When we met to talk about her gorgeous new book, "Cook Beautiful," we didn't meet at Athena Calderone's Brooklyn home. The cook, designer, and creator of EyeSwoon is gut-renovating that, and the kitchen isn't quite finished. Instead we chatted over coffee in a cafe and pored over the pages of the book where Athena shares her seasonally driven recipes and inspiring presentation tips.
Are you a planner or more of a spontaneous cook?
I’m an intuitive cook and don’t plan in advance. I always have my back-pocket foods; some pickled onions, a grain I’ve precooked, nuts and lemons, and I always have vegetables on hand to saute or grill so I can put together a meal.
When I’m entertaining, that’s different. I love the process of planning, deciding what to play off one another and having everything come together. I also love that like I love cooking.
Are you a tidy cook who cleans as they prep or someone who has a big clear-up after the meal?
I’m messy! I always say I’m like a Tasmanian devil in the kitchen. Every knife I own will be out, I grab another rather than wipe off one. I’ll have two or three cutting boards out, my handbag will be out. My husband always asks why I don’t clean stuff, why I can’t put my handbag away?! I’m passionate when I’m cooking. I do the cleanup after.
I know you like to mix sweet and savory, what else defines your cooking? What flavors define you?
My background is in design, and when I work on interiors, I like something in the space to be slightly off, an element to intrigue, to shock. It’s the same with food. I like there to be something to surprise the palate. I add a note of crunch or something briny, or one of the many amazing fresh chiles. Not red-pepper flakes, they are so overused!
You are known for your presentation, your food always looks so gorgeous. And in your book, every recipe has a tip for cooking or plating the dish that will maximize both look and flavor. What would you tell home cooks to keep in mind or to do to help make their food look as good as it tastes?
For me it’s about simple ideas thoughtfully executed. There are lots of little things that make a difference. When choosing serving platters for a salad I like a long platter or a shallow bowl. Not a high bowl, which will mean everything is all piled up in the bowl. For a dish like a stew, I don't want to ladle everything into the serving bowl if that means it's going to be full to the brim. It's better to bring it to the table and then go back and refill it later.
I think of dishes as a little like accessories, like my jewelry, and I want them to set off the food I’ve made. On the table, the composition of dishes should be some high, some low, some round, and some long dishes.
I do think about how food will be presented on the table when I'm cooking. When I first developed the arctic char recipe in my book, I spread the cranberry chutney over the fish. For the book photo, I placed the chutney in a little bowl to make the picture about the fish. And then the chutney, or any sauce, can also be used with other food on the table.
You've been called "the modern girl's Martha Stewart," how has Martha inspired you?
Martha is my idol. She proved you can be more than just one thing in the home space. I married young and had a baby while my peers were all on the career track. I focused on the home, on designing my home, and I explored my passion for cooking. Martha was the first person to show that you can have many creative interests. She's inspired me to push the boundaries.
Get your copy of "Cook Beautiful."