It’s a modern self-improvement paradox: More of us want to cook than ever before, but the intimidation factor remains high. Whether you were starting out or looking to step up your skills, an inspiring but accessible gentleman’s guide has been hard to find. No longer: The Fat Radish Kitchen Diaries is written by Phil Winser (at right above) and Ben Towill (left), who opened the Fat Radish restaurant in NYC four years ago to critical hosannas and stylish queues. But the duo, 30, are no precious foodies: They’re entirely self-taught, their restaurant and catering business a spinoff from casual at-home dinners with friends. Their mission is to assemble fresh, seasonal produce into hearty dishes.
Done! No matter how many cookbooks you have (including zero), this is the one you need now: The pictures are the ultimate in food porn (see below) and the recipes, organized by season, strike the right balance between creative and comprehensive, substantial and healthy: Spring onion rings with tartar sauce, feta-and-kale muffins, an English breakfast scramble, tons of vegetable dishes and full Sunday roasts. Winser talked with us about how to get started cooking, the ingredients you should always have around, and what his freezer contains (ice cream and denim).
How long did it take you to develop the recipes and put the book together?
It really is a diary, a collection of recipes from the time Ben and I started concepting ideas [in 2008]. This is pulling them all together for the first time. It was about things we did at home. We had a catering company, and we used to do all different events all over America, and we included what stood out from the time we were doing that.
Men are much more interested in cooking at home than they used to be. What would you suggest to a guy who buys this cookbook and is interested in getting started?
I completely agree. I think people, especially men, want to cook more than ever. The first thing I would say to anybody is go to that season that we’re in. When you are starting out, just focus on one thing, take one dish. Pick something that sounds delicious. Follow the steps and don’t worry about stuff. When I started cooking at home, I hadn’t really cooked professionally, but it was a way of entertaining. Getting a group of friends together, inviting them over for dinner. We didn’t know what we were doing. If it doesn’t end up looking exactly like the picture, it doesn’t matter.
“We call it elevated home cooking.”
What are the essential ingredients to keep around the house?
Onion and garlic. If you want to take it a little bit further, dried bay leaves, and fresh thyme if you can, or dry. Those four things are the basis to all cooking. They often create the flavor and the base. Then you always need to have some really good olive oil. Lemon is another thing. A knife, a chopping board, and one or two good pots. You don’t need to go beyond that. With that you can cook anything, and a small oven.
How did your vegetable-focused ethos come about?
It all came about from wanting to understand where food came from. We live in a world where people are so disconnected from food, and it’s something that we eat three times a day, and it’s what keeps you alive. The book is not about types of cuisines. It’s about finding the best produce you can—it could be some the farmers market or from a supermarket—then finding the best ingredients that are season, and using that as a starting point. Elevated home cooking, is what we call it. The book has a stew, all the way down to a curry, down to a hamburger. It’s all done by sourcing the best ingredients possible.
Left to right: Scallops with sweet-potato/golden-beet mash and verde salsa (Winser’s recommendation for date night), trout with citrus and chamomile dressing, kabocha squash soup
Finding good produce is a lot easier than it used to be.
It may be a bit of a drive away, but the whole experience of going to a market, seeing what’s there, picking it, it’s half the fun. I love going to the market and saying, “What is that?”
You guys are self-taught, right?
Yeah, 100%. We are still learning every day. We are by no means chefs. The book is not about being a chef. It’s just a collection of dishes that we’ve learned along the way that have a story. We wanted the book to be something that someone, be it a young guy or a mother, could pick up and feel like just giving something a go. It doesn’t matter if you burn something, overcook something a little bit.
What dishes would you recommend for date night?
The Kale Caesar salad is really classic. It’s all about the dressing, which is not hard to make. That is always an impressive one. Then our scallops with sweet-potato mash and salsa. It’s really easy to do. You can make the mash and salsa in advance. It’s so delicious and it looks impressive.
How about a dinner party?
Don’t feel like you have to do everything. I always say make a good cocktail. Half the battle is setting up your environment for when people arrive: Candles, music, some little snacks people can nibble on. It can be something as simple as some potato chips. Get some good ice cream. Don’t underestimate the importance having good ice cream or sorbet tucked in your freezer all the time.
The Sunday roast
The social-dining element of the book is really appealing.
At the end of every [seasonal] section, we have a roast. The British concept of the Sunday roast is everything to me in terms of food: You get up in the morning, you go into the market or to the butcher, you get the ingredients, you invite people over. It’s all about people coming together, and that to me is the most important thing about food—bringing people together and sharing it.
How big is your kitchen at home?
Right now I live in a tiny studio. For a long time, I used my oven to store my shoes and books. When I did cook, it’s not a lot of space, and it makes a lot of mess. I realized from speaking to people that the big deterrence of people cooking—especially with families—is mess. You should embrace that. I think it’s a really fun part of it, making that mess.
Funny you mention the oven-as-dresser-drawer, because I’ve been known to store jeans in my oven.
I have jeans right now in my freezer. My girlfriend told me that’s how you clean jeans, for some reason. So I put four pairs of jeans in my freezer, and that’s what sits in there. I suppose I am a completely typical man—when it comes down to it, I’m very bad at shopping. When I do shop, I shop once, and get one big heap of clothes. Then I wash it all and things shrink. So I gave this freezer thing a go and we’ll see.