Back in the day, when Rachael Ray was still at the Macy’s candy counter and Sandra Lee was selling curtains on QVC, Sara Moulton was trying to be the next Emeril Lagasse, a feat she likens to becoming the next Jesus Christ. Not only was the Food Network a new cable channel struggling to attract viewers, but, as Sara remembers, “they were desperate when they started. They didn’t know who the players were, they didn’t have any money.” And this was still at a time where a woman chef was still very much an anomaly—still true today, but even truer then.
“There was no oven on the set [of my first show]. So we’d put stuff under the counter and pretend we’d put it in the oven.”
With a setup like this, it’s easy to imagine that our heroine fails to achieve her dreams and ends up teaching elementary school arithmetic in a small town in Connecticut—which is probably what Sara would be doing were she not one of the most successful women working in the food industry today. Her original Food Network show, Cooking Live, morphed into the hit Sara’s Secrets, which in turn spawned a handful of bestselling cookbooks. On top of all this, for the last 25 years Sara has been working as the executive chef at Gourmet magazine. “You’re not a chef until after you’ve been working in the industry for a while,” Sara says. By that measure, Sara Moulton is the über-chef.
Hungry Beast caught up with Sara to get her thoughts on being a chef in a male-driven industry, working in television, and how Gourmet magazine has changed over the years.
When you started out, the food industry was a very male-dominated field. What was it like to be a woman cooking, and how, in your experience, has being a woman chef changed over the years?
I’d say the punchline is, “It’s better; it’s not best.” When I started, the Culinary Institute [of America] itself was sort of rough, very male-dominated; it was 6 to 1, men to women. There was a lot of hazing and not a lot of support from fellow [male] classmates. In the end they were great, but it’s sort of like [women] had to train them. And certainly the chef instructors were somewhat prejudiced because they were European. The Europeans come from the Old World idea that women don’t belong in the kitchen professionally—even though they all learned how to cook from their mothers at home.
And what abut being a woman on television?
When I started at the Food Network, in 1996, Emeril was a big star and they were looking for the next Emeril…sort of like looking for the next Jesus Christ. And they were sure it was going to be a man, so it was really awful [to be a woman there]. I did a live show; I did 1,200 live shows, five nights a week for the first eight months and then it went down to four nights a week. I didn’t start on my own set, I didn’t have my own graphics, they didn’t spend any money, I didn’t have my own equipment. My show was shot on the same set as this other show that preceded me called In Food Today. It was a news show, and it was also live. So they would quickly change the set slightly, bring in a riser because I was so short and the counter came up to my chin, and there was no oven on the set, either. So we’d put stuff under the counter and pretend we’d put it in the oven.
That sounds like a lot of work.
That first August, I said [to the Food Network], “Guys, I’m going on vacation,” and they said, “Well, we don’t want to do reruns; this is a live show. We’re going to get another chef to fill in for you.” The first year they got Michael Lomonaco. And he was great and did a wonderful job. And come January, Michael had his own show. Not only did he get his own show, he had his own set, his own graphics, his own equipment. But I was still on the set of In Food Today. The second chef that filled in for me was Ming Tsai; the January after, he had his own show and all of those things and I still didn’t. And the third year, David Ruggiero filled in for me, and when he got his set I finally got my own set. It was annoying. But then when Rachael Ray came along, all these women came along. And suddenly it was dominated by women.
That’s true, but so many of the people who are on the Food Network today are really just salespeople.
Well, they’re big personalities. Big, pretty personalities. When the Food Network started, the people who started it were TV people and the food came second. And then for a short period in the middle it was food-dominated and the TV came second. And now they’re back to TV-dominating and food taking a back seat. And so it’s more about what’s good TV than what’s good food or what’s really educational.
And is it different being on PBS?
It’s very different. The upside is I have much more creative control. The downside is I have to raise the money. And it’s not the same exposure as the Food Network. But I own the show. PBS has tons of integrity and some of the best cooking shows are on public television. But it is so exhausting to go out and raise the money, especially in this economic climate.
Do you like being on television?
I’m a good WASP, and we don’t believe in public displays of anything. And so for years I worked behind the scenes, first with Julia Child and then at Good Morning America, and I never wanted to be the face in front of the camera. I thought, “Oh, that’s really rude and asking for attention. It’s like, look at me, me, me.” But when the Food Network offered me the job, I took it. They’d heard I was a good teacher because I’d been teaching at Peter Kump’s. Teaching people to cook was like falling in love again. So when the Food Network asked me to do [the show] I was like, “OK, I can do this, I’m a good teacher.” And I grew into it. Now, I don’t think they’d let anybody learn on the job like I did. That would never happen again.
You’ve been at Gourmet for 25 years, and the magazine has changed a lot.
When I was chef in restaurants, I used to read Gourmet all the time. It was like food porn for us. We’d just drool all over it. And I thought, “Oh, this is really the gold standard.” And then several years after I’d come to New York, I got a job at the [Gourmet] test kitchen, and I was really disappointed. It was sort of like, there is no Santa Claus. They only covered restaurants in Paris, New York, Rome, and Los Angeles. The travel articles were always about the same places, and to my horror, sometimes the person wouldn’t even go into a restaurant. And then we’d have to develop recipes. You know, me, in New York City, would have to come up with some authentic Greek recipe! It was disheartening, disillusioning. But Ruth Reichl has now been [at the magazine] for 10 years, and she has really turned it into a vital, vibrant, exciting, interesting place. We’re not afraid of being controversial, we’re not afraid of calling a spade a spade—not that we necessarily go for it. It’s a much more exciting magazine than it was when I started.
What’s your food philosophy, your philosophy of cooking?
My mission is to help home cooks get dinner on the table seven nights a week, or at least six, as opposed to one. The way I cook at home is basically with raw ingredients. I do use frozen vegetables, I’ll be honest. I always have potatoes, pasta, or rice. And I need to have one of those three things, because my 19-year-old son just gets hungry! I mainly cook with whole foods, meaning I start from scratch, with real vegetables and real meats and untreated things—I don’t buy pre-marinated meat. Start with fresh ingredients—I think it’s that simple. And I think if everybody did we’d all lose a lot of weight.
What are the five things you always have in your refrigerator/kitchen?
Milk, eggs, lemons, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and olive oil. Olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano are two of the ingredients I could not live without. But my favorite cheese is Epoisse. I just love its creamy texture and robust flavor. This is one cheese I don’t have in the house often because I can’t control myself around it
What is your favorite comfort food?
Crispy roast duck.
What food would people be surprised to find out that you eat?
Triscuits, Hellman’s mayonnaise, rice crackers (especially wasabi-flavored), graham crackers, raw cookie dough.
Do you have any advice for young women looking to get into cooking?
I always found jobs where the boss was a woman. I found places where I would be accepted and that’s what I advise most young women: You don’t have to go into one of those kitchens where they scream and they’re mean to women and they treat them badly. You can find a kitchen that’s nicer.
Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at Cookstr.com. She lives in New York City.