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In the Kitchen with Stephen Exel

Produced by Julianne Hilmes Bartlett

I couldn’t live without this kitchen appliance/accessory:
Chef’s knife. It was a gift from the chef at a restaurant I managed in Philadelphia when I took classes at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. It’s an old-school Henckels; I’ve had it for years. The handle has conformed to my hand over time.

The best recipe of all time is...
Oh wow. I have to say my Mom’s spaghetti sauce. I had to recreate it from memory and even though it’s meat-based I coerced my brother, who is vegetarian, to taste it to make sure it was right. He is the only other person who has the palate memory for it. Whenever I make it, my apartment smells like home.

Are you more of a follow-the-recipe kind of cook or do you throw caution to the wind?
If I’ve never made a recipe before I pretty much stick to it, albeit with a critical eye for error. After that, it’s no-holds-barred. Often, I improvise as I go.

Would you rather cook or do the cleanup?
Cook, of course! I drive my sister-in-law crazy because when I bake at their house I tend to leave a dusting of flour in my wake.

My go-to dish for entertaining is...
My go-to dessert is a Tarte Tatin. I was lucky to get a Mauviel copper Tatin pan and I was so anxious to use it, I made the recipe on the cardboard liner on the bottom of the pan. It was perfect, and when I’m in a pinch I throw it together the morning of the dinner party. And it always impresses.

My dream kitchen would definitely include...
Enough storage for all my dishes, which has nothing and everything to do with cooking.

My earliest kitchen memory is...
I don’t have the charming kitchen memories that most foodies have. My Mom worked during an era when most women stayed home and she had a repertoire of easy recipes (see “Mom’s Spaghetti Sauce”) and my grandmas lived far away. But I did have to fix dinner a lot for my brother and I, if you call Spaghetti-O’s and grilled cheese sandwiches dinner. He liked his toasted in the oven and I liked mine open-face under the broiler.

My biggest kitchen disaster was...
Making tomato soup for 30 people for an Andy Warhol-inspired event. We needed all the soup cans for décor so I made this 20-quart pot of soup. The soup in the bottom of the pot scorched. There was nothing to do but serve the slightly burnt soup. Everyone commented on the delicious roasted tomato flavor. You can fool some of the people some of the time…

My greatest kitchen/culinary success is...
Receiving a letter or note from a reader telling me how much they enjoyed a recipe, especially when they say it has become part of their family tradition. There’s no greater compliment.

My favorite/most-used cookbook is...
by Alice Waters is a favorite. I constantly reference the , known as “the Red Plaid” around the office. Even Betty Draper Francis has one in her Mad Men kitchen set.

White kitchen or colorful kitchen?
White, but not antiseptic.

The best dinner parties always include...
A great mix of guests and “the lively art of conversation,” as Chicago columnist Irv Kupcinet used to say.

Big kitchen island or breakfast nook table?
An island for prep and a breakfast nook for eating.

My best kitchen advice is...
Trust your instincts, experiment, and don’t be disappointed by your mistakes.

My biggest talent when it comes to cooking is...
Making something out of nothing. Even when there’s “nothing in the fridge,” there’s always something in the fridge.

Kitchen pet peeve:
You know that running shopping list you’re supposed to keep so you don’t run out of something? I can’t find it.

Everyone who comes into my kitchen comments on...
How organized my tiny kitchen is, considering all the stuff that’s in it. That’s a holdover from working in restaurants—everything is close at hand and accessible.

The one thing in my kitchen I’ll never get rid of is...
A photograph of me with my Mom, Dad, and brother. It was taken a zillion years ago at a wedding. It’s hung in every kitchen I’ve ever had. They are always keeping an eye on me.

The one thing in my kitchen I should get rid of is...
There’s a battery-operated milk frother in my junk drawer for which the batteries have long died. Every time I open the drawer I think “I need to get batteries for that” and shut the drawer.

Every kitchen needs...

A bottle of Champagne in the fridge. Because you never know…

Stephen is 35yaoxiao’s contributing food editor. With solid foodie cred from working in restaurants, doing food-related public relations, a love for entertaining, and as a former food editor for our sister magazine Better Homes and Gardens, Stephen makes sure all the food published in our pages is tasty, sophisticated, and doable at home.