Photography By Sasha Israel
WHILE FOOD AS ART HAS LONG BEEN A HIGHLY REGARDED AS PART OF OUR CULTURE, cookbooks as art have grown to be a strong and steady contender on bookstore shelves, coffee tables and kitchen countertops. Leading the pack is author and chef Julia Turshen, relatively young in years but seasoned with experience, not to mention an impressive resume. She’s trekked Spain with Mario, feasted on kale with Gwyneth, and even explored kimchee with Jean Georges, all before the age of 30. With an education in poetry and a deep love for cookbooks as both lifestyle aspirations and educational bibles, Turshen’s clear voice and healthful approach is unmistakable in all her work. “I was always drawn to people teaching others how to cook,” the author explains over a freshly made salad of raw zucchini, red onion and toasted pistachio. “[I cook] from my influences of nostalgia and classic flavors,” she notes. “Things I remember eating, but I find a fresher, lighter variation.” In her sunny Greenpoint apartment, which she shares with her wife, Design Sponge founder Grace Bonney, and among a treasure trove of cookbooks and friendly pets, bonberi sat down with Turshen who delved into her latest project Buvette, which she co-wrote with chef Jody Williams (and launches today), her philosophy on cooking and eating, her bread loaf tattoo, as well as the important lessons she’s learned along the way.
How did your journey toward healthy cooking and eating begin?
My whole life, I was always into cooking. It wasn’t until I left college that I got into healthy cooking and it came from necessity because I got pretty unhealthy. I gained a lot of weight and wasn’t feeling great about what I was carrying around. I started to get into cookbooks while doing private chef-ing on the side, and I would make lots of healthy foods for these families but after work, I’d go have a cheeseburger because I was so hungry and tired. I thought, “Oh wouldn’t it be great if I could just eat healthy food all the time…I totally know how to do that, maybe I should do that for myself.” It was an obvious lightbulb that went off. I started to cook better for myself and it influenced the work I was doing on cookbooks.
How did you get into cookbook writing?
I grew up loving to cook but not wanting to cook professionally and I was always into writing. My parents were in publishing, so I felt familiar in that world. I studied poetry in college, but I always loved cookbooks and coveted them. When I was a kid, I couldn’t fall asleep before reading a cookbook in bed. It was all I wanted to work on.
Was there a book in particular you loved growing up?
There was a series of books by Lee Bailey, who was one of the first food-as-lifestyle guys. I loved any book that had process shots, so you could see the steps to make it. That was part of how I learned to cook as well. I love the lifestyle educational type books but then I would also watch Food Network and PBS cooking shows. I was always drawn to people teaching other people how to cook. When I was in college in New York, a family friend I’ve known forever and has long been a producer for PBS cooking shows and lived close to Barnard. I literally knocked on his door and told him, “I want to be in your world.” I worked part time during college for him, and when I graduated he hired me to be an assistant on a book that would be a compliment to a show he was doing. It was Spain on the Road Again with Mario Batali and Mark Bittman. It was my first job out of college, it was pretty incredible. We went all through Spain and I was just out of college. I didn’t know why I was there, I just took tons and tons of notes just wanting to contribute in some way. I didn’t know how to write a cookbook, but I knew what elements I liked in them.
Was there something that happened when you were a kid that set you off on this passion for cooking?
I wish I could remember that one meal, but that didn’t happen. My parents didn’t cook, they worked all the time. I had a sitter who I was very close with and she did most of the cooking for us during the week. Our time together was in the kitchen. We would sit in the kitchen and talk. I think it’s true of any home, but the kitchen is really the center. I always felt very comfortable there. My grandfather was also a bread baker and my mom grew up in Brooklyn at a bread bakery. I never knew her parents, but she and I are very close. I thought if I could get into this space, I could understand part of my family that I didn’t know before, and understand that life a little bit more.
Where do you get your inspiration from when you cook?
I read a lot of restaurant menus. That’s a go-to when I have work and I’m procrastinating. You can see what the trends are based on what chefs are using on their menus and in their restaurants. That said, I don’t consider myself a trendy cook at all, I cook a lot from my influences of nostalgia and classic flavors. Things I remember eating and then finding a fresher lighter variation on it.
What’s one of your most nostalgic dishes?
On the weekends my parents would cook together and we would all eat as a family. We used to have grilled swordfish and a salad all the time. It was the early 90s. I think an easy at home dinner is a simple piece of fish and a salad. We used to go to certain restaurants all the time and there are dishes I remember eating as a kid. There was a seafood restaurant called Gus’s in Westchester and they have this salad called the Gus’s Salad. It’s chopped iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, red onion and blue cheese with oil and vinegar. To this day, it’s one of my favorite things. Sometimes it’s knowing how to reinvent something. Sometimes I don’t use iceberg lettuce, other times I just think that salad is delicious and I make it just the way it is.
What is your simple go to weeknight meal?
On the ground floor, below our apt, there is a sustainable seafood shop that is going in so ideally, that’s my go to meal at the moment. Fish and salad. Grace and I cook together a lot at home now. Grace makes the best scallops. We watch a lot of Top Chef so we call them “top scallops.” We’ve had those a few times really recently. She uses butter and olive oil when she pan sears them. She is really patient and gets them really brown and crispy. I did a shaved carrot salad last night with greens. You could use any vegetables, any herbs, any nut, add something acidic and it just comes together. The crunch with the veg, it’s a great weeknight go-to.
What is your go-to entertaining meal?
When we have people over, I like to do stuff that you can make as much ahead of time. Our kitchen doesn’t have much counter space, or a dishwasher, so that influences what I cook. It sounds crazy, but I just don’t want to do dishes! It also depends on who we are having over. My brother and his wife are really healthy, they are both vegetarians, and my sister in law has a number of food allergies. When they come over, I make a variation of the same meal. Some sort of potato, or sweet potato, a version of kale, because the two of them practically have IV drips of kale they eat so much of it, and some kind of grain like quinoa to make it more substantial. I also like to make chopped salad with lots of stuff. I think anyone that has a lot of limitation with what they can eat usually end up eating the same thing over and over, so I like to make it a little special. I’ll make roasted potatoes but I’ll stir them together a mixture of garlic, parsley and dill and it makes all the difference. I like to make sure whatever I am making, that everyone at dinner can eat everything on the table. When you are always the exception to a group of people eating, it’s nice to be included. We do a lot of small dinners even though we have a big long table. It’s a nice relaxing way to be at home. I’ve spent a lot of my career in restaurants, and moving around a lot, so I like to be at home as much as possible.
What was your most recent dinner party menu like?
We had one of Grace’s best friend’s birthday party here and I did a paella for 14 people. It’s the best thing to do for a big party because everyone is super impressed, but it’s a one pot meal. I do it on all 4 burners and keep moving it around so it stays evenly heated. It’s a nice presentation and it’s pretty easy. When you are cooking at home there’s no reason to make it complicated. People are so happy to be invited over and not have to make a decision.
Do you have a philosophy or guidelines you follow to living a healthy balanced life?
It’s been a lot of pounds of trial and error. I would love to be the kind of person that could find the one thing that works for me and eat that thing everyday, but I need variety. It’s the same with exercise. I can do it for a bit and it feels great, but I eventually stop because I need the variety. It’s a good things we live in New York, because we can have that. There is every restaurant in the world and there are seasons. If you pay attention to that, it’s always a heathy way to go. New stuff pops up and it’s exciting, there are moments of produce scarcity but it’s also fun in it’s challenge. It makes you appreciate the more bountiful time.
Do you eat with the seasons?
I try to as much as possible, but I also eat lemons and avocados all year long, and they aren’t grown anywhere close to here. I do my best just because I think the food tastes better.
Is there anything that you really avoid?
The thing that I try to control the most is coffee. I have a coffee every morning and that’s fine. I look forward to it, it wakes me up. Sometimes Grace will go to Five Leaves and get me an iced double espresso with a little whole milk or half and half. My married life is very decadent. I wake up leisurely and she comes home with an iced espresso. Life is good. I find that I love an afternoon coffee, but if I go for one it’s out of my control because I’m looking to get energy from it. I think it’s a bad thing to rely on. If I have a coffee in the afternoon I also want a brownie to go with it and that would throw me off for the rest of the day.
Does work ever interfere with your healthy regimen?
I’m starting to work on a cookbook with a bakery and it’s awesome, but potentially frightening. Right now, my biggest tool is just to say no. I can try something, but if someone offers me a huge amount of something and I know I won’t feel great after I have it, learning how to politely decline has been a great tool for me. I’m someone who says yes to everything and doesn’t want to let anyone down, but I also don’t need to eat a whole loaf of bread and let myself down.
What is a day in the life of Julia look like?
My coffee in the morning is probably my only consistent thing. Normally, Grace and I eat breakfast together. We eat a lot of eggs, sometimes with toast. Now we are having eggs and greens or mushrooms. Grace makes the best eggs. She usually scrambles them. We’ve been ordering from Good Eggs a lot. It’s like Fresh Direct but all local and small batch producers. You are basically paying someone to go to the farmers market for you. The quality of the ingredients are great and you know exactly where it’s coming from. I find that we are eating much less. Instead of mixing up a half a dozen eggs for both of us and not finishing what’s on our plate, we’ll fry one egg perfectly and enjoy it because we want to ration them out and enjoy it. I have a very small knee injury so I’ve been doing physical therapy in Union Square twice a week. I had an almond milk, strawberry smoothie form Hu Kitchen. Grace does a radio show at Heritage, which records at Roberta’s in Bushwick, so if i’m lucky I get leftover pizza which I had today. I made a salad and put it on top, so it’s finding the balance. Tonight I have a work dinner.
Do you have heroes in the culinary world?
On my bookshelves, I’m very specific which books are at an arm’s reach because those are the ones that are most important to me and which I reference most often. The Canal House women are amazing, I love what they do. Their content is very true day to day cooking. I think Mark Bittman is one of the most encyclopedic authors. I keep his books handy because I use them as a reference tool. The New York Times cookbooks because I think Amanda Hesser is one of the most important people working in food forever and today. Lee Bailey books are some of my favorite. My mom’s old copies of Julia Childs, I think there’s nothing better. I have the TIME Collection cookbooks, which I inherited from my aunt. They are fascinating, and the photography is so weird. They cover every region of American and internationally as well. It’s an interesting picture of what was happening in food in a different era, and some are pretty relevant. I also love David Tanis’ books.
What do you keep in your kitchen all the time?
Olive oil, Maldon salt, any kind of chili, Aleppo pepper. I’ll settle for the chili pepper you get at pizza places, I just like anything that brings some heat. Popcorn kernels are a go-to. In the fridge always eggs, parmesan cheese, we have a very large variety of jam but we both only like raspberry Bonne Maman. I write the types on the lips so it’s easier to see when you are pulling them out. I love Cholula and Maille dijon mustard.
For people that are transitioning into healthier lifestyles and wanting to cook more, do you have tips or tricks?
First thing to remember is that every single change counts. Even if you are making sure one snack you eat a day is healthy. When it comes to food, if you are going to eat healthier, make sure you like the food you are eating and make dishes you enjoy. Don’t make dishes just because you think it’s healthy. You want to enjoy your day to day life. I don’t like changing things to reach goal that is really far away because then between now and then, whats the price of that? For me, small changes are the only thing that works. I value my happiness.
Do you have a non-negotiable that you do everyday?
I try to get as much sleep as I can. It’s something I’ve struggled with forever. It’s become easier since I got married. That’s been really helpful. I try to not let anything get in the way of not getting enough sleep. We have our routine before we go to bed, I think that’s really important. I also drink tons of water and I’ve done that since high school. I can tell by noon if I’m not feeling that great, 9 times out of 10 it’s because I haven’t had enough water. I’m always diagnosing everyone as dehydrated.
What projects do you have coming up?
I have the Buvette cookbook and I’m crazy excited about it. Jody Williams is such a talent. We worked really long and hard together on this.
What drew you to that project?
I used to live in the West Village and Jody has always been someone I admired and whose food I loved. When Grace and I got married we had the smallest wedding ever. We took the back table at Buvette with 12 people and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. So this book is special for that reason too.
What did they serve at your wedding?
The Aligot potatoes we had on our wedding night and it’s in the book. It’s basically half potatoes half cheese.
What is the process when you collaborate?
It’s different every time. It depends what material already exists, and who you are working with. With Jody, there are a lot of things the restaurant makes on a day to day basis, and a lot that wasn’t. Some were written down and others existed in theory. So we would meet a few days a week. Her partner Rita runs I Sodi around the corner, so we would use their kitchen during the day because they are only open at night. Jody would just make everything, and I would take tons of notes and stop to measure etc. I would write everything down and test the recipes when I got home. While she was cooking, I would interview her informally to give life to each dish. It was a very organic process.
Do you have any dream collaborators?
ABC Kitchen. Since it opened I’ve been dying to write that cookbook. Dan Kluger is a friend, and It feels so fresh and exciting there. I admire any chef who could do that on a daily basis.
Where’s one place you want to visit culinary wise?
Vietnam I’m dying to go to. I would really love to go to Ireland too. I think there’s a great history of food culture, and I think the ingredients are great there. It’s not always thought about, it’s an untapped culinary place. There’s been a bit more writing about it, but I just see photos and it looks so beautiful.
What in your mind constitutes a good cookbook?
I think cookbooks can serve a number of purposes. Maybe one is the all encompassing bible on something, like Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok book. He’s spent his life learning about food from that area. Then there are cookbooks that aren’t turning to the author for the most authentic recipe, but they can be so inspiring and can evoke such a sense of bringing together great groups of people around delicious food. You can find information or inspiration in cookbooks, but hopefully both.
Are there any food trends that you are over?
I don’t think anything is that overrated because it means people are getting excited about food and that’s a good thing. It’s good for our world, our environment and my career.
What are three principles you follow when it comes to cooking and eating?
Simple, not stressful and really classic. I totally appreciate all the new stuff that’s happening and the technology, but I have no desire to cook that way. I’m fascinated but I also want to go have a pizza after.
FOR JULIA’S GREEN APPLE, CLICK HERE