Martha Stewart's Chef Takes the Spotlight The new book by Susan Spungen, the former chef and "food stylist" for the domestic diva's homemaking empire, focuses on low-stress entertaining. Spungen says the book helps readers get in touch with their inner Martha — only without the ankle bracelet.

Martha Stewart's Chef Takes the Spotlight

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Panicking about feeding guests over the holidays? Susan Spungen knows the feeling and she's a professional. But, she says, there are ways to get through holiday entertaining so that the only one panicking is the turkey. She spoke to NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.


It's a little after noon at Laterza, a Los Angeles restaurant that offers classic Italian cuisine in a beautiful, modern setting.

Ms. SUSAN SPUNGEN (Author, "Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook"): Oh, I'll look. I'm going to walk through the whole market tomorrow.

BATES: Susan Spungen is here to check with Laterza's staff. She's cooking for a group of food editors tomorrow and there's a lot of chopping, stirring and mixing going on.

(Soundbite of food preparation)

BATES: If you've ever been intimidated by the pristinely beautiful food layouts in Martha Stewart Living, blame Susan Spungen. For 12 years, she was the chief food editor and stylist for Martha Stewart Omnimedia. Those unflappably flawless cakes, the stews that look like Renaissance still-lifes, those were Spungen's doing. So it's more than a little ironic that her first cookbook, "Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook," is the opposite of that kind of don't-touch-me gorgeous. Spungen says she's too aware of how off-putting the Martha Stewart ethos can be.

Ms. SPUNGEN: I wanted a little bit less of that perfection thing and a little bit more soul. You know, the funny thing is, I now look at that magazine and think, `I couldn't do that.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SPUNGEN: It's kind of funny, you know. The tables have turned.

(Soundbite of food preparation)

BATES: Spungen is an earthy brunette with a flush complexion and a throaty laugh. After a career as a caterer, a chef and a food editor, she desperately wanted to create a book that would take some of the pressure out of cooking, especially cooking for guests.

Ms. SPUNGEN: You know, I really wanted it to be sort of for entertaining, casual entertaining, but I also wanted it to be things that are simple enough--I mean, to me, there's less of a divide--should be less of a divide between what you cook for your family or your spouse and what you cook for guests. I, like, want there to be a blurring of that line. And, you know, I think that there's lots of things that are simple enough to cook on a weeknight basis.

BATES: So there are recipes for things as simple as beets roasted in a foil packet with rosemary and salt and uncomplicated entrees like chicken breasts wrapped in Italian pancetta bacon and served with lemon-scented french fries. Fudgy brownies are mixed in a saucepan. Spungen says food for guests doesn't have to be fancy, but it needs to be good and served with confidence.

(Soundbite of food preparation)

Ms. SPUNGEN: It takes so little to make people happy. So you don't have to stress out and go overboard. You know, if you forgot to throw in the rosemary or if you overcooked something a little or undercooked it a little, I think, you know, people are much more forgiving than we remember sometimes.

BATES: Practice, believes Spungen, is what gives a home cook confidence, just like doing yoga movements. The more you do them, the better you understand and the more relaxed you become. But even confident cooks can coil at the stream of visitors and relatives that show up on their doorsteps over the holidays. And Spungen has a way to cope with that, too.

Ms. SPUNGEN: I don't think that it's a sin to order things or buy things, you know? And especially if you want to combine that with things that you've cooked yourself. I also think having a potluck and asking everyone to bring something, that's a great way of everybody sharing, 'cause it really is more about getting everybody together than it is about, you know, performance cooking.

BATES: And, she suggests, you'll feel a lot less stressed if you keep some things in the pantry and the fridge to allow you to throw something together for unexpected visitors.

Ms. SPUNGEN: I always have a couple of nice cheeses in the refrigerator and also some nice crackers, maybe some bread in the freezer, some fruit, you know, in the refrigerator, grapes or apples or--'cause you can always kind of throw together a nice cheese board.

BATES: Spungen keeps dry pasta, some good olive oil and vegetables around for an impromptu pasta dish. For quick hors d'oeuvres, she likes to make pizza dough ahead, freeze it and top it with onions that have been sauteed until they caramelize into melting richness. Or she uses those same onions to make a quick savory tart, which she pairs with a salad.

(Soundbite of food preparation)

BATES: Whatever you serve, Spungen says, relax. She hopes experienced cooks use her book as an inspiration and novice ones as a friendly set of guidelines. And if the book's beautiful photos get splashed with grease, oh, well.

Ms. SPUNGEN: Hey, you know, it's only a book. You can--I want people to cook from it. I don't--it's not a coffee table book.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

BRAND: And there are recipes from Susan Spungen's book at our Web site,

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