Forget the mise en place, says Sara Moulton

Lucy Schaeffer

When Sara Moulton returned to Harvest in Harvard Square to cook from her new book, “Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better,” it was an ironic homecoming of sorts. Decades ago, before Moulton hosted her popular cooking shows for PBS or Food Network or thought about writing books that help others become better cooks, she began her culinary career in the restaurant’s kitchen while still a student at the Culinary Institute of America.

“Nobody wanted me. I think I just sent resumes everywhere for my externship and that was the only place that would hire me,” Moulton says. At Harvest, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, Moulton initially worked under Lydia Shire, who was one of the few female chefs helming restaurant kitchens at the time. Shire became a mentor. After graduating from CIA, Moulton returned to Boston, where she worked at Harvest again as a chef and eventually met Julia Child, who took her on as a food stylist and helped launch Moulton’s own TV career — which includes her current show, “Sara’s Weeknight Meals,” for public television. Moulton, 64, has lived in New York since the 1980s but frequently visits Boston. “Boston is now such an exciting food town! There are so many great women chefs here,” Moulton says.


Q. What was your first job at Harvest?

A. I worked the cold station at night, which meant opening a lot of oysters and clams, which to this day I’m not good at. But Lydia could see that I cared and so she took me under her wing. That was a great thing.

Q. Many people look to you as a mentor in the kitchen. Did that approach come naturally for you?

A. When the Food Network asked me to be on TV, I went and did a pilot and I was terrible. I never smiled. My hands never stopped shaking. But they were so desperate — that was the early days — they invited me back. With that I got serious media training. The guy who was training me said, “I’m just trying to figure out what will make you relax in front of the camera. There must be some reason why you should be on TV?” For years, I worked behind the scenes, first for Julia [Child] and then “Good Morning America.” Being a good WASP, I thought people who are on TV need attention and I don’t need attention. But here I am. I thought about it and thought about it. A light bulb went off and I realized I’m a really good teacher.


Q. What’s your approach with this book?

A. I thought, let’s really get all this knowledge together that I’ve been accumulating over 40 years, and get people to own what they learn so they’re just better cooks.

Q. What are some techniques you’ve picked up?

A. Everybody gets drilled into them that you have to prep, chop, dice, slice everything before you even start. Certainly, you need to read the recipe from start to finish. Sometimes there are things you haven’t anticipated like “chill overnight” while your guests are waiting in the other room. What I’ve been doing all these years is prepping as I go. My idea of mise en place is to figure out what are you making — these days, it’s often protein and two vegetables — getting it all out on the counter and then starting to cook.


Q. Does that really save time?

A. Let’s say you’re making pasta with a fancy tomato sauce. Everybody knows you put on the pot of water first. While the water is boiling, you’re going to chop the onion and heat up the oil. You’re going to add the onion to the oil while you mince the garlic. Then you add the garlic . . . while you chop the tomatoes. You take advantage of the cooking times. If you prep everything before you start, you add 20 or 30 minutes to the prep and no one has that. I think it’s a waste of time.

Q. What are your favorite tips for managing weeknight dinners?

A. I like cooking ahead on the weekends. I don’t necessarily mean making a whole stew. I mean cooking a bunch of grains or beans and getting them into containers in the freezer. As a chef, I thought the freezer was the devil. Now I’m like, the freezer is my best friend. You can make a vinaigrette once a week. When you start dinner, pull it out so it comes up to room temp. You should spend time on one part of the dinner. For example, I might spend time on the protein and making a sauce. Then maybe I’ll have a roasted vegetable, but the third thing may be a frozen vegetable.


Q. You have a whole section of just soups and salads for dinner.

A. We should be rethinking dinner. Why not have soup or salad or breakfast for dinner? Eggs are wonderful. Or a sandwich. Why does it have to be so traditional?

Interview has been edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com