While you might not recognize her name on first glance, Julia Turshen is the voice behind the recipes in some of your favorite celebrity cookbooks like “It’s all Good” which she co-authored with Gwyneth Paltrow and “Spain: A Culinary Road Trip,” with Mario Batali. She's also written some pretty priceless essays, like her shameless love for Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” in Lucky Peach, or her ode to the ¼ measuring cup in Food52.
Now, with a cookbook of her very own, the chef and author is set to become a household name. “Small Victories,” out last week on Chronicle, combines personal anecdotes, “small victories” and dad jokes to make home cooking more accessible for everyone.
“My sort of big goal with the book was just to show the way I think about cooking, which is that it’s just totally exponential: once you do one thing, you can do a million other things,” she says.
We chatted with Turshen, who lives in upstate New York with her wife, Grace Bonney—founder of Design Sponge!— about her favorite recipes, her adoration of Julia Child, and why no one should ever be ashamed to cook with canned beans.
Tell us about the concept of “Small Victories.”
It’s a little bit cheesy, but I’ve always approached life looking for these small victories, which are really just small moments of figuring something out, or something going well. It could be as simple as finding a good parking spot or just really understanding a concept that had been difficult.
It became the organizing principle for my book. Every recipe is introduced by a small victory, which I call a tip or technique. All of them I really hope will help people feel empowered to feel competent in the kitchen, but also just really calm and relaxed. Once you master those tips and techniques, the kitchen will become a very approachable place, and cooking will become even more fun.
What are your some of your favorite recipes in the book that you’d recommend to someone looking to make a quick and easy meal?
It’s been interesting to me now that the book’s been out, to see on Instagram what’s popping up that people are making. The turkey and ricotta meatballs seem to be in a lot of people’s kitchens which makes me really happy because it’s one of my favorite recipes. My wife actually made them for dinner last night which was really thrilling to watch her cook from my book. The chopped chickpea salad — that one’s not even cooking, it’s chopping a bunch of stuff and making a really easy dressing and assembling it. It’s vegetarian, it’s kind of good for everyone, it’s the kind of thing that sits well in the fridge, and I really like the small victory with that, which is just the idea of embracing certain ingredients that make your life easier, like canned beans, which I unabashedly love. Also, the chilaquiles, those are really good.
Which chefs or cookbook authors have influenced your approach?
I totally revere Julia Child. I watched her so much when I was growing up and very much learned to cook from watching her shows and reading her books, to the point that, when I was little my parents would call me “Julia, the child.” In terms of approachability, I think she was so influential, and continues to be the most informative voice in food.
Another person who comes to mind, a little bit lesser known, but one of the most influential cookbook authors in my view is Lee Bailey, who wrote a lot of books in the '80s and '90s. To me, the recipes were just so simple and it was just as much about the context that the food was enjoyed in as it was about the food, so to me, he was the first to combine “lifestyle” with recipes.
And your mother, Rochelle Udell, founded Epicurious. What kind of influence did that have on you as a chef?
Even before that, my mom’s parents— who sadly I never knew—ran a bread bakery (called Ratchick’s) in Brooklyn, so there’s definitely a hereditary thing there. I feel like everytime I bake I’m trying to get back to that time that I actually never knew. When my mom worked on Epicurious and got it started, I think that was the beginning of me understanding how much food could connect people — and I mean it was at the very beginning of when the Internet became really popular. It was so much about making this community of home cooks — which is something I really value — and making a place where they could exchange recipes and talk to each other. That's had a very lasting impact on the work that I do.
You lived in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, and then a couple years ago you and your wife moved upstate. How has that change affected your cooking lifestyle?
Both Grace and I work from home, so we both could continue to do what we do, but just from this place that makes us happier and more relaxed. I’ve worked on so many cookbooks in tiny New York kitchens, and now having more than like a foot of counter space is really awesome. It’s made a real difference to have just a little more literal space. The biggest difference is we now eat 95 percent of our meals at home — I now get to cook at home every single day and that’s been really wonderful.