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.
This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.
305 Comments on “Q&A with Susan Spungen”
I love following your acct! I think I’m on cookbook number three from your recommendations! I appreciate all your “toast” recipes so much, haha!
These shishitos look divine and I’d love for three to be on my backyard menu! Thanks for always bringing great meals to our feeds! 🧡
I would love a copy of Susan’s book! I have learned from years of reading your blog to make whatever you recommend and would be delighted to give her cookbook a try.
I’ve been loving making a lot of Mexican recipes! Fajitas, tacos, etc!
Thank you for this Q&A- so interesting! I can’t wait to check out more of her book and recipes. 🙂
That strawberry tart sounds lovely to make!
Can’t wait to try the peppers! I just gifted my cousin some Aleppo since it’s one of my favorite things to season with and I sent her this recipe to try too. Would love to explore this book some more 🙂
Thank you for your wondeful blog!
It would be wonderful to receive Susan’s book! She’s a NY food connection I’ve made through multiple associations: I’ve encountered her through my NYT subscription, her collaborations with Judy Kim and Yossy Arefi, her husband’s art gallery (my husband’s an artist so I watch the art world and the food scene), her IG account, and of course, the movies. Really great reading about the evolution of her career.
Thank you for sharing this with us. Love Shishito peppers especially the occasional spicy ones. Usually always just have them with a little flaky sea salt but this avocado crema looks delightful. I have been enjoying your vegetable forward recipes and love the sourdough pizza you recently shared. Waiting on my starter to be ready so I can make it.
Ali, I love your recipes (and Toast cookbook). In my recipe collection your name follows name of recipe because I know I can trust, depend on any recipe with ‘Ali’ after the title! Put my name in the basket for the new cookbook–sounds wonderful!
I love going to farmer’s markets to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. I like to purchase vegetables I did not grow up eating to expand my palate. Last summer I purchased shishito peppers and sauteed them. They were delicious!
This past fall I planted Rainbow Swiss Chard. It grew to be large and healthy. I am looking up recipes to try and use my home grown Swiss Chard. I cleaned, chopped and sauteed a big bunch with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and a dash of apple cider vinegar today. Delicious!
Hi Ali, thank you for adding yet another recommendation to the Spring-cookbook-purchase. I really appreciate this (gracious) aesthetic of welcoming those to the table with approachable techniques and mostly accessible pantry items. People who collaborate, write recipes and contribute to regular food columns – in addition to excelling in their respective kitchens – are a boon to home cooks like me. (Please see Jessica Battilana, Maria Zizka and Colu Henry for more of the same deftly extended affability.) I will be adding your two new favorites to one of my own from Susan Spungen: espresso shortbread. Prettily scalloped edges and, now, a “grilled” salad I can execute under the broiler. What more do I need to know?
I have every Martha Stewart magazine for the first 20 years of publication. That magazine was so innovative and unique for that time, and Susan’s work was a big part of that. Congratulations on your new book.
On another note, Coco Pazzo was my go-to restaurant back in the day. (I, too, have been around for a while.)
Haha. Thank you!
I’m always on the look out for good vegetable recipes and this book seems just amazing. Looking forward to seeing you cook more of them on your Instagram stories!
Well, at the moment I’m trying to decide what to make for my Mother’s Day dessert! We’ll get takeout from a local Asian fusion place, but what’s a Mother’s Day dinner without a nice dessert? My husband’s not much of a cook, so I have to do the honors.
We have been loving dates, stuffed with manchego, and wrapped in proscuitto. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes and voila! Can’t wait to try Susan’s grilled Caesar! Yum! She’s a favorite of mine, can’t wait to check the cookbook out.
I’m looking forward to trying the grilled romaine. I’ve been making lots of sourdough bread and I recently found your website! It has been so helpful and inspiring for a novice bread maker like myself!
I love fresh, nontypical recipes like yours and Susan’s. A new take on a classic caesar by “grilling” it is genius! And, the blistered shishitos with avocado crema remind me of your balsamic roasted peppers, which I love! I adore your recipes and your style seems to be in sync with Susan’s. I would love to add her book to my collection.
Loved grilled Caesar salad, so will give this a try! The recipe I have includes grilled Parmesan Crisps, which make a nice presentation.
I always feel like I have too many cookbooks, but I can’t resist books that you recommend! I can’t wait to try the shishito recipe. This week I have been referring to your chocolate recipes for my husband’s birthday. Last night I brought the torta caprese to my sister’s house (very well received) and tomorrow I’m bringing Mollie Katzen’s chocolate eclipse to my husband’s parent’s house.
I can’t wait to try both of these recipes this weekend just perfect..
Would love to have this wonderful cookbook. Everything looks so delicious.
We’ve been meal planning more than usual to limit grocery store trips. “An Alexandra pasta” ends up on the list almost every week. Our three favorites are sheet pan pasta gratin with kale, red pepper sauce, and the vodka sauce from baked penne alla vodka.
Thanks for the chance to win this beautiful cookbook!
My all time favorite is Caesar Salad and adding it the grill??!!?? I can’t wait to try this, the dressing sounds amazing…..adding to the Mother’s Day menu this weekend…long time follower of your blog…..many, many thanks for all the hard work that I know goes into this..….it truly brightened quarantine time for sure!!! Put me in for the cookbook!
Honestly, just getting my hands on farmers market produce is a feat in and of itself. I just want a fantastic salad and a custard cake….
I’m stuck in a CSA rut and would love to find some new vegetable recipes. This grilled shishito pepper with avocado crema may be the answer.
I love your website, made your pizza last night and this morning finished the bulk fermentation of the sourdough pizza dough, wrapped up some individual dough balls and stuck them in the freezer for another day. I love standard recipes with a twist (grilling salads) and also standard recipes with an ethnic twist (dishes using spices such as za’atar, dukkah, baharat, berbere). This cookbook looks awesome, thanks for the offer!
I love your website, and I love your book! Your peasant bread is a go to in my house. I have been baking lots of bread and I am planning on making your light brioche this week to make your broiled french toast 🙂
Hey! Ali! If I’m not too late I’d love to be entered. Thanks for the offer.
Hi Martha!! So nice to hear from you 😍😍😍
OK, I just ordered a used copy the Frog Commissary Cookbook after reading the reviews. I’m holding out for Susan’s cookbook here 🙂 Also, Ali, I’m so grateful I took your advice and ordered a 2 pack of SAS yeast months before covid. I have SO MUCH yeast – plenty for making your peasant bread. It’s a family favorite.
So nice to hear this, Julie! The Frog Commissary Cookbook is an oldie but such a goodie. I hope you love it. And YAY for having loads of yeast on hand. SAF is the best. 😍😍😍
Hello Susan. I feel like I know you a little bit from your mom’s book. I am glad you are so successful. Could you please write me back and tell me how your parents and brother are doing? I have wondered through the years about you all and have hoped for the best for you.