Interview with Phyllis Grant | Everything Is Under Control

Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.

Phyllis Grant: My name is Phyllis Grant, and I’ve written a book called Everything is Under Control, and it is a memoir with recipes.

Suzy Chase: This book is both a memoir and a cookbook. You give us a candid glimpse into a few of the most pivotal times in your life. I noticed that you use words sparingly, but you managed to relay a vivid story. Bill Addison in the LA times wrote that your single line spacing suggests a poem. To kick things off, can you just talk a little bit about your writing process?

Phyllis Grant: Well, a lot of the stories in my book are stories that I started writing decades ago. So I found that when things have been hard in my life, that writing about them and rewriting about them to my friends over the years has really helped process and sort of move on. To help me sort of let go of postpartum depression, let go of particularly hard births, let go of the intensity of dancing in New York and finally moving on to another career. So the process of writing about these experiences led to this book.

So this is really a collection, not really of diary entries, but of things I’ve written to friends in order to process sort of the milestones in my life over the years. And that has ended up being hopefully, a more accessible sort of way of not only telling stories, but also having people be able to take them in as in some ways as their own stories. As more universal, the essence of life is what I was trying to achieve in this book.

Suzy Chase: I guess you just answered my second question, is why did you choose to write this in present tense? Was it because you wrote things down on the spot in the moment?

Phyllis Grant: That’s part of it. Also, it would be so fascinating for me to go back and look at all the different iterations of this book because at one point it was not in the present tense. At one point it was in the second person. I think part of the writing and rewriting process for me was to take it into many different forms. At times, this book was way overwritten and sort of a bloated memoir, filled with all sorts of food imagery and senses and so on, and it was a bit over the top. So by paring it down and bringing it into the present tense again, it was more about being more relatable, more universal.

Suzy Chase: I can’t imagine this was ever a bloated memoir. That’s so funny.

Phyllis Grant: Well, I had a book deal with a different publisher about seven years ago and I was sort of pushed in that direction and it was really the wrong direction for me as a writer. And I think in the end, getting my book back, moving on, reselling it to a different publisher, allowed it to become a much, much stronger book, a much shorter book, but way, way more relatable. And there’s a lot of blank space in the book, but what people have said to me is that those blank spaces really allow you to pause and breathe and take in each section before you move on.

Suzy Chase: The subtitle is a Memoir With Recipes. Tell us about the 17 recipes in the back of this book.

Phyllis Grant: Well, it was really hard to choose 17, I have to admit. Because I have hundreds, they aren’t all as well tested as these 17, but in many ways I was trying to look at the recipes in the same way that I looked at the stories. So wanting them to be less specific recipes and more templates. So in other words, if someone wants to learn how to make a tart, I have a very detailed narrative recipe about how to make tart dough, but then all these different things you can do with it.

Same thing with salad dressing, same thing with stew. I give you sort of an outline of how to do it the first time, and then my idea as a teacher is to help you make it your own. And these 17 really are more like templates and I’m hoping that they will help people learn how to cook, especially people who don’t normally cook every day. We’ve had a lot of time lately to cook and people have mentioned that cooking three meals a day for the first time in their life, they’re really learning quite a bit. And I’ve learned a lot by repetition, so I like to take recipes and make them over and over and over again. It’s not about making it perfect and then moving on, it’s about letting the recipe have a life.

Suzy Chase: One recipe that caught my eye was your grandma’s Fudgy Icebox Brownies on page 221. Can you describe this recipe and talk about why you freeze it?

Phyllis Grant: This is based on a brownie recipe that my grandma used to make. So I certainly think of this recipe is very comforting. I see my grandmother’s face when I make the recipe, when I read the recipe, I think about her and she always puts cinnamon in them, a little bit of cinnamon. You almost can’t taste it, but it does something to dull the sweetness and sort of bring out the chocolate flavor. So that’s sort of the unusual twist in this.

And the thing that I experimented with and it was sort of accidental, is taking the brownies out when they’re a little bit under cooked and then letting them cool and then freezing them and then cutting them into strips. And then when you want a little tiny chocolate snack in the middle of the night, or with glass of wine, you can just take this, basically, it’s like a log of brownies out of the freezer and cut off just a few slices. It’s very rich, it’s almost fudge like, but I find by freezing it, it lasts a lot longer, and it’s always there for you when you want a little treat.

Suzy Chase: You wrote, “When I cook, I’m calm and confident.” Tell us about that, because I’m not.

Phyllis Grant: It’s true. It’s what I’ve always done to relax, to sort of meditate, to get away from the hard stuff. Whether it was when I was 10 and hormones were kicking in and I was feeling overwhelmed by life or hormones postpartum. It’s just always been the place where I’ve gone. The kitchen has been where I go to recalibrate in some ways, to start over and to be able to sort of face what’s next. And I write about that in the book in relation to pastry when I’m young, because I think there is, even though I encourage people to play with recipes and learn, there’s also something very grounding about having a recipe that you know will work always. Very, very comforting.

Suzy Chase: I’m going to read a few various lines from the book. The first is, “There’s no such thing as being full. We eat so we don’t have to acknowledge what’s coming next, and we are so hungry.” Many women were brought up to believe thinness show the world, how much we were in control. I know I was. I don’t think we realized how often food and life intersect. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Phyllis Grant: One thing that I’ve noticed looking over the past 50 years is when I write about anything in life, there is a through line of food. Part of it is we all have to eat. So that’s just naturally a part of our day. But for me, as I said, it’s more than just that, it’s like the actual act of cooking for myself, cooking for my kids, cooking for my partner. It’s incredibly gratifying. But at times in my life it’s been about not eating or it’s been about being confused that I’m not hungry. And so tracing over 50 years, the role of food in my life was a big part of writing this book. And as a dancer, especially there were times I was not eating much at all because I wanted to look a certain way. And of course in the end, I didn’t feel well psychologically.

It didn’t work out so well to not eat, and I learned that pretty quickly. But I think especially when you’re young, food like when I was living in New York City, without my family, I missed the smell of the brownies cooking. I missed someone bringing a platter of steaming brown rice and chicken and putting it in front of me. I missed that so much so I would seek that comfort in other ways. So for me, it was always at the end of the day, I needed to have a big cup of coffee and enormous blueberry muffin with streusel on top. And I found throughout life and now maybe it’s cheese and a martini, but there’s always something in the day that helps sort of, again, going back to grounding me in the ritual of something. That’s the comfort in that food brings me.

Suzy Chase: You just mentioned dancing. How old were you when you came to Juilliard here in the city?

Phyllis Grant: I was 18 and Julliard didn’t have a dorm at the time. So I actually lived in a residence hotel at 93rd and Broadway with a bunch of other Juilliard students and a bunch of drug addicts. Not the Juilliard students, but the building was definitely questionable. There was a gunshot hole in the front door, and you didn’t feel so safe in the middle of the night and the stairwell. It was a little sketchy to be 18 and living in a place like that. But you grow up pretty fast and you build a pretty strong community of people and we looked out for each other. But that was 1988 in New York City, it was a different time. Wow.

Suzy Chase: That was a really different time.

Phyllis Grant: Especially upper, Upper West side, definitely.

Suzy Chase: Oh my gosh.

Phyllis Grant: Yeah. For better, or for worse, it’s certainly changed a lot.

Suzy Chase: Describe your first Thanksgiving away from home at Windows on the World.

Phyllis Grant: Basically it was the three of us, Berkeley girls needing each other so badly and wanting a very special dinner. So we went to Windows on the World and it was so terrible. It was the worst meal I’ve ever had. And the truth is there was so much turnover in that restaurant. You never know what you’re going to get, it was a bit of a tourist trap at the time. And we ate all the terrible food and we drank way too much wine and then we threw up in the bathroom and went back to our lives uptown. It was definitely not one for the books. It was a pretty depressing night for sure.

Suzy Chase: Well, for people who don’t know about Windows on the World, it was in the World Trade Center before 9/11. It was amazing, I vividly remember going there and standing in the floor to ceiling windows and just staring out at the city. But we never ate there, we just drank.

Phyllis Grant: Yeah, I do it in my book. I mentioned that exactly what you said, the floor to ceiling windows and sort of needing that sort of special separation. It’s like way downtown and it was way up high. And of course it has so many more layers of meaning now because we were in New York city on 9/11 and we watched the second plane hit. We watched those buildings fall. So it’s kind of a wild thing to think about being there at 18 for Thanksgiving dinner and then 20 years later, watch those buildings fall.

Suzy Chase: How did you go from dancing at Juilliard to being an apprentice at some of the top restaurants in New York City?

Phyllis Grant: Well, it was the nineties and you could knock on the back door of a restaurant and walk in and say, “Hey, can I work for free or what needs to happen today?” And that’s what I did. So I would go eat a meal at a restaurant and then asked to meet with the pastry chef. And they were really eager back then for extra help. And part of it was the celebrity chef thing hadn’t happened yet. So I think once Food Network kicked in, which was probably the mid-nineties, something like that, there was this excitement about working in restaurants. So it became much harder to do that. But the time I did it, which was ’93, ’94, people really welcomed me into their kitchens because they needed the extra help. And then once you’re in, you’re in like in most jobs and you can slowly work your way up. So, that’s what I did.

Suzy Chase: What was the favorite restaurant you worked at?

Phyllis Grant: I guess I would say working at Bouley really was extraordinary. They had just gotten four stars from the New York Times and it was very similar to dance in terms of the adrenaline, it was very exciting. So I personally, would feel very nervous right before service, sort of getting set up and all that. And then once you start, you just fly. It’s just like six, eight, nine, 10 hours of service. And the thing that keeps you going is adrenaline. It’s really exciting and you learn a lot really fast in that kind of environment.

Suzy Chase: I found the similarities between dancing and restaurant work too. And I was thinking that the guy that runs the kitchen is basically the same personality type as the person that teaches ballet at Julliard.

Phyllis Grant: Very similar, yes. Old school sort of hierarchical and male dominated, absolutely. There’s so much in common there. And things are changing, thank goodness. But that back in the nineties, things had not started changing yet. And so part of it was, I just like with dance, with restaurants, I knew the game I was playing. I stepped in and I played my role and I did what I was supposed to do. And sometimes that meant sort of putting up with a certain amount of abuse, harassment. Yeah, so very similar worlds.

Suzy Chase: So at a certain point you reconnect with M, a former lover and realized how much you’ve missed cooking for him. Then you get married and 9/11 happens. What happened next?

Phyllis Grant: Well, we had lived in New York City for a decade and there was something about this traumatic event that I think part of it was this feeling of you only live once. And what are we doing living in this 375 square foot apartment in New York City? Why don’t we try something new? So I was a yoga teacher at the time and my husband was a working actor. So we moved to Los Angeles. So three weeks after 9/11, we drove across the country and moved to Los Angeles, and boy was that a rough transition.

We missed New York still. I still miss New York, frankly. It’s a hard place to leave, but there was something about that moment, that shift, that crack open that 9/11 gave us. It was a devastating, devastating time, but I’m grateful that we decided to try something new.

Suzy Chase: Talk about how you move to a condo above your grandmother. What impact did that have on your life?

Phyllis Grant: At the time we had two young children. So I worried a lot that we were being too noisy, that was the hard part. But the beautiful part was just knowing that my grandma was downstairs and that she was in her late eighties at the time. And she needed a lot of support and it was so great to be there for her. And she was very private, so I wouldn’t go knock on her door and barge in, but I would check in almost once a day and any food I was cooking, I would bring her some. And it was really lovely to sit with her and actually, to sometimes sit in silence. To have tea, to have cookies and just let that be okay. There’s less of this urgency of, “Oh, I only see you once a year. We have to get in all this quality time.” Instead, we just became a part of each other’s daily lives in a very important way.

Suzy Chase: I feel like you had more in common with your grandmother than your mother.

Phyllis Grant: Oh that’s interesting. I think in some ways that’s true, actually. My mom actually growing up, always used to say that she wanted a more traditional upbringing in a white picket fence. And there’s certain sort of things she wanted because her dad is an artist and they were always moving around and they didn’t have any money. And my mom really wanted something more traditional. And I would say that I am more like my grandmother in that we moved around a lot and I don’t necessarily need things to be traditional, in fact, I’m sort of well known in my family for always doing things a little bit differently. So I think that’s really actually insightful of you Suzy, because she and I, my grandma and I share a lot in terms of how we live or how she lived and also how we cook. And I also appreciate my mom so much and her meticulousness, in fact, my daughter, I think is very much like my mom and I love seeing how it skips generations.

Suzy Chase: How did it feel getting Ruth Reichl, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s glowing reviews of this book.

Phyllis Grant: Oh, so moving. So the first blurb I got actually was Elizabeth Gilbert. So I have to tell you, starting off with that one gave me a nice little push. And then the last one I got was Ruth Reichl, So it was nice to be book ended by those two incredible women I’ve admired for so long. So honestly, sometimes I feel like I’m just going to wake up and it was a dream.

Suzy Chase: No, it’s real.

Phyllis Grant: Is it really? I know it’s on the back of the book, I guess it is real. Yeah. The fact that they took the time. You can tell they read the book and they really took it in and I can see that in their blurbs. So that means the world.

Suzy Chase: In this Instagram perfect world we’re living in, how was it opening up about the tough intimacies of your life that you probably wouldn’t just talk about at a dinner party?

Phyllis Grant: I started a blog about 10 years ago called Dash and Bella. And initially I would write about making cupcakes and playing with the kids and the chaos in the kitchen and so on. And then these posts started to morph a little bit more into the hard, raw, uncomfortable stuff. So I got used to writing about it. And the reason I continued to write about it is the community I started to build. People would reach out to me, they would direct message me, email me, and start telling me their stories.

So what I realized is by telling my heart stories that it helps other people tell theirs. And as I said earlier, it’s therapeutic being able to write about the hard stuff can help you let go a little bit, and if I can just do a little of that with this book, I’ve been really encouraged by the fact that people are starting to write their own stories and reaching out to me and thanking me for telling mine. So it feels more like a community responsibility.

Suzy Chase: So here’s the big question. At this point in your life, do you feel like everything is under control? I need a drum roll or something.

Phyllis Grant: No, but there are things that are, and I suppose that’s what keeps us all going. Just sort of that realizing what is under control and partly going back to what I said, like ritual like my coffee is there in the morning, my dog is there looking at me, ready for the food. My kids need me to feed them. There’s so much beautiful stuff to read. So I’m trying to find control in the smaller things, but it is true, big picture is pretty terrifying right now in terms of lack of control.

Suzy Chase: Yeah. And I think we can focus on resilience.

Phyllis Grant: Yeah. And I see that in my children too, as I talk to my friends a lot about what’s it going to look like in a year for all of us, when we look back? What will we have learned and done. And I do see how strong and resilient our kids are. And yeah, thank you for saying that about my book. I feel like, yeah, I look back on the past 50 years and I did, I got through it all, knock on wood. So far.

Suzy Chase: So yesterday I made your Classic Jammy Anchovy Sauce on page 192. Can you describe this recipe?

Phyllis Grant: When I would go in and work on my book for a few days, which often was the only way I could get anything done, any writing done, I would go away. I would want to cook to procrastinate instead of work on the book, just because finally I have time and I would think, “Oh my gosh, I want to cook all day.” So instead of actually cooking all day, I would throw all these ingredients into a pot with a jammy sauce.

So anchovies, and tomatoes, and wine, and sugar, and salt, and vinegar, and let it bubble away all day while I was writing. So it a way to cook and to smell something wonderful cooking, but still be able to work on my book. This jammy sauce you can put on so many things. You can put it on pasta, you can put it on toast, you can have it as the base of a pizza, it can be like a ketchup on a sandwich. So it’s quite versatile, it’s really hands off because all you do is stir it every 20 minutes, if that, and then you can freeze it and you can make a big batch of it.

Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called my favorite cookbook. What is your all-time favorite cookbook and why?

Phyllis Grant: That is impossible. Which is not the answer you want.

Suzy Chase: Wrong.

Phyllis Grant: There is one book though that does pop into my head always when people ask me that question and that is Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Shere. And she was the original pastry chef at Chez Panisse, and this is the book I cooked my way through when I was 22, just deciding that I wasn’t going to be a dancer and I needed to find something else, and that’s when I realized cooking was my thing.

And if you open this cookbook, there’s chocolate all over it. The pages are filthy. And I think that’s a sign of certainly a well-used book. And I would call that my favorite.

Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media and your blog?

Phyllis Grant: I haven’t posted much on my blog, but some people have been saying they’ve been going back and looking at the archives of the recipes. So I think I’m going to put those in a more organized form, but that’s Dash and Bella, it’s a blog spot. You can just type in and on Twitter and Instagram, I am @dashandBella. And Instagram is really my world these days, that’s where I tell stories. That’s where I’m sort of doing a daily food diary. It’s replaced the blog in some ways.

Suzy Chase: And here it is our summer beach read. Thanks Phyllis, for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.

Phyllis Grant: Thanks Suzy.

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Cookery by the Book is the #1 Cookbook Podcast hosted by Suzy Chase.

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