q & a with linda griffith

If you’re not familiar with Linda, you should be. Besides monitoring the food forum on Cleveland.com, she, along with her husband Fred (Good Company, Morning Exchange, Cleveland icon – yes, that Fred), have co-authored six cookbooks, including Onions, Onions, Onions which was a recipient of the prestigious James Beard award. She is a self-taught chef who has taught others, regularly writes about food and wine and knows just about every chef and restaurant in this city – as well as cities all over the country and the world. She is a true foodie full of passion, insight and remarkable knowledge.

Linda and Fred were kind enough to invite me into their home. Over a bottle of wine, delicious homemade olive tapenade and fresh tomatoes right from their garden, we talked about Cleveland, food, traveling, cooking and a variety of other topics. I couldn’t get over how warm and genuinely nice they both were. It was a real treat.

Where does your passion for food come from:
From my marvelous maternal grandmother in New Haven, Connecticut, who cooked three meals a day until she had a massive stroke until she was 88-years-old. She even made bread several times a week. It was therapy, I think. I’m sure that as arthritis hit her so hard the thing that kept her body moving was probably making bread and having family gatherings and reasons for cooking for more people. I know that holiday gatherings were really important to her. She made soup every day, even in summer.

Favorite cookbook:
That changes all the time. I really don’t have a favorite. Craig Claiborne was one of the most influential writers because I taught myself how to cook from his first New York Times cookbook. He loved seeing that my copy of that book had lost its binding when I asked him to sign it. When I cooked for him, I actually had the confidence to feed him some leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner. We turned the turkey carcass and some of the stuffing into a sensational soup. That was pretty funny. I’ve always gotten a kick out of that.

I love reading Bud Trillin’s food pieces. I also enjoy the fact that I first met him when he was a college kid at Yale. He writes about visiting at Bill Horowitz’s house in Third Helpings. He roomed with the guy who married Bill’s daughter. I dated Bill’s son. My aunt and uncle were neighbors and close friends. The world is so small. But Bud and Alice have been close friends of close friends of ours so our paths also crossed in New York and Provence. Alice’s death is a huge loss for him.

Can Cleveland ever be thought of as a culinary destination? What obstacles do we have to overcome:
Nope. We’ll never stop trashing ourselves, I’m afraid. Also, I worry that too many people will continue to bitch about spending too much money for food. Like the grumping on the Food Forum and the complaints that $65 per person for an all-inclusive dinner at Tapawingo in Northern Michigan is too much money. It would be the same thing here. Even if it would include double rib lamb chops.

For example, Carrie Cerino’s. Dominic cannot change the look of the place because his regular crowd had fits. It has to look exactly like it did in grandma’s day. Can you imagine?

His brother fights him on every menu change, because the old-timers will complain. So, he has two menus, one with the regular menu and one with all of the specials. We have helped to bring a huge new constituency into that restaurant, but he still has the old group as well. So the menu has several pages. It’s actually rather funny. But, the place looks like 1964, just a clean 1964.

Look at Lolita and the number of times, now, that Michael has changed the menu. People don’t want to pay for good food and good ingredients. They don’t want to pay for high quality pork. Heritage pork is double the cost of what I would consider to be inedible pork at the supermarket. It costs so much more to handle them. No antibiotics. Pigs range free. But you also have to make certain that they get good feed. It is a very costly operation and they are rather fragile. The whole curing operation is time-consuming, itself. Actually, Armandino Batali (yes, Mario’s dad – he has a place in Seattle that Jamie and I are visiting in October, can’t wait) encouraged Dominic Cerino’s interest in curing when he and Marilyn came to Cleveland for our Terra Madre Benefit at Dominic’s invitation. Armandino just loved the idea that Dominic was the third generation doing that restaurant. They decided to stay for five days, in fact, and we arranged for them to stay at Baricelli Inn, which they loved. They spent several days exploring Cleveland and really became fans. They loved Little Italy, even though it is pretty small. They were astonished by University Circle, of course. Fred and I spent an evening with them in Tremont. They really had a very good time and they are great people. They are very well educated, as well. It is easy to understand where Mario gets his love of life.

Favorite one-tank trip:
Ann Arbor. Going to Zingerman’s, the deli, then the bakery, too, and being able to have a great meal at the Roadhouse. Also having a very long conversation with Ari Weinzweig who is the main creator of all those and who has been my friend for almost 20 years. But we will also have dinner with dear friends who have donated their personal culinary collection to the William Clement Library at University of Michigan. Jan Longone had been curator of the culinary collection there, but she and Dan had long before been dealers and collectors of both wine and culinary books. Jan has been well respected as a culinary historian for decades. And she has also been one of my mentors throughout my food writing years. I love going there and sitting on their basement floor and pouring through books that they have found. My own collection is for research, no value to anyone but me. Books can be held together with tape and many are.

Why do you think there are so many chain restaurants in Cleveland, and do you fear the influx of chains will continue to hurt locally non-chain restaurants:
I think they keep coming because people keep going to them. They run me nuts. Most of the money leaves the area. Food is of average quality but people are comfortable because the food isn’t threatening. They know they are the same as what they saw in Fort Wayne or in Reading…in any mall anywhere. Blech.

How can we get more people downtown to eat, or do you feel that’s not a problem:
People are afraid of people who look different from them. Clevelanders have never become comfortable with different neighborhoods and different kinds of people the way other Midwesterners have. Like those in Chicago or Minneapolis.

Favorite red/white:
Summer – I’m drinking pink! Whatever, from Provence, nice and cold. And good barbecue wine. A rich syrah from Provence or something interesting from Spain. I’m loving some of the wines made by young Spanish wine makers but have always loved Rosé wines in the summer. One of the problems since breast cancer, I have cut way back in wine. I would normally drink wine every night. I don’t any more. I’d be drinking lots of Loire wines in the summer. White ones, that is. Reds in the winter, the ones from Piedmont are my favorites – awfully costly now. The dollar has been worthless and I’ve not been adding much last two years. Too bad.

Top 5 spices every home chef should have:
Cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves & coriander

What is your favorite restaurant in Cleveland:
That’s like asking me who my favorite child is and I have no favorite. Are you kidding me? I have a group of favorites and I will tell you that I learned back in November of 2005 just how marvelous it is to be somewhat part of the restaurant community in Cleveland. I’ve never felt so loved in my life. And really, I wasn’t in danger. My life wasn’t threatened at any time. But I really was so well cared for. The phone calls and the offers for help were just amazing. All the way through my treatments. Heck, I ran a benefit from my bed, for gosh sake. And I really mean this from the bottom of my heart…the food prepared by the following chefs, is really the food that I love:

Jonathan Bennett, Zack Bruell, Dominic Cerino, Matt Harlan, Doug Katz, Paul Minnillo, Michael Symon, Rocco Whalen and pastries by Cory Bennett & Todd Mueller.

Favorite and least favorite thing about Cleveland:
All of the carping about how bad it is here.

Favorite and least favorite thing to make:
Veal stock is a pain in the ass and I don’t do it any more, but I miss having it. I used to do it in my old house. I still make chicken stock, but I guess I no longer get the kick out of doing it. It’s work.

Fred and I used to cook together all the time, but since we started doing our cookbooks, Fred really stopped doing much cooking. I created all of the recipes for all but our first book; those came from chefs and were mine to make work and to put into one voice. For all of the other books, unless I happened to ask a chef friend for a recipe, they are all mine or from my family. I do all of the recipe testing. Sometime Fred helps, but rarely.

When I was getting chemotherapy, he didn’t do the best job cooking. One day I stood in the kitchen and I screamed at him that I was going to starve to death if he didn’t try harder to feed me.

Then I picked up the phone, called Jan Ross, and asked her to please make a few meals for me. She and John took over and fed me for a week. Then I could cook for the following week. Then another friend brought a pot of spectacular pea soup made from fresh peas. That really took care of me for a whole week. It was fabulous. And then I got through another week. And then I was fine, because I was finished with the drug that made me so sick.

Really, I had turned down so many offers and that was my stupidity but I thought that certainly Fred could take care of me. But he was too involved emotionally – I didn’t realize that. When my shoulder surgery happened this summer he was fine and he cooked. He isn’t as good as I am – I have been spoiled. (LOL)

11 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted August 27, 2007 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this interview. Linda is one of the most knowledgeable people I know (if not THE most knowledgeable person I know) when it comes to anything food – preparation of, growing, sourcing, etc. Not only is she wise, but Linda is also gracious and generous about sharing her knowledge, which is a beautiful thing. And her home cooking…positively sensational. HRobb

  2. michelle v
    Posted August 28, 2007 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you like it. I agree – very gracious and generous with her time and knowledge – a rarity!

  3. August
    Posted August 29, 2007 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Look at you schmoozing with the locals celebs ;)

    What another great interview. I love how opinionated she is about food.

    With the way this blog is going Michelle, you should really consider trying to get a spot on one of the Cleveland morning shows.

    I see you becoming a local celeb in your own rite. You know how proud we Clevelanders are!

  4. michelle v
    Posted August 29, 2007 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Yeah right – too funny! Thanks for the vote of confidence though :)

  5. August
    Posted August 30, 2007 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    no, I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Mark my words!!! And if it’s something you’re interested in, why not GO FOR IT????

  6. Keri
    Posted August 30, 2007 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Loved this interview!! And love your site. I couldn’t help but comment, you can get veal stock from The Soupermarket, over by the West Side Market. They also have a location in “downtown” Lakewood on Detroit. So, so much easier than making it yourself.

  7. Michael Walsh
    Posted August 30, 2007 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Linda, any advice for someone interested in writing a cookbook, or writing about food. It’s very easy to type away on blogs these days, but a serious paper and glue book is different. What was your first break that allowed your first work to go to press? Just wondering, looking for some inpiration. Thanks

  8. Michael Walsh
    Posted August 31, 2007 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    inspiration, sorry, go ahead and say spell check was your first big break/proofreading, i deserve it.

  9. Linda Griffith
    Posted August 31, 2007 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Michael,
    First of all, I love your blog and try to keep up with it.

    I’d love to talk with you when you have time. Doing a book isn’t easy, but as a chef, you might have a chance at it.

    If you have a theme idea, start developing an outline for it. You will need a road map for how the book would develop. Generally you will have to rework this a dozen times before you get something that really appeals to someone. Hate to tell you.

    And a list of the recipes you would like to offer. Just a list.
    But, get started.

    At the same time, and the best thing you can do for yourself, immediately start recording your recipes very carefully.

    First, develop a recipe format that would make sense for a home cook and then use it for all of your recipes. Make certain that you also write a head note at the top…Something that discusses the general flavor of the recipe, as well as its background or inspiration. I’m happy to take a look at what you are doing and critique them. I know that mine in Onions are pretty good, since it got a Beard Award…If you have time on the holiday to get out to Pepper Pike, I’ll give you a copy. I’ll also give you some recipes to get a format idea.

    There is no point looking for an agent until you have something to show…so start working toward that goal by building a body of work. Probably 50 really good recipes to start.

    Good luck! Had have fun. It’s rally tough and it doesn’t happen fast. We were in the right place at the right time. But, after doing 6 books…I’m having a devil of a time trying to get interest in number 7!

    Linda Griffith

  10. Linda Griffith
    Posted August 31, 2007 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I would also like to respond to the first comments.

    To HRobb, I thank you for your gracious compliments. Talking with Michelle was just plain fun! She is bright, enthusiastic, knows a lot and understands that she will continue to learn.

    To August: It is a kick to be so up front. I always enjoy being able to just be myself.

    To Keri: I forgot about being able to buy the stock, although, I am not sure I would do it. Go figure!doing that and don’t ask why. It’s all in my head.

    And to everyone: Thank you, again, for your very generous comments. This was great fun for me.

    One thing Michelle and I did not address was my involvement with Slow Food. Our Northern Ohio Convivium is among the oldest of those in the USA. We exist to help support Ohio Family Farmers and to encourage the continuation of all families’ culinary traditions.

    The most important way to support our farmers is to strengthen their revenue streams. To do this we not only encourage Farmers’ Markets but we try to bring farmers & chefs together.

    One of our events in early October will be at Jonathan Sawyer’s new place in Ohio City. I’ll ask Michelle if she can post it so that all of you know about it.

  11. michelle v
    Posted December 19, 2007 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    To the anonymous poster – please keep your negative and childish remarks to yourself. I don’t care if you don’t like Linda, but you’re not going to use this blog to tout your immature comments. This is a blog about food – that’s it. Personal attacks will always be deleted – always. There is no need.

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