Interview with New York-based Food Writer Samantha Hillman - Par Femme

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by Maddy Woon

Luckily for us, the camera tends to eat first at food writer and photographer Samantha Hillman’s house. The resulting Instagram page reads as a stirring love letter to food (and friendship) and is jammed with unfussy yet bountiful recipe ideas that are sure to set your creative culinary aspirations alight. 

We checked in with Sam recently to see how she was faring with all this newfound time at home. Along with sumptuous dish ideas and her definition of sensuality, the below conversation is replete with handy life hacks and bite-sized pieces of wisdom to keep your brain buzzing all day. If your fridge is often a graveyard of good intentions—wilting spinach once destined for a jazzy salad, the majority of a celery head slowly turning limp—you’ll find her food waste-curbing and intuitive approach to cooking especially revelatory.

Maddy Woon: When do you feel most alive?
Samantha Hillman: When I’m working on something I’m excited about. When the light is good. 

What have you discovered about yourself in the absence of socialising? 
That I love it! I get into a nice groove with long, uninterrupted stretches of alone time. 

How are you staying sane at home?
Wine? Books? Vibrators? But to be honest, I’m kind of loving it. As much as I love how serendipitous New York is, how you never quite know how your day will end, the flipside is that it’s so easy to have an agenda derailed by a last minute plan. I can really struggle to focus here and felt like I needed a bit of a break. I wanted a bit of a break. And, now that I’ve got one, I’m trying to make the most of it. Reading more, cooking new things, and doing a bunch of little projects that I’d never really sat still long enough to do, like reorganising my pantry, which I did a few days ago. Everything is labeled and immaculate and sociopathically indexed and I am SOfucking smug about it. So smug. It’s hideous. Like I’ll just walk into my kitchen multiples times a day to open the cupboards and self-congratulate.

What’s a piece of advice about relationships/sex that you wish you knew when you were young?
There’s no relationship advice I’d want to give my younger self—I think the messier experiences of love and sex are fairly key to the process that is working out who we are. And, all the relationship advice in the world was already out there, anyway, just like there’s a song for every kind of love or heartache or whatever. But it’s all hypothetical until it’s not, and I don’t think there’s a way of comprehending it until it applies to you.

A good rule of thumb is that good relationships make you feel very alive and very much like yourself, and bad ones make you feel the opposite. But I don’t know if that sentiment would have meant anything to a younger me. I didn’t know what it felt like to not feel like myself, because I hadn’t worked out what that meant yet. I think you learn that through the sorts of experiences that good advice is designed to help you avoid.

Do you find there's a link between sexual satisfaction and heightened creativity?
I suppose it’s all up there in the upper tiers of Maslow’s pyramid, right? There’s kindred sentiments here: being “unblocked”, if you will, being present, feeling alive and all that. There’s a level of sexual satisfaction that comes from self-actualisation and creativity springs from there, too. But then again, art can be born from all sorts of experiences. And so can sexual satisfaction. One of my favorite quotes is that art is clear thinking about complicated experiences. And some of the best complicated experiences come from sex. I’m going in circles here, that all made more sense in my head. 

What's a good uniform for seduction?
Anything can be a uniform for seduction. I think the best sort of sex has an element of surprise to it, so the idea of a uniform feels a little… Scripted? Performative? I don’t know.

What does sensuality mean to you?
Being present. Feeling all of it. It’s probably a cop-out to define something by its opposite, but the opposite of sex that is mechanical or rehearsed.

What has the average day looked like for you this past week?
Honestly, just staring at my cupboards, per the above, takes up a huge amount of my day.

At what point in the day do you get out of your PJs when WFH?
TBH, I’m just leaning into it. If I change out of my pyjamas, it’s only to hop into different pyjamas. In fact, I’m wearing pyjamas right now! But fancy ones. One of my clients is the British luxury pyjama company, Desmond & Dempsey, so I have a pretty obnoxious collection of monogrammed ones, and I am living in this quilted tiger print robe of theirs, too. I was originally moodboarding a pretty salacious quarantine look, but most of the time I just look like Prince George did when he met Obama.

What are the top five supermarket ingredients you’d struggle to live without?
A good wedge of parmesan! And a nice peppery olive oil and a jar of anchovies. And garlic! And butter. And lemons! And rosemary. I love (LOVE!) rosemary. It’s truly the best herb. But, that’s not five. Whoops. While we’re here, I should also throw in smoked paprika. It’s potentially my favourite spice and is good on absolutely anything, but especially roasted sweet potato, alongside lots of salt, olive oil and garlic. The fancier and more Spanish-looking the tin, the better.

We see you hosted a sumptuous quarantine banquet. Can you run us through how to recreate this restaurant-worthy experience at home?
Honestly, just light candles. A few years ago my friend Adam said, pretty offhandedly actually, that “any meal can be a candlelit dinner if you just light some fucking candles!”. And it stuck. It’s always stuck! Candles are an easy way to make any moment a bit cinematic. There’s no logic in waiting for an occasion to live well—anything can be an occasion. We can still set the table, sit down properly. We can always light candles. Champagne is particularly fun to drink in a crisis—or anything sparkly—it feels silly and celebratory.

Are you getting more experimental in the kitchen these days?
Yes, but not in the Masterchef way. More like the I’m-basically-Amish-now way, making things from scratch and aiming for zero waste. I’ve been making stock from vegetable scraps, repurposing leftover bits—like turning risotto into arancini balls—and pickling things like it's an olympic sport.  Food waste unravels me at the best of times, but especially so now with all this weird hoarding behaviour. We don’t need to buy more, we just need to utilise what we have.

I’m also one of those assholes who bakes their own bread now. The first loaf was potentially the most high-intensity 24 hours of my life to date. Like, I started panicking that the room was too cold for the dough to rise, so I sat it on its own little chair beside it’s own little heater. Then I sat vigil. Just staring at it, like Pat Mullins, worrying. For hours. Like the most boring reality TV show you’ve ever watched. High drama, low stakes. It turned out fine.

Any stock rotation tips for people who are used to running to the shops on a daily basis?
Don’t underestimate hardier produce for fresh salads! Spinach wilts in about forty-five seconds, but things like fennel, apple and cabbage do well in cold storage, and can be shaved into an assertive slaw.

What is the most versatile vegetable in your opinion, and what are some of your favourite ways to cook with it?
Sweet potatoes! I love them in curries. I love them baked with miso and sprinkled with sesame seeds and tahini. Or roasted with harissa or smoked paprika then drizzled with a little yogurt. Or as a mash with a pork and fennel sausage on top. Or steamed and charred and painted in butter. I love them in any and all formats.

Do you have any non-boring yet simple recipe ideas for people who aren’t used to cooking?
Yes! Celery soup. It sounds very orphanage, but it is a very low-maintenance-high-reward dish and your home will smell like a French restaurant as it cooks. You need just three (3!!) vegetables—one potato, one head of celery, one onion—and one stick of butter (125 grams). You dice them all up, and then sauté them in the butter over very low heat until they’re quite tender. But don’t brown them! We are giving them a sauna, not a sunburn. Then, once they’ve plumped a bit, and soaked up the butter, add a liter of the best chicken or vegetable stock you can get your hands on. If you’re going the vegetable stock route, I’d go for one of those chicken-but-not-chicken options. Simmer until everything is very tender, then season aggressively and blend with a handful of fresh herbs (I usually go parsley, dill, or a combination of both). If you don’t have fresh herbs it doesn’t really matter—it’s equally good without. Plus, lots of bread for dunking at the end etcetera.

Best cookbooks to be inspired by in quarantine?
An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler: I recommend this to anyone who will listen to me. It’s all about repurposing leftovers, cooking intuitively, adapting meals to use up whatever you have on hand. The tagline is “Cooking with economy and grace”. It’s a beautiful book.

Bread is Gold by Massimo Bottura: The author opened a soup kitchen in Milan and Michelin star chefs cook meals from donated ingredients—all sorts of odds and ends, with the goal being clever and frugal cooking with zero waste. It’s useful for making the most of whatever random bits and pieces you have.

The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit: A deft little guide to pairing flavours. Mine is dog-eared and sauce splattered and lives above my fridge.

Failsafe “easy but impressive” dinner party dish?
Having a dinner party to impress people is sort of missing the point. The best “dinner parties” feel easy and expansive and generous. Never performative. A.A Gill, maybe my favourite food writer, famously hated that concept. He called it “karaoke cheffing”. Choose something you like to cook, and want to share with people rather than dazzle them with. And, if you can’t cook, just buy a bunch of rotisserie chickens and more baguettes that you think you’ll need. Toss together a salad. Get everyone to bring a bottle of wine they love. Set the table beautifully. Light candles. Keep it uncomplicated and fun.

I love big communal pastas and curries. Curries are especially useful when dealing with people’s real or imagined dietary requirements. A Thai curry, for example, is easily veganised and already gluten-free. Hetty McKinnon’s books have a lot of fun, robust salads that are amazing to share. I cook a lot of her stuff when people are coming over. But in general, if you’re cooking for a crowd just up the starch, lower the expectations, and have fun with it.

Favourite supermarket in the world?
Oh god, I LIVE for supermarkets!!! I love any supermarket that feels unfamiliar to me, so my favourite changes constantly. There’s a Japanese one on Broome street called Sunrise that saw me through a brief-yet-all-consuming ramen-making phase. I have a soft spot for the big, shiny suburban American chains, too. How ridiculous they are. How American they are. My friend took me to Costco on my birthday once as a surprise.

Best dinner party playlist?
My friend Ross has the most brilliant playlist called Sunday Service. It’s also fun to cook to.

Favourite chef?
I love Massimo for his enthusiasm. And Nigella! Always. How to Eat is one of my favourite cookbooks. And Nigel Slater! His writing. Fergus Henderson, too. I also fangirl over Claire de Boer of King Restaurant in NYC. I look up to a lot of chefs, but also a lot of cooks.

What form does your procrastination generally take?
Stupid, random shit. This morning I got stuck in a Wikipedia hole about the 2011 London Riots. The other day I had a big writing deadline due and decided it would be the PERFECT moment to WASH ALL THE WALLS. Today I made garlic confit.

What is the first thing you'll do once life goes back to ~normal~ in NYC?
Go for a big walk around Manhattan. Cook for people. Drop in at my favorite local wine bar, Sauced. Cough without fear of citizen's arrest. Touch EVERYONE. Get a haircut.

Photography by Samantha Hillman. You can (and really should) follow Sam on Instagram at @_samhillman.

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