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Sara Moulton on Being Unemployed, Early Hip-Hop, and Women in the Kitchen

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On home plate in Kohler Wisconsin with Sara Moulton.
On home plate in Kohler Wisconsin with Sara Moulton.
Photo: David Stein

It was raining in Kohler, Wisconsin, just after 8:30 in the morning and I was waiting for Sara Moulton in a strip mall parking lot. Moulton, the author most recently of Everyday Family Dinners, was giving a culinary demonstration later and then flying out. Moulton, who was the longtime Executive Chef at Gourmet magazine before it folded in 2009 and one of the first Food Network stars with her show Cooking Live, appeared as a tiny speck in a black coat and Chuck Taylors talking on the phone to her sister, wending her way through the parked cars. As she neared, she became only slightly less tiny.

I just came from New York and I'm going to Atlanta right after my lunch today and then I'm going to California because I've been on a book tour. When Gourmet folded, I got a little bit of a golden parachute but I'm the main bread winner in my family, so I've really been scrambling and I've been lucky to get a lot of work, I've been unemployed and I've never been busier in my life.

You know what they say about you, you're the hardest working woman in the food business.
Well this is wearing a little thin, I have to say. I meet wonderful people. It's just that I hate to travel. I hate getting on the airplane, packing the bag. I love meeting people but for somebody who hates to travel, I'm traveling all the time. It's not always like Up In the Air with George Clooney. Sometimes it is.

[We decide, despite the rain, to walk through the Kohler High School baseball field.]

In 1982, you founded the New York Women's Culinary Alliance. Interviewing chefs for these Eaterrogations, there seems to be a divide between women chefs who think we need something like that and others who don't. The world has changed.
It hasn't changed enough. No way. New York in particular back then was a bastion of male domination in terms of the restaurant industry and most things. New York was where Le Pavillon was. Le Pavillon was started by Henri Soulé as part of the World's Fair in 1944. That's where Jacques Pépin came out from as well as Pierre Franey and many other chefs. Many of those chefs went on to open restaurants in New York and the French chefs didn't believe that women belonged in the kitchen. We were shut out. When I first went to New York, I had worked in restaurants for seven years, and I couldn't get a job. I wanted to learn. That was why I was so pissed off that when I went to Lutèce, The Four Seasons, all of those French restaurants, they wouldn't hire me.

Even though you had trained in France and graduated with highest honors from the Culinary Institute of America?
I was in Chartres in the seventies but not only that, I was a chef at a restaurant in Boston and I had done that for a couple of years. But in New York, I couldn't get the job. Finally at La Tulipe, a three Michelin star restaurant in the West Village, Sally Darr, who is not a trained chef, hired me and I learned an immense amount from her.

Are you relieved not to be on the line?
I do miss it but I'm too old for it. I loved it when I did it. Being short, I have a kind of Napoleonic complex, so when I went to the CIA, the more the chefs said I can't do it, the more I said yes I can. I loved it. I think women are great in the kitchen. I think they are very even-keeled. They are great at multi-tasking. They can handle the heat more than men. When you think about it — I don't mean to be insulting — but I can't imagine a man ever giving birth to a child.

No offense taken.
There certainly are men who are single dads but mostly women do it all. Even when they're back in the work force, they're still expected to take care of the kids and manage everything and sometimes pay the bills. For all those skills that are ingrained in women, I think they're great in restaurants But you really have to be young and have energy and be happy to work 80 hours a week. I'm happy being married to my family.

What does your husband do?
Oh my god, where do I start? His name is Bill Adler. He's in the music industry. He has had his own record label called Moutth Almighty. He did the last CD with Allen Ginsberg. But his real specialty is rap. In 1981, he met Russell Simmons and they got to be friendly so Bill said, "You need a publicist." So Bill ended up working for him. It took a while to get paid because Russell?well, we won't go there. Then he got paid and he worked for him for six years and was the early publicist for all the rappers. So Run DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Will Smith. Those guys.

So you have a deep bench of early hip hop knowledge?
Not quite like my husband but I have some knowledge but I know these guys. I love the Beastie Boys and I like Run DMC, the early stuff.

[Moulton suggests we head inside. "If I get two black eyes because my mascara runs, there's nothing I can do. I never used to wear makeup until I was on television then I thought, shit, now someone will see me without the makeup on."]

I'm intrigued by the thought that the Adler/Moutlon household is just a hot bed of early hip hop.
I've had dinner with Ad-Rock and also they put me into one of their rhymes.

[Moulton's phone rings."Hold on," she says, taking the call, "I'm always hoping somebody is calling with a job." It's not. It's about a bill.]

But yeah, they have a rhyme about Baked Alaskan [in Rhyme the Rhyme Well] from that album about New York that keeps unfolding. ["To the 5 Boroughs"]. He shouts out [my TV show] Sara's Secrets in the liner notes.

[Now we're sitting in the Stella Artois Belgian Beer tent though, since it's only 9am, they aren't serving beer yet.]

Your cuisine has always been marked by a respect for simple and healthy ingredients, but it seems the Food Network, where you started and where you were for so long, has really moved diametrically opposed to fresh ingredients.
Well I think there are still some people who are cooking with fresh ingredients — I don't know, I don't watch that often — but yes, I think they've gotten more into fast and quick and easy, using processed and canned things.

It seems you would argue you can be fast and quick and easy and not use canned or processed food.
Exactly. This is what was going on in the 50s and 60s. This is what Julia [Child] was trying to get rid of. But when she passed away in 2004, this whole thing of boxes and cans was having a renaissance.

Was she disappointed?
I think so. At that point, she was tired. It was time to go. When Julia checked out, Julia checked out. But I think she was a little upset. That's not how you should cook.

When you moved from Food Network to PBS?
I didn't move, they dumped me. I'll say it. I was part of the old guard and every time a new president comes in they make changes. Another thing happened, they switched their demographic. It had been women of I don't know what age group. But they changed it to 15-35 year old males. That explains a lot of what happened. They were more interested in really good looking people with really big personalities.

That's not all they had big. In some cases, the food fell by the wayside.
That's always been a battle at the Food Network. But I had a great run there. I was there for ten years. PBS is great but you have to raise the money. I have to get 1.2 million dollars. The first time around, Gourmet helped because they got cross-platform advertising. After Gourmet tanked, I went out and got a fundraiser. She's doing a great job but we haven't got the money yet. I also have another idea that is live based.

When Gourmet tanked, it seemed to take with it your livelihood.
Yes, and benefits. My husband is a lovely individual but he's never made a lot of money. I'm the main breadwinner.

What else was lost?
I think it was a very cutting-edge magazine that was willing to cover other things no one else was. I know the recipes were better. We had 11 full-time test cooks. I worked in the test kitchen for the first four years but these women and one man were really much better. I think it's a great loss. I don't blame Condé Nast. The magazine was in trouble and you can't float a magazine forever.

It seems like you handle all these bumps very even-keeled.
Oh no, you should have talked to me in 2004 when the Food Network told me it was over. That's when I started seeing a shrink. I did 1,500 shows for them. I was really a workhorse. A lot of people were discovered on my show because I had guests all the time. Gale Gand, Michael Lomonaco, Ming Tsai, David Ruggerio, Anthony Bourdain — the first time he was on television was on my show — Michael Symon. Aaron Sanchez. Everybody wanted to be on my show. But anytime someone started to get excited or I saw them looking at one of my guests, I'd say, "Whatever you do, keep your day job. This is mercurial. They love you one day but they might be throwing you out tomorrow." I said that to everybody thinking I was so level-headed and that I was a chef first, but when they took the show away, I was devastated. Even though I felt like I didn't have a huge ego like "I'm Sara Moulton!" But even though I knew all of that, I forgot who I was.

So when they took that rug out from under you?
Even then, I thought I am still a mom, I'm still a wife. I'm still a chef. I'm still a teacher. But I really had to talk to somebody about it.

· All Sara Moulton Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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