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Sara Moulton Keeps Cooking

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By Malcolm Jolley

The Conde Nast Building is at 4 Times Square and spans a block between 42nd and 43rd Streets. Like many New York office buildings, you must present your credentials in the lobby to get a special pass to let you through the security gates towards the banks of elevators, which is what I did, impressed with each glance around the modern office tower. In the elevator I noted that the magazine publisher occupies 16 floors of the building, which impressed me, but I didn't really get the butterflies until I got out of the elevator and looked at a giant word-mark logo, nearly taking up the wall it was fastened to, in that ever-so-familiar script that read 'Gourmet'. I was going to get a glimpse into the cathedral of American food writing. And I spent the next few minutes craning my neck around in case any famous food writers strolled by.

The person responsible for my visit did not emerge to meet me from around the sign. Instead Sara Moulton came by way of another sign on the other wall that read 'Self' – the other magazine on that floor. Moulton is the Executive Chef at Gourmet, a position she's held for more than two decades, making her a rich repository of knowledge on the magazine. Moulton led me to small but windowed office crammed with cookbooks and files of recipes, where sat and talked for the better part of half an hour.

Moulton is best known as one of the early personalities on the Food Network, where her two shows, 'Cooking Live' and 'Sara's Secrets' ran consecutively for a decade (1996-2006) before being rather unceremoniously cancelled. In fact, Moulton is generally praised as an example of FN's decline from a serious cooking channel to a light entertainment vehicle. Moulton is circumspect when I ask her about why there are no cooking shows on FN, just reality TV: "There are, but they're about personalities".

In retrospect, Moulton's comment doesn't seem right: she's certainly a personality. After all, she spent six years cooking live, in real time while answering viewers' question by phone. "We got our first dirty call on the first night", she told me laughing. She just may be a somewhat quieter one than the toothy-grin variety presenter now more likely to be on the boob tube. Still, she has steadily rebuilt a solid television audience on PBS with her show 'Sara's Weeknight Meals'. This is something of a homecoming for the chef, as she began working in television as a sideline to being a young cook in Boston. Her first TV job? Off camera, helping Julia Child.

Moulton is more than just TV pioneer, she embodies the new generation of College educated professional chefs. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in the History of Ideas, Moulton headed to the Culinary Institute of America, where she was just one of six women in her class. She excelled, and soon found herself working in high-end kitchens in Boston in the late 70s, and then New York in the early 80s – where there weren't very many head chefs willing to hire a woman. Determined to hone her craft further, she set off to Chartres, France to work in a Michelin starred restaurant. There, as the only woman in the brigade, she was "teased mercifully, and chased around the kitchen by the chef, when no one else was around." Yet she endured and brought home valuable knowledge and skills. Not that that helped at many of New York City's top, and mostly French, restaurants where hiring a woman was still unthinkable. Moulton credits the emerging trend for Italian cuisine in the 1980s for breaking this chauvinist stranglehold. In any event, Moulton ended up working at the celebrated La Tulipe in a kitchen made up of both genders, determined to help other women chefs get around the old boys club that kept them out of the top kitchens.

To hear Moulton tell it, The New York Women's Culinary Alliance was founded by mistake. Moulton, and a group of ambitious women chefs and food professionals (including caterers, writers and editors) were approached by a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier to create a sort of junior membership, not least because Moulton had been a founding member of the Women's Culinary Guild of New England. When she arrived at a meeting with the board, most of Les Dames had not been briefed of the new plan and took offense. The project crumbled within a few minutes, and Moulton was delighted: she knew she and her colleagues could create their own network to support professional women in the industry, taking care to include caterers and cooks who did not work regular hours because of family obligations. She understood women's careers might take different paths: at this point Moulton left restaurant cooking to teach at Peter Kump's famous New York Cooking School, now called the Institute of Culinary Education.

Moulton's involvement with Julia Child would, of course, not be her last foray into the world of television, and in the mid-80s she began appearing on ABC's 'Good Morning America' show from time to time, which she continues to do regularly as the show's Food Editor. She also heard, through a friend and colleague at the Women's Culinary Alliance, that Gourmet had an opening in their test kitchen. Moulton started in the Gourmet test kitchen in 1984.

Everything, absolutely everything published in Gourmet must be tested and tested and retested, lest you or I try the delicious looking spaghetti alla limone on the cover and screw it up royally. Moulton told me that there is, in fact, equipment in the Gourmet test kitchens to replicate the kitchens of home cooks, like electric ovens. I had to take her word for it because there was absolutely no way she, or anyone else, was going to let me see it. Recipes are taken very seriously in the food magazine world and access to the kitchens is strictly limited to high clearance cooks! Moulton's kitchen, where she prepares meals as Gourmet's Executive chef, her role since 1988, is open and she gave me a quick tour.

To get to her kitchen, we went down a few flights past the Frank Ghery designed Conde Nast Cafeteria. The crowd was an eclectic mix of Vogue fashionistas (salad, no dressing - think 'The Devil Wears Prada'), rumpled New Yorker types and everything in between. Moulton told me that every once and a while she'll spy some major politician or big wig in there having a snack with a senior editor or journalist. Gourmet's entertaining, however is done at their own dining room, and Moulton's lunch is one of the most sought after in city. So who gets to go? Being a big advertiser in the magazine doesn't hurt. It makes sense that Gourmet would have its own ability to entertain, rather than depend on restaurants and other chefs. As Moulton explained, her kitchen can and will replicate any recipe from Gourmet, especially upcoming issues. She also works with advertisers who publish recipes as part of an advertorial or cook-focussed campaign. Every recipe must not only be tested, but it also must conform strictly to Gourmet's style to get into the pages.

It wasn't long before my time was up, Moulton talked a little bit about her third book, which she's in the middle of writing. When she's not cooking at Gourmet, or PBS, she's cooking at home testing more recipes. I ask if she gets tired of cooking. Does she order in or go out at night? "No way. My husband and I love to cook. We always sat down with our kids every night. It's really important to keep that connection." She smiles broadly, and I know she means it. And I can't tell if Sara Moulton is the hardest working chef in the world, or just having the most fun.

Related article: Interview with Gourmet Magazine Wine Consultant Michael Green.



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