Chef, Author, and Radio Host Linda Gassenheimer: Interview, Part I
Gassenheimer is an award-winning author of 16 cookbooks, including her latest, The Flavors of the Florida Keys, which hit bookstores and Amazon.com in December. We spoke with her about food, Florida, and cooking. Below is the first of two parts.
Clean Plate Charlie: How did you get started writing for the Miami Herald?
Linda Gassenheimer: My column started in 1988. My husband said "we're moving to Coral Gables" after 20 years of living in Paris and London, where I had a cooking school. I had to restart my career here in Florida, and I knew nobody. Linda Cicero was the food editor for the Miami Herald, and somebody sent her my book French Cuisine, and she asked me to write for the Herald. She kept saying nobody will cook in America like in France, so that's how my Dinner in Minutes column started. I simplified the recipes and made them shorter and shorter every year. Then she asked me to follow the government nutritional guidelines for each dish. So each recipe has to be fast and easy, it has to be something people will eat, it has to be subject to nutritional analysis, and it has to be pretty. I'll create a recipe, and then I have to make sure it's good food that looks and tastes good.
How did you find Florida when you first moved here in the '80s?
That time was an exciting time. Things were just beginning to happen here. Barbara Kafka was the food editor for Vogue at the time. She wrote an article for Food & Wine on South Florida cuisine, and I took her around to 33 restaurants in three days for that story. That was the start of the Mango Gang [Norman Van Aken, Douglas Rodriguez, Alan Susser, and Mark Militello]. So lots of exciting things were happening here, and because I was writing for the Miami Herald, a publisher asked me to write a Keys book -- Keys Cuisine. At first, I thought, "Keys Cuisine? What do I write after the first page?" But when I got to the Keys, I realized that the restaurants were doing wonderful things with fresh fish and local produce.
How do you feel about South Florida cuisine now? Do you think it's grown since the '80s?
I think South Florida cuisine is still very exciting. A lot of cuisine trends start here. We've been used to Latin food influences here for decades, and now those foods are everywhere. I think there's a lot going on.
How do you feel about many restaurants in South Florida being pricey? That there's less of a small mom-and-pop food culture here than in other cities?
There's a big problem here. A lot of food is set up for the tourists. Why is the Design District so popular? Because locals don't want to go over to the beach and pay the taxes. I'm interviewing Tim Zagat this week. The 2011 Zagat guides have just come out. Zagat ranks Miami as the third most expensive city for the average restaurant ticket -- behind only Las Vegas and New York. I don't know why we're one of the priciest cities in the United States in which to eat. I think it hampers everybody.
What's your favorite food to eat?
I ask people to give me their restaurant treasures on my radio show. I prefer really good food as opposed to really fancy food. I could be commercial and say I love the food of the Florida Keys. But I really must tell you how good the food in the Keys is, because the fish comes right out of the water. There are so many restaurants that use not just organic but places that are serving local foods -- as local as can be -- really quality, fresh ingredients.
How did you find the recipes and restaurants for your new Florida Keys book?
I have friends in Key West. I asked locals, people that have good palates that I respect. I network and find the little places off the strip. I went back to the restaurants that were in my first book to see if they were still there. I went to the Key Largo fisheries and to the local vendors and asked what restaurants are worth checking out. There are a few standouts, like Bob's Bunz in Islamorada. You go to this restaurant and you can't get in and the parking lot is jammed and it's all locals. And then you have a blue-crab eggs Benedict, made with the freshest blue crabs, just off the boat.
I've heard you speak about their Potato Chip Cookie -- what is it?
It's really a butter sugar cookie with crumbled potato chips in it. The salty potato chips really complement the buttery cookie. My husband loves them so much, he makes them all the time.
So your husband cooks?
He cooked to help put himself through college. He worked at a sorority house, where he cooked on the weekends. That's how he got his undergrad room and board paid for. I didn't meet him until grad school, so working at a sorority was OK. He actually works in finance, but he has a great palate. If I make something and it's not right, he can tell you what's missing.
Keep an eye out for the second half of our interview with Gassenheimer, coming soon.
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