In the first part of our interview with Amber Huffman, the former private chef for wine entrepreneur Jess Jackson (he passed away a few weeks ago) was telling us about what she learned about being “lucky” in life – and the horse racing business – from her former boss (“You made your own luck – don't ever sell yourself short,” Jackson told her). And how she landed a cooking gig – and now lives — on such a storybook Kentucky horse farm. Did we mention that she is getting married this summer to the estate's gardener? Yeah, The Cook and the Gardener, take two. Let's not forget that little 300-person Derby Day party snafu a few years back, when Jackson and his wife, Barbara Banke, had no spirits on the party menu, just wine. In Kentucky. Within a few miles of Bourbon County.
In this edition of our interview, Huffman talks about her Southern Dairy Freeze cooking evolution, why our grandmothers deserve the credit for getting us back to nose-to-tail cooking, and what you really should be serving for Saturday's Derby party.
Squid Ink: You're from Kentucky, and you live and work on a thoroughbred racehorse farm. We're guessing your cooking is pretty Southern in style. Did you always cook?
Amber Huffman: Getting to the cooking side in my life is probably a lot like other people's stories who go off the path. There are always a lot of things in between, and then you just figure things out. For me, that means basically my parents didn't cook. And my dad walked in one day [when I was a kid] with keys to a Dairy Freeze he had just bought. I'm not making that up [laughs]. It was the best junk food ever. We spent a lot of time there. And you know, we never got fat. Makes you think about what's happening today.
SI: That maybe “healthy eating” isn't quite as simple as just cutting out fast food.
AH: Right. Our food literally either came from the Dairy Freeze or my Grannie. She's 93-years-old and proud of it. She would cook a huge lunch every Sunday. Grannie is why I'm a chef. I'm partial, obviously. But she truly is an exceptional home cook, nose-to-tail way before Fergus Henderson [chef-owner of St. John restaurant in London].
Today, we would almost call that Depression Era cooking survival skills. I had been eating brains scrambled into my eggs — unbeknownst to me, or I wouldn't have eaten it — as a child. Grannie taught me to put up a ham. And you know, this woman has eaten a full blown Southern diet her entire life and is so healthy. Tiny. It's not frying stuff that is so bad for you, it's not throwing a ham hock at every single vegetable, it's not cooking the life out of every vegetable that makes something unhealthy. What's healthy is not having any processed food. The bones of our diet were so good back then, I try to get back to that way that Grannie would cook.
SI: Simple is better.
AH: Yes, on Sundays, she would cook enough food for twenty people for just the four of us. You'd have as many dishes as guests. Fried chicken, pork chops and sliced ham. We ate Grannie's leftovers all week.
SI: The unspoken Southern entertaining rule – a dish for every guest. So your cooking has jumped off from your grandmother's. But you still consider it very Southern, yes?
AH: Oh yes, just add cheese, mayo, and fry it. And monogram it. Of course you have to monogram it. Now you've got Southern food. Just kidding. But not really.
AH: So yes, I would say I specialize in Southern food, but mostly because the people I work for are from around here. Or when they come here, like Mr. Jackson, they want Southern food. When in Rome. But I prefer to tell people the way we cook today is tasty. Just tasty local food, using ingredients you have around you. I truly believe that cooking is a skill and not an art. That will probably get me into trouble with some people. Everyone thinks it's an art today. Maybe that's because it's a skill I learned later, after growing up in a household that didn't cook. My mom said, “Honey if you can read, you can cook.” And she's right. I don't do the whole big ego, artist thing.
SI: Maybe, but you are being modest. Anyone can cook, but that doesn't mean they cook well. And while the rest of us are fretting over what to serve for a Derby Day party – that Southern side to it makes it feel like the food has to be perfect – what do you usually make?
AH: As far as Derby food is concerned, it's almost, or should be, like what I had growing up for Sunday lunch at my Grannie's. That's it. Her mac n'cheese, which is the best by the way. Do you want to know the secret? It's so counter-intuitive. Overly salted water. Overcook the pasta. Evaporated milk, never flour in the sauce. Evaporated milk? I can't do that. I thought. But it's so great. It should be cooked so it's not too firm. Not like bad cafeteria mac n'cheese where you can almost cut it off like cornbread, you still need a pretty liquid-y proposition, but still.
SI: Sound like an oddly mesmerizing mac n'cheese. Odd in that condensed milk sort of way.
AH: Condensed milk is my secret obsession, sometimes I just open the can and eat it. I shouldn't be telling you this.
SI: Yeah, that sounds pretty scary.
AH: Ha. Yes, well, “I get it honestly” as we say around here. I have seen my father take two slices of white bread and pour Karo syrup on it to make a syrup sandwich. At Grannie's house, we would pour condensed milk on snow to make “snow ice cream.” But as everyone knows, in the South it's not condensed milk, it's Eagle Brand. And – OK, I am not going to be able to sell this am I? – I really don't have a sweet tooth.
SI: Hilarious. And scary. OK, so what else other than mac n'cheese and condensed milk should we be serving at our Derby Day parties?
AH: Last year at the farm I did ribs. But really, it's such a big celebratory week, everyone goes to the Oaks all day Friday, then the Derby on Saturday. So at the Farm, we've done really casual cookouts on Derby night. By that point people really just want a burger. It's OK to serve a burger. Really, it is.
SI: always sound advice. No doubt you've seen some pretty stellar wines pass being served with those burgers.
AH: Oh yeah. We are lucky enough to have a pretty amazing wine collection on Mr. Jackson's ranch. For a dinner, usually someone in California picks the wines and sends them on the plane for whatever party.
AH: Actually the Becks, whom I also work for, are winemakers, too — Graham Beck, a South African wine company with sparkling wine. [Laughs] I work for probably the only wine and horse owners in Lexington. How did I do that? At Stonestreet [Jackson's farm], we have to open and taste every single bottle before it goes out to guests. So I'm telling people, “Guys we have to do this! Taste!” And really good wine. A pretty great job.
SI: Absolutely. But is that also every awkward, being “staff” in a large home?
AH: For me, it's great, so much better than being in a restaurant. You need to be able to cook very well in both, that's the only similarity. It's completely different. I worked in restaurant kitchens for years, and that's where I cut my teeth. If you are the chef in a professional restaurant, you are the big monkey. It's a hot, intense environment, and you need to be extremely assertive to run a restaurant kitchen.
I'm so grateful that working in a professional kitchen has toughened me up, and I got some Spanish profanity and testosterone under my belt, but I am so happy to be doing this now instead. I got my first major restaurant promotion because people didn't show up, someone got arrested. Truly. They're not calling the local cooking school at a restaurant to and see if we can find someone with no experience on the line. They say, “You, girl, you think you can do this job? Right now?” That's how you get promoted.
SI: Yeah, a little different than working in someone's home.
AH: Yes. If you're working in someone's home, you cross into another boundary – you are the “help.” That's not to say anything negative. I'm grateful that working in a professional kitchen has toughened me up. Here, you are part of a household staff, there is a level of discretion. It's not very common anymore. It's a very tiny sliver of the population today that has household staff.
Think about it in your own home, if you got up every morning and someone was in your kitchen while you drank coffee at the kitchen table while you, the home owner, are in your pajamas. So, sometimes you need the ability to be invisible at the times you need to be invisible, which to me is the hardest part. But you need to be personable. You're around their kids, their friends.
SI: Very different from a restaurant where there is literally a wall between the kitchen and customers.
AH: Yes, the wonderful part of my job now is that I get to interact with happy customers. In a restaurant, it's a mad preparation: come in, come out, go home. Even if you're cooked 38 steaks without a single send back. You get no feedback. In a home, you do.
SI: You're also the only one responsible for dinner – for better or worse.
AH: Oh yes. My biggest fear is having a huge party and the phone rings at 3:00 in the morning and I've given everyone food poisoning. Can you imagine? There was one other incident. Something I like to call the Great Bouillabaisse Incident of 2008. I was cooking, unbeknownst to me, lunch at the farm for a Jewish lobbying group. So I made a huge pot of bouillabaisse with mussels and clams.
AH: They were so polite, thank goodness. They were stirring and being nice, and eating lots of bread.
Check back later for Huffman's thoughts on perfume (“Dogs love me, I always smell like bacon”) and her pimento cheese recipe (“Cheese and mayonnaise – what could be better than that?”).