Andrea Reusing's restaurant Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina focuses on upscale Asian cuisine using local and seasonal ingredients, but her first cookbook, Cooking in the Moment, contains recipes for every day use. We talked to her about seasonal cooking, home cooks who serve ten-course modernist meals, and why, exactly, you should spend $15 on a locally-raised chicken.
Why do a home cookbook instead of a book for your restaurant?
People would always say we'd love a Lantern cookbook — you know, regulars — and I kind of thought yeah, maybe they would one or two nights a year. I didn't think it was the kind of food that people would really want to cook all the time at home. Not that that's the only reason to do a cookbook, but I felt like if I were going to spend the time doing the book, I wanted it to be a very useful and stained and messy kind of cookbook people would have in their kitchens. Less about a kind of removed, glamorized style of food.
How was your approach to developing these recipes different from your approach to restaurant dishes?
I wanted to create something that would be very useful for people, that people would keep in their kitchens and not on their coffee table. People want something that's a guide to simpler eating from the farmers' market.
The approach in the restaurant is, in some ways, is do as much as you can to food to make it as unrecognizable as possible. Obviously, we have very ingredient-driven dishes as well, but you know, in the Asian restaurant there's tons of ingredients, and there's a lot of technique involved, and you're coming at food from a very different point of view in a lot of ways.
So these are all recipes you cook at home then?
The approach to developing these recipes was sort of cooking, really, at home. A lot of entertaining, but also cooking for my kids and for my husband and just seeing what came out of that.
Are you considering doing a cookbook for Lantern in the future?
I think I definitely would, because those recipes are already all done. [laughs] That would actually kind of be a nice project now. Now that I've seen what it's like to do completely new recipes over the course of a year. It's like oh, I see we have a lot of recipes! That's a good idea.
What food writers or cookbooks would you say inspired your writing this book? And are they different from those that have influenced your cooking? I ask because the book is as much about telling the stories behind the food as it is about the recipes and the cooking itself.
A couple books that I just really like the stories in them are Honey From a Weed by Patience Gray. I love Elizabeth David, I love Jane Grigson. In terms of the actual food, a lot of it feels really American. Like in the American Cookery, James Beard kind of sense. Very basic dishes, but done with really good ingredients.
So the book has an American influence on the food, British influence on the writing style. [Gray, David and Grigson are all British food writers.]
I know, outing myself as some kind of anglophile. But you know, James Beard, Julia Child. Just basic, simple things. I think what I found was really inspiring to me was how fresh James Beard and Julia Child, Clementine Paddleford, American food writers of the last century are today.
How would you compare those voices to today's food media?
Foodieism and our over-involvement with food and our obsession with food — and I'm definitely not the least of them, so I'm not using that pejoratively — have not necessarily led to better home cooking. But kind of an involvement with food on an acquisitive, kind of competitive level. You know, you go to someone's house and they have a signature dish, and they're not a restaurant chef.
From a home cook's perspective, you almost think this food thing has gone too far! Because there's just a big disparity, you know you go to someone's house and they're practicing some sort of modernist cuisine, and they're having ten courses or on the other side there are people who feel like they literally cannot make dinner because it takes special skills to make dinner and they would never invite anyone over.
Okay, that said, who do you see as your cookbook's audience?
I hope it's for people who love food and cooking all the time, and for people who are just starting to feel like they can cook and that that is something they want to spend more time doing. It's also for people who both want a snapshot of another food community and are deeply in their own scene, but maybe also for somebody who's just getting into the idea of small farms and local food and might be put off by something with a heavy textbook feeling guide to food with lots of sidebars.
Someone who wants to learn about that through a narrative. So I tried to tell stories that illustrate some concepts like why organic might not always be as important as local, or what's more important, grass fed or raw milk, or why grass fed is important, or why a chicken at the farmers' market costs $15 and why you should pay that much.
Given the local focus, how do you see people using your book outside of North Carolina?
Well, there definitely are a few regionally specific ingredients like ramps or figs, but for the most part I really tried to focus on the unsung heroes of vegetables and fruits. The workaday turnips and eggplants and cabbage and kale and broccoli and tomatoes. I think for the most part it's regular ingredients that make up the book. So I think you should be able to cook from it in almost any region other than a few mildly specific things that are in there.
How does using these regionally specific ingredients impact a cuisine? For example, your restaurant focuses on Asian cuisine, but surely there are limitations/opportunities presented by the produce available.
You know, I didn't put shishito peppers on the menu, which I first had in Los Angeles ten or fifteen years ago, until we had a local farmer growing them. But at the same time, we will use this kind of cool, heirloom variety of kale in something that grows here with XO sauce.
So we definitely use things that are quote-unquote Southern. Like okra, people are always shocked when I do a demo with okra at the farmers' market and we use Indian flavors or something like that. Sometimes you can get Southern people to eat okra because they love the Indian flavors and they're like oh, I never liked it when my mom made it but I really like it with garam masala on it.
So how did your family influence your food?
Growing up, I'd go to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. All four of my grandparents lived there, and my grandfathers would make steaks on this Weber grill and drink martinis. Food is like a big celebration, kind of an every day celebration thing and always has been growing up.
And you know having kids, doesn't necessarily inspire more cooking. Even when I had a restaurant, the nights we'd be off work I'd cook dinner and I never got this whole idea of how to spend less time in the kitchen. I never got the concept, I always felt like what does that even mean? I mean, I want to spend as much time in the kitchen as humanly possible. And I think when I had kids, I still wanted the meals to taste like I had spent a lot of time on them, but I finally got that thing. Like oh my gosh, there are just really, literally not enough hours in a day to worry about what we're going to have for dinner. For the first time, I finally got 70 percent of the cookbook buying public and realized that things don't have to be complicated to be really delicious and really great.
Creativity in home cooking is not always the best avenue to pursue when you're trying to do something quickly. And actually seasonal cooking — for all of its usefulness in terms of promoting community and sustainability and world peace — really the most useful thing about it in a lot of ways is that the flavor is there. It's actually the fastest shortcut to dinner. That's something that people who hear the words local food and just feel frustrated and don't think they have time to go to the farmers' market, I think that's something that is not yet clear. If you spend a little more time shopping, your cooking is going to be so much faster and so much better.
I think when people hear about local food, they think about, you know, people with chicken coops in their backyards.
Exactly! And they think about that person with a basket picking out the perfect tomato at the farmers' market, and really so many grocery stores are starting to carry a lot more local food, and even this idea of local, yeah, when you can, but in terms of just seasonality. Just wait until mangoes are in season, even if it's not local-local or even regional, just eating seasonally is a very efficient approach to getting food on the table.
Last question: what's your favorite recipe in the book?
I like the idea of homemade butter. You know, if you get some really great, really yellow cream and put homemade butter in front of people, they just don't know what to do with themselves. The same people who probably wouldn't eat butter in almost any other context.