On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with New York Times best-selling author Julia Turshen about her new cookbook, Simply Julia. They discussed how her family influenced her path to her profession, why she focuses on building a positive relationship to cooking and eating, and how her new book differs from her two previous ones. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: In Simply Julia, you write directly to your reader. You say, “I’m a home cook, just like you.” What does that mean to you? Is a home cook different from being a French chef? What’s the difference?
Julia Turshen: Some French chefs are home cooks, but for me, when I say very proudly and unabashedly, “Hi, I’m a home cook, and I’m a home cook who writes for other home cooks,” what I mean is my work comes from my home kitchen to yours. I’m not a restaurant chef, I’m not a caterer, I’m not a TV chef. I’m not any of these other things that are all fantastic—that’s just not me.
I want to be very clear about who I am and who I’m writing for. When I say “I’m a home cook,” I want to establish: we are in the same space here. I am not in some more authoritative space speaking down to you. I’m on the ground with you. I have cooked at home every day for many, many years, and I’m really delighted to have the opportunity to share everything I’ve learned so you can skip ahead and be hopefully as comfortable and as calm as I feel in my kitchen, because it’s the place where I feel the least anxious in my life. I feel plenty anxious in other areas, but I know cooking at home stresses so many people out, and I want to alleviate that as much as I can.
Speaking of cookbooks, I’ve heard you describe your own childhood poring over the cookbooks in your family kitchen, and you didn’t even go to culinary school.
If you were an 11-year-old at home looking at Moosewood, or whatever it was you were looking at …
That’s so accurate, yes.
Why is it then that you chose a formal academic education at a liberal arts college, versus an experience of culinary preparation that has to do with going to school and getting a degree or certificate?
What a privileged, amazing choice I got to make to a) get a higher education, b) get to choose what that was, c) get to choose something that is not necessarily all that “career-oriented.” I studied poetry and creative writing, and I think that has laid amazing groundwork for the work I do as a cookbook author. In terms of making that choice, I’ve been interested in food forever—since I was really, really young, always so interested in the kitchen. It’s always where I wanted to be.
I grew up in a house that was a publishing house. My parents both worked in publishing, so I was exposed to books and magazines at such a young age. I’m sitting in front of my bookshelf right now. This is one of many, many bookshelves in our house, and it’s filled with cookbooks, and this is a fraction of them, and many of them are the ones I grew up with. I had that early exposure, which let me know that there’s more than one road to go on for whatever you’re passionate about.
For me, it’s always been food, and a lot of adults in my life would say, “Are you going to go to culinary school? Do you want to have a restaurant one day?” because that makes a lot of sense. If you’re into food, that’s the career. I just have never been interested in that, and I’ve always been interested in this intersection of cooking, and writing about cooking, and tool-giving. I feel what I do as a cookbook author is just try to give tools. That feels like something I’m very connected to and really enjoy doing.
In terms of studying poetry, I write recipes for a living. No, they’re not poems, but I take a poet’s approach to it: I try to be as descriptive as I can, and I try to not have that description go on and on and on. I try to keep it really economic, very clear, like a lot of my favorite poets. I want someone when they read my recipe to be able to imagine what this smells like, what it looks like. That education was really, really useful because I tend to go on and on, and studying poetry is helpful when it comes to editing myself.
We’ve articulated that there’s a couple of ways to be in the space of cookbooks, food, and publishing as a larger part of the media economy. There is the home cook—that is the path that you have chosen. There is the celebrity—when you see a famous person’s visage on the cover of a cookbook. There’s the serious trained chef, who’s going to tell you that you have to buy a sous-vide tool or whatever. Then there’s the kind of restaurant cookbook where it’s like, “You love going to Babbo? Here’s how to replicate that experience at home.” Have you found in that economy that there’s a hierarchy in terms of what people’s training is? That someone who is a credentialed chef maybe feels that a home cook has less authority inside of that system?
I see these mostly perceived hierarchies. I’ve collaborated on a ton of books in addition to doing my own, so I’ve had many perspectives about cookbooks, and I think about them all the time. The advice that I’ve given to everyone I’ve collaborated with, the advice I’ve given to anyone who’s asked me about cookbooks and getting into them, and the advice I try as best I can to follow myself, is to only write the book that only you can write, which sounds easier than it actually is to do.
When I apply that to myself, I don’t want to be artificial about who I am. I’m not a restaurant person, and if you’re coming to me for restaurant food, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m a daily home cook who believes that that is a valuable thing, and that’s what I try to express. I hope that that connects with people, and I think it does, because I think there are more home cooks than there are restaurant cooks, or TV cooks, or celebrity cooks. But it is hard to put out creative work that you use to pay your mortgage and all that stuff, in a world that prioritizes things like celebrity and perceived hierarchy.