5 Minutes With: The Cooks of “Forking Fantastic”

On food that’s like sex, kitchen bloodletting (beware the mandoline!) and why dinner parties will save the world

By Elizabeth Bougerol
|  Monday, Oct 12, 2009  |  Updated 9:25 PM EDT
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5 Minutes With: The Cooks of “Forking Fantastic”

ForkingFantastic.com

Zora O'Neill (l.) and Tamara Reynolds (r.), authors of "Forking Fantastic."

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Even though Tamara Reynolds and Zora O’Neill have both cooked at big-name NYC restaurants, you’ll find no reduction squiggles or poncy usage of “mouthfeel” in their new cookbook “Forking Fantastic! Put the Party Back in Dinner Party”. Nope: These ladies—who’ve run Sunday Dinner, an invite-only underground supper club, out of their Astoria homes since 2003—have spit-roasted a whole lamb, confit’ed their own duck, and crammed beer cans into chicken cavities before roasting (so juicy!). Their message: You don’t need culinary know-how, or even a full set of chairs, to throw a dinner party—and mistakes are part of the fun (well, except when Robert Redford makes you slice off your fingertip with a mandoline). All of which prompted Anthony Bourdain to declare “Forking” “the cookbook America needs right now.”

What’s with “underground” supper clubs having multiplied like crazy over the last couple of years?

Tamara Reynolds: Eating in a stranger’s home is so anti- the obsessed, frenzied celebrity chef culture we have now. And when you live in NYC, with places like Masa and Per Se and their stratospheric prices, it's positively renegade!

Zora O’Neill: I feel like people hit the wall, and realized restaurants weren't what they were looking for in terms of socializing. Plus there’s a 'make your own fun' vibe going on—crafting, DIY everything—and entertaining at home is a logical extension of that.

What do Sunday Dinner and “Forking Fantastic” bring to the food scene?

ZO: Profanity! Also, lamb. When this pork frenzy starts to wane a little, try giving another meat a chance.

TR: Joy. There’s plenty of competition and spectacle, obsession with things you can cook in 7 minutes, and meals under 200 calories—all of which has nothing to do with real food. I think if people just cooked for fun, they might learn something.

What have some of your favorite dinners been?

TR: I love waking up and saying, I want to roast a lamb on the sidewalk—how can we do that? And every time I make fried chicken, it brings out my favorite people. In these days of culinary sophistication, no-one can resist home-fried chicken.

ZO: Dinners that made us go, "Holy crap, we really pulled this off!"

You confess your major kitchen blunders in the book as cautionary tales. What was the biggest fiasco?

TR: Cutting off the tip of my finger with a mandoline, because I looked away to see Robert Redford in “The Way We Were” for just a second—and then losing my mind and directing my surrogates to fry chicken right out of the fridge. Chicken that looks cooked on the outside but is raw on the inside makes people very, very upset. They think you’re trying to poison them. No joke.

Do you use any kitchen shortcuts that might surprise and/or horrify people?

ZO: Frozen peas. Canned clams. I do have both MSG and citric acid in the pantry, but they're used only in recipes from cultures where those ingredients are standard. It's not like I'm sprinkling MSG on my scrambled eggs in the morning.

TR: Star brand porcini mushroom cubes that I get from a little Italian store in my neighborhood. I pop them in things that need a little zip and depth.

What meal would you cook to get someone into bed?

ZO: Duck anything. It's good and greasy, which calls for lots of finger-licking. Sets just the right tone.

TR: Beef-cheek ravioli – it tastes like sex, but it’s so time-consuming that I’d be asleep by the time clothes started coming off.

What’s your personal connection to Julia Child?

TR: I just plain love her. Her after-40 success (and Edie Falco’s late-30s waitressing) reminded me that not everyone finds their niche right out of college. And her show gives me hope that I could be on TV even though I don’t look anything like Giada.

ZO: Pretty much zero. I didn't have a TV growing up. I feel like I'm one of the few people who learned to cook without her influence. I'm proof it can be done!

Last season, butchers were anointed the new rock stars. Will home cooks be the new butchers?

ZO: Man, I hope so. High time we idolized the people who cook without a small army of prep-cook minions to devein shrimp, press sauces through a fine sieve and all that other restaurant-level finickiness. I'm convinced more creative strokes of genius come out of home kitchens than even the labs at El Bulli [Ferran Adrià’s Spanish temple of experimental cuisine]. It's home cooks who look in the fridge and make dinner out of whatever they find there.

We all know people who use their ovens as storage. What would you tell takeout addicts to sell them on cooking at home?

ZO: It saves money and it gets you laid. Simple as that. If you treat cooking like a yoga class or something with a set schedule, it gets easy. And once you give up takeout, you probably won't need your yoga class anymore.

TR: Cooking is deeply satisfying, because you can start and finish a project and have something to show for it. And you can eat it.

What’s the best piece of cooking wisdom you’ve received, and from whom?

ZO: "Don't be afraid of the flame. You can always just turn it off." Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune told me that when I was freaking out. Screamingly obvious, but easy to forget when things are burning.

TR: [Provence’s] Lynn McNeely said, “No more than four ingredients on the plate. Justify everything else and if you can’t, you don’t need it.”

Fill in the blanks: If ________ came to dinner, I’d serve __________.

TR: If [Conde Nast CEO] Chuck Townsend came to dinner, I’d serve an entire meal cooked from Gourmet magazine [which Conde Nast just shut down]. And then as he was licking his fingers, and falling out of his chair trying to grab hold of me like in an episode of “Benny Hill,” I’d tell him I wouldn’t be here today had I not picked up that magazine in 1991.

ZO: If Rachael Ray came to dinner, I’d serve real, cooked-from-scratch food, including whole carrots, not baby ones, that I sliced myself, and she'd cry and admit how much she misses it.

“Forking Fantastic: Put the Party Back in Dinner Party” (Gotham) is out now and $13.60 at Amazon. The authors are hosting a combination book-signing/potluck dinner on Sunday October 11 at 6PM at Word Bookstore, 126 Franklin Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

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