. In terms of cooking itself, I’m largely a product of Nigel Slater’s influence. His belief that recipes are mere guidelines for us to discover our own tastes and the freedom he encourages in the kitchen are things I really hold dear. I know a lot of people want highly prescriptive recipes, but there’s something very intuitive about how he looks at food and I think that’s a path Americans need to get more comfy with. We need to stop feeling the pressure to recreate chef-y meals at home and to get over the dumbed down, five-ingredient five-minute solutions. There is a middle ground and it’s called making dinner; his advocacy for that is inspiring to me. As for non-culinary influences, there’s Joan Didion. I know, I’m a cliché: a girl from California who thinks Didion is a goddess, what can I say? Every time I read her essays, novels, whatever, and I read them over and over again, I think, “If only…”
Q: After reading your book I see that making pizza dough has become a ritual for you, which really inspires me. Are there any other rituals you have in your life?
A: This is so embarrassing because Ken and I are the worst creatures of habit, seriously. I think almost everything I do is some kind of a ritual! But I guess the ones that are food-related are probably the most relevant and those are easy: I make Chad Robertson’s Tartine bread every two months, I make homemade croissants on rainy Saturdays in the winter, I make chicken stock every Sunday morning from Saturday night’s roast chicken bones; this happens while the pizza crusts are rising and our bi-monthly batch of granola is baking (another ritual!). Ridiculous right? But I also wasn’t lying in the book: I always listen intently to the safety demonstration during take off when I fly. I know it’s crazy but I’m convinced it keeps the plane up there. And when I get in the car to drive up to our cottage with the cats, Ken always turns to me and says, “Eyes on the road, not on the cats,” it’s like a verbal talisman. But I guess that’s really his ritual, mine is making sure he says it.
Q: Since this is the holiday season, what food or recipe evokes the most holiday memories for you?
A: That’s a tough question. I think maybe I have to go with Yorkshire pudding. When I was a kid my family spent a few Christmases in London and my mom would make a traditional English dinner of roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. There was something about the savory, custardy, egg-y wonderfulness of that dish, I just couldn’t get enough of it and we only had it once a year, so it was such a fleeting love. Now that we’re talking about it, I think I have to make that this weekend.
Q: And just for fun, what is the most number of turkeys you have had to make for a holiday shoot?
A: Four for one shoot! But this year was a record for me: by October I had made seven turkeys and four hams. My butcher was pretty impressed.
Thank you Suzanne!