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”
This book looks amazing!
The grilled Romain salad was fantastic. And with a few wedges left over, even more yummy cold the next day!! Thx Ali!!
I tried the grilled shishito peppers with avacado creme and loved them – my wife got a hot one!!
Love the mix of art and food!
I am intrigued by the Blistered Shishito Peppers with Avocado Crema. It looks fantastic!! It’s one that I will try this week 🙂
I love shoshito peppers! And charred romaine and probably lots of other things that will be discovered in this cookbook!
Blistered food is all new to me. It seemed like I had been on an island somewhere remote for years as I had not really heard about the process. Now…..I need to expand my horizons even more. This book sounds like it is something totally exciting. Please count me in!
Your food pictures and recipes look AMAZING!!!!!
Our favorite taco place in Connecticut introduced us to blistered shishitos. I’ve been blistering them in a fry pan but I love the oven idea for better charring! And avocado crema- heaven!!! Five out of 5 stars for this Cinco recipe.
What a gorgeous cookbook–the recipes look amazing.
I’ve always heard good things about Susan Spungen recipes (and books). Recently, David Lebovitz raved about her recipe for “Cassoulet Toast” on his food blog. I can’t wait to try it and the “Strawberry Tart” that Susan mentions is a favorite of hers!
Love your sourdough pizza recipe!
Would love to try recipes from this book. It looks amazing
Beautiful looking book!
I have her ‘Recipes’ and I like her sure hand, and her Little Black Dress cake. However, I would love to know about the simple but decadent chocolate cake from ‘It’s Complicated’ — it was such a beautiful looking full flavored piece of food art.
I first learned about Susan from her awesome Christmas cookie feature in NYT Cooking last winter! This book looks incredible.
Oh the veggie recipes bring on spring
Thanks for the chance to win! I’ve been loving baking some bread these day’s. From your bread toast crumbs book!
I posted my wrong email. Corrected! Lol
Her cookie spread is insane!
The avocado crema looks amazing, I’m sure it would go well with so many other dishes too! Thanks for sharing another great recipe.
Is there another pepper similar to shishitos? I have never come across them in my stores. The Caesar is delish as always!
As an obsessed cookbook reader I’d love discovering the art and food relationship.
I can not wait to try the grilled romaine! It’s finally warm in Portland and I love grilling!
This book looks great! I loved the grilled (broiled) romain and would love to give the snap pea salad a try!
I’m in need of a new recipe, a new food to try and this is going to be it! Never heard of shishitos but I like that they’re not hot (I want to enjoy their flavor). That avocado crema caught my eye immediately. I may mix half sour cream and half Greek yogurt as I’m not a big yogurt fan. Thanks for sharing this recipe!
I just started following alexandracooks. I love to cook and have a cookbook addiction. Whenever my kids ask me what I want for a holiday, I tell them a cookbook. I will definitely check out the Frog Commissary Cookbook. Thanks for introducing me to Susan’s new cookbook as well:)
Really looking forward to trying this recipe! Looks so simple yet delicious! Thank you for sharing, and for the giveaway!
I have a badly worn copy of the Frog Commissary Cookbook! We loved their Satay sauce recipe.
I also collect cookbooks with interesting food that does not require enormous amounts of time to make.
Susan Spungen’s vegetable recipes look terrific!
I would be so glad to have a copy.
The grilled Romain salad is a favorite in our house and it even became a veg one night when I grilled chopped dressed addedgrilled radishes and endive with roasted chickpeas and avocado because unexpected guest showed up and we needed to stretch things. It was a great hit. Can’ wait to try the peppers.
Winning this fabulous looking recipe book would really cheer me up as we head into winter here in the southern hemisphere.
Thanks for reaching out to Susan Spungeon and the chance to win her new book. I’ve been a fan since her early days with MSL.
This book looks beautiful! I have been baking baby lemon tarts recently but I really want to make Susan’s buckwheat banana cake !!
I love your videos – simple step by step visual – they have given me the confidence to try more recipes.
A Spanish friend of mine (back when we were 15) showed me a similar recipe with shishitos, and I loved trying this a new way with the crema.
Lovely book, and love the interview to hear how SS developed her career, love the stories that show how gaining multiple layers of experience and ending up with somewhere totally unpredictable. xxx
Thank you for the giveaway. Right now we’ve been reaching for the grill and making German potato salad (the kids love it).