Sitting Down With Leonard Lopate

For talk radio aficionados, weekdays at noon belong to the mellifluous voice and conversational skills of Leonard Lopate, whose daily dialogue with everyone from movie directors to scientists to politicians to chefs is now in its 25th year. The eponymous show has garnered three Associated Press awards and three James Beard Awards, as well as legions of fans who tune into 93.9 FM and AM 820 each day without fail.

The Brooklyn native—raised in an East Williamsburg walkup, he now calls a Carroll Gardens brownstone apartment home—studied art and worked in advertising before he snagged his first show in 1977. An avid home cook—he rarely eats out, preferring instead to stir chanterelle risotto with his girlfriend, painter and artist Melanie Baker—these days he’s just as likely to pontificate on Cook’s Illustrated’s perfectionist recipes as on art or literature. We got to interview the interviewer about his own kitchen.

Why and what I cook

My mother cooked frozen food. My mother was not a great cook. I think that was the reason I got into food. I cook, and I’m with somebody [Melanie] who cooks wonderfully, and the good part is we don’t get in the way of each other when are cooking. I’ll become the prep for her and she’ll become the prep for me. We never think about it as anything other than just getting the thing done. Right now Melanie is madly in love with Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc cookbook. And we have had any number of dishes from it. I think there was the short ribs. And we also are madly in love with Jim Lahey’s new book [My Bread], and we’ve been making bread from it on a regular basis. There’s a little bit left there from the last one.

Poverty and Brooklyn’s famous steakhouse

I grew up near Peter Luger, but I was so poor I had no thought at the time when I was growing up-we lived on Broadway with the el train going by—I had no thought that I’d ever eat at Peter Luger. I would walk by Peter Luger and there’d be all these limos, and I never even looked in, because it just was so beyond me. And then I finally went there and it was anticlimactic, I mean you build this thing up in your head as the greatest steak ever. As I understand, they just simply pour butter onto the steak. How can you go wrong with that?

We grew up in what can only be called a rat’s nest of a building at 352 Broadway between Rodney and Keap. And it really is one of those places if you’re in an elevated train and the train stops between stations—we were between Marcy and Hewes—if the train stops and you look and you think, who the heck would live there: We did, for seven years. When the trains didn’t run in the middle of the night because there was a snowstorm I’d wake up in the middle of the night, because subconsciously it was so much a part of the normal process of the night.

The too-small dishwasher

If I could change anything: The dishwasher is ridiculous. It’s not my decision. I immediately talked to [the landlord] about putting in my own dishwasher, and they said “oh, the pipes won’t allow it.” This is such a ridiculous dishwasher, I do two loads a day.

Cast-iron skillet

That’s a favorite. I’ve had it for 15 years. Michael Lomanaco [the chef at Porter House New York] and I, we did a little YouTube video of me cooking pancakes. And he was really impressed with the pan, how it was seasoned, how easy it was to cook with it. When Michael Lomanaco says, “that’s a really nice one,” you feel very good about yourself.

Cook’s Illustrated Oatmeal Cookies

They’re from this [The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook] and Melanie’s been making them for years. This book I love, because this is really 10 years of it. It’s from all those Cook’s Illustrated magazines. Did you try a cookie?  Try a cookie.

The end of the chanterelles

We have a friend, John Godfried, who was one of the people who created Gourmet Garage, and he is a mycologist. We spent a weekend with him, he lives in the Delaware River area, New Hope or whatever, and we got in the car and we went driving around there, he knows all the places. There were chanterelles all over the place and nobody knew, there were people just whizzing by, and we started picking them and we had to stop at seven pounds. First we had them fresh, and then we had them sautéed so they wouldn’t go bad. In late summer we were eating chanterelle risotto, chanterelle omelets, we had chanterelles with everything, and now we’re down to this measly little amount.

Wine: bottles, glasses and gear

Then there are things that are the embarrassing things. Like the number of wine glasses I have. Very high. And here’s what I have that is really embarrassing. I probably have more wine openers than any person in the world. One day I counted and there were like 20. Whatever comes out I use.  I have two caves. Here’s one: This is where I put the better ones.  And then I realized I was overflowing. So I bought a second cave, which is here. And then I have a whole batch of wines over here as well. This is what we’re drinking regularly. The white is Oyster Bay. And the reds are a mix of a wonderful, wonderful, way more-expensive-than-I-usually-go American zin called Victory.  I have a system for wine, ’cause you don’t always want to drink a whole bottle. So here’s what I do. This is my system: If I think I am not going to drink a whole bottle, I pour half a bottle in this and cork it. And then it’s same as if I never opened it, this can sit forever, this is a new bottle.

It’s all about sharing

There are two kinds of cookbooks: There are the books that I will cook from regularly and there are the ones where the chef signed them to me. Look at Keller: I have two Kellers. Did you ever see Keller, the way Keller signs a book? Very fancy. Does he say the same thing here? “It’s all about sharing.” That’s his line. If you ever have to sign autographs, and you wonder what you should write—with him its obviously “it’s all about sharing.” He’s been saying it for a long time.

La Technique by Jacques Pepin

This is one of the greatest cookbooks of all time. I don’t know if you know this one. This is the one that every chef will tell you about. Basically what he does is he takes you through every single thing. Now I have the paperback version. He shows you everything.

It’s fabulous. And, as he says, it’s all about technique anyway.

Taking stock

This is just coincidental, but that is unstrained chicken stock that we made yesterday. If you look in the freezer you’ll find a lot of beef stock. And soon we’ll have some chicken stock.  The usual process is when we buy a bunch of carrots we cut off the tops and stick ’em in a bag in the freezer, if I get mushrooms I take the stems and put ’em in the freezer, if we have beef bones we put ’em in the freezer, if I have chicken I put it in the freezer. And then we clean out the freezer.

Save for Melanie’s still life

It says “Do Not Eat.” You know why? Because one day I ate her oranges. And once I did an onion, too.

Power of the pantry

And then there’s our pantry. You know I thought that I would put a rollout washing machine in here. I don’t have the space. You know, I never had a pantry before and, now, I can’t live without a pantry.

The grind

This is my coffee. We grind our own coffee every morning. There are so many different sources. My favorite when I go there is Fairway, because you get fair-trade really good stuff for eight bucks. Fairway is unbelievable. But I often buy Trader Joe’s.  Mainly what I want is a French roast kind of thing, a dark roast.  I go to D’Amico. Sometimes I get it at Union Market if I’m low and the prices are right.

Matzo mitzvah

The matzo is there simply because the owner of Streit’s matzo came on my show and he left some matzo. And it’s been sitting in my office and I finally brought it home. And I thought somewhere along the line I might make matzo brei.  Because I like matzo brei.

Rachel Wharton, Edible Brooklyn’s Deputy Editor, hopes to someday be invited to Leonard Lopate’s house for dinner, preferably during chanterelle season.

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