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”
These peppers look delicious!
I’ve made the grilled Romaine Caesar salad three times and we love it! Such good flavors.
So fortunate for us that Ms. Spungen fell into the career path that did. It’s a wonderful talent to successfully incorporate beautiful tastes with beautiful visuals.
Wow, the cookbook looks beautiful!
Always looking for new things to do with vegetables!
I cannot wait until June for my fresh strawberries to make Susan’s strawberry tart! Yum!!
Grilled Romaine is on my list of cooking projects to try this year! I just got the grill all cleaned up for summer and I can’t wait to use it. Looks delicious.
That “Grilled” Romaine Caesar Salad looks insanely delicious! Yum! I would love a copy of her cookbook!
I do love blistered shishitos when I can find them. My question for you and Susan is: I would love to test recipes for someone. How can I accomplish this bucket list item without knowing anyone in the field? Thanks!
I can’t wait to try the strawberry tart. The season has arrived here in the South!
Excited to try the shishito pepper recipe– looks really good!
I made the “grilled” Caesar the minute you first posted it and it was delicious! Considering how incredible that salad is I would love to dive head first into this book.
Wow, talk about being at the right place at the right time — I loved hearing more of her story. Thanks for the interview — and for the giveaway!
This is so exciting! Ok i made the best ever focaccia bread a while back and it was AMAZING! So good i’m making it again! Along with your butternut squash mac and cheese. I can’t wait! Delish 💓💓
So looking forward to cooking with fresh summer veggies!
I love cookbooks that focus on local and in-season recipes, so I’m excited to dig it Open Kitchen!
Open Kitchen looks like an amazing cookbook! I’d love to win a copy. And I am really excited to try the grilled romaine caesar salad recipe. It looks super delicious and something I’d love to serve at dinner, especially at an outdoor dinner party.
I’m looking forward to cooking from Susan’s new book, Open Kitchen. I have loved her styling for years.
The strawberry tart sounds amazing! Will try it out next month when strawberries are in season. 🙂
I loved the grilled romaine. I’ve never had shishito peppers but I’m reAdy to try.
I’ve made quite a few cookies from her NYT spread and boy are they both delicious and pretty!
This is the kind of cookbook I know I’d love!
I just love reading cookbooks; I know this sounds a little odd. This one looks like a winner.
We are HUGE fans of all your recipes, but have a soft spot for your pizza dough, gooey bars and chocolate chip cookies! Thank you so much for featuring another one of my favorite foodies
Food and art are such wonderful companions! And food stylists are awesome!
I can’t wait to read (see) more about Susan’s life and work.
Love shishito peppers! Easy to roast, grill or fry. Easy to grow too 😁
I grow shishitos. They are an interesting pepper. Mild 5 out of 6-7. But then you get a hot one, that would be 6 or 7. I let them ripen to red, dry them and use them during the winter. This recipe looks like fun for this years crop.
Grilled Caesar Salad is a wonderful addition to my Caesar Salad repertoire.
I’ve been making your peasant bread for families in our neighborhood diring this pandemic. I am gluten free and can’t eat bread (even your gf flour doesn’t work. Seems xanthan gum doesn’t agree with a whole lot of people, including me). All of your variations are spot on! Thank you
The strawberry tart will make a delicious quarantine treat! Can’t wait😋
The Blistered Shishito Pepper recipe looks sooo good, I can’t wait to do it and eat it relaxing on the back patio (with a few friends post-Covid – sigh). I loved the Grilled Ceasar – it was a winner – and gave me courage to grill lettuce!!
Looks like I will need to add another cookbook to my shelves if this is as good as it looks? Excited.
The folks at MSL don’t get enough credit for what they gave to us who love food. Some one should do a history of all the talented folks who helped build MSL. PS made your cinnamon bread yesterday a big hit with us so pretty when you cut into it. Love your cookbook.