RECENTLY WE HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE OF sitting down with Carla Lalli Music, Food Director at Bon Appetit and all-around superstar mom, chef, writer and lunch packer (more on that later.) With a prolific career spanning over ten years in the food and hospitality industries including a stint as female line cook in the often male-dominated restaurant kitchen and inaugural general manager of the first Shake Shack, Music now manages all recipes (yes, all recipes) that make it on to all BA platforms. We caught up with Music while she casually whipped up some delectable squash in her Fort Greene kitchen where she divulged how she balances all of that test kitchen goodness with nourishing meals, her thoughts on clean beauty and the necessities for a beginner’s kitchen.
By Ariel Okin
Photography by Claire Esparros
So as the Food Director at Bon Appetit and a mom (of two boys and cats,) what does a typical morning look like getting meals prepped before everyone gets out of the house?
Ha! Well, it depends on the day. My husband, Fernando, is laser-focused on caffeine the second he wakes up, which I’ve now figured out how to work to my advantage. Usually he gets up first and makes coffee for himself and a big cup of black tea for me, and then brings that back to bed, and we’ll spend a few minutes talking about what’s on tap for the day while WNYC plays in the background (it’s the soundtrack to our life.) By the time we hear our older son (he’s 13) rumbling around, one of us will head to the kitchen to start breakfast and whoever isn’t responsible for drop-off that day will jump in the shower. It’s a pretty fair system we’ve landed on, so if you’re responsible for getting a kid to school on time, you don’t have to do much. And then the other person has to hustle to send everyone off, but then has the pure joy of an empty house when it’s over.
We kind of have to force the big kid to eat in the mornings now—he likes savory breakfasts like eggs with hot sauce, fried rice, or leftovers (the lentil soup from Zaytoon’s is his ideal breakfast). Our little guy is 8 and he’s got the sweet tooth. For him it’s usually steel-cut or rolled oats with milk and maple syrup, but I have been known to make buttermilk pancakes or French toast for him too. He’ll snack on cut-up bananas or frozen mango on the side. It’s either that or scrambled eggs, yogurt with honey, or cereal (Puffins and Chex!). On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I get up super early and come into the city to work out, and I almost never eat anything before I leave the house.
Did you grow up in a family that has a reverence for food? When did you know you wanted to go into the industry?
My family is Italian and my mom is an incredible cook and food writer, and also edited cookbooks at Simon & Schuster for most of her career, so I grew up eating great food and going to restaurants. My basic belief system revolves around the idea that there’s a food for every emotion and physical state—even if you’re sick, there’s something you could eat or drink that will make you feel better. And then there’s just the being together part of eating. It’s hard for me to separate love for my family from my love of food, drinking wine and planning the next meal. It’s basically how we express our feelings. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Growing up, we almost never had processed food in the house, didn’t eat fast food, didn’t drink soda and my mom cooked and baked from scratch all the time. It sounds old-fashioned, but she learned to cook out of necessity—she had two younger brothers and my grandmother was a single working mom in the 40s and 50s. Someone had to take charge! I didn’t bother learning how to cook until I went off to college because nothing I made could compare to her meals.
You spent 10 years cooking in New York City restaurants and your first major director role was as the General Manager of the original Shake Shack. Did you eat crinkle fries for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Was health and wellness remotely on your mind during that era?
I’ve never been a big burger eater, which is pretty funny considering I spent two years surrounded by Shack Burgers and covered in beef grease. I almost never ate a whole burger—but I tasted them almost every day for quality control. There was a vegan restaurant across 23rd street from the Shack called Bonobos, and I used to go there for lunch a lot and eat the most health-nut weirdo veggie bowls and things, but it felt really necessary. I needed balance! I also would have a spoonful of chocolate frozen custard every day too.
Bon Appetit recently launched Healthyish, a delightfully even-keeled approach to solid nutrition and wellness. Where did the concept for Healthyish come from and what was the development process like?
We’ve been dedicating an entire issue of the print magazine to Healthyish for a few years now and it has always been a favorite for everyone on the staff to work on, from the test kitchen team to the creative department and all the editors. Because even though we all eat everything (for the most part), and eating is part of our jobs, when we cook at home, most of us cook pretty healthfully. It just seemed like a natural progression to expand the idea online, where we could do more and more often. Two of our senior food editors work on the recipes for the site (as well as for print and other stuff), and the ideas go through the same process as anything else.
A lot of people think that anyone who works at a food outlet just eats fresh baked brioche and pulled pork tacos all day. (Do you? Is it really like that?) What’s a typical day like in terms of food, and how do you maintain balance when you have a test kitchen brimming with delicious things like Claire Saffitz’s [Senior Food Editor at Bon Appetit] bread?
Yep, it’s pretty much like that. It is fucking nuts. We have a 3 P.M. tasting every day and I personally sign off on every recipe we run in the magazine, bonappetit.com, healthyish, and basically. Which means I can vouch for Every. Single. Dish. I have had to adjust my own eating schedule to accommodate this bananas routine and honestly I still haven’t figured out the winning strategy. There are days when it’s particularly rough (Christmas roasts and holiday baking happens in early August, which is not when you want to be eating like that), and other days when I’m psyched. Today, for example, I hadn’t had lunch and tasting was a healthyish salad with jammy eggs and turmeric pickles and big slabs of feta and I couldn’t have been happier. But one day last week I had about 10 dishes over an hour-long period, including a creamy squash casserole and peanut butter blondies and lamb stew and eggs benedict and it practically killed me. I literally came back up to my office and had to lie down on the floor.
Five must have items that are always in your fridge?
Persian cucumbers, eggs, Parmigiano Reggiano, parsley and sambal.
Your favorite, go-to “Healthyish” meal?
Beans and greens! I love brothy beans with lots of black pepper and olive oil with wilted or sauteed greens stirred in. I could eat that all day.
Do you restrict anything from your diet, or is that not possible as the food director at a food magazine?
It is impossible, which is why I make an effort to eat well whenever I’m not at work. The week days are a free-for-all, but on the weekends I try to push the pendulum back in the other direction. My one work rule is that I try not to eat off the “free table,” which is where all the food samples that get mailed to the office go to die. Right now it’s littered with (organic!) gummy bears and other Halloween candy, macadamia caramel corn, gingersnaps and some mystery beer.
Favorite kitchen tool?
My black steel pan.
Best advice for a home cook who is just starting out and trying to stay on track and make good, nourishing food?
Start with whole ingredients that look good to you and keep it simple. There is nothing in this world that isn’t delicious with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon. Shop small and shop often because that’s how you’ll waste less food. Go to the farmers’ market. Don’t buy pre-cut vegetables and fruits—they’re a rip-off and never last as long as the real thing does. Buy a cast-iron pan, because you can cook everything in it—stir-fried grains, a roasted chicken, seared mushrooms, a great steak or a pound of kale. Learn how to cook a good pot of beans. Get recipes from trusted sources. Trust your instincts. If you see an ingredient you don’t have—like a spice—don’t worry about it. Just keep going.
I saw an interview you did once for CN Traveler where you spoke about your love of home cooking and how when you fly, you pack your own food for the plane. Is meal prep part of your day to day, and did that stick with you from working in the restaurant world?
When my kids were younger, I felt a lot of pressure to do big-batch cooking on the weekends and have all sorts of things ready to go. These days, though, the best day is one where I pick something up on the way home and draw from whatever’s in the fridge or in my pantry to make a meal. And then, of course, there are days when I bring home delicious leftovers from the test kitchen and everyone’s happy. I really do pack all my airplane meals, though!
Best advice you’ve ever received?
You are a brand and you work for yourself. My dad’s been saying that to me and my sister for the past 15 years at least.
Let’s talk beauty for a second: what’s your routine like? Your take on clean beauty – necessary or irrelevant?I’m a real late bloomer when it comes to this stuff. I didn’t really even start using moisturizer on my face until I was in my 30s, so everything I do now is super basic. I use Cetaphil cleanser and a moisturizing primer (I rotate between By Terry, Glossier, and Dr. Barbara Sturm), and then either some concealer (I like RMS or Laura Mercier) or a sheer foundation. I stopped using mascara a while ago because it just ends up all over my face and makes me look like a crazy person, so I curl my lashes and put on some blush (there’s a creamy Cle de Peau one that is awesome), and that’s basically it. My one vice is lip stains and lip glosses. (Is there anything better than Clinique Black Honey? I don’t think so—but I’ll let you know when find out.) At night I use Wonder Valley face oil all over my face and body—in the summer I even put it in my hair. It smells so good and soaks in immediately.
I think the beauty industry probably has a lot in common with the food world—if I knew what was in every conventional cosmetic I’d probably swear off the stuff completely, just like if I took the time to research how every animal was raised and slaughtered, I’d have a hard time eating meat ever again. I think it’s worth buying natural beauty products just like it’s worth shopping with small organic growers at the farmers’ market and nose-to-tail butchers, but it’s not an all-or-nothing thing for me.
Favorite place to escape to?
Give me the beach, or give me nothing.
With all the test kitchen goodness, what do you do to balance the indulgence in terms of exercise?
I go to The Class by Taryn Toomey once a week, go to a trainer another day and lift weights and do deadlifts and kettle bell swings and other muscley stuff. I also go to Equinox and do bodyweight workouts. When I travel I try to take a 3- or 4-mile power walk because running is horrible and no one should ever do it. And I have a stand-up desk at work. Everyone made fun of me when I got it 4 years ago, but now everyone’s jealous.
Roasted Winter Squash with Yogurt Sauce and Sizzled Seeds
3 lb. mixed winter squash, such as delicata, acorn, butternut, and/or honeynut
6 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. ground sumac, optional
2/3 cup Greek yogurt
1 Tbsp. brown or yellow mustard seeds
1 tsp. maras, Aleppo, or other moderately spicy crushed red pepper flakes, plus more for serving
1/3 cup raw pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
Preheat oven to 425° and turn on the convection fan if your oven has one. Rinse squash and cut into ¾” rounds or wedges, discarding seeds (no need to peel). Transfer squash to a large cast-iron pan or rimmed baking sheet and toss with 3 Tbsp. olive oil and the sumac, if using. Season well with salt and toss again, then spread squash out onto pan; it’s okay if the slices overlap a bit. Transfer to oven and roast until squash is browned on cut sides and tender when pierced with a cake tester or the tip of a paring knife, 35–40 minutes, turning pieces over and redistributing in pan about halfway through.
While the squash is doing its thing, make the yogurt sauce. Stir together yogurt with the juice of one lemon (about ¼ cup) and season to taste with salt. If sauce is very thick, add a splash or two of water to loosen it up—it should be spreadable but not runny. Set yogurt sauce aside.
In a small skillet, heat remaining 3 Tbsp. oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add mustard seeds and maras pepper along with several cranks of pepper. Cook, shaking pan gently back and forth, until mustard seeds start to sizzle and pop. Transfer spice mixture to a heatproof bowl and wipe out pan.
Place skillet back over medium heat and spoon about a teaspoon of spice oil back into pan. Add pepitas and cook, shaking pan, until pepitas turn golden brown and puff up, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and transfer to a small plate or bowl.
Spoon yogurt sauce onto a platter and top with squash. Spoon spice oil over and around squash, then top with pepitas and another sprinkle of maras pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.