I’ve read that you grew up making French toast, baklava, cakes and cookies from scratch. The French toast, cakes and cookies aren’t so out of the ordinary, but baklava? Tell us about your family’s culinary traditions and who taught you how to bake.
My mom was an adventuresome cook with much curiosity, which propelled her across many cuisines. We benefited from this and ate a broad cross-section of different foods while growing up. My family always liked ethnic foods (I’m Russian on my mom’s side and Hungarian on my dad’s) and, growing up in the San Francisco-Bay Area, was exposed to lots of people from different cultures. That sweet, sticky, impossibly flaky baklava appealed to me from an early age.
You took a year off during high school to bake bread, which you eventually began selling to friends. Two questions came to mind when I learned this about you. First, how did you convince your mother to let you do it, and second, what was your most popular recipe?
I don’t know that it was a matter of convincing, I just adamantly refused to go! It was a time of adolescent unhappiness and I did not want to be with my peers. Somehow, amazingly, I became interested in bread making, and my mom gave me a one-week “intensive,” by the end of which I knew basically how to make any kind of yeast bread and all kinds of tips to understand the process. My two most popular breads were a classic challah and one called Honey-Wheat-Crackle.
You lived in Austria for a while and even co-owned a bed-and-breakfast in an Austrian castle. How did you become involved in such a unique venture? If you still travel to Austria every now and then, what is the one place you have to visit each time?
My (now) ex-husband inherited this piece of property with a large mortgage, so we had to do something income-generating around it. I’m a very “can-do” person and figured a castle inn would be appealing to people, and went about creating it. It was the ultimate challenge and a ton of fun. I haven’t been to Austria for a few years, but the next time I go, I’ll definitely return to the Tyrolean region. There are some amazingly good restaurants in the area, with wonderful wine lists. Austria turns out some superb wines and spirits.
What advice would you give people who want to open a cafe or bed-and-breakfast of their own? What are the most rewarding aspects? The most challenging?
Well, probably, don’t. No, I’m just kidding……a bit. Both are essentially full-time jobs and they have a way of becoming your personal life too, whether you like it or not. With one, you are part of someone’s dining experience. With the other, you’re part of the sleeping and overnight. That pretty much means you are part of most of someone’s life, at least for a certain block of time. And everyone isn’t a wonderful, delightful guest. Yet, most of the people I met were interesting, many fascinating and entertaining. To me, an enthusiastic member of the hospitality industry for essentially all my professional life, doing anything I can to help someone have an enjoyable experience is a big motivation. I made it my business to learn all about the area around the castle and to help our guests on their daily travels out into the countryside. At the cafe, we really did our best to make the most satisfying food possible, fresh and especially good tasting. In both places, we provided a haven for our guests where they were taken care of and could relax, whether for a single meal or a 7-day stay. Luckily, both businesses were in absolutely beautiful locations, Mendocino and the Austrian Alps. Nature’s contributions were also a big draw.
In your book you describe cultural culinary differences as “startling, even life altering,” and you give an example of this by mentioning your first experience with chocolate and fresh, crusty bread. I’m curious about the story behind this. Where were you, who were you with and how did this combination of flavors influence your perception of food?
I was sitting in the front seat of a Volvo, about 37 years ago, and a family friend from Barcelona, then living in Berkeley, was driving somewhere with her little kids in the back seat. We were on our way to San Francisco and she had packed this as a snack. She handed me a piece, and I remember thinking, “Bread and chocolate, wow, a cool combination of two things I love!” and I was blown away by how good it was, and just a bit off-the-wall (that is, nothing my mom would approve of!). Also, just in that short and seemingly insignificant experience, to learn that this is a typical snack in Spain (and France, for that matter) opened up my eyes to further adventures and discoveries. I realized how little I knew about food and cultures and what a fun future lay ahead.
In “Morning Food” you wrote, “I think the real reason that some of us never let ourselves become great cooks is the fear of making mistakes.” I certainly experienced this before finally finding my way around the kitchen, and I have more than a few friends who refuse to try recipes because they are afraid they will fail. Why do you think it’s so easy to hold ourselves to such high standards in the kitchen? How would you suggest someone overcome their fear of baking bread or making a souffle?
Well, what’s interesting about that statement is that I wrote it long before the deluge of Food Network superstars were on the scene. I think it’s even worse now, for many people, whether they find such professionalism off-putting or feel they are entitled to accolades for just putting on an apron or think everything that emerges from the kitchen should be worthy of a close-up camera shot. People, it’s just food! and the three-ring circus that has developed around it has turned the culinary world and its inhabitants into superstars. I give the same advice I’ve always given: think of dishes that you like, whether sauteed green beans or chili or yes, even souffles, and read up on them. My mom has always said, “If you can read, you can cook,” and it’s true. Watch a video on how to prepare foods like this. These videos abound on the Internet and help clarify the cooking process. Don’t make your dish for guests the first time. That really adds to the anxiety. Be willing to make mistakes, and cut yourself some slack.. Ask lots of questions, of yourself and of someone (a friend or in a book) who knows more than you, and watch what takes place while you are preparing the dish so you can learn from your experience. And remember to have fun!