Q&A with Julia Turshen
Over the past several years, Julia Turshen's name keeps popping up. I'd seen her byline in Food & Wine and Gourmet Live and instantly loved her smart, approachable way of writing. Then I discovered that this NYC-based cook and writer is seriously multi-talented. She's a private chef, and she develops and tests recipes for cookbooks. She writes and produces really cool food TV series like Spain...On the Road Again (with Mario Batali, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Bittman and Claudia Bassols) and Kimchi Chronicles (with Marja and Jean-Georges Vongerichten). And, in her spare time, she runs a production company called Weird and Ravenous with her best friend Cleo, making everything from healthy cooking videos to quirky food collages.
I was especially interested in talking to Turshen after picking up her brand new cookbook It's All Good: Delicious, Easy Recipes That Will Make You Look Good and Feel Great, co-written with Gwyneth Paltrow. Based on a pretty strict elimination diet prescribed to Paltrow by her doctor (in response to a series of health problems and food allergies), the cookbook is full of fresh, flavorful recipes made from whole ingredients. The principles of the book are remarkably similar to those we followed during #marchwellness (no gluten, no dairy, no sugar, no red meat, no processed foods, etc.), so I was excited to discover some healthy new meal ideas. Turshen and Paltrow–who previously teamed up on Paltrow's first cookbook–developed the recipes together, and came up with some amazing dishes I wanted to make immediately, like Millet "Falafel" with Avocado and Tomato Relish and the beautiful Roast Cauliflower + Dijon with Chickpeas + Parsley, included below.
Developing the healthy recipes in It's All Good ended up being a life-changing experience for Turshen. As she shares in the book's intro, her perspective on food changed dramatically, "simultaneously making her smaller and her world bigger." After years struggling with her weight and body image, she found a new freedom in eating the fresh, vegetable-and-grain based dishes in It's All Good.
Turshen and I chatted via email recently, and she dished about her early love of cooking, her go-to comfort food, and why she loves working with Paltrow. Enjoy!
You've got an amazing career - especially for someone so young!! You cook, you write, you produce cool foodie documentaries...do you have any other secret talents that nobody knows about? Kazoo player, tap-dancer...?
Thank you! There was a moment in middle or high school, I can't quite remember, when I dabbled briefly with a harmonica. That's as close to a kazoo as I've ever come.
OK, more seriously, how did you first get into cooking? Did you go to culinary school, or are you self-taught?
It's hard to answer this question because I don't ever remember not cooking. As far back as my memories serve, I have always been in or very near a kitchen and forever obsessed with food and the stories about where dishes come from. I learned to cook almost completely from watching early food television shows like Great Chefs of the World on the Discovery Channel and reruns of Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet on PBS. I have also devoured cookbooks and food magazines ever since I learned to read. In fact, my mother would send me my July and August issues of Saveur, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit and the late, great Gourmet at summer camp.
Do you consider yourself more of a cook or a writer? Which one was your first career ambition, or have you always done both?
I cooked before I could write, but writing about food has made cooking feel even more special and connected to a larger world. I cannot imagine life without doing both and I don't think I could do one without the other. They're incredibly compatible dance partners.
You recently co-authored a cookbook with Gwyneth Paltrow. How did you all meet, and what's it like working with her?
I met Gwyneth when I was working on the companion cookbook to Spain...on the Road Again, the PBS show she did with Mario Batali, Mark Bittman and Claudia Bassols. Working with her is...well, talk about compatible dance partners. She is a very divine combination of hard-working and dedicated and both incredibly smart and incredibly curious. Working together has been productive, creative and so fun. A lot of my most fond memories have happened in her kitchen.
Your most recent cookbook It's All Good is a collection of ultra-healthy recipes based around a pretty restrictive diet eliminating dairy, gluten, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and many other things. Was it difficult to develop recipes within these constraints?
In a theoretical way, I think sometimes when you limit your resources, you're able to really explode with ideas. Faced with every ingredient in the world, it can be hard to know what to choose; narrowing down the list lets you pay closer attention. In a more practical way, working exclusively with amazing things like the freshest produce, a variety of grains and good fish and poultry and lovely spices and all that didn't feel restrictive as much as it felt, and continues to feel, really satisfying.
And I'm dying to know: in the midst of all of this healthy cooking/eating, did you all ever break down and order a pizza and a bottle of wine?! ;)
Of course! I think the healthiest way to eat healthfully is to not get too crazy about it. One of the most personally rewarding parts of working hard to have the kind of food we created for the book be my baseline is that I find that I enjoy things like pizza and wine more than I used to. And not because I deprive myself of them, but because I feel like I'm not abusing them.
You wrote in the forward that this new way of cooking and eating had really changed your relationship with food, "simultaneously making you smaller and your world bigger." Can you elaborate on this?
Well for a little background to this question, I fought with my body, specially my weight, both physically and emotionally for most of my life. Which is a real bummer when you love food and work with it, not to mention eat it, every single day! Leading up to the book, I started to change the way I ate and approached food and working on the book really cemented that change. I now weigh sixty pounds less than I did at my highest and have maintained that difference for a few years now. And while that's a nice number to be able to mention, the much more significant change has been how much happier I feel. So much more of my mental real estate is occupied by positive feelings about the activity and subject I love more than anything, rather than exhausting guilt and anxiety about what I am eating and all that kinda stuff.
Seems like you're quite the world traveler - where are some of your favorite spots you've visited in the past year?
I'd rather tell you about the two trips I have coming up! I'm off to Austin in a couple of weeks for a BBQ trip with a group of really good friends including one who grew up there. I should also mention there's talk of tubing down a river. Then I'm going on a short trip to Oaxaca with my parents, namely to eat.
What's your go-to comfort food?
Veselka's chicken soup.
Any exciting projects you're currently working on that you'd be willing to divulge?
I just came off of a few months of recipe testing and writing with Jody Williams, who runs the very perfect Buvette in Greenwich Village. I loved getting to work with her on her first cookbook, especially because I really can't wait to own it! She is so talented and it's going to be both useful and beautiful, the most ideal combination I can think of for a cookbook.
Last, the question I always ask: If you had to prepare an impromptu dinner for 8 friends tonight, what would you make?
Because I can't stop thinking about it, I would probably make Jody's incredibly simple roast chicken alongside the Roasted Cauliflower + Chickpeas with Mustard + Parsley from It's All Good. That dish is so yum. And probably a huge bowl of arugula with really good olive oil and lemon juice. I should also note that I would make an extra chicken because of all the things my father has taught me, my favorite lesson is that the whole point of roasting a chicken is having it cold the next day.[recipe:best-roasted-cauliflower-chickpeas-mustard-parsley-recipe]