On the Line: An Interview With Cathy Thomas

I won’t lie. I was pretty ecstatic when legendary local cooking columnist Cathy Thomas said yes to an interview. I may have even jumped up and down and clapped a bit. She is a colleague I have a great deal of respect for, and it was an honor to have her participate in this week’s On the Line. You may recognize Thomas from her Cathy Thomas Cooks video segments or multiple cookbooks, but today the focus is on her.

What was your profession prior to being Cathy Thomas Cooks?
When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be a chef. But women essentially had no place in professional kitchens. So I got a degree and taught kindergarten for a few years, spending summers studying cooking in Paris and London (plus hanging out in home kitchens in France with French relatives). That led to a career teaching cooking and conducting international culinary tours, a job that morphed into 26 years as a food journalist at the Orange County Register.

Do you actually film your cooking videos from your home kitchen? Have you always filmed there?
The majority of the videos have been taped in my home kitchen, but I’ve shot in avocado groves, cooking schools and restaurants. For many years I wrote a column called Liquid Assets that showcased craft cocktails. I shot those in OC bars.

Any useful cooking tips picked up from your subjects?
Chef Alessandro Pirozzi taught me how to make octopus carpaccio. The oh-so-thin slices of this cylindrical terrine look like salami on the plate. He forms it in a pristine plastic, large-size soda pop bottle.

Have there been any kitchen mishaps you can share?
Once in a jam-packed, English Christmas cooking class, a prime rib burst into flames in the oven when the aluminum roasting pan beneath it sprung a leak. Calmly, I doused the flames with baking soda. The meat was delicious.

How did you meet your husband, Phil?
He was a student at one of my cooking classes. Before class, he asked if he could help. I gave him the lousy job of prepping squid. He arranged it on the counter in graduated sizes from small to large like a picket fence. It was the cleanest calamari I had ever seen. Kitchen love.

Best advice for the home cook.
The more you cook, the easier (and faster) it gets. Turn on some great music. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Enjoy the process.

How did you eat growing up?
Mom was a health nut, a disciple of Adelle Davis, the nutritional guru of the day. Our meals had loads of fresh vegetables, mountains of salad and plenty of lean protein. Home cooked meals every night a six o’clock. It was a different time. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley on a one-acre walnut orchard. We had chickens, ducks, pheasants and endless amounts of fruits, vegetables and, of course, walnuts.

You’re making breakfast; what are you having?
I adore eggs. A seasoned egg, over-easy, atop Dave’s Killer Bread, toasted cracker-crisp.

Let’s discuss those culinary tours! What countries have you visited?
Oh my. Most of Europe and some of Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, China and Vietnam. One of my early tours included lessons with Lucy Lo in Hong Kong. She was a hoot, lecturing the group of primarily women to pay attention to their culinary skills and forget about playing mah-jongg all day, “If you want to keep your husbands, (she warned) you’d better learn to make soup!” Imagine.

Who are some of your favorite chefs to work with?
I started taping web videos in 2001. The technology was brand new; I sounded like Daffy Duck, and the videos appeared in a tiny format on the screen. With the exception of one famous food writer who turned out to be a pill, everyone I’ve taped with has been a joy.

I was nervous at the thought of cooking with Thomas Keller. The chef-proprietor of The French Laundry (Yountville) and Per Se (New York City), two of America’s most prestigious temples of refined cuisine, was going to step into my real world home kitchen. He asked to borrow an apron, and with no small degree of embarrassment, I led him to the ragtag assortment hanging from a hook in my pantry. Most were given to me as some kind of promotion, such as the apron with large black and white splotches meant to look like a Holstein’s hide; it said “The Skinny Cow” across the bib. Or the ruffled, magenta polka-dot beauty with a large ruffled hem from Barcelona. “Why don’t you give chef one with little duckies on it?” I thought I heard videographer Curt Norris whisper with a chuckle. Chef Keller found one with a hotel’s logo, turned it inside out, and was good to go. He was extremely gracious, and before long we’d prepared a perfect salt-crusted striped bass with gremolata and lemon aioli.

Tell us about your career at the Register.
My career at the Register started in 1989. Initially, I split my time between writing and food styling. Later, I became a food columnist and the food editor. Initially we had two sections back-to-back every week, each requiring splashy cover photos. Often those sections combined to have more than 40 pages. It was food coverage heyday. But when grocery store advertising disappeared, everything changed and food sections were no longer cash cows. During my tenure at the paper I was thrilled to be named the Best Food Columnist in America by the Association of Food Journalists.

I’m supposed to ask what you drove around in before the Prius.
For 13 years,  I drove a silver Porsche Boxster with bright green interior. I’d pack that beauty with pots and pans, produce and props. It was great fun. But when I became a grandmother I needed a back seat. So I bought a plug-in Prius.

Last thing you looked up online.
Silk scarves. I needed a birthday present for a friend.

I want to know more about Katie. 
Katie is our feisty Cairn terrier. Black ears, red coat and attitude. When we call at her, one question runs through her mind, “Is it going to be fun?” If she thinks it is going to be entertaining, she strolls over slowly, using “terrier time”.

What are the most nutrient dense plants, according to your current book The 50 Best Plants on the Planet?
Asparagus is the most nutrient dense vegetable (Happy to see Amar Santana puts raw asparagus in his steak salad at Vaca.). Blackberries are the most nutrient dense fruit.

Since we’re on the topic of books, tell us about your other published works. 
I’ve written three books in conjunction with Melissa’s Produce. Melissa’s Great Book of Produce sheds light on more than 100 fruits and vegetables. It’s a cookbook as well as a reference book. It aims to demystify the produce aisles. I think that almost every serious newspaper culinary writer in the country has a copy on their desk.

Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce explores cooking with organically-grown fruits and vegetables. The recipes are healthful and delicious, and, best of all, easy to prepare (Both the first and second books received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, a coveted designation that is a rarity.)

Fifty Best Plants on the Planet deals with the 50 most nutritionally dense fruits and vegetables that grown on Earth. It’s not a diet book, per se; it’s all about delicious, revealing how to select, store, prep and cook highly nutritious fruits and vegetables.

What’s growing in your edible garden?
I have a limited amount of space, but culinary gardener Kat Agresto helps me figure out ways to use the space to its best advantage. Fruit trees are espaliered against walls. Raised beds contain kale, artichokes, blueberries, borage, chard, fennel and African blue basil. Walkways are lined with strawberries and herbs.

What is your favorite childhood memory?
Actually, cooking. The first thing I learned to prepare was my mother’s Roquefort vinaigrette. I was probably four or five, and I thought it was a magical process. In high school, I found out that boys love tacos. I used to make gazillions of them using my father’s ground venison. Hungry boys would flock to our kitchen table. 

Hardest life lesson you’ve learned.
Be patient. Things will usually eventually work out.

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