Chef Q & A With Amber Huffman, Part 2: On Condensed Milk, Being The "Hired Help" + Unexpected Dairy Freeze Influences
David Hruska Recipes Files And Food Drawings From Grannie Huffman
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.