Deb Perelman, author of the popular cooking blog "smittenkitchen," was at the Free Library of Philadelphia last week to promote her new cookbook. Here is an excerpt of her conversation with Inquirer Food editor Maureen Fitzgerald:
Question: When did you start cooking seriously?
Answer: I never really cooked growing up. My friends were not into cooking. I'm not kidding, they use their ovens for sweater storage. It wasn't until later, when I had the unpaid audience of my husband, that I got much more into it. I remember thinking, I'm an adult, I want to make a roasted chicken, and I didn't have my go-to recipe. I wanted the perfect coleslaw dressing, the best pancake recipe. My site really comes from the search.
Q: You wanted to share your best recipes? That's how the blog started?
A: Yes. It was like, I have now found the best recipe and you can't make your coleslaw anymore, you have to make my coleslaw. I'm very bossy.
Q: Your blog is a great success, with over 8 million page views a month. What made it go viral?
A: I actually have no idea, I'm not good with self-promotion.
Q: So you really did not work at promoting it?
A: I didn't work on the promotion part, I worked on the site. I really believe there's a natural democracy to the Web. If it's good, people will find it. Nobody's going to start cooking from the site because you told them to, they are going to do it because they found it, and they saw something that looked really good, and said, "I want to make that!"
Q: How long did it take till you thought this might actually work, I can quit my job?
A: I quit my job as an IT reporter after a year and a half. It was terrifying . . . but it was also like I got this grant to do whatever I wanted in the kitchen.
Q: What is your routine in the kitchen? Do you have a methodology and lists, or do you just wake up in the morning and make whatever you want?
A: I do wake up and make what I feel like, but it takes more planning with a 3-year-old. I do keep a long list of things I would like to make - I have so many cookies! I have such great plans for us for holiday baking, if I could just get back to my kitchen! I start by trying to write a recipe, my best guess of what I think will work, then I shop it out and go from there, taking notes, and going back and changing things as many times as I need to.
Q: So where do the things on the list come from?
A: It's a craving. It's hunger. It just comes at me and I don't know where it comes from. It might be from something that I thought I was ordering in a restaurant, but it turned out I got something else, and I wanted the thing I thought I was getting. Or I'm craving sweet potato fritter with Indian spices. . . . I get these strange ideas.
Q: Did you ever take a cooking class?
A: I took a bread-making class a few years ago, and I would love to go to Italy and take a pasta-making class. I want to hear from the grandmothers how to do it and how to sauce it just perfectly. I do think there is an art to it, that I'm not going to be able to figure out on my own. But I am mostly self-taught. I watched a lot of Food Network. My husband used to call it "my stories." "Can't talk, Deb is watching her stories. . . . Ina is on."
Q: What makes a good cook? Is it innate or a skill that can be learned?
A: I think with good home cooking, you can absolutely work it out for yourself. I kind of resent the idea that you have to be born with it. I think a really good recipe, you should be able to follow that recipe to the letter, and if it didn't work out that is the fault of the recipe writer.
Q: Are you an advocate of home cooking?
A. I don't think you are going to have a better life if you cook five nights a week. What you will have is a lot of dishes to do. But if what is keeping you out of the kitchen is the fear that you are not going to get what you want, I do think I can help. I think recipes can be solutions.
Q: Your photos are beautiful and you make it look so easy. Is it that easy?
A: It is exactly that easy. I don't know what the buttons on my camera do. I had to take Photoshop off my computer because I was breaking it or it was breaking me. I'm aiming for sharp, crisp photos. I am trying to show you something. I don't even manually focus. It's all daylight, and I usually get myself together to finish the recipe at the end of the daylight. It's a little underexposed, but I really like that light.
Q: Is there a cooking show in your future?
A: I used to say I would never write a cookbook, so now I never say never. But it is not my immediate goal. I want to have a good life and take vacations and hang out with my husband and my kid and if a cooking show fits into that, great.