Late last year, I got the most amazing freelance gig: interview three University of Michigan graduates who all had connections to the recently closed Gourmet magazine.
It started with an assignment from Michigan Alumnus magazine to profile Michael and Jane Stern, authors of the Roadfood series. Then Conde Nast announced it was folding Gourmet. Since the Sterns had a long-standing column in Gourmet, I suggested a Gourmet angle, including Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet, also a Michigan grad.
For the trifecta, Sara Moulton, who had been executive chef at Gourmet, was also a Michigan grad.
Combining writing and food and paying me for it? It doesn’t get much better.
As a bonus, I ended up getting some compelling life transformation stories.
My interview with Michael got off to a rough start. John and I were supposed to catch a train out of Grand Central Station to Westport, Conn. to meet Michael and Jane Stern, but we missed our train thanks to a bad cabbie. That meant we were an hour late, and we arrived to see only Michael waiting for us at the train station.
If Jane canceled because of our tardiness, Michael was too polite to say so. He simply said Jane wouldn’t be joining us, and he whisked us off to enjoy what he believes are some of the best doughnuts in the country.
Michael and Jane became accidental experts on the best down-market chow in the U.S., with credits including a series of books, a Web site, events including the Roadfood Festival in New Orleans March 28-29 – all celebrating local foods, from fish tacos in California to the pasties of Michigan’s upper peninsula. The latest Roadfood book is “500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late (and the Very Best Places to Eat Them),” which features the doughnuts at Coffee An’ in Westport.
The Sterns met while they were art students at Yale, and they set out to make a documentary on long-distance truckers. These were the days long before the Internet, when even the CB was relatively new, so the best way to meet truckers was at truck stop restaurants.
“We kept thinking we should get a guide book to find the best places to go around the country,” Stern recalled. “We realized that guide book didn’t exist.”
That was the inspiration for the next several decades of crisscrossing the country writing about barbecue joints and clam shacks. So strong is their passion for the topic that even though the Sterns divorced in 2008, they continue to collaborate as business partners.
I couldn’t imagine being in business with an ex, much less traveling the country with my ex, but Michael made it sound like the most normal evolution in their business and partnership. “We get two rooms now when we travel.”
I loved talking to Michael because of his sincere passion for what he does. When a mail carrier overheard our conversation and stopped by the table to talk about the secret hot dog preparation of a nearby restaurant, Michael engaged enthusiastically, rather than treating him like an intruder. In the hours we talked food, I’m not sure he ever looked at his watch.
Also interesting was his comfort with letting his life path unfold. He fell in love with art history at Michigan, switched to an MFA in film and later took up food writing, all without seeming to regard any of it as a waste of time or a mistake. It’s simply the way he got to where he is.
Roadfood is a wonderful Web site where I can spend hours learning about unique little spots. Check it out here.
I learned to cook sort of out of necessity. I was a poor newspaper reporter, relatively new to being a vegetarian and living in the far northern reaches of Michigan where meat was plentiful, including the kind people shot themselves. My mom was not the best cook so recipes that didn’t involve a can of cream of mushroom soup or a box of pre-fab scalloped potatoes were new territory.
First I discovered the Galloping Gourmet, and shortly thereafter, Sara Moulton. Sara’s “Cooking Live” show on the Food Network made the kitchen feel unintimidating, and this is exactly what she was like in person. I was nervous to have dinner with one of my favorite cooking celebrities, but within minutes of sitting down, it felt like catching up with an old girlfriend.
Sara feels delightfully, refreshingly, surprisingly real. She told the funny story of how her relationship started with her husband, dished a little dirt about some TV chefs you’ve heard of and dropped the F bomb with a comfort you might not expect of a cute, petite blonde.
Sara didn’t set out to be a famous TV chef and cookbook author. After graduating from Michigan with no real idea what she was going to do for a living, she went to the Culinary Institute to become a chef.
It’s possible she might have worked anonymously in kitchens her whole life if she hadn’t bluffed her way into a job with Julia Child. She told Julia that yes, she was quite good at food styling when Julia needed help for her TV show — in spite of Sara not having the experience to back it up. But she managed to make good and developed a friendship that lasted 25 years.
This is a common thread of life transformation stories: the well-connected champion who opens doors.
Julia got Sara a job behind the scenes at Good Morning America, which led to on-camera work, and pretty soon she was auditioning for her own show on the brand-new Food Network.
Like Michael, Sara went with it as opportunities came up. Though she didn’t dream of being on TV, when the chance came up, she gave it a try. She thought she bombed her audition at the Food Network but when they called, she took the chance.
Now she’s exploring new possibilities. She has a new book, “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners,” coming out this spring and she’s looking for a job to replace being executive chef at Gourmet.
With her resume and her ability to make a stranger feel like an old friend, I’m sure she’ll land on her feet.
Trying to land an interview with Ruth Reichl, the editor of Gourmet when it closed, was an elusive goal. I tried everything from calling Gourmet’s publicist to tweeting at her publicly on Twitter.
We finally met when I attended a panel discussion at the New York Public Library. I bought a Gourmet cookbook, waited in line to have Ruth sign it, and introduced myself. She responded, “”You’re the most persistent person I’ve ever met.” Sadly that persistence didn’t yield a sit down with one of the most influential people in food journalism.
But listening to her talk on the panel and reading the numerous stories that followed Gourmet’s demise told another story of evolution, as Ruth transformed from art history student to chef to food journalist, author and star of a TV series. I’m curious to see what comes next in that evolution.
The January issue of Michigan Alumnus will have my story on Michael, Jane and Ruth. If you’re an alum, you can click here to sign in with your Michigan user name and password to read Alumnus.
Categories: food and drink