I'm here today with my great, old friend Lauren Braun Costello. Lauren is a chef, author, instructor, and former food stylist for The View and The Early Show. A graduate of Colgate University and The French Culinary Institute, Lauren started and ran her own catering firm, Gotham Caterers, while getting into the food styling world. She has since written two books about cooking. The first is Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide to an Essential Craft. The second is The Competent Cook: Essential Tools, Techniques, and Recipes for the Modern At-Home Cook. Plus, she coauthored a children's book, which my kids love, entitled Eat Your Breakfast or Else! Lauren hosted forty-five episodes -- that's a lot -- of an AOL cooking series in 2010 called Pantry Challenge and has regularly appeared on TV to showcase various recipes. She currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and two sons. Welcome, Lauren.
Lauren Costello: Thank you, Zibby.
Zibby: I want to talk about your wonderful books. First, I want to hear a little more about your food styling career because that’s so completely unique and cool. How did you get into food styling? What exactly does food styling even mean?
Lauren: Those are both great questions. What food styling means is -- I liken it, since you're a writer, to ghostwriting. It’s like being a ghostwriter. If you see Tyler Florence on a morning show doin’ a five-minute segment making steak and salad and barbeque, that's been three days of work. Somebody has done that. It hasn’t been Tyler. He's busy. He has to do other things. Someone else like me comes into the studio early, early that morning because you're probably watching that segment at seven thirty in the morning or eight o’clock in the morning. The View was a godsend because that was eleven o’clock in the morning. That was really, really nice. The early rise for that was six AM. In those other cases, it’s very early. The work happens the two days before that. You have to plan with the celebrity chef, prep, go through the recipes, and build out all the segments. When you watch a cooking show and they’ve taken the recipe at all the various stages and they do it for you in three minutes, that's a lot of work. That's what food styling is. Sometimes it’s as simple as just making something beautiful for a photograph.
Zibby: At least it’s not as effortless as it looks. People aren’t just whipping it up on the screen. How do they do that?
Lauren: They're not whipping it up. I know, all of the unhappy housewives with all of the stress because they think it’s so easy. That's what food styling is. How I got into it was on a whim. I did not go to culinary school thinking I would be a food stylist. I went to culinary school, at the time with my then fiancé, hoping that the food bill in our house would lower because I'd get paid for doing all the wonderful meals I liked to do and get even better at it.
Zibby: How'd that work out for ya?
Lauren: Right now, I think we’re back. You know how they say as people age you become a baby, you're in a wheelchair, you're in a diaper, you eat soft food? I'm back to entertaining every other day in Connecticut and keeping those grocery bills high. Of course, I love it.
Zibby: Your Instagram feed, by the way, is mouthwatering. For listeners who want to go to her -- what's your Instagram again?
Lauren: It’s LaurenBraunCostello.
Zibby: @LaurenBraunCostello. There was a birthday cake that you made for your husband Sean that I almost got in the car at seven thirty at night and drove to Connecticut.
Lauren: I made offers.
Zibby: You made offers. You're like, “Anyone want some?” I was like, “Can I get there tonight?”
Lauren: We have to do that part two for this February. We’ll have to do it again. My stepmother said, “You're never doing that again, right?” I said, “Unfortunately, I think I'm doing it.”
Zibby: Oh, my god. It looked amazing.
Lauren: The food styling career, I did not go to culinary school thinking that would be the case. I went to culinary school a little over fifteen years ago at a time when the food landscape was such that there were a lot of nascent, exciting things happening, but nascent being the operative word. It wasn’t clear that there were all these exceptional, cool paths you could take. I’ll be a restaurant cook or a caterer. There's no way I want to be a restaurant cook. I'm newly married. I have a uterus. Somebody has to carry the baby around and do all that work. I knew that wouldn't be good for me. It'd be like going to medical school in the middle of giving birth. What's the point of that, to work that hard and not be able to go gangbusters?
I said, “I’ll start a catering company.” I’ll hopefully build up a good client list and pick and choose the work. You can say no when someone calls you. Your restaurant has to stay open. I went with that in mind. The French Culinary Institute, which is now called The International Culinary Center, happened to have, and still does, a spectacular placement office. Anyone who's looking for a private chef, call up The International Culinary Center. They're hook you up with someone. They also help place people. When I was getting ready to graduate, in fact the day before or the day of my graduation, I had gone into the office to speak them to them about any upcoming catering gigs. They said, “Something just came across my desk.” We know life works that way. Timing is everything, hard work, but mostly a lot of luck.
It was for Michel Nischan, who was the chef at Heartbeat restaurant, which used to be at the W Hotel. He was doing a Stonyfield yogurt press event. He needed someone to assist him. I said, “Cool. I will do anything.” If I'm not catering, I'm not working. I’ll do one-day gigs, two-day gigs, get paid a nominal amount, or not even. I was happy just to work. I show up. He calls. I'm on time. He's late. I say, “No big deal.” I'm on time, so I look like a good, recent graduate of eighteen hours. He says, “I'm sorry I can't be there. Oprah has called and told me that her crew is coming today. I told them it wasn’t convenient.” They said, “Don't worry, it works for us.” They just showed up at his house. He had a book coming out that was head-to-head with Harry Potter at the time thanks to Oprah, the power of Oprah.
I was shaking. I have to do this. I have to prep by myself. I was there to assist him. Not only are we not four hands and two minds and two bodies doing all the culinary work, I want the direction. I'm the peon here. He told me what he wanted over -- fifteen years ago -- scratchy cell phone. I didn't hear him. I gave myself a bit of a culinary meditation. It’s the Herb Brooks’ “Play your game.” I just played my game. Do what you've been taught to do. You've been trained well. Execute at that level. He said, “Slice the case of zucchini.” After I hung up, what thickness? I knew what the end game was. I used my common sense and my training. He came in the next morning after asking me, “Can you find a loaf of brioche, a pain di mie of brioche?” I thought, “At six in the morning?” Wearing my chef’s whites, I started banging on the door at Payard right around the corner. They're looking at me but I'm wearing the uniform, so they crack the door open. I said, “I need a loaf of brioche, a pain di mie, right now. I’ll give you any amount of money.”
I showed up. He was impressed that I scored this early in the morning. He opened up the fridge. He said, “Oh, my goodness. In twenty-something years of working I've never had anyone do exactly what I've asked. I hadn’t met you before.” That started our culinary career. Two days later he said, “Do you want to make a taco on CNN?” He was doing consulting for Song Airlines, which was a little offshoot of Delta. I don't know if you remember that. He was doing cool food for that airline. That began my culinary food styling career. I had never been trained in food styling. I taught myself how to do it. I've taught other people since how to do it, who I have to say are far more talented at it than I am because they had the good fortune of being trained by me in all that soft skill stuff and being blessed with their own exceptional hard skills. It was a crazy journey.
Zibby: That's amazing. Let's say I'm in the kitchen. I'm doing some culinary mediation as I make my kid’s scrambled eggs and sausage and try to get the lunch bags ready for camp. What can the layperson like me do to make my foods look food styled by someone like you?
Lauren: It’s a good question. The thing about food stylists, especially today -- when we were kids, everything was shot straight on. Now everything is -- thanks to Donna Hay in Australia, she was the first one a million years ago. Donna Hay is amazing. Everything is bird’s eye, very, very cool. It’s also now even not styled. A lot of food looks so scrumptious. They show the roasted butternut squash and brussels sprouts on the sheet pan with the drizzled oil. Where we shy away from anthropomorphisms with adults because it’s a little corny, with children that can be a tremendous amount of fun. I used to take a pancake and cut that circle in half and then kiss the two curved parts with a line of blueberries in the middle. It was a butterfly all of a sudden. It took no effort, four seconds on your part. If you're making lunch and breakfast, as I do also, and you're in your pajamas, the laundry list of agony is long.
Zibby: That's a good one. I love the butterfly.
Lauren: Another cute one with the same circle shapes is you cut it in half. You can make a car. You can take banana slices for the wheels. It’s one half, two cars, little Volkswagen. Also if you make pancakes big and small, you can do Mickey Mouse for the ears with the silver dollar, just something like that. I always remind adults, kids love, just like we do, cocktail party. Hello? Who doesn't love an hors d’oeuvre? If you can eat canapé all day long, who wouldn't? I would. Kids like that too. It’s fun to make things finger size. Scrambled eggs and sausage might be boring after a while with a fork and knife. Put it in a little wrap. Make a burrito out of it. Make a breakfast burrito. Let them make a pizza out of it on a piece of toast. Words that have meaning to them and foods that they like, if they participate and you can turn it into that, I find that kids are very happy.
Another thing is simply height. To style things to make things look really chicly styled is creating height. If you get served a sandwich, let's say, with carrot sticks and potato chips or something and a thing of grapes, and it’s all flat on the plate -- remember you're not Donna Hay standing over the food -- you're looking at it straight on. Creating height is nice. If you shingle food, if you take a sandwich and then layer it on top in the other direction so it’s shingled like a T, that gives height. You pile up the carrot sticks tall and have the chips around it, you create height. It creates intrigue. It makes it interesting. Kids tend to like that.
Cooking with kids, if they like to cook with you, you have girls and you're making meatloaf and mashed potatoes, you can put it in a muffin tin. The mashed potatoes can be frosting. The peas and carrots can be on top. If that would make them happy, why not? You've got to make the meatloaf anyway. There's lots of fun things you can do. Think about pastry chefs and cake makers, which I am not. I'm a savory chef. They build stuff, and it’s edible. If you look at your food that way, you can have fun with your kids. They can participate in that. Sky’s the limit.
Zibby: My kids are actually having a little cooking lesson that a friend set up for them by somebody named Chef Namaste, which is a combination of yoga and cooking. They alternate the story of the cooking -- I don't know.
Lauren: That sounds good to me.
Zibby: As long as they are in the kitchen and enjoying food, go for it. Your Matzah Ball and Mistletoe party, I want you to tell people about this amazing party that you throw every year. You're not just a chef. You're an entertainer. You're like the Martha Stewart of home events. Matzah Ball and Mistletoe is the be-all, end-all standard of holiday parties.
Lauren: Oh, my goodness. That's a high compliment from a very, very, very sophisticated entertainer herself. That's highly complimented.
Zibby: Oh, please. Tell us some tips that make that party so great that people at home throwing parties might be able to emulate.
Lauren: That party is a funny party. Matzah Ball and Mistletoe is clearly a nod to a combination of Jewish and gentile mix. We’re Jewish. Obviously, we have a lot of gentile friends. It’s the holiday season. I don't actually serve matzah balls at the party. It was just alliteration and funny. Wouldn't it be nice if I did? Happily, I take that off my list.
Zibby: Too expected.
Lauren: Right? Someone said, “You should serve matzah balls at this.” I said, “Believe me, there's no room to serve anything else at this party.” It started out as a dessert party because people come and go in the holiday season. They might have a dinner. They might be running to a dinner, coming late, early, when we were very young in the city in our twenties right out of college. The party is in its twentieth year. Dessert is easy. Then over time I realized I can feed sixty people, no problem, dinner if I do it buffet and homey. So I started doing, as you know, chicken pot pies with trees and Stars of David on the crust and huge amounts of mac and cheese and salad and all that. I prep for that party. It takes me a solid week to do all of it. I guess what you like probably about that party is that the dining room table, the visual that you're alluding to --
Zibby: That’s the actual me. It’s what I like. [laughs]
Lauren: The mac and cheese I know you like too.
Zibby: That's true.
Lauren: On the dining room table there are all these tons of desserts, whether they're bite-size cookies, pastries. I do full cakes. My friend from childhood, we have a lemi tart which is named after her, this banana-caramel tart.
Zibby: The way you present it is so beautiful.
Lauren: Height. Height is one thing.
Zibby: Different platters. You label everything.
Lauren: I do. I get crafty. I like my craft paper and my markers and my ribbons. I do. My big philosophy for entertaining in general and my philosophy for cooking in general is -- some of this is reflected in Notes on Cooking, one of my books -- is that --
Zibby: -- I'm getting there. I promise.
Lauren: Not at all. I believe that it should be joyful. It should be welcoming. We have a note in the book, “Feed others as they wish to be fed.” We think of the golden rule in all of our behavior. The kitchen, like any other great craft, is a great food and fodder and metaphor for life. The golden rule is “Do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves.” That's a great standard. In the kitchen and in entertaining, the standard is “Do unto others as they would wish to have done for themselves,” not the way you would wish it. That's really the platinum rule as opposed to the golden rule.
With Matza Ball and Mistletoe, my goal -- it pleases me to know that on some level I'm accomplishing this -- really my only goal is I want people to feel fed in all the ways that one can be fed, not just through food but to really have all of their senses delighted and to have a sense of warmth and love and connection. The world is highly under-connected today. We overcommunicate incessantly. We’re actually way less connected than we used to be, in my opinion. People say, “You've got someone at your house!” I had fifteen people in my house yesterday. I've got people coming to stay over in two days. I had all of son’s childhood babysitters. They're all these lovely Paraguayan women. I had them come up for a pool party on Saturday because he hadn’t seen them in a couple years.
Connecting is wonderful. Food’s one way to do it. Entertaining outside of that is the finishing touch of the food. When you think of others and you bring joy to it for yourself, it translates. That can be different things for different people. I do it all from scratch. I actually turned to my close friend, the namesake of the lemi tart, one year I was so tired I said, “I bet I could buy a couple gorgeous cakes, Lady M or something from Grace’s.” She looked at me and went, “No, not you. We’ll all be disappointed.” I thought, “Are you kidding me?” Everybody else could get away with putting it on a high platter and do the height and the decorating. She said no. Part of the joy that people are getting is from me personally. That actually refueled me and continues to refuel me in continuing to do the party and give the joy and do that because even a professional can tire out.
Zibby: There's nothing that means more to me than when someone cooks for me. It’s so personal. I am kissing the feet of people who cook for me. I remember when I just had my fourth baby. I had been making meal after meal. Nobody was really making stuff to make me happy. My baby nurse on my birthday was like, “You sit.” She made me blueberry pancakes, which I don't even like. It was the nicest thing ever. I'm eternally grateful. I was crying. Now, I'm so lucky. Kyle is this amazing chef.
Lauren: Yes, spectacular.
Zibby: You can taste the love.
Lauren: You can taste the love. It’s very interesting that even you giving that example, somebody made you blueberry pancakes, “Not something I would ever eat or I don't like that much,” but it absolutely raises the game. It’s much like somebody whose physical attraction if you just looked at them is at a certain level, then they start talking and it goes up or down because of how spectacular or horrendous they are. Food is like that. Something can be quite delicious even though it doesn't really get you off otherwise on its own because of what goes into it. We have a note in the book that says, “Don't be grim. Food preparation should be joyful and so should you.” It does. It gets in the food. That's why you can have twenty people make the same thing and follow the same recipe, even use the same jug of oil and the same flat of eggs, and you got twenty different things. Your stuff, you, gets into it. It’s an unbelievable, spectacular, snowflake kind of phenomenon of being a cook or an artist or any kind of craftsman.
Zibby: The books. You've already given me two notes on cooking without me even having to ask you for them. Notes on Cooking notably has no recipes. It’s straight on wonderfully streamlined notes, tips. What are some of the most useful, aside from the ones you've just mentioned, to the home cook? Maybe not to the home cook, to whoever.
Lauren: That's what's interesting about it.
Zibby: What's useful to me? [laughs]
Lauren: That's the thing. For example, we get very specific in the book and then we get very global. I find the global ones incredibly seductive because as you know I'm a permanent thinker. I'm always thinking about these things. I love that. There's a lot of specific stuff that's perfectly interesting and seems incredibly almost obvious in a way. For example, don't put woody herbs in at the end of the cooking process. You put them in at the beginning. Don't put leafy herbs in, generally, at the beginning. You put them in at the end. Of course there's exceptions of that. What does that mean? You don't finish a dish with chopped rosemary. If you're a novice cook, you might not realize that.
Zibby: Of course you don't. [laughs]
Lauren: Of course you don't. I know that. There's other things like always flag a hot pan. I don't know how many home cooks who burn themselves because they take out the cookie sheet and they just leave it there and they go to touch it ten minutes later and it’s hot. In a professional kitchen you always put a rag over that, which is called flagging it. Those are very specific little things. Then there are these big, global things that I think are really important. For me, one of the biggest things is for people to really get in their synesthetic space if they can. We have a note that says, “Touch the sounds. Feel the flavors. Taste the smells.” That means that you have to crosswire your sensory experience when you're cooking. That's a big thing. If you're a novice cook or an uncomfortable cook, not a confident cook, that can be scary. I remind people, you like to eat? You're ninety percent of the way there. You like to eat? You got a lot of skills to potentially be a cook. I have met people who don't much care for eating. They also don't like puppy dogs and sex or something.
Zibby: Who doesn't like eating? I don't know those people.
Lauren: I know. We haven't crossed their path. Most people do enjoy eating on some level. A lot of people are not confident about their ability to just go do it. If they remind themselves, “I know what I like. I know flavors. I can read. I also have common sense,” it’s a little bit like using Waze or GPS. It says to go left, but am I really getting on the [indiscernible] Boulevard? I thought I was going to Long Island. We weren’t supposed to veer all the way left. Use your brain. You don't need to rely on that thing. People do that with recipes. People need to remember that not everybody is a brilliant recipe writer.
A big piece of advice we have in the book is a recipe is somebody's hopefully best effort at the highest standard to tell us what they did and to tell a story and to give us instructions. We’ve all put furniture together from IKEA or read an instruction on how to fix some glitch in our car. Not everybody's equally skilled at writing instructions. Not everybody's an equally gifted storyteller. Lots of people tell me stories. I want to fall asleep. I tend to be an okay storyteller. I know that. That's something people need to really remember. When they read a recipe if it says, “Sweat the onions for fifteen minutes or until golden brown,” and you've been sweating them for twenty minutes and they're just starting to caramelize and they're not golden brown, we target the result more than the instructions. That's a huge one for home cooks who are nervous and they're working from a recipe instead of just from on the fly.
Zibby: Notes on Cooking, if you're looking at it on the shelf, has this amazing turquoise-y border and great cover and would be a perfect gift, especially on these summer barbeques and summer parties, called Notes on Cooking, Lauren Braun Costello. Just saying. This would be a great gift. Your next book, The Competent Cook, has a very different look and feel, more of a Betty Crocker 1950’s manual, but just as useful as that was. I still refer to the one my mother has from when she was kid, with the binding. One difference, Notes on Cooking, self-published; The Competent Cook published by Adams Publishing.
Tell me a little about The Competent Cook and then the difference between how you published both these tomes.
Lauren: They happened at the same time. When it rains, it pours, good and bad. This was good. The Competent Cook, the subtitle, which I also didn't write -- I didn't do the cover design and I didn't do the subtitle. The subtitle is Essential Tools, Techniques, and Recipes for the Modern, At-Home Cook. That's exactly what's in it. The most interesting part of the book, in my opinion, is the first third of it where we talk about these essential tools. There's a little essay on each piece of equipment. How do I pick a wooden spoon? How odd. Whoever thought, “How do I pick a wooden spoon?” You just pick one. Actually, in four or five paragraphs I outline how you might do that. How do I pick, perhaps more importantly, a sauté pan? What pans do I actually need? We have a section in the book that makes me smile called “Utterly Irrelevant Equipment Miscellany,” which has, amongst other things, a tomato slicer and an avocado scoop and things like that. That book is really targeted for beginner cooks whereas Notes On Cooking is evergreen for everybody. Seasoned cooks find wisdom in it. New cooks find very useful information in it. Competent Cook is definitely more of a starter book in that respect.
Zibby: Good for recent grads and people starting out?
Lauren: Yes. It was a traditional publishing deal. I had an agent who was a friend of husband’s from childhood, who’s a lovely and very bright lady. This was the deal she suggested that I take. It was really interesting. While I had been pitching this way before I started Notes on Cooking, I was writing Notes on Cooking with my partner Russell Reich, who published the book because he had Notes on Directing, which was a runaway hit and still a backlist title today. That was such a different experience because we were on our own timeframe. We could have our own standard of excellence. It didn't have to be a certain number of words. This says you have to submit seventy thousand words. I've written fifty-eight thousand. We’ll just write more recipes, that kind of thing. The cover art was painstakingly dealt with and sweat every detail. The kerning of every letter, literally a week of talking about the kerning of the o’s next to the k and the c in cooking. It was a finalist for Ben Franklin award. Why? Because of that. I remember the cover art for The Competent Cook. The original mockup had a coffee mug and garden shears on it.
Lauren: You laugh because it’s preposterous. Imagine my email and my phone call --
Zibby: -- I don't even want to know.
Lauren: You don't want to know. No one wants my wrath. How ‘bout the fact that in the bio in the back of the book it says Laura Braun Costello? I can assure you I did not submit my bio misspelling my own name, not to impugn all traditional publishing deals by any stretch of the imagination. This particular experience was incredibly different from the self-published. The children's book was self-published also. Two of my three, which are the two most beautiful and exactly what they were intended to be -- I remember I showed this mockup to Tyler Florence at The View one day. I was like, “What do you think of this?” knowing that he could tell that I didn't much care for it. It wasn’t me. He said to me, he goes, “Do they even know you? Have they met you? What is that?” I was able to knock off the garden shears and the coffee mug, neither of which, by the way for listeners out there, are essential tools for the kitchen. A coffee mug might be an essential pregame tool, but it is not an essential cooking tool.
It’s mind-blowing. It’s very different. It taught me a lot about the process and about how I might proceed in the future. Also, I have an adage professionally in my food styling career, which is “Say to anything.” Just say yes. If somebody asks you to do something, say yes. If I could tell my younger self about this particular book deal, I would've said no and waited for a book deal that I thought was more in line with what I thought I should have in terms of the content of the book so it looked like how it feels.
Zibby: Why not go for that now?
Lauren: I suppose I could.
Zibby: I think it’s time.
Lauren: It’s time. The big head-scratcher is do I do it the traditional route or the self-publishing route? That's a big head-scratcher. Now, in today’s space of course, as you well know, some things really should be books. Some things really shouldn't be books. Some things should be blogs in today’s world, the way people digest information. A lot of people tell me, “I'm going to write this book.” There's a reason the Real Housewives of Wherever all have New York Times Bestsellers. It’s not because they're Montesquieu in waiting. It’s because they have this presence. People will buy it. Everything is more ephemeral. If you don't have that presence but you have great ideas, you might be better suited to a blog. Not every story needs to be told in discursive format. Some things should be more fleeting or be queued up in a blog. I grapple with that. It was interesting. I do believe, though, in general in my culinary career saying yes to almost everything led me to every cool experience that I have had and some that I know I've missed. I wouldn't have had my show if I hadn’t said yes to styling for Gail Simmons right after my --
Zibby: -- Tell us more about your show.
Lauren: We had a show called Pantry Challenge on AOL. It was very cool. I went into people's homes and helped them. They were challenged with what was in their pantry. “What do I do with Dijon mustard? It’s been sitting here. I bought it for one recipe a year ago. What do I do with it?” We come up with a recipe to help them. “My kid never eats vegetables. He’s thirteen. He's literally never had a vegetable. I guarantee you won't be able to help me, but can you try?” and then helping and then on camera, unforced, the kid takes three servings of what I've made. That was really fun. That was sponsored by Kraft.
If I hadn’t been doing a food styling gig for my friend and colleague Gail Simmons, it wouldn't have happened. She called me at a time that was very difficult. My grandfather had just died. I was exhausted. My husband was practically living in Sweden trying to save Saab for the third time as a banker. I had a young, young kid. How can I do this? Gail’s really cool. I'd love to do something for her. I'd worked with her before on another show. I said, “I should just do it.” The producers of that show were like, “You should have your own show.” “Thank you. I think so too.” Who doesn't want to have one? So we did it. That way of working in the culinary world was amazing. I got to do so many cool things. I would've not done that particular Competent Cook book deal. I would've done that a little differently. I would've said yes later. That's my one lesson learned. That's okay too.
Zibby: No pressure with this question. You are so immensely talented, as you well know I'm sure. You're a writer, a chef. You're amazing on camera. You have a photographic memory for everything, which I should've mentioned before. You can remember every food styling detail. You're incredible. You have to do something with this talent aside from the parties and delighting your friends. You don't have to. I shouldn’t say that. That's obviously the greatest gift you can give any family member. Selfishly, how are you going to spread this around?
Lauren: I do have a dream. I had a dream. I was eighty percent baked when I was pregnant with my second to have a show. With each passing year, it’s astronomical change. Now, that might take the format of -- we have the big screen and the small screen. Now, it’s the really small screen, the pocket screen. That could be an online type of thing. I have been talking to some friends and some people. Should I do a show? I know you're nodding “Yes, do it.” I probably really, really should.
Zibby: No shoulds.
Lauren: I was going to do it about six years ago. Logistically and interpersonally with my colleagues at the time, things fell apart very sadly and very surprisingly to me and unexpectedly to me, but they did. It was probably meant to be that they did. I gave birth to William. All is good. I didn't care for a while. At first, I cared a lot. People would say, “How are you? What are you up to?” I couldn't answer the question in under three minutes. It was awful. Who wants to talk to somebody at a cocktail party who has to give their little sob story in three hundred seconds or less? It was terrible.
Then by the time my younger son was two, three years old, “What are you up?” “Absolutely nothing,” I would say. I would say that perfectly comfortably because I had given up the dream. It’s okay. I had a really good run. I went from one in a million, to one in ten thousand, to one in a thousand, and then super close to one in a hundred. I had a deal like, “Go make your show. We’re going to syndicate it. We’re going to give you a national TV show.” Losing that was hard. Losing it in that moment, I should say, was hard. Then I felt over the years -- I'm old. I'm forty-one. Who cares? Nobody wants to see what I have to do or hear what I have to say. Then people are constantly telling that that's what they want to do. They want to sit at my island and watch me cook and talk to me. Maybe people should sit at my island and watch me cook and talk to me. How I execute that, I have to figure out.
I am ready to delight in that dream again. Now that I've gotten the kids past a certain point on the highway of childrearing, it’s possible. Another philosophy of mine which is stemmed in all of my books is anything worth doing is worth doing well. The opening quote to Notes on Cooking is from Aristotle. I'm thumbing through it so I don't do any disservice to Aristotle. It’s “Excellence is not an act. It’s what we do. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” That's Aristotle. I totally believe that. Instead of doing everything badly or in a state of mediocrity, which is what can happen when you have young kids and that's the priority, instead of doing everything at a B or a B+, which is not bad, or potentially getting into C-level, I'd just rather do one thing at least aiming for the A. I falter all the time. I know what my beacon is. I know what my beacon of excellence is. There's a period of time in childrearing where, depending on what your own personal standard -- that is a highly personal thing. I don't preach what it should be, the form it takes, whatever it is for you. For me, I knew what that was. It was hard to do it all at once.
Now, I could see making that work again in a way that it was possible when I had only Jonathan. Before Jonathan, I worked like a dog. I could work seven days a week. It’s fine with me. We do now, right? You know, Zibby. We do now. We’re seven days a week now. Even days off aren’t days off. Once you give birth, you're always on. I have to figure out the how. I am finally ready again. It was funny. I never thought that I would not care. There was a period of time where as almost a self-defense, a protection mechanism, I had to say, “I had that dream. I got really close. I've accomplished something.” I've worked with some of the best and the brightest. The food styling stuff is so fun. People say, “You should do a tell-all with all the celebrities you worked for.” I said, “Sure. That's a great way to have no friends.” [laughs] That's a great way never to work again. I have great stories, some of which are completely appropriate to share with the world. Others are a little disparaging of other people. I’ll keep those close to the vest.
I’ve thought about even memoir. As you know, I come from a crazy family. I have some crazy family stories that could weave their way in or around food, or not. I've thought about that because I do love writing. I think that's why I write so many emails at great length. As you know, I'm a big email writer when the time calls. That's about all the time I have for writing. It’s funny. I realize that part of that is my way of connecting not through food but through writing because I haven't been able to sit down -- I have about two chapters of these two books written. I revisit them and write a little more from time to time but not as much as I should. It’s all percolating around. Kids are getting older. I have a middle schooler on the rise now, first grader on the rise. It’s possible. In the meantime, I have to make blintzes before camp because the older one asked me for, “Please, for blintzes mom,” on Thursday for breakfast.
Zibby: The luckiest kids ever.
Lauren: No kidding. You know what I did before I came here? I had hot cinnamon rolls. I made yeast dough last night, overnight cinnamon rolls for his school breakfast. They asked me to make cinnamon rolls. I can't get out of that kitchen. It’s unbelievable.
Zibby: Don't tell my kids whose treat is when I put the pancake mix into the Olaf waffle maker in the mornings is the big treat.
Lauren: That is a big treat. That's the other thing. When I get dressed and go out to a party and I do my hair and put on a little makeup and put heels, I'm not going to look like Gisele Bündchen. It’s not going to happen. I don't have the bod. I don't have the face. I don't have the budget. I don't have the free clothes. I don't have any of it. I shouldn't feel that I don't look my best or didn't achieve some kind of “You look nice today for you.” I don't make Bisquick pancakes. I bet you don't either.
Zibby: They're not Bisquick.
Lauren: I was going to say I bet you have Bob’s or something really good and healthy or whatever the cool, organic thing is of the moment.
Zibby: Yes. It’s a cool, organic thing.
Lauren: That's the thing. Let's say you give your kids Pop Tarts for breakfast. I go on a ski trip and you see, “Bobby, Timmy, Tommy, take a Pop Tart.” I'm like, “You're about to unleash them into the wild for eight hours like sled dogs burning three thousand calories on legalized crack in the form of a biscuit with frosting on it. How can you not give them a hard-boiled egg?” Why don't you hit them with a hard-boiled egg? Timmy, Tommy, and Petey are going to be cracked out at twelve noon. I hope they're getting chili for lunch up there on the mountain. If that's your baseline -- it isn't yours and it isn't mine -- why don't you upgrade the toaster strudel to a premade hard-boiled egg from the grocery store and even an Eggo waffle? If you're an Eggo waffle gal, why don't you get Vans? If you're Vans, you can do it, mix that Bob’s Mill mix. Wherever you are on the spectrum, just up your game one notch. There's a difference between food prep and actual cooking. Cooking is commanding heat, moving moisture. If you're just assembling stuff, you're not really cooking. Have an honest conversation with yourself about that.
Zibby: My book will be Notes on Assembling. [laughs]
Lauren: Notes on Assembling. You know who's great at Notes on Assembling? Sandra Lee. She has her philosophy of seventy percent and thirty percent. That's okay too. It’s not my thing. It’s all valid as long as you bring joy to it and love to it and you find purpose in it and you connect with people through it. Food is good stuff. We need it. Thank goodness. We need it.
Zibby: Amazing. Lauren, thank you so much for comin’ on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Again, her books are Notes on Cooking and The Competent Cook and Eat Your Breakfast or Else! Lauren Braun Costello. Pick them up as gifts or just to read yourself. Thanks.