Cookbook author Dana Slatkin’s culinary fairytale
All year long, we long for the slow, sun soaked-days, the warmth, the waves, when we can fritter away the daylight hours in a marvelous cacophony of sensory summer pleasures — sweating in the sand, sipping sweet or sparkling, reading Russian literature and eating fresh garden meals served at twilight.
For cookbook author and blogger Dana Slatkin, this is everyday life. It is the endless summer fairy tale that comes with marrying the man who owns Shutters on the Beach, the luxury Santa Monica hotel, as well as its next-door neighbor, Casa del Mar. It’s OK, be jealous.
As a bonus, Slatkin happens also to be lovely, generous and stylistically eccentric (when we meet, she is wearing a JCrew jacket with paint splattered all over it and a rather head-turning snake ring slithering up her middle finger). She exudes an air of being kissed by affluence without being overly impressed by it. And she is reticent about trumpeting her own talent, even when urged to brag.
“I really feel like I haven’t made a huge impact,” the 47-year-old said between mouthfuls of gazpacho at Le Pain Quotidien in Beverly Hills. “I’m just, kind of, cooking one meal at a time.”
In a culture obsessed by female ambition and work-life balance, Slatkin reflects a healthy mix of drive and familial devotion. The mother of three is the creator of the food and lifestyle website Beverly Hills Farmgirl and the author of the 130-recipe cookbook “Summertime Anytime.” She is also a chef-for-hire who offers a variety of cooking classes in her home kitchen. Rather than focus on personal achievement, Slatkin prefers to model her mode of healthy living.
Life as she knows it even began with a drop of medicine.
Fresh from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, and high-level apprenticeships with two of the world’s most famous French and French-inspired chefs, Slatkin was the general manager of the Los Angeles French restaurant L’Orangerie when, one day, she decided to visit her father, an attorney, at work.
That very day, he happened to be negotiating the deal for two brothers to purchase Shutters out of bankruptcy. He also happened to be sick.
“I left work to bring him some homeopathic medicine. And just as I was walking in, Edward [Slatkin] walked out into the lobby, and he said, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ It’s the oldest line in the book, but he said it so sincerely!” she gushed. “It was really bashert.”
It was not the first time love inspired her course.
During her junior year abroad from UC Berkeley, Slatkin was studying in Venice, Italy, when her handsome Italian boyfriend introduced her to his family’s trattoria. She still vividly recalls those long, luscious afternoons spent around the table eating olive-oil-soaked antipasti and slurping ribbons of spaghetti.
“It was kind of a fantasy,” Slatkin said. “I would go there everyday after school and help make the minestrone and the pasta and the marinara,” she added, accenting each word in the Italian style — minestrone-EY, mah-ree-na-RRRa.
Delicious food, although sufficient unto itself, was really a gateway for something else she craved. The little Venetian trattoria taught her that food could generate a communal way of life. “I liked the idea of sitting at a table all afternoon, where people come and go; you share, you eat, you work out everyone’s problems, you go home, and you do it again the next day,” she said. “At the time, my parents were divorcing, so that idea of bringing people together was really attractive to me.”
She swiftly ended her plans to follow her father and become a lawyer. “I didn’t want to be in the crossfire of people’s arguments,” she said. “I just wanted to make people happy.”
Slatkin and her brother were brought up in Los Angeles, “kind of like flower children,” she said. Both parents attended UC Berkeley in the 1960s, when it was a countercultural hotbed. Adulthood tamed their radical idealism; they were free-spirited, but with limits. And they did not take it well when Slatkin returned from Italy and announced her plan to move to New York and attend culinary school.
Halfway through her training, Slatkin reached out to French chef Georges Blanc, whose namesake restaurant had received three coveted stars from the Michelin Guide, to ask if she could apprentice in his kitchen. When she arrived in Vonnas, a small village outside Lyon, she didn’t speak a lick of French. “I was the only female in a kitchen of 40 boys [so] I learned fast,” she said. “I made a total fool of myself once because I had to ask the chef if I could turn down the oven and I said, ‘Excusez, pourrais-je baiser le four?’— which really meant, ‘Could I please f— the oven?’ The entire kitchen fell on the floor laughing, and I died of embarrassment.”
After that, she worked with another renowned French chef, David Bouley, in New York, though she learned some methods in that kitchen she swore never to use again. “I remember he made a lobster dish, and each dish must have had a stick of butter in it — every single lobster was perched in a pool of butter,” she recalled.
Nowadays Slatkin is focused on farm-to-table, non-processed foods that she cooks nightly from scratch. A vegetarian since she was 12, she said a typical meal at home consists of protein, a grain and two vegetable dishes. “I can get dinner together in an hour,” she said, inviting the envy of cooking mothers everywhere.
In 2008, Slatkin published her first cookbook, “Summertime Anytime,” celebrating favorite recipes from Shutters. “People say, Write what you know,’ and Shutters was something I knew very well,” she said. Except for the dishes calling for shrimp, crab and clams. “We keep kosher,” Slatkin explained, “so I went over to my mom’s kitchen and cooked those recipes blind. Then I had her taste them.”
Around the same time, she also launched her website, where each week she posts personal missives on a range of topics, from how to properly clean mushrooms (drop a touch of flour into ice water) to where to buy the perfect summer hat (make sure it’s straw).
The combination of cooking, writing and teaching classes suits her, she said, because they all require someone else with whom to share the experience.
“In the beginning, I was really talking to myself, writing about my experiences, my frustrations with the kids, things that were either interesting or challenging to me, things that I was grappling with,” she said. But then, “Healthy cooking kind of mushroomed into healthy living. And what I realized was, my style of cooking was really my style of living, and I wanted to encourage people to make that connection, that how they eat is how they live.”
Slatkin knows that not everyone can afford the high-quality ingredients she buys at local farmers markets, but she insists that cooking from scratch is a way to “heal our wounded food chain and food supply.”
This fall, she hopes to dig deeper into some of these issues when she takes on what could be her biggest project yet: pitching a food-news TV show she has been developing for the last five years, which she described as “the ‘Entertainment Tonight’ of food news.”
Even as she reaches midlife, Slatkin is, in some ways, just getting started. “I don’t think I’ve done what I’m most proud of yet,” she admitted.
Her young dream, after all, was simply to make people happy.
“I do think food is healing,” she said. “On a micro level and a macro level; gathering at the table creates peace in the household, [so] meal by meal, I don’t see why we can’t create peace in the world. That’s kind of become my tikkun olam, my mission.”