Sparkle Sessions are back! My female entrepreneur interview series took a short hiatus but I am so excited it has returned and for my eighth feature I get to share the story of another powerful woman doing great things. Recently I had the chance to interview Chef Jessica Harlan about her career as a chef and her new cookbook.
Her latest publication, “The Simple Art of Salt Block Cooking” which she co-authored with Kelley Sparwasser, comes out later this month and features 144 pages of beautifully photographed, mouth watering dishes. The thing that makes this cookbook different from most, however, is that all recipes are comprised of tasty dishes you can make with a Himalayan salt block, one of the hottest new kitchen tools.
Jessica, how did you decide you wanted to become a chef?
My first job out of college was as a magazine editor in the gourmet food and restaurant industry. I fell in love with the culinary world: the chefs had such great personalities; the food was like nothing I’d ever tasted in the small Midwestern town in which I grew up. When I later moved to New York and became a freelance writer, I decided to go to culinary school so that I could become a better food writer – I wanted to be able to talk to the chefs in their own language, so to speak. It was a great move for me, without it I wouldn’t be so good at developing recipes.
What are five words you would use to describe yourself?
Mother, friend, cook, writer, helper.
What is your favorite tool in the kitchen?
It’s so hard to pick just one! I’d say it’s a tie between my Victorinox chef’s knife, which feels so good in my hand that it’s the only knife I reach for in my overflowing cutlery drawer; or my Microplane grater. I use the Microplane for garlic, ginger, lemon peel, Parmesan cheese, and more. A friend gave it to me probably 15 years ago, and it is still going strong.
For someone who would consider themselves a “bad cook” which recipe in your new book would you recommend they start with?
In The Simple Art of Salt Block Cooking, which I co-wrote with Kelley Sparwasser and is coming out this fall, I’d start with one of the vegetable recipes, like Seared Asparagus with Lemon Compound Butter, or Blistered Green Beans with Bacon Vinaigrette. Veggies are pretty forgiving when you cook them – if they’re underdone you can just say they’re “al dente”, and if they’re overdone, they get a nice caramelized crust.
Which celebrity would you most like to cook for? Why?
I definitely wouldn’t want to cook for a famous chef or foodie, it would be too intimidating! So I guess I wouldn’t mind making dinner for one of my favorite funny celebs: Neil Patrick Harris (who loves food and is married to a chef) or Paul Rudd. Either of them would be a nice addition to a really fun dinner party!
This is your sixth cookbook with Ulysses Press, what are the elements that make a successful cookbook?
I think that a successful cookbook has a good balance of easier, accessible recipes that have familiar ingredients and quick, uncomplicated instructions, as well as recipes that are fancier or more ambitious, for when you need a meal that’s a little more special. This is one of the strengths of my partnership with Kelley (with whom I also co-wrote the book Quinoa Cuisine) – as a busy mom my cooking style has evolved to be pretty simple and straightforward, whereas Kelley is really into interesting ingredients and more elaborate, impressive recipes. Together, I think we are able to put together a cookbook that appeals to all kinds of cooks!
I also always include plenty of meatless recipes (and often an entire vegetarian main course chapter), since so many people are either vegetarians or trying to cut down on their meat consumption. Finally, I’m a big fan of a personal feel to a cookbook: the introduction or recipe notes should make you feel like you know the author, because she includes anecdotes about the recipe or shares what inspired her to create it.
What is your favorite quote?
“People who love to eat are always the best people.” This is just one of many awesome Julia Child quotes, and I firmly believe it – I am always a bit suspicious of people who aren’t into good food and good drink.
Where do you see your business in five years?
Good question! Sometimes I wish I had a crystal ball. I’d like to continue with my cookbook writing and other food writing projects (I am the Cooking Equipment Expert for About.com and also write the Road Tested column for Tasting Table) but I’d also like to get back into the kitchen in a non-writing way. Right now I’m working with a specialty catering company, but ultimately I’d like to be a personal chef or do something else that services people who feel like they’re overwhelmed in the kitchen.
What is one lesson you had to learn the hard way?
I think one thing that’s been hard for me to learn is how to deal with rejection. Especially in the publishing world, there are so many talented writers all vying for the same jobs. I feel lucky to have gotten the writing gigs I’ve gotten, but there are certainly many others – particularly when I was first starting out –that I didn’t get. Each time I missed out, it has been hard not to take it personally.
Finally, do you have any advice for other female entrepreneurs?
I’d say that the most valuable thing you can have in any line of business, is a strong network of people who have your back and believe in your talent and capability. It’s so much easier to get what you want (whether it’s a job, a client, or a referral) if you have an “in” with someone who knows you and knows that you’re worthy. Nurture your world of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Help them whenever you can, knowing that they will be more likely to do the same for you, and above all, don’t burn bridges because you never know how that person might cross your path in the future!
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I do not know about you but I was very hungry after all this talk of food! I am excited to share that I am teaming up with Ulysses Press and Jessica to give one of you the opportunity to win her new cookbook, you can enter below!