There she is, America’s sweetheart chef-instructor, fixing a tidy pizza in her kitchen. Black flip-flops and no makeup, the signature blond ponytail working for her at age 64. Explaining and doing and smiling all at once, just as she has done on the small screen for decades.
You’ve been missed, Sara Moulton.
The statement baffles her. It was prompted by a reporter’s casual survey of millennials who cook and call themselves fans. Sample comment: “Is she still around?”
It seems unlikely that Moulton could fly below anybody’s culinary radar in America. A star protegee of Julia Child, she appeared on Food Network for almost a decade starting in the 1990s, was a regular on ABC’s “Good Morning America” from 1997 through 2012 and has starred in five seasons of the American Public Television series “Sara’s Weeknight Meals,” which airs across 93 percent of the country, plus Guam. She was, of course, during some of those years also running the executive dining room at Gourmet magazine.
That PBS audience skews older; she’s not crushing it on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
But Moulton’s reach extends via print: a weekly syndicated newspaper column she has written since 2012 and four cookbooks, the most recent of which is “Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better” (Oxmoor House, 2016). It is her most personal one, she says, and was so tough to finish that she may never do another.
“I could so use six months off from cooking right now,” she says.
Who in the food world admits that? Is that really you, Sara?
“She’s exactly the same person on television that she is in person,” says Moulton’s friend Elizabeth Karmel, a chef and food writer who left Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York a year ago to pursue her own projects. “Sara does her own research; she’s not regurgitating. She’s going to tell you the easiest way to do something. She hasn’t gone away.”
Moulton says: “A lot of young people who were 8 or 9 when I was on ‘Cooking Live’ have continued to cook, I know,” referring to her Food Network show, which ran until 2005. “They tell me they remember watching.”
In early March, one of them invited her to dine at his restaurant. “I saw that she’d be in town for the housewares show,” says Lee Wolen, executive chef and partner of Boka in Chicago. “She came back in the kitchen afterward, and we talked for quite a while. She was cool.”
Moulton has been kitchen-trained just about every way a person can be. She grew up in New York with a mother who was an adventurous home cook and threw lots of dinner parties. Young Sara became her sous-chef, rising to unofficial head cook on Sunday nights, when family members fended for themselves. Mother noted how daughter repurposed party leftovers.
It wasn’t until Moulton found herself “happily slinging burgers in a bar” part time while she studied at the University of Michigan that her mother began steering her toward proper chefdom, via letters seeking advice from Craig Claiborne and Julia Child. The New York Times food editor wrote back and recommended enrolling Sara in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. She graduated from there in 1977.
Moulton says her work has “been heaven ever since,” which is fairly gracious considering her apprenticeship with a tyrannical chef in France — at the urging of mentor Child. Her work has also included seven years in restaurant kitchens and getting dumped by Food Network, which took three years to build her a set of her own (“the boys got theirs faster”) and barely acknowledged the challenges of “Cooking Live Primetime” (1999) four nights a week.
Those 1,200 hour-long “Live” shows ran for a total of six years and were themed, often along the lines of ingredients. That helped her to research and prepare each day. Dinner came together on the set while Moulton chopped and dropped and broiled things, sometimes till burnt. Always smiling. Viewers called in with questions as they cooked along.
“Once, early on, someone asked me what the difference was between golden and black raisins — it has to do with how they are dehydrated — and I gave an answer that was incorrect. I went back on the air next time and corrected myself. From then on, if I didn’t know about something, I’d say, ‘I’ll get back to you’ . . . . I never once sauteed like I was taught in chef school,” tossing the ingredients high with a flick of the wrist. “I didn’t want what I was doing to look intimidating.”
She takes credit for helping to introduce panko, chipotles in adobo and fish spatulas to the cooking public. What she liked best, she recalls, was when a viewer would call in and teach her something new.
In 1984, in multiple-job mode, Moulton signed on as an instructor at the Peter Kump Cooking School, now the Institute of Culinary Education. “Peter Kump was an unsung hero,” she says. “I found out I was truly good at teaching there. When I was young I used to tutor second- and third-graders. You know what? Teaching adults is absolutely the same thing as teaching kids.”
Moulton had witnessed a mission to teach during the filming of the public television series “Julia Child and More Company” in 1979. Two days a week for three months, while she was head chef at Cybele in Boston, the 27-year-old assistant helped to test and develop recipes and prepped three backups for every single part of every recipe to be shown. “It was an enormous amount of work,” she says. “Thing is, Julia never made mistakes. After a while, she was making them on purpose so she could demonstrate how to correct them.”
Lessons learned at Child’s elbow have become Moulton’s mantra for chefs on TV: Smile, always. Don’t forget to make the food look delicious. In her later gig as off-camera food stylist at “Good Morning America,” she shared her knowledge with guest-spot chefs. “I was nurturing,” Moulton says. “I made a lot of friends back then: Emeril, Wolfie [Wolfgang Puck], Rick Bayless, Martin Yan, Jasper White. Charlie Trotter said he was eternally grateful for my help during rehearsals.”
White, the Boston chef-restaurateur, says, “What she does is really hard. There’s a handful of people I’ve worked with who are incredible on TV: Ming Tsai, Mary Ann Esposito, Martha Stewart, Julia Child, Emeril. Sara’s one of them.”
Says Moulton: “I never wanted to be on TV.”
But you’re crazy good at it, Sara.
TV chefs are often the beneficiaries of home-kitchen refurbishings, compliments of appliance manufacturers or retailers that sponsor their programming. Moulton’s was installed in 2007 in the 2,100-square-foot Chelsea apartment she shares with her husband, American music journalist Bill Adler, and, temporarily, their 25-year-old son, Sam, and 29-year-old daughter, Ruth.
Family dinners remain sacred there. The kitchen looks no more outfitted than the average cook’s, with an electric stove and too little work space to accommodate a food processor and blender; those two and more countertop machines are plugged in around the corner and down a step, at the far end of the galley where she uses them. The dry-goods pantry, also outside the kitchen footprint, “looks discombobulated, but I know where everything is,” Moulton says.
Classic cookbooks fill a good portion of the living room bookshelves. The TV set is tucked inside a red Chinese cabinet. Moulton doesn’t receive review cookbooks like she used to, and she doesn’t watch cooking shows, although she’s quick to champion the work of Washington’s Pati Jinich (“it’s a teaching show”) and was glad to see the Mexican chef and cookbook author earn a James Beard nomination for her public-TV show this year. A painting of a chef’s coat in muted, earthy tones turns out to be a memento of her days at Gourmet; it hung in the executive dining room there.
“Sara’s Weeknight Meals” takes place elsewhere. It is a happy collaboration, filmed at the Connecticut home of her longtime producer-partner, Natalie Gustafson. Its mission is to teach and share; “we lost a couple of generations to frozen meals and women with demanding jobs,” Moulton says. The show was nominated for a Beard award in 2013 and two years later; she did mind losing to “Chopped,” the competition based on cooking out of a mystery basket.
“Cooking, to me, is about sharing and family dining — not competition,” she says. “It’s about nurturing, context. A life.” That’s certainly reflected in the new “Home Cooking 101,” in which Moulton shares tips and techniques via 150 recipes. Unlike for her previous cookbooks, the author worked solo for a year and says it was especially difficult because she’d never had to do all the shopping, testing and recipe editing herself.
To Moulton, the key chapter is the first one, in which she lays out a roster of home-cooking basics. “Dispense with mise en place” clocks in at No. 5 and speaks to her preference for practicality over chef experience. “The rule is to prep and measure all your ingredients before you start cooking,” she writes. “I don’t bother with it anymore, except in a few rare cases. . . . I realized that I was spending a lot of time preparing all the ingredients in advance instead of taking advantage of lulls in the cooking time of one ingredient to prep the next ingredient.”
Seasoning foods properly makes her top 10 list, as well. Tomatoes and steak benefit from pre-salting; they taste more how they should taste, as she demonstrates in a steak salad with béarnaise dressing that takes her one quick story and 20 minutes to assemble. Along with the written recipe in the book, she includes a bit of wisdom from French cooking teacher Madeleine Kamman: Marry the sauce to the protein. So Moulton adds the juices from the resting steak to her own salad dressing, enhanced with dried tarragon as well as fresh.
“I was looking at her new book recently, and I learned something that I’d never thought about doing before,” says Elizabeth Karmel. “When I started cutting avocados, you’d hold it in your hand and whack at the exposed pit with a big knife. I met a food stylist six years ago who did just that, and the knife went right into her hand. It painted a picture in my mind that I’ve never forgotten. So Sara’s technique thrills me.” It calls for keeping the fruit on the cutting board and slicing in a way that creates quartered sections, one of which cradles the easily removable pit.
Moulton is soon heading out to promote “Home Cooking 101,” eager to do the demos and meet the people who, as of this week, made it the No. 23 best-selling cooking reference book on Amazon. She’ll be teaching and nurturing and smiling. Given all that she has learned and the thousands of on-camera hours she has logged, she’d be terrific at a reprise of “Cooking Live.”
“I would never do it now,” she says, gearing up for dinnertime at home. “I’ve been replaced by Google. Everybody would call me and tell me what I was doing wrong.”
That could never happen, Sara.
Moulton will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. In the Washington area, “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” airs on WETA, WHUT and MPT2; reruns appear on public television’s Create channel. Check listings for times.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Boston restaurant where Sara Moulton was head chef. It is Cybele, not Sibelle’s.