Eat, Pray, Love ~ Date Night with Susan Spungen

This summer, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking on the topic of food and love. If I haven’t already told you, I’m writing my first cookbook, a Newlywed cookbook, for Chronicle Books which has required a lot of eating {and cooking of course}, much praying {since the manuscript is due in three days!!} and unconditional loving {on the part of my husband, who hears nothing but book, book, book!}.  This hasn't left much time for extra writing, or even regular date nights with my beloved. So today we’re having a very exciting date with Susan Spungen, author of recipes, books, and a lot of beautiful food on film, including Eat, Pray, Love which opens in theaters tonight. {hooray!}

If you’re in the food biz, you’ll know her name from her work as the former Editorial Director for food and entertaining at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and if you’re smart you already own her book Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook. Movie enthusiast will know her as the food stylist behind the epic food films Julie and Julia, and It’s Complicated

I got a chance to talk with Susan yesterday about these films, and about food, love, and marriage, topics front in center in both of our lives {Susan got married recently too, and is finishing up her next cookbook}. It was such fun hearing about all of stress and thrill of working on the set of each movie, but I have to say the best part was hearing the joy and the generous spirit in her voice when she talked about her husband, and the loving, nurturing act of cooking and eating with the ones we love. 

SC: So, everyone is going to want to know what it was like working on the set of the much anticipated Eat, Pray, Love. I understand that you worked mostly on the scenes that were shot in Italy. Did you use restaurant kitchens to cook and prep the food?

SS: Yes, I spent a few weeks in Italy working on the film. Many of the restaurants were closed for the summer and opened just for our shoot, but all were closed for business while we were shooting. The main chef was usually around to make sure we knew where to find things, but we also had mobile trucks to do some of the prep. 

SC: Italian cooking is famously inspired by the generous, loving cooking of amazing women and mothers, but still restaurant kitchens are relatively dominated by men. Were you nervous about how the chef’s would respond to having you come into their kitchens to work there?

SS: I have to admit I was a little worried, not so much about being a woman, but being an American, about how the chefs would react to me coming into their kitchens. Most of them were very welcoming. But there was one guy that kind of sniffed a little at us being there. We had prepped a rabbit ragu on mobile truck but as you know doesn’t look good cold so we brought it inside to warm it up for the scene. He opened up the Tupperware and kind of gave it a sniff and made a face. But for the most part all of the chefs were very welcoming.

SC: Mmm, rabbit ragu. Just those two words are so evocative. It really sounds like Italy.  I hear there is an outstanding pizza scene set in Naples, where Julia Robert's character says she's having a relationship with her pizza. Can you tell us a little about setting up for this pivotal scene?

SS:  For me that was very fun. I didn’t actually do the food there. The thing about a film is that you never know what you’re walking into. When it was in the early stages of finding out what we’re doing it was assumed we would make the pizza. There were many discussions about if we were making the pizza or if they were making the pizza. Sometimes there’s just one room, and that’s where they are shooting so we can’t prep in there. We tried to to buy portable ovens so that we could cook them in another room, but they turned out to be dinky little microwaves. That’s sort of how it was in Italy, so I thought oh forget it, that will never work. There we were in this amazing place, the most famous pizza place in Naples and therefore the world [L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele] , and it was clear it was best to have the guys do the pizza. They are experts on it, and it cooks in under 60 seconds in their ovens. So what I enjoyed about that was just being behind the scenes at one of the most famous pizzerias in the world, talking to the guys, tasting their pizza.

SC: What an amazing experience. It’s sort of ironic, because that’s what these three movies that you’ve just done are all about, people having these incredible experiences through food where they are just alive, totally enraptured with life.  To this point, The New York Times  called Julie and Julia “a film where what the actors eat is as important as the actors themselves.” I felt like the same was true of It’s Complicated, and I assume that Eat, Pray, Love will be the same. How do you feel about food coming into mainstream films in such a powerful way?

SS: I think it’s great for all of us who love food, and it’s obvious to filmmakers and to Hollywood that it’s become a subset that definitely has a following. There’s a certain segment of the population that can’t get enough, and food has become a form of entertainment. The food can be as much a character in these films.

SC: All three of those movies were essentially love and food stories, where the storyline of each main character’s love of food is as strong, if not stronger, than the story of their love for then men in their lives. After working intimately on all three films, what have you learned about the relationship between love and food?

SS: I’ve always felt that food and love are closely related, especially in a relationship. I have always believed in that stupid cliché, that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I’ve always believed it and believe me I’ve always used it, and it’s always worked. With the right man anyway. The right man for me is a man who also loves food. I was reading the other day how Francois Payard is marrying a vegan. I thought wow, he must really be in love with her!

SC: I know a little something about that, since my hubby's a vegetarian, well was a strict vegetarian until I cooked seafood for him. But that's another story. So, how and where do you watch the films you’ve worked on? Are you able to enjoy them for their entertainment value and really get lost in the story? Or do you find you are usually critiquing your work?

SS: A little bit of both. The one great thing about movies is that when its all cut together, it’s very different.  Sometimes you are watching for something you know is in there, but then it goes by in a flash or that scene got cut. I think I’ve been able to enjoy all of these films. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to the premieres of all three, and watch them with a really interested crowd. I just saw Eat, Pray, Love the other night at the premiere. Since I had only worked on Italy portion, a lot of it was completely new for me. But of course I’m also critiquing my work. Usually what I want is more, more, more. I wish the food was on screen longer or shot a little closer. So much work goes into every plate. Eat, Pray, Love was pretty satisfying. The food was photographed beautifully, like the scene with cheese oozing out of the squash blossom. It looked great. During the Italy portions I was really on the edge of my seat, then I kind of settled in and watched the rest of the movie like anyone else. I do get lost in the story for sure. It’s fun to be entertained.

SC: Julia Child called Sole Meunière the most exciting meal of her life. What was yours?

SS: The first thing that comes to mind is our wedding meal. Most people don’t eat at their wedding, but we did. Because our wedding was at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, it was just like a big dinner party. I wanted to eat; I wasn’t going to be one of those brides who didn’t eat at her own wedding. We had the meal in the the dining room, so food was really a big focus, aside from going around and visiting all the tables. And they wouldn’t serve the next course until we were sitting at our table. That was really the most exciting meal. And also my first time at French Laundry would be a close second.

SC: I can agree with both of those. Our wedding was definitely the meal of my lifetime, and both Stone Barns and French Laundry are right up there! 

I read that you actually got to work with Julia child on the book Baking with Julia and the companion show, and I enjoyed your comment that you felt comfortable and happy to pay homage to her in the film Julie and Julia. Between your experience working with Martha Stewart and your work on three epic food films, your culinary prowess is also near legendary, so I don’t picture you as a woman who gets nervous often. Were you nervous to cook for Julia, or do you get nervous cooking for film icons like Meryl?  Is there anyone that you get nervous to cook for?

SS: The funny thing is, in some ways I’m always nervous in that way that if you’re not nervous you’re not paying enough attention. I was nervous about doing Eat, Pray, Love, about finding all the ingredients. Sometimes I can’t sleep but more because I’m worry about the details, making sure I’ve thought everything through, but not about cooking for anyone in specefic. With Julia, I cooked with her but not for her. In fact she cooked for us. I was thinking wow this is incredible, Julia Child is cooking for me. But it was a  perfectly ordinary meal, summer backyard barbeque. She made steak, twice baked potato.

I think sometimes people do get too nervous about cooking and they should just focus on the idea that they are doing something they enjoy. I don’t think you should get nervous to cook for anyone. Even Thomas Keller. I would not be afraid to have Thomas Keller over for dinner. I would cook him something simple and I’m sure he would love it. Cooking is about giving something to someone, not about being perfect. Anyone can enjoy being cooked for.  I love cooking for chef friends, and they love having someone else cook for them.  And then when they compliment your cooking, what could be better than that?

SC: You’re so right, and that’s a beautiful philosophy. Speaking of getting nervous, I absolutely loved the scene in it’s complicated where Meryl Streep makes chocolate croissants in the middle of the night for Steve Martin. I couldn’t help thinking that she’s such a natural. Do you think that’s because she had already done Julie and Julia, or did you coach her?

SS: She discounts it but I think she has a certain comfort level with food. Plus, she’s Meryl Streep, so she’s just really, really amazing at picking things up quickly. Part of her unbelieveable talent that she can just pick something up and look completely natural at it. In Julie and Julia I gave her a ten minute lesson on how to flip an omelet, and she just went in and did it on film. Those scenes [in It’s Complicated] working with the croissant dough we did that at Sarabeth’s bakery in Chelsea [Chelsea Market]. We were coaching her a little but mostly she just got it.

SC: My hubby and I saw a ten o’clock showing of that movie, and when we came home, we both couldn’t stop craving croissants so I started making a batch at midnight. I was thinking I would just do a few folds of the dough and go to bed and finish them in the morning. I had forgotten how long it really takes, and I was so tired I forgot the yeast. When I woke up in the morning and got to the part that said proof, I realized I had actually made puff pastry! It was delicious puff pastry, but….somehow I still sort of love how that scene sort of gives this illusion that this grand gesture was really quite simple. What’s the most generous, loving cooking you’ve ever done for your hubby?

SS: I don’t know if I’ve ever done anything quite as dramatic as that. That’s Hollywood, and as we know you could never make that as quickly in real life. Of course Nancy Meyers, the director, knew that too. Sarabeth kept saying there must be time for proofing and Nancy would say, “Don’t worry about the recipe, this is not a cooking show!” It’s a movie. Honestly, that’s more performance driven, but in terms of making something loving for my husband? I make him chicken soup when he’s sick. He’ll ask me, “can you make some soup?” You know how men are when they are sick, sort of sad and pathetic.

SC: Yes, I do!

SS: I’ve cooked for him so much. I feel like every meal I cook for him is a very caring act.

SC: I was sort of hoping you’d say something like that. I feel like going all out in the kitchen is the cook’s equivalent of putting on a really sexy dress. But we can’t do that every night. After working on three films on food and love, and a few years of marriage, what advice do you have for newlyweds?

SS: I don’t think it’s about impressing them, especially after your married. It’s more about comfort. That’s a first date thing, impressing—I think I made him a Valentine’s meal where I was trying to do that, but I wouldn’t cook for him that way now. That was more of a seduction kind of meal.

SC: Well it worked! So, how do you know when your husband really loves something you’ve made for him?

SS: He’s really appreciative usually. I don’t know if I can say what he does because when he really likes something he makes these noises and I think, Oh he’s making sex noises. Is that too risqué?

SC: No, I think it’s great! My hubby is really intent about eating. He just dives in very quietly and sometimes when he’s done I have to ask, so, did you like it? The answer is usually a resounding yes but that was hard for me to get used to because my dad has always been a very vocal eater. He would always say “oh honey, honey, this is de-licious!” when we really liked something.

SS: Yes, the noises are good. But sometimes when they are very quiet it’s because they are really enjoying something and focused on it.

SC: So does he ever cook for you, your husband?

SS: He does. He is a different kind of cook than me. He’s very resourceful, and has made me be more resourceful with leftovers. He’s really good at cleaning out the fridge, and so I’ve gotten a little bit better at what we call scrounging. He’s so good at putting it together. I always think we need to go buy something, or what’s left in the fridge is too old. So I’ve gotten more accepting. And sometimes he gets a little too nervous in the kitchen. If he’s cooking I can’t even go in the kitchen, if I say anything or do anything. He loves to make barbecue on the Big Green Egg.

SC: That sounds like a man toy.

SS: Exactly. It’s a ceramic grill, like a Japanese Kamado oven. It’s good for smoking.

SC: So, I loved your first book. It’s very smart, and really teaches people how to cook. What’s next for you? Can you tell us about your new book?

SS: My next book is not just recipes, it includes a lot of tips and how-tos for every aspect of entertaining. It’s geared to younger hostess who might not have learned these things from their mother, sort of etiquette for the new millennium.

SC: It sounds like it needs to be on my list of 5 books every newlywed needs.

SS: Yes, but not yet! It’s not out until 2011.

SC: I’ll look forward to it. My book is not out until 2012 and that feels like a very long time away. Just one last question, Eat, Pray, Love is as much about an appetite for life as anything else. How do you keep your appetite for life? 

SS: One word pops into my head and that’s curiosity. You have to remain curious about everything in your life and your cooking; you have to constantly expand your horizons in many ways. We’re only here for a short time. My father just passed away recently and it just made me think a lot about what life is all about. He had a real appetite for life. He just liked to have fun and explore new things and travel and go places. He was constantly in the quest for fun and excitement and I’ve taken that from him. I like to learn. Even going to Rome to do Eat, Pray, Love was about that. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. I knew it would be nerve-wracking but I still wanted the experience and I did learn so much about life and myself. You can be in a place like Rome it all sounds so exciting but you can feel a little lonely in a foreign city by yourself. My husband came over right in the middle and was just so happy to see him.

~ Spoken like a newlywed. 
My photo
New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.