Carla Lalli Music
THE CELEBRATED FOODIE AND COOKBOOK AUTHOR REVEALS THE SPLENDOR, EASE, AND JOY OF TRUE NOURISHMENT
Remember when food was just food? These days, especially in the U.S., there’s a tendency (bordering on obsessive) to break down everything we eat into a set of nutrients, until all the joy is sucked out and what’s left is…something very complicated, not to mention stressful. This constant dissection of our food—stripping it down to its building blocks in the form of points, macros, and calories—is arguably the primary source of America’s bizarre and often unhealthy relationship with our plates.
That’s why Carla Lalli Music, the Food Director at Bon Appetit, feels as refreshing as the melon salad she prepared for us recently in her Fort Greene, Brooklyn garden. To Carla, food is emotional, pleasurable, healing, and joyful, and it’s been that way as long as she can remember. For her, it’s about quality, it’s about the experience, and it’s way less about keeping up with the wellness Joneses.
We spoke with Carla about the inspiration behind her new cookbook, Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes To Make You a Great Cook, her viral video series where she cooks back-to-back with everyone from novice chefs to culinary icons (the Ina Garten episode is a must-watch); the perils of taste-testing endless recipes in a day—and how all of these experiences are nourishing beyond the physical. Taking a slice out of Carla’s eating methodology will leave you feeling unencumbered by rules and deeply satisfied. We think the confidence and play she brings into the kitchen are worth emulating.
On loving food from the start:
"I grew up in a very food-forward, food-focused family with a mom who's a great cook, but also a cookbook editor and a food writer.
We also ate out a lot. My dad loves wine. So, I was used to having great food in restaurants. Food was fantastic at home, and I really took it for granted. It wasn't really until I left for college that I realized I need to figure out how to replicate this on my own, and so that's when I started cooking."
On drawing inspiration for Where Cooking Begins:
"I love Tamar Adler books and she inspired me a lot when I was working on my cookbook. I'm definitely inspired by my coworkers every day. I know that sounds corny, I've learned so much for everyone I work with in the test kitchen at Bon Appetit. They really are my closest collaborators. My mom is still a source of inspiration for sure, as a home cook who's also an expert. When it seemed like there wasn't that much in the house to cook, she could make something really excellent. So, I learned a lot about how having a well-stocked pantry pays off from her. She's also a great griller. I grew up in a house where the mom did the grilling and it was normal. So, I definitely grill because of her."
On finding “the best-looking thing in the moment”:
"I think that when things are at their peak seasonally and they haven't traveled very far to get to you, they taste better, they look better, and they're cheaper. They’re the best version of themselves. I also know there are many months of the year in New York and elsewhere when there isn't anything coming out of the ground. You have to learn how to find the best-looking thing in the moment. I educate myself on where things come from and how they're grown. Even if something is traveling a long distance, I choose a minimally processed version of it. For example, I don't buy pre-cut lettuces, even if they're organic.”
On embracing what goes wrong:
"We always show mistakes in our videos, if I burn something, or if something gets overcooked—we talk about it. And, I think people really respond to getting rid of the illusion of perfection. People realize, 'Oh, they're not these untouchable talents. They screw up and they start over,' or they acknowledge, 'Yeah, it's a little more cooked than I want it to be. But, it's still good.' If that helps someone get over their fear of cooking, that’s great.”
On the unexpected response to her cookbook:
“Eating is, I think, one of the few things that we do for pleasure and for sustenance. Right? There's a reason why it should be pleasurable because you need to do it to live. Having written the book and working at Bon Appétit, it's been amazing to receive feedback from several people who are recovering from disordered eating. They've reached out to me to say that the way I present food has made it feel safe again. That has floored me almost more than anything else.”
On food as art and love:
“I'm not creative in any other field. I can't sing or draw or dance—I don't have what I would consider traditional creativity.
But, it clicked with me much later that cooking was a form of creative expression. And, taking something, transforming it and making it into something people around me loved is how I got lost in the art.
I know it sounds corny, but I think most of our big moments, the big milestones in life, we still celebrate with meals. If in any way, I am helping people feel more confident about cooking, giving them the tools to become a host, or helping them connect with their families in ways they haven't before, that is rewarding.”
Carla’s Way: 5 Ideas To Shop, Prep, and Cook More Joyfully
Let the ingredients lead
“Instead of choosing a recipe and then going shopping, go shopping first and decide what to cook based on what you find. This simple flip helped me be more aware of not what I needed but what I wanted. I cooked more because it was more spontaneous.”
Shop small, waste less
"Smaller hauls are less of a drag to get back home and take less time to put away. I purposely shop without a shopping cart or basket to prevent impulse buys. When I can no longer free a finger to hook around the neck of a bottle and am using my chin to steady the pile of things balanced on my chest, it’s time to check out."
Pare it down
"Concentrate on the technique and very simple seasoning rather than worrying about getting all of the things you need for a particular dish. Some of the best things I’ve ever made—if I must say so myself—were seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper, cooked with extra-virgin olive oil, and zapped with a squeeze of lemon at the end.”
Stick with the classics
"These six techniques allow you to cook anything, they have all been around for hundreds of years, require no special equipment, and give you total flexibility: Sauté (moderate to high heat on a stovetop or in an oven), Pan-Roast (high, dry heat on a stovetop or in an oven), Steam (moderate to high, moist heat on a stovetop), Boil and Simmer (high, wet heat on a stovetop), Confit (low, gentle heat in an oven), and Slow-Roast (low, dry or moist heat in an oven)."
Trust the source
"I think some people choose recipes based on whatever comes up on their Google search, but they don't actually know where the recipe comes from. Follow a recipe from a source that you trust. Read through it first so you know you can really follow the directions and have a good outcome.”