I was very excited to have the opportunity to interview former Sacramento resident and internationally known food writer, cookbook author, and UK broadcaster Marlena Spieler.
Marlena is the author of over 50 cook books (including contributions) and has traveled the world in search of fabulous food. She writes 'Roving Feast' for the SF Chronicle every other Wednesday and contributes to The New York Times, Saveur, and Bon Appetite. [check out Sacramento Food Group for inclusive links..it's under Chit Chat with the Professionals at the forums]
What is your fondest childhood food memory?
"I have so many wonderful childhood food memories!
Watermelon, still warm from the sun, grown in my grandparents’ back yard. Driving to a favorite restaurant in San Francisco for tamales when the weather got too hot in Sacramento on a summer’s day. My grandmother’s Matzah Brei breakfasts (complete with…wait for it…bacon!) See’s chocolates, of course, the best of which were snitched from the cut glass candy bowl.
I loved my mother’s angel food cake filled with ice cream, and I especially loved eating Chinese food with my grandfather. I remember sitting in a high chair, the slats of the Venetian blinds letting in just lines of hot Sacramento sunshine. Oh, and the peppermint ice cream…the local ice cream parlor (no longer there) used to give a free ice cream cone for every “A” a child got. I got straight A’s and felt so clever to be earning my own ice cream. It tasted best ever. Let’s put it this way, appetite was not a problem; I never needed to be urged to eat.
Probably too I should include Sacramento tomatoes because they are up there among the world’s best. In fact, my dad’s friend Fred Luzy (sp) grew some tomatoes and brought them to me because he knows I love beautifully grown veggies (especially Italian and he’s Italian). A month earlier, I had been in Campania, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, eating tomatoes that were just popping with distinctive flavor. With that memory, I bit into Fred’s tomatoes and was gobsmacked. They tasted like Vesuvio tomatoes. I think that Fred said his brother brought the seeds to him. They were really beautiful tomatoes. My mother grew beautiful tomatoes effortlessly. I think it’s something to do with the combination of weather/soil/seeds and just a fee/talent for growing. When I cam back from Greece last summer, my backpack was filled with hug Zakynthos tomatoes that my friend Dionysius grew. I’m telling you, no one has ever been more gentle with their backpack than I. For a week afterwards, we had salad, Greek-style stuffed tomatoes, soup, and simple tomatoes baked in olive oil. And, you’re so lucky in Sacramento because the moment that the weather starts to turn warm, the whole tomato zeitgeist begins – all over again".
What is your favorite meal to prepare?
"I love to cook full stop; but left to my own devices, I have a few favorites: Vietnamese-inspired salad full of Thai basil, Rau Ram, shredded veggies, and crunchy nuts (I like the Trader Joe’s peanuts with Kaffir lime leaves and chilies in this dish, when available). I love making macaroni and cheese, huevos rancheros, home fries, crepes, and pear and almond tart.
I love doing the whole French bistro type meals, but then again, I adore doing a whole rustic Italian thing inspired by all of my visits to the different regions in Italy. Oh, if you leave me alone in a room with basil, it’s only a matter of time, and not too much of it, and there will be a jar of green, fragrant pesto sitting on the counter. I like making stuffed eggs, sandwiches, and Tzadziki too. I could go on and on".
Which of your cookbooks was the hardest to write and which one is your favorite?
"I’ll start with my favorite cookbook, which is my latest one: Yummy Potatoes. It think it’s a quirky little book jam-packed with potato dishes that are just so good.
Naturally Good was my first one, illustrated with line drawings. It began as a journal the “teenaged me” kept during many months when I lived in a Greek island village.
The hardest book to write? None. Though there have been difficult situations as to editorial and admin, that sort of thing – or the artistic vision of the editors/publishing house".
What is your fondest adult food memory?
"So, so many! L’Arpege in Paris is transformational. Dinner at Dolce Gabbana in Milano (just last year) with me surrounded by chefs—Italian chefs who were pleased to be feeding me and watching me eat! At one point, I licked the plate while doting chefs “Oooh’d” and “Aaahh’d.” What can I tell you, it was Italy! And, did I mention that the chefs in question were mostly cute, young guys?
Eating truffles in Piemonte!
Dinner at L’Esguard, a restaurant in which the chef is also a neurologist (Dr. Miguel Sanchez Romera). He was able to evoke a miasma of feelings in the eater! Oh, also a table in Barcelona piled with grilled artichokes at a time when I needed consoling. A week on the Greek island of Chios was also fantastic".
What would you order, if you knew it was your last meal, and who would you have prepare the meal?
"I think I don’t want to know, it might interfere with my appetite and enjoyment".
Where would you like to eat in Sacramento (someplace you have not tried yet)?
"I’ve heard that Ella’s has a dynamite dish of pasta with preserved Meyer lemon and a poached egg. That dish sounds like it was made for me! I have several other favorite places in Sacto that I go to a lot. Andy Nguyen’s Vegetarian Vietnamese food is just divine. I amused everyone at Andy Nguyen's when I went there everyday for about a week, each time with a different foodie in tow (the foodies were all blown away). I could eat there everyday and sometimes I do (ask the staff)! As a polar opposite, Nationwide Freezer Meats makes the best the-so-worth-every-bit burger around. Order it rare".
What are your three favorite San Francisco restaurants, your three favorite New York restaurants, and your three favorite restaurants anywhere else in the world?
"San Francisco: I love The Slanted Door. Just love it.
I’ve just discovered Jai Yun, in Chinatown, and liked it a lot. It’s pricier than traditional US Chinese restaurants and you need to ring in at least a day ahead of time and chef will cook just for you. I dream about his tangerine beef and stir fry of mushrooms and edamame.
And, Vic’s Chaat Corner in Berkeley rocks, totally"!
Elsewhere: "There is a fine dining restaurant in Athens whose name I forget; it’s so wonderful. The cook-owner is a woman from the island of Paros who named the place after her father. It’s exquisite food – Greek – and strongly flavored, yet put into the context of great finesse during the time the chef spent in Paris kitchens.
There is a restaurant in Beijing called something like Homestyle Roast Duck Restaurant. For about two weeks, we kept returning there. It’s simple food, but exquisitely done. The roast duck doesn’t get any better. I was also floored by a Peking duck appetizer at Royal Restaurant in Beijing. It was sort of a duck salad with mayo on top of a crisp crouton, topped with Peking duck skin.
I like Europe Restaurant in Naples, but also there are many other restaurants I love in the area. The tomatoes, lemons, olive oil, and pasta, pasta, pasta make me very happy.
A lot of Paris restaurants make me very happy as well. Even the little bistros of no great note – and especially at lunchtime when Paris offers its only bargain – lunch at a prix fixed.
I love barbecued foie gras in Tel Aviv and a nice grilled Merguez in the French southwest. Couscous and tagines – wherever I find spicy, savory fragrant ones".
New York: "New York is harder. I loved The Grammercy Tavern last time I was there and have heard that their vegetable tasting menu is the thing to have – it’s terrific. I haven’t been to Per Se or the French Laundry, but would like to one of these days. And, at the risk of sounding Plebian, I love the hamburgers at Shake Shack, Danny Meyer’s place in Madison Park.
Oh, and in New York, I often jettison fine dining because of my pursuit of bagels. They do take pride of place in my New York eating life, alongside kosher half sours and sauerkraut, Nicky’s Banh Mi – which is incredibly well-filled and tightly wrapped. As Banh Mi goes, Nicky’s is, as we say in the UK, the business".
What is the greatest honor you’ve ever received, with regard to your writing?
"Receiving letters from readers of my San Francisco Chronicle column and/or books. It’s an honor to read such lovely words (usually) and I am humbled by my reader’s who take the time, to be honest. I’m hugely pleased to have made such a connection when someone does write. I also love when people cook one of my recipes and tell me how it turned out. One woman said she courted her (now) husband with recipes from one of my books. Without a doubt, the readers are the very best perk of doing what I do. They have given me the greatest honor".
What are you working on next? Anything new on the horizon?
"Let’s see, I have a few proposals out there and some ideas I can’t talk about at the moment. I’d like to do more radio either in the UK or the US. There are about three radio programs that will go out this spring on The Food Guy and Marcy Show. The Food Guy & Marcy are the coolest ever. Guy Fieri is from Food Network and Marcy Smothers is owner of the Smothers Winery and the most ebullient, as well as thoughtful, radio host you can imagine. The show is broadcast in Sacramento, possibly on KFBK? I’m not sure. [Ed Note: the show airs on KZST 100.1 in Santa Rosa.]
I’m headed to Peru shortly for the UN International Year of the Potato and I’m very excited about the trip".
Is there anything you’d like to add?
"Cooking well and eating well, and feeding lovingly – wow – what a life of enrichment"!
[Ed Note but not the same editor: Lori did a fantastic job editing this interview for me. Marlena had sent it back to me, with her words in CAPS as to distinguish her voice from mine. Lori made it look so professional. Somehow, it won't translate to the food forums or this blog page. She had all of those lovely links, that don't show up now within the interview. I'll add the ones below, for now. Her website is linked up as well]