CORY REYNOLDS | DATE 12/23/2015
It's not often that we have a cookbook on our list, but right now we have one that is both a universal staff favorite and one of Bon Appétit's "Best of 2015!" Read on for a charming interview with author Mina Stone, house chef to a growing list of luminary artists and galleries initiated by Urs Fischer and Gavin Brown's Enterprise about five years ago. Mina's joie de vivre is simply infectious, broadcasting from every page of this simple, realistic and yet strangely galvanizing book of recipes inspired by her Greek Yiayia's unselfconscious Mediterranean cooking. It's the perfect guide for healthy but but still lustful eating in the new year.
ABOVE: Lunch with Yiayia, Aegina, Greece.
ARTBOOK: Mina, Cooking for Artists has been a huge hit in the art world and way beyond. Clearly this book wouldn't exist without the support of artist Urs Fischer, who published it under his own imprint, Kiito-San. But it also wouldn't exist without your Yiayia. What's the first meal you can remember eating with her at home in Greece?
MINA: Fried eggs and french fries! The Greek way, of course, is to fry everything in olive oil—that probably explains a lot about me to this present day.
Did you also learn from your mother?
I did, but not so much in the “traditional” way that I learned from my Yiayia. My mom always cooked—simple food, sometimes Greek, sometimes not. She's a sneaky great cook! But she doesn’t love cooking like my Yiayia. We all, as a family, certainly love to EAT, however. And I think that, by default, you have to be pretty OK at cooking if you love to eat.
When you’re in Greece, do you ever have time to eat alone with your Yiayia, or are meals always large?
We used to eat with family, but as she has gotten older, less agile, and her kids and grandkids have moved here and there, I usually find myself visiting her alone. Therefore, we eat at 2PM, just she and I—even though she still cooks as if she were feeding eight people! There is nothing lazy or practical about it. We have grilled fish, boiled greens, dolmades, these delicious fried cheese pies she makes with manouri and feta…
Wow! I wonder what she eats when she doesn't have company?
When she's alone, she makes a lot of bean stews—chickpeas, lentils—and sometimes throws in a little chicken or lamb. I know for a fact that she has not eaten at a restaurant in about 15 years.
I love it! And how about you?
I am a fan of the Andrew Tarlow empire. It really is amazing food and amazing service. Roman’s is my very favorite.
Mine too. He's an old friend! And what do you eat when you’re alone?
A tough question. Easy things… eggs, salad, rice. But I am a person of company—especially when it comes to eating. When I eat alone, I'm almost always uninspired and make something more to curb hunger than anything else.
You went to art school, right?
I went to Pratt Institute and studied fashion design. I barely slept for four years because I loved it so much and took it so seriously! In hindsight, I'm very grateful for that experience. It taught me to work hard and persevere.
Can I ask how old you are now?
Do you still design your own clothing?
I design my own clothing in my head. Quite often, actually. Especially in Greece, I find myself inspired because my mind is quieter, and I start finding old clothes to alter. But I don’t "design" anymore—it took too much time, too much headache. On the other hand, I can be consumed by cooking 24/7 and not feel bored.
That makes perfect sense. What artists or designers mean the most to you personally?
Currently, Lynn Hershman Leeson and Cassandra MacLeod. Also, Isabel Toledo and Elsa Schiaparelli are my fashion designer idols. Maybe the coolest group of women, ever!
What do you do when you’re not cooking? What do you love?
When I'm not cooking I'm usually thinking about cooking. I know that's silly, but it's true. But I also have loved two things really and truly since I was a kid. It may sound childlike, but I have to say I love traveling and I love animals. I find both to be very real and grounding, I guess.
I guess this explains the photo of grazing deer that opens the book, which manages, somehow, to be both a serious cookbook and a relaxed trip through a world the reader wants to join. Outside of your family, is there a meal or a dish that someone made for you that is especially memorable?
The first thing that comes to mind is a meal made by a friend who was staying with us from LA. She really insisted on cooking us dinner, and she wouldn't let me lift a finger. No dishes, nothing! And she made the most AMAZING roast chicken I have ever had. She rubbed it in salt and sugar and let it sit in the fridge for two days. Unbelievable. Not only was the food delicious, but I felt very pampered. If someone doesn’t let me do dishes, I feel like I have died and gone to heaven.
ABOVE: Mina washing dishes at a makeshift sink in Amagansett, New York, and the deer on Moni Island, Greece.
Throughout the book, you are very clear about your Holy Trinity of cooking: olive oil, lemon, salt. In copious amounts. This may sound silly, but what would you do if you couldn’t get a hold of lemons and needed to make a meal right away?
Um, WHAT!? I just wouldn’t eat of course! But OK, red wine vinegar…
Aw, I can tell that would never happen! So what’s great about cooking for Gavin Brown events?
It always feels like an extension of family. There’s a support system and a level of comfort that I really value.
What’s great about cooking for Urs Fischer’s studio?
That also feels like an extension of family, but what's great about Urs is how he always pushes me, in a subtle way, to go further—whether it's encouraging me to do a cookbook when I've never even considered it before, or challenging me to do “theme” months at the studio… For example, last month was “Persian” month, and I learned so much about the cuisine. So that challenge from Urs inspired me and helped me gather knowledge.
ABOVE: "The Hosts" (2014) by Elizabeth Peyton and Matthew Barney and a studio lunch at Urs Fischer's stuido, "Mr. Keet," New York.
Is there a cooking experience that you can share?
I just recently had my first total fail, and all I can say is that I slipped into depression for about two weeks after. I can only compare it to getting into a car crash. Afterwards, you don’t trust your driving skills, and need some major recovery time!
That's such a human story. That's one thing I love about your cookbook – you seem like a real person with a real life and a real experience. Not someone with a career agenda, but someone who is trying things on the fly, from the heart. In the best sense of the word, learning. Any chance you can tell me what failed?
Oh thank you. That is really REALLY nice of you to say and I'm glad that comes across in the book… Everything failed, the whole event failed. I didn’t trust my instinct and I think that was the biggest failing of all. It was a big lunch, 300 people, and I was working with another catering team to provide staff and supplies. Long story short, the staff and supplies were not provided and a fancy event turned into a soup kitchen of long lines and really pissed off people.
Oh NO! Are you ever scared or intimidated when cooking for noted artists or wealthy collectors? Or conversely, has anyone stood out for their special support or spirit of adventure?
I certainly have been scared! In those moments, I always go to the worst case scenario. You know, give it a little visit and come back with some perspective.
I cooked for the artist Elizabeth Peyton for many years, and she said something that always stayed with me: “Pay attention to what comes easily to you.” Sometimes we ignore that “thing" because it seems too easy, when in fact it is exactly what you should be doing.
ABOVE: A dinner at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, and Mina preparing lamb at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA Los Angeles.
I also remember an interview with the chef David Chang, where he talked about his sense of “fearlessness.” Really, the worst case scenario is failure, so why not try?
Have you ever had a shitty job—like before you found food?
Sure, I've had many! Most jobs are shitty until you find your calling, right? Although, I scooped ice cream for all four years of high school and LOVED it. I was a barista, and loved that too. You know what sucked? Being a fashion intern.
I bet! Where did you grow up?
Have you cooked for problematic eaters?
I've cooked for many, and I actually feel great compassion for people with dietary challenges. I believe strongly that we all have different needs—food can be both healing and toxic. If you've experienced the latter, I can understand being scared. I’m very accommodating, and I also feel like my cooking is a great fit for sensitive diets because it’s simple, mostly vegetables, and takes well to substitutions.
ABOVE: Mina, photographed at home by Flora Hanitijo.
I love your attitude about olive oil, salt and dessert. Can you explain?
You mean, being liberal with ALL of the above? Yes, I believe that olive oil and salt belong almost anywhere. Regarding dessert, I just think it is hilarious when people say they are "too full for dessert." As IF dessert is about hunger! (It’s not!!)
Hbk, 9.75 x 12.25 in. / 226 pgs / 104 color.