Walking across the entire UCLA campus during this weekend’s LA Times Festival of Books, once you made your way past the Ayn Rand Institute’s booth and the LA Times Stage showcasing Dave Eggers’ dry humor, as you descended the stairs just beyond yet another food court, you would have found a welcomed, joyous mirage – the Cooking Stage. Dramatic though it may sound, the Cooking Stage was a respite for the weary amongst the many literate Angelenos who looked up from their books, left the library, and soaked up some sun. This weekend’s Cooking Stage presentations started with Lisa Lillien of Hungry Girl 1-2-3 fame, whose website, daily emails, and cookbooks are bestselling tomes full of “guilt-free” recipes for every stage of a meal – appetizers to desserts. By struggling with food issues, Lillien has experimented in the kitchen to bring readers a host of Splenda-friendly recipes that help like-minded ladies eat well at home and when they’re out and about.
Moving swiftly on, the second talk drew a crowd only trumped by Sunday’s Alice Waters’ presentation. The audience met a group of Top Chef alums that included CJ Jacobson from season 3, season 5 favorite Stefan Richter, Betty Fraser from season 2, and season 4’s Antonia Lofaso. Cooking from the Top Chef Quickfire Cookbook, the highlight of the presentation came just before the end when Stefan asked if there were any single women in the audience who’d like to come taste his food. Turns out, he prefers blondes.
Their follow-up act was fellow Top Chef alum Dave Martin from season 1 whose book Flavor Quest is full of solutions for such articulately titled events as Dinner Party Days, Restaurant Show Stoppers, and Catered Classics. Martin was the opening act for Alicia Silverstone who passionately wants to convert all of us to her Kind Diet, whether we start as “Flirts, Vegans, or Superheroes” of her philosophy. While she maneuvered on stage, discussing how to lose weight and save the planet, she slipped into certain mannerisms that were more Cher than chef and for a moment you could almost hear her say “makeover” instead of “tempeh.”
Day two brought on the heavy hitters – Alice Waters opened the show and Mark Peel finished us off with Anne Byrn (the Cake Mix Doctor) and country-singer Trisha Yearwood (with her second cookbook, Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood) rounding out the middle.
Waters’ talk and cooking presentation drew a crowd of sandal-wearing devotees to see her charming, personable, and simple recipes brought to life. Like the Mary Poppins of the Slow Food Movement, she kicked off the show with a hefty display of bright green herbs that she kept pulling out of a small (organic) tote – rosemary, thyme, and sage followed by the green tops of fava beans and pea shoots. She stirred and sautéed her way through a number of recipes from her latest cookbook, In the Green Kitchen, which is a collaborative effort between Waters and some of her most noted contemporaries including Rick Bayless, Thomas Keller, and Lidia Bastianich. Of this latest book, Waters’ reflected that it was the most enjoyable to make because she and her team worked together “as if on a commune.” Sitting down to chat with Eater LA, Waters quelled any hope of catching her on Top Chef Masters and hopes this new book will help to demystify cooking for her readers. Her book speaks to, if there’s one underlying message, being adamant about knowing where your food comes from, which is a message she’s been preaching to active listeners for years.
Predictably drawing an entirely different crowd, Anne Byrn took the stage with her Cake Mix Doctor Returns, featuring 160 new recipes taking cake mixes to the next level. The sweetness of her chocolate ganache cake and orange cake with cream cheese frosting were accentuated by her Southern accent and a precocious young boy who scampered up on stage to “help” her by asking questions like, “with cream cheese, is this a good source of calcium?” If she hasn’t already hired the kid to continue on her book tour, she should.
Trisha Yearwood whisked herself on stage with a certain Southern energy to tell sweet, personal stories about where her recipes came from for her second cookbook, Home Cooking with Trisha Yearwood. With a foreward by her husband, Garth Brooks and a plethora of recipes culled from family reunions, grandma’s specialties, and experiments in the kitchen with her and her kids, this second effort of Yearwood’s is a more intimate look than her first at what it is she loves most about food – she also told Eater LA she can be found cooking to music ranging from Prince to Sinatra.
With the presentation of his new book, New Classic Family Dinners, Mark Peel is fully redeemed from his latest Top Chef Masters appearance when he fumbled his way around a Yorkshire Pudding, a dish he says he’s still sensitive about. A book that brings the menu of both Campanile’s family dinners and The Tar Pit to life, Peel puts his twists on old family favorites – from Steak Diane and Tuna Pasta Casserole to Clams Casino. Peel’s distinctly Angeleno vibe on stage was the perfect end to a very literary (and culinary) weekend.
All in all, what was missing from the LA Times Festival of Books can be narrowed down to two things: food trucks and kindles. For better or worse, neither could be found this weekend, making the Festival almost seem like the olden days of 2006. Listening to chefs’ stories about recipes and kitchen mix-ups while they stirred a cake batter into submission or plucked herbs from a bag on stage really brought a new life to their cookbooks. Pressure’s on in the kitchen now – they showed you how to do it, so don’t mess it up. — Nicole Campoy-Leffler