MIAMI – This year’s recent South Beach Wine & Food Festival was a royal occasion, in more ways than one.
“Viva Espana!” was a culinary celebration and key theme headed up by the King and Queen of Spain at this four-day, non-stop, over-the-top annual event packed with noisy parties, glitzy grazing and back-to-back cooking demos by celebrity chefs.
Sponsored by the Food Network and Food & Wine magazine among others, this star-studded feast on the beach is never dull.
This year, things got off to a controversial start when famous New York chef Mario Batali introduced Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia at a swanky gala dinner.
Angry at exuberant diners who would not listen when it was his turn to speak, Batali chided them vociferously with the f-word, three times. His and their unruly behaviour was likely the result of alcoholic beverages that flowed freely throughout the sold-out festival.
However, Martha Stewart – the come-back queen of cuisine – was all regal elegance, serenity and charm when I met her two days after the Batali debacle for a one-on-one interview in the green room adjoining one of the giant tasting tents erected on the sand in the heart of South Beach.
Dressed casually in tapered beige pants and a grey T-shirt with matching cardigan, she was a different – and much nicer – woman than the one I’d met in Toronto earlier in her career.
Stewart’s rise to fame began in 1982 with the publication of Entertaining: a glossy coffee-table tome that launched her as an arbiter of taste for homemakers.
By 1987, she was well on the way to becoming a brand and revered guru on the topics of food, home décor and gardening. That year, I interviewed her in Toronto where she was promoting her second major book: Weddings.
That Martha Stewart was imperious, uptight and humourless. She lived up to her reputation as a control freak perfectionist who was driven to the point of obsession. In a nutshell, she came across as a brilliantly capable over-achiever touting a sanitized though stylish lifestyle rife with pastels.
Many, like me, had a love-hate relationship with this fiercely ambitious woman whose career continued to soar in the 1990s.
Then there was the infamous criminal case. In 2004, she was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury in a stock market scandal. Five months of prison followed; so did five months of home confinement and two years probation.
In a Christmas message from jail, she issued a compassionate plea for rehabilitation and prison reform to help women whose lives were “devoid of care, devoid of love, devoid of tranquility.”
As she stretched out her hand and fixed her dark brown eyes on me in the green room that day, I knew this was a kinder, gentler woman than the perfectly-coiffed blonde babe with the forced smile on the covers of her early books.
She was eager to tell me about her new projects.
No longer allowed to be its CEO, she is still “deeply involved on a day-to-day basis” with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. She owns a radio channel, is still the marquee writer for Martha Stewart Living magazine, is developing a housewares line for Macy’s, promotes “healthy aging” with Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and has an eco-flooring company called FLOR that makes recycled carpets.
A favourite project of hers is The Martha Stewart Show that airs on Fine Living and on day-time CBC television. It is entertaining and authoritative as per Stewart’s mission: “I want to promote and provide the best how-to information for homemakers ever.”
An avid reader and detail hound who sleeps about five hours a night, she told me this: “I’m very picky, quality-conscious and research-oriented. I’m visual and creative. People trust me – I’m them. If I like something, they seem to like it.”
What Stewart doesn’t like is the trend to reality food shows on TV.
“They drive me nuts,” she says. “I know where the enjoyment comes from but I hate the sloppiness and demeaning aspect.”
I mention Gordon Ramsay. She doesn’t respond directly but does say this: “The violence doesn’t interest me. I don’t have time for schlock art.”
Top-notch chefs like Americans Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, Rick Bayless and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, she adds, do interest her. So does Type-A British chef and molecular gastronomist Heston Blumenthal.
She also has plenty of time of time for Emeril Lagasse: the lively New Orleans chef who virtually launched the U.S. Food Network in the early ‘90s with his ebullient behind-the-stove performances.
The two have long been buddies and last year, while he took a hiatus from the spotlight, Stewart bought all Lagasse’s assets except the several restaurants he still owns.
That evening, Stewart was emcee of a tribute dinner honouring Lagasse. She lauded him for being an educator, a passionate foodie and a man who loves to embroider, then announced they had plans to go deep-sea fishing later that night.
Listening to our congenial host, I mused that prison had gently humbled her. And, at age 67, she may be more proof that wisdom comes with age.
Stewart demo’d these recipes after our interview. They are from her super new book Martha Stewart’s Cooking School (Potter; $52).
Stewart advises looking for lobsters that are “not only alive but lively” and purchasing them no more than a day before serving.
4 lobsters (about 1½ lb/750g) each
Fill large stockpot three-quarters full with cold water. Bring to boil. Add a generous amount of salt, at least ½ cup in a 4-gallon/15-litre pot.
Plunge in live lobsters head-first. Cook, uncovered, until they turn bright red, 8 to 14 minutes, depending on size. With tongs, transfer to platter. Let rest until cool enough to handle. Serve with melted butter and lemon wedges.
Shelled meat of 4 cooked lobsters
2 tbsp mayonnaise
½ tsp chopped fresh chives
½ tsp chopped fresh tarragon or chervil
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
8 split hot dog buns
2 tbsp melted butter
Cut lobster meat into small chunks. Add to bowl. Stir in mayonnaise, chives, tarragon, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Brush hot dog buns with melted butter. Cook in hot skillet until golden brown. Spoon about ½ cup lobster meat into each bun.
Makes 8 rolls.