Q&A with Susan Spungen
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Friends, most of you likely are familiar with Susan Spungen, but in case you are not, let me briefly sum her up: original Martha Stewart Living editor, New York Times contributor, food stylist of Julie and Julia, It’s Complicated, and Eat Pray Love.
I knew all of this before I opened Open Kitchen, but the more I spent time with the cookbook, the more curious I became. Susan offers glimpses of her past throughout the book, including growing up in Philadelphia and training as an artist, but I wanted to know more, so I reached out, and she kindly responded.
Here’s our Q&A.
Read to the end for another surprise ???
Q&A with Susan Spungen
1. I read in Open Kitchen that you trained as an artist. Can you elaborate? At what point in your life was this? When did you transition from art to food? Or were the two spheres often overlapping?
SS: Yes, I always wanted to be an artist and applied only to art schools, but I didn’t end up graduating for a variety of reasons. I always loved to cook and bake when I was a kid and worked in restaurants during a gap year and then through college. And then when I left college, I continued working in food because it was just a natural path for me, but I wasn’t really career-minded at that point.
2. I also read in Open Kitchen that you fell into food by accident? When was this? Or how did this happen?
Well, to continue with that story: I had to work after I left school, so again, food was the natural path for me because I liked it and was good at it.
I lived in Aspen for a few years right after I left school and mostly waited tables in a cafe. When I moved to New York City a few years later, I thought waiting tables would be the best way to make money, but I found out I wasn’t really experienced enough for real NYC restaurants, so I fell into a job at a restaurant where I was mostly managing the staff, but also dealing with food a bit.
It was a restaurant called “Food” which started out as a co-op for artists started by the artist Gordon Matta-Clark in soho. By then it was a regular restaurant but retained some of the bohemian vibe and still served as a sort of soup kitchen for the artists in the neighborhood.
I was happy being in the thick of things, but after awhile I thought I should perhaps think about a career of some sort, so I gradually drifted into catering (working for a small company and doing everything). It’s a very long story, and I haven’t found a way to shorten it, but eventually I decided I should get a real food job, and somehow got myself hired as a chef making prepared foods at a beautiful new shop in soho.
I never wanted to work in restaurant kitchens because I kind of knew I wouldn’t be happy in that environment, so I was always looking for something more creative. I was still in my twenties at this point. After that job ended, I went back to catering again, because I liked the variety it offered—always a different menu, a different location, a chance to be creative.
3. I think so many people would love to hear more about your background, from growing up in Philadelphia to working at The Commissary to becoming a food stylist. (Sidenote: The Frog Commissary Cookbook was one of the first cookbooks I owned, and I still treasure it.)
How did you find yourself at Martha Stewart Living and from there as the food stylist for Julie and Julia and so many other films? Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get into food styling?
Wow! It’s hard to pack my whole history into a few short paragraphs, but I’ll try! So, yes, during my gap year (which was really more like “I missed the college application deadline” year), I started working at The Commissary which was a very cool and popular restaurant in the late 70’s (yes, I’ve been around awhile).
I think that is where the seeds were planted that working with food could be really cool, and the people who did it were pretty cool. There were a lot of erstwhile artists working there, so I guess I’ve always found myself at the intersection of art and food, and there are a lot of natural crossovers from one to the other.
The reason I became interested in food styling was that I wanted to find a way to bring those two things closer together. In my quest to become a food stylist, I had the good fortune to connect with Martha Stewart just when she was about to start MSL.
I did some freelance work on the first 3 test issues and meanwhile took a job as pastry chef at a new Italian restaurant called Coco Pazzo, which was a big hit in the early 90’s. I worked there long enough to get 3 stars from the NYT, and then, as I was hoping it would, a full-time job as food editor became available at the nascent MSL. I jumped at the chance to join this team and never looked back. It was a perfect fit for me, and I learned so much during my 12 years there.
And re: Frog Commissary Cookbook — it is a good one!
4. I know you find lots of inspiration from the seasons and from seasonal produce. Where else do you find inspiration? I’m thinking in particular about your cookie spread for The New York Times, which was mind blowing. Each cookie is a piece of art.
Well, for that assignment, I did look to fine art as my main inspiration, which seemed obvious to me. It started with the Ellsworth Kelly brushstroke series, and some of his color field work. It just seemed like an idea that would translate well, and luckily it did.
Otherwise, I am always so inspired by nature and the beauty of ingredients. I spend time in Amagansett, and we are members of Quail Hill Farm, which was one of the first CSA farms in the U.S. It’s a pick-your-own setup, and there is nothing more inspiring than digging up potatoes or carrots or painstakingly picking green beans and then going directly home and cooking with them. It really teaches you how food is supposed to taste.
5. Is there one (or more?) recipe(s) in Open Kitchen, you wish everyone would make?
Well, all of them of course! They are all my children and I love them equally! But since we are going into spring and summer, I will focus on those. In the dessert category, I really love the strawberry tart (which was inspired by a favorite dessert from The Commissary). Made with in-season, local strawberries, there is nothing better! In the savory category, I am crazy about the snap pea salad. I could eat a whole bowl of that crunchy salad myself!
A new favorite Susan Spungen recipe: Blistered Shishitos with Avocado Crema:
Another favorite: “Grilled” Romaine Caesar Salad (so easy and good):
Susan Spungen’s Open Kitchen: it’s a beauty!
And guess what? I have two copies to give away. Leave a comment to enter the giveaway. Share a favorite Susan Spungen recipe or something you’ve been loving to make lately or simply tell me anything!
UPDATE: Giveaway is closed. Winners are Annette and Beverly. I have emailed you.