Martha Stewart on good taste, Julia Child and what she learned on the runway

A Q&A with the grand dame of domesticity
Elio Iannacci

Martha Stewart spoke to Maclean’s for a profile in our latest issue. Read on for an extended Q&A, and click here for the full story

Q: What would you consider to be the most beautiful place in Canada?

A: The quaintest is Quebec City—with its wonderful architecture and the beautiful St. Lawrence River. I visited Frank Cabot in his garden in [the Charlevoix region]. I filmed my first wedding book—the wedding of [Quebec actress] Sophie Desmarais in the Notre Dame cathedral in Montreal. I love that city. It’s really interesting and has such good food.

Q: In the ’60s, you modelled quite a bit for fashion labels such as Chanel. How do you think the whole casting-call process affected you?

A: That is the best part of modelling—you learn to withstand criticism. You learn that there is always another day for another opportunity and another challenge. Modelling did a world of good for me, because I learned how to pose in front of cameras and I learned how to walk down a runway properly. It creates a kind of fearlessness in a person that you can’t get otherwise.

Q: Do you think being exposed to bad taste refines a person’s good taste?

A: I think people are born innately with a sensibility that can go one way or the other. You need education, you need inspirations and you need to have experience to develop a fine sense of taste. It doesn’t just happen.

Q: An editor from Wired magazine once noted that there’s a camp element to what you do, and likened your DIY projects to “dressing up household objects in drag.” Do you see any camp in what you do or how you work?

A: Um, not really. I’m not a square, but being campy in the home is not necessarily what I would suggest. I am a serious teacher of the home arts. I don’t do anything frivolous. Good taste is acquired. Bad taste is developed. People can experiment with the way you look, but to experiment with your home is costly. Every expenditure is an investment. If you really tramp up your home, you can spend a lot of money for nothing.

Q: In the November 1998 issue of Martha Stewart Living, you predicted a new breed of informal dining was on its way—kitchen parties, family style-restaurants, etc. Do you think the pendulum is swinging back into formal dining?

A: Well, I would like it to be a little less casual. When my friends come over, I don’t subject them to a meal on the kitchen stool at the counter. I have a beautiful dining room and I love to serve great food in a congenial manner. I think that hostesses and homeowners can learn from example. They can take really great pride in entertaining their family and friends in a pleasant way. I just think that a beautiful plate, a pretty napkin, a glass of good wine can make a meal.

Q: You’ve been called a ritual healer by New York magazine. Do you think you live up to this title?

A: I love holidays, celebrations and rites of passage, and I think it shows in my work. For me, it’s more about teaching people how to organize their efforts so they can actually be more productive and more creative. Why make something that is ugly when you can make something that is beautiful?

Q: Is there a recipe out there that you’ve revisited but cannot seem to master?

A: No. If I can’t figure it out the first or second time, then something is wrong with the recipe.

Q: What is the longest prep time you’ve devoted to a meal?

A: Definitely Alain Ducasse’s brioche recipe, where you make your own yeast out of apples. It takes four days. At first, it did not work for me, but you want to know something? There was an error in the recipe. Once it was remedied, it did work. It took four days.

Q: Which teachers have been pivotal for you?

A: The original teacher for me was Julia Child. I got to meet her several times and work with her. She got me interested in haute cuisine. I cooked every single recipe in her two big volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Working alongside chefs like David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Chang was amazing. All of those people have been very instrumental in the kinds of foods I like to eat and like to prepare.

Q: Do you feel you’re getting faster with the way you approach meals?

A: I have certainly been getting simpler. A meal for me now can be just . . . go out to the garden, pick whatever is there and make something out of it instead of labouring over an elaborate menu and going to the market to find all the ingredients in 15 different stores. I grow more of what I eat, I try to make fewer courses and I try to make the tastiest food in the shortest period of time.

Q: What is the most difficult ingredient to find?

A: I’m addicted to botargo and it’s hard to find. I originally got it at Dean & DeLuca on lower Broadway. They had the good pressed kind, which is the eggs of the red mullet fish that are salted and pressed into a square. You grate it over pasta or mashed potatoes. I have a really good recipe that’s in my Entertaining book that’s bucatini with botargo. The botargo that’s available now is not anywhere near as good as that original botargo.

Q: Are there certain ingredients you insist on getting flown in?

A: Dungeness crab from Pike Place Market in Seattle. If I need whole big salmons for poaching, I will get those also from that market generally. They will air-freight them in real fast. I get my country hams from a place in Tennessee—those are the salty, cured hams. My apricots and cherries come from California—the best Queen Anne, the best Rainiers and the best Bing cherries.

Q: You’ve been to some amazing events and you’ve thrown some amazing parties. What sticks in your mind as the chic-est event?

A: I go to a lot of events. The chic-est has been the Costume Institute Gala at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art, co-chaired by Vogue magazine’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour]. It is very fun and so lavish.

Q: What would you do to improve it?

A: I’m not going to tell Anna Wintour what to do, believe you me [laughs].