“Once you start playing around in the kitchen, things start to make sense. It’s science plus creativity plus perseverance, combining with sensuality and nature to make joy.”
Nan Doyle is the founder of Toast Home Cooking. She teaches people to be confident home cooks in their own kitchens. Nan also runs a recipe blog, leads group classes and hosts a pop-up supper club in her Brooklyn brownstone.
Your background seems so varied, colorful, and vibrant–from semiotics, producer, chef to teacher. Can you tell us a brief history of how you got to now and how each piece of your past has influenced your cooking and how you teach?
I wish I had many lifetimes, there’s so much that interests me! After high school, I moved to California with my first love, a dreamer and a radical. We worked menial jobs for a few weeks and quickly decided to start our own business, a whole grain bakery. This was in 1980. We worked very hard, teaching ourselves how to bake, and renovating a beige, former dentist’s office into a fully equipped space, located a few blocks from the ocean in San Diego. The bakery was a success. I had my first entrepreneurial experience and I loved the joy of making good food for others.
Luckily, I had the good sense (and generous support of my parents) to go to college after a year of baking dense, healthy loaves of bread in a surf town. In the 80s, Brown University was a hotbed of experimental video and theater, a beacon of deconstructuralism and feminism, and a really fun place to be. I got interested in video and how this new medium could affect social change. That led me to a professional life in video and TV, including a move to France in 1987. I stayed ten years. While producing an interactive encyclopedia of French wine, I taught myself to cook. We filmed in the kitchens of great chefs across France, and I was inspired by their devotion to making beautiful food.
In the end, I left the world of image making and screens because I longed to get my hands dirty again. I didn’t want to sit at a desk. I wanted to teach others the enduring pleasure of home cooking. And I found myself back in the kitchen, 30 years after my teenage days at the bakery.
What was it like to own your own bakery? Usually owning your own business comes later on in a career, not a the start of one! Any lessons learned there?
It was a combination of true folly and deep naiveté! At 18 years old, I had an abundance of energy and confidence. My boyfriend and bakery co-founder was 5 years older than me, but he was a Yale drop-out turned activist—with strictly no business experience. Despite this inauspicious start, we filled an undiscovered culinary niche, whole grain breads and sweets. The bakery drew nutrition-conscious types, surfers, hippies, alternative medicine followers, older folks on special diets, etc.
You were a serious outlier in those days if you avoided mainstream American cuisine. The forward-thinking radical types were hanging around the health food stores, as they were called in those days. Our bakery, called Rebel Bakers, quickly became a community institution.
What’s your favorite meal to cook (and eat!) and why?
My favorite meal is generous platters of colorful seasonal vegetables, with a small portion of grilled leg of lamb. I love food prepared with lots of fresh herbs and interesting garnishes. I crave savory foods scattered with crunchy, salty toppings. I love everything Asian, including central Asian cuisines like Persian, Afghani and Indian. It’s so hard to pick a favorite!
What’s the hardest thing about teaching others to cook?
I challenge my students to make things they have avoided, like lemon curd and cheese soufflés, and to use ingredients they don’t know, like celeriac and farro. Once you start playing around in the kitchen, things start to make sense. It’s science plus creativity plus perseverance, combining with sensuality and nature to make joy.
Can you give us taste of all that Toast Home Cooking offers now? What’s the supper club and how does one sign up!?
Toast Home Cooking teaches cooking to adults and kids.
Most of our clients take a series of classes, one on one or in a small group, almost always held in the home of the student. That’s important because you want to learn to cook with what you have, not on some 15,000 BTU restaurant-quality range.
Every class is customized. I’ve taught an absolute beginner, a 60 year-old former ad exec who learned to make healthy, simple home-cooked meals in his mid-town bachelor pad. I’ve taught experienced home cooks who want to expand their repertoire. My most popular classes are groups of friends, 6-10 people, who schedule once/monthly evening classes around themes like Vegetarian Weeknight, Dinner Party Meals, Beans and Grains, Shellfish, etc. Like a book club, these classes bring friends together to socialize and learn 4-8 times a year.
Toast’s Supper Club is a pop-up restaurant night that happens 6 times a year in my Brooklyn home. It’s part salon, part culinary adventure. We have a mailing list. You can sign up on the website, toasthomecooking.com. An invite is sent out by email and Facebook. The first 14 people to reserve get a spot at the table. It always sells out, usually within a day. It’s not a class but guests are often inspired to take a cooking class after eating an outstanding home cooked meal.
Supper clubs sound like a lot of fun! For people not living in Brooklyn, how can we start and nurture our own vibrant supper club?
I had friends in Paris in the 1990s with whom we’d have dueling dinner parties. We’d work hard to outdo each other with complex recipes and difficult techniques. It was an excellent way to learn by trial.
I urge everyone to have one dinner party each month. Call it a Supper Club, and rotate hosts and guests. Get others to contribute wine, or bring one course. It can be a pot-luck supper club, but make sure the food is made from real ingredients, keep it seasonal using local foods, cook it with all the love in your heart, and serve it to look beautiful. The importance of color and texture on the plate cannot be understated.
How many children do you have? Did having them affect your work and career? If so, how?
I have a 19 year-old son and a 17 year-old daughter. For most of their lives, I did a precarious balancing act of working full-time outside the home, delegating much to babysitters and a house cleaner, and mastering the 30-minute meal. My husband can cook and do any domestic task, so a lot of energy went into sharing household duties.
Did having kids affect my career? Definitely. I never felt I could give enough at the office, or at home. But I have worked hard to instill balance in our lives, taking time for family vacations, leaving work early for piano recitals, volunteering at my kids’ schools. And above all, dedicating time to providing tasty, healthy food to my family and friends.
We all know food from scratch is so much better, but it’s so easy to get tempted by shortcut food items as the store. Do you have any tips for making items from scratch that I can do any night of the week?
Cooking from scratch is not as hard as it seems. For one, use the weekends to get organized. Make a pot of beans and use them in different ways throughout the week. Cook up a lot of brown rice and serve with a few of your meals. Toast a cup of walnuts (325°F oven for about 10 minutes) and store them in a jar to be sprinkled on morning oatmeal, salads, vegetable and grain sides.
If you have a family, get everyone to make a list of the foods they like/dislike and post the list on the fridge, grouped under “protein,” “starch,” “vegetable,” “fruit.” Then make a list of dishes that everyone will like using the ingredients they all agree on. Introduce new foods slowly, every so often. But have a basic rotating list of meals you all enjoy.
Apart from meal planning – deciding in advance what you’ll eat each week – you also want to create a recipe binder or folder, a hard copy or on your computer, depending on your style. You don’t want to spend 30 minutes browsing online recipes on a Tuesday evening when everyone is hungry and tired.
My 80 year-old mother boasts about her “I Hate to Cook” cookbook, a serious relic from the 1960s, when she was raising 4 girls on the Upper West Side on Manhattan and working full-time outside the home. But she has quietly photocopied recipes from newspapers and magazines over the past 30 years, and now has an impressive 3-ring binder stuffed with recipes she loves, organized with labeled tabs such as “hors d’oeuvres” and “beef.” For the woman who says she hates to cook, she’s got it down to a science and still hosts weeknight dinner parties with friends several times a month.
Favorite “from scratch” weeknight meals in our house? Stir-fries using a wok; tacos with whatever we have and topped with thin sliced radishes, scallions, avocado, cilantro, jalapeños; soufflés; spaghetti carbonara; rice/grain bowls topped with whatever protein we have, plus interesting, colorful toppings like toasted pepitas, sprouted pea shoots, grated carrot; risotto made from dehydrated wild mushrooms and leeks with tons of Parmesan cheese.
Are there any recipes that commonly people think are really hard to make from scratch, but are actually easy?
Pastry is probably the most feared. If you have a food processor, it’s really easy. Fingers also work well. The trick is to have very cold butter and work quickly to keep the butter cold. Put the pastry in the fridge for at least one hour before rolling it out. You want the butter to stay cold, to create delicious pockets of flake in the crust. Whether it’s making chicken potpie, a rustic country fruit tart, or empanadas, I like to teach people how to make pastry.
Fill In The Blanks:
A brilliant food and wine pairing is Muscadet with Moules Marinières.
The title of my own Food Network Cooking show would be Cook More!
1 item in my kitchen I can’t live without: microplane.
My greatest source of inspiration is nature, from farmland to ocean.
Thank you Nan for sharing your work and inspiration with us!