Beverly Hills-based Jewish cook and teacher Elana Horwich calls herself a “badass chef” and teaches other aspiring cooks to follow their gut instincts in the kitchen through her Meal and a Spiel cooking school. The chef (and comic) focuses on healthy, rustic recipes (like this autumn harvest root vegetable soup) that anyone can make without feeling klutzy or inept, many of which are based on her time living in Italy as a young woman.
We chatted with Horwich in advance of her book launch on Oct. 15.
Tell us about the title for the book, “Meal and a Spiel: How to Be a Badass in the Kitchen.” Where does it come from?
I started the Meal and a Spiel cooking school almost a decade ago. [In the book], sometimes the stories are personal. I give the history of the place or where the food is from. But I’m giving people an opportunity to connect with food in a way that’s not just about cooking. The “spiel” of Meal and a Spiel is me talking about my journey. I did not wake up knowing that I wanted to be a cooking teacher, that I wanted to be a chef and that I wanted to work with food. I come from a very over-achieving Jewish family. My older sister went directly from kindergarten to cardiology; my younger sister got two master’s degrees and became a therapist and piano teacher. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. And as your readers will understand, that’s a huge amount of stress on a young Jewish woman who’s trying to make herself out in the world!
How did you become a cook?
When I was 20, I was at Brown University. Before that, I had been very math- and science-oriented. But I had this epiphany that I needed to go off into the world and write about life. That really was my calling, that I was going to write about life and love. And at 20 years old, what do you know about life and love? Not much. So I decided I was going to take time off from college. I took my bat mitzvah money and money I had saved from working for my dad one summer, and I let my parents know and I let the university know that I wasn’t going to be coming back the next year. I was going to go abroad, and I was going to work and really support myself and learn about life and love, because this is what I had been called to do.
How did that go over?
The day after I told my parents that I wasn’t going back to school the following year, my mom, after she had a Jewish mother conniption, met someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew this family in Italy who wanted an American girl to live with them and teach English to their kid. So I took that on. That job did not last, but it did get me to Italy. … I then ended up spending five years in Italy. I was a teacher; I taught high school history and I taught inner-city kids in earlier years. I tried acting; I did stand-up comedy, I did hands-on healing work, until finally one day I learned to cook. I didn’t know that I had it in me to do it professionally. A friend offered to pay me to teach them to cook. And it sort of just blossomed into a cooking school on its own.
Sounds like it stuck!
It stuck immediately. As soon as I started this cooking school, the cooking school sort of started me. I needed a name for it. … Meal! What rhymes with meal? Spiel. Oh my gosh, Meal and a Spiel. When I came to that, I understood this was finally going to give me the opportunity to write about my musings on life as I had set out to do years and years before.
So, it’s part memoir and part recipes?
Exactly, exactly, exactly, exactly, exactly!
If you had to give a two-minute elevator pitch, why is this cookbook different? Why should we buy it, especially our Jewish readership?
I love that you asked that. The first section is not called the introduction; it’s called the spiel. The first words of the spiel are, “Why is this cookbook different from all other cookbooks?” So you asked absolutely the right question! One is that most cookbooks are written by celebrity chefs. I’m not a celebrity chef. I’m a teacher, plus I’m lazy. I figured out the easiest way to make the absolute best food with the absolute least amount of effort!
This teaches you to be an intuitive cook. It liberates you from the recipes. I explain how and why recipes work so you can put the cookbook down for good. Another thing that makes this different is that every recipe was tested by my cooking students or people who weren’t my cooking students. All of them have been tested by non-professional cooks, so it’s really accessible for people. And there’s also a really strong element of dietary consciousness. Most of the desserts have very little to no refined sugar, lots of gluten-free options and lots of dairy-free options. There’s an entire chapter called, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Pasta,” even though the chapter before it is, “Pasta That’s Better Than a Restaurant’s.” So it sticks to the Italian palate because that’s the way I can really show people how to cook, as opposed to bouncing around from different palates. It’s easy enough; even a schlimazel [consistently unlucky person] can learn. And there’s a whole section called, “Easy Enough for a Shlimazel.”
A comedy writer edited the book, too! Who is it?
I didn’t choose someone in the cookbook world; I chose a comedy writer, Seth Grossman, in Los Angeles. He’s written stuff that’s not only good comedy; he wrote a movie with Phillip Seymour Hoffman: “A Late Quartet.” That’s who I brought in, you know what I mean? He’s a funny Jew. I didn’t want just the regular cookbook-type people.