It is the last day of taping and a tough one at that. Sara Moulton and her team at the Food Network's Sara's Secrets have been at it since early morning. By mid-afternoon, they have three shows "in the can" and one to go.
And then things start to go wrong. First, a drooping microphone transforms the sound of sizzling olive oil into the rat-tat-tat of machine gunfire. Then, a glitch with one of the cameras stops the taping, and finally a scene-stealing fly threatens to become an unwelcome addition to the apricot rosemary chicken recipe.
The director can't believe this is happening. It's the 39th show, out of this last round of 126 shows, and you'd think it would be running smoothly. Some technical problems, though, are beyond anyone's control.
But Sara Moulton is as cool as a cucumber sorbet. She is in her elementan
elegant, understated Tuscan-style kitchen, with counters just the right
height for the petite cook (she stands less than five feet tall in red
Converse high tops, a professional kitchen no-no, she says, but for
her, a definite comfort "yes!"). Glistening brass pots and
pans hang along the back wall, just above a picture window framing a
tranquil bucolic scene, not unlike the view from her parents' Massachusetts
farmhouse. She uses her favorite knives and one-of-a-kind pepper mill,
handcrafted just for her. No matter that, instead
And when mistakes happen, as they inevitably do at home and on the set? "Sometimes you just say 'the show must go on,'" says the unflappable Moulton. And on it goes. Sara's Secrets is Sara Moulton's second hit show on the Food Network. First there was Cooking Live, which ended its run in March 2002 after 1,200 shows. October of 2000 marked another milestone: the publication of her first cookbook, Sara Moulton Cooks at Home (Broadway Books). All this is in addition to her "day job" as executive chef at Gourmet magazine.
With her food career cooking on all burners right now, it's hard to imagine that being a TV chef was the farthest thing from Moulton's mind when she attended the University of Michigan in the early 1970s. She chose the college for two reasons that make sense to any 18-year-old: her boyfriend was there and "the people were really nice." Coming from New York City, she loved "the Midwestern personality" and found Ann Arbor beautiful.
'Cozy experience' in the RC
Moulton soon found her niche in the new Residential College (RC). "It was a tiny college within the big university, so you had the cozy experience and still had access to all the great programs at the University. This school was experimental, no grades, just evaluations. I loved the creativity of it all."
Moulton says that after working "my buns off" at New York's well-respected Brearley School, the RC's broad focus and unconventionality allowed her to let loose and explore her various interests. It was an eclectic curriculum, from pre-law and literature (her senior thesis was on Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse) to biological medical illustration, the history of feminism, astrophysics and, not surprisingly, education.
But food was always part of the picture too. She grew up in a family that was "very into food" and remembers fondly her grandmother Ruth's hearty New England fareroast beef, Yorkshire pudding and johnny cakes. Moulton's mother liked to throw dinner parties and try out French recipes. "There were always interesting ingredients at home, fresh fennel, endive."
Vegetarians for thrift's sake
At Michigan, she lived with three other young women. "We were mainly vegetarian at that point just because it was cheaper. My bibles were The Vegetarian Epicure and Diet for a Small Planet. We'd buy from a co-op and a great farmer's market, but that tended to be more expensive than we could afford. Back then, buying a dish drainer was a luxury. We had no money."
To make ends meet, Moulton satisfied the teaching impulse by tutoring for a while, but all along there were cooking jobs, too. She cooked for a family, waited tables and then cooked at the Del Rio jazz bar. "I thought it was the coolest place on the planet. I still think it is." She remembers the menu as "haute junk food."
"We had this crazy thing called a 'Det Burger' which was named after a cook there named Detweiler. It had god-awful ingredients, but boy, were they good. You seared a quarter pounder, topped it with dehydrated dried green peppers and California olives and probably Velveeta cheese, and then you steamed it in beer. That was Del Rio's claim to fame. It was a fun place."
She graduated in 1974 with, as she says, "no particular major" and credits her mother with pointing her toward a career in the kitchen. Moulton applied to the Culinary Institute of Americaone of the country's premier cooking schoolsand graduated with honors in 1977. For the next several years, she worked her way up the food chain of the food world, first at a catering operation, then as a sous chef at a restaurant in Boston. She then came to New York because she "wanted to work with somebody great." She got a job as chef tournant or rounds cook (meaning she could work any cooking station in a restaurant) at Manhattan's La Tulipe. Along the way, she also studied with a master chef in Chartres, France.
80-hour weeks put on back burner
By the mid '80s, her interest in starting a family meant putting the rigorous 80-hour workweeks of restaurant life on the back burner. That's when she became an instructor at what was then called Peter Kump's Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education) in New York. The intensive classes (five hours a day, several times a week) only reinforced her love of teaching.
But how did cooking on television come into the picture? Moulton credits the woman who started it all, Julia Child.
"I had worked with Julia Child in the late '70s, behind the scenes, prepping and styling the food on her show, and when I moved to New York in '81, she was in the city, too, because she'd started working on Good Morning America. I went to visit her one time when she was taping, and I asked her if we could go out to dinner. She said, 'Oh no, I have too much to do.' So I said 'Let me come in for free and prep for you so you can get out in time to have dinner.' I did and they hired me the very next day to come and work with her."
So began Moulton's association with Good Morning America. In 1987, that led to her being named executive chef of the show, which meant that whenever a chef came on as a guest, she was in charge of the kitchen. But it was still a behind-the-scenes job. "I never intended to be on camera, but around '93 they put me on just for fun. It was easy because I was on with Joan and Charlie [hosts London and Gibson], and I knew all the camera guys, and they all cheered me on."
The mission of a chef
Shortly thereafter came the Food Network pilot, the media trainer and her insight that teaching is what she does best. "When you sign on to become a chef, you have a mission: to make beautiful food and to be true to your profession. I spent a lot of time learning anything and everything I possibly could about food, so I felt by the time I got on the air, I had something to offer."
Moulton's Web site (saramoulton.com) offers a lot, toorecipes, of course, but also a discussion board where fans can compare notes. Moulton writes a column called "The Kitchen Shrink," where she answers cooking questions, again taking on the role of mentor to her many fans.
With all this emphasis on teaching, it's no surprise that for the very last show of the Sara's Secrets season, Moulton chose the theme of cooking with kids. In succession, an 8-year-old, 13-year-old and 18-year-old cooked on camera with the star, who patiently and gently guided their chopping, measuring and stirring.
Emily Hoffman is a writer/producer/broadcaster living in Brooklyn, New York. She has written about several of the world's best chefs, including Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud and Julia Child.