As a popular food writer and author of more than 30 cookbooks, Melissa Clark has developed hundreds of recipes. Many of her favorites were inspired by her travels abroad, trips on which she embarked as early as her childhood. She talked with Francis Lam about the culinary inspiration she gains from international travel. Over the years, Melissa has shared with us her globally inspired recipes for Turkish-style Bulgur "Pilaf" with Swiff Chard and Dried Apricots, Pan Bagnat, and Max's Arctic Char with Egg Lemon Dragon Sauce. You should also check out her New York Times pieces with recipes included for pasta inspired by India and Turkish-style pasta with lamb, eggplant and yogurt sauce.

The Splendid Table is also pleased to announce that we're producing a new podcast called Weeknight Kitchen with Melissa Clark. Each week, Melissa walks us through a single recipe, one easy enough to keep in your pocket for any weeknight meal. Episodes begin September 4, 2019. If you want to make more of weeknight cooking in your own kitchen, join Melissa in her kitchen by subscribing to or following Weeknight Kitchen with Melissa Clark wherever you get your podcasts. 

Francis Lam: You are a native New Yorker, but as far as I can remember you’ve had a real thing for French food, professionally.

Melissa Clark: That is true. I grew up in Brooklyn and my family spent every single summer, every August, in France. We house exchanged before house exchanging became a thing. We would get this actual physical book. This was before the Internet. Take your mind back. Just remember the days when you would actually have to write handwritten or hand typed – I guess we would type them – letters on blue onionskin mailers, and we would mail them. There’d be this book that would list all the people who were interested in exchanging their house, and we would just send letters back and forth. There was no Google, there was no way to check up on these people, and you just blindly left your house and went to their house. For me, what that meant is I went to their kitchens and I learned how to cook in France.

FL: As a kid.

MC: As a kid, because both my parents worked. They’re both psychiatrists, and so they had August off because back in the day psychiatrists took the whole month of August. And so they were really busy and they didn’t do a lot of cooking, especially with me during the regular year. But in the summer we’d go to France and we’d cook together as a family. And so I really – French chefs say, “I learned how to cook at my grandmother’s knee,” and I kind of learned how to cook at my parents’ knees in France. We weren’t cooking exactly French food. We weren’t cooking – I don’t even know what New York food is. We were cooking this crazy hybrid; it was very spur of the moment and it was very inspired by what we could find at the markets and what we were eating in the restaurants. And that is absolutely the foundation of the way I cook today.

FL: No kidding. And so do you have specific food memories from when you were a girl, being in this new, wonderful, weird place?

MC: Yeah, because every summer there was something new. I remember not wanting to eat frog legs for a really long time, and then I remember the moment where I was like, that smells kind of garlicky and kind of good. I guess I was a teenager at that point. I remember that first bite. And I remember my mother would – they lied to me all the time, so my mother would say, “Here, have some steak,” neglecting to mention that it was actually horse steak. Or rabbit was chicken. They just totally lied, which I forgive them for, although I do tell my daughter the truth. But I tried a lot of things and it was always so exciting. But, I also remember the moments of choice when I got to choose what I was going to try, like the moment I first had a snail. So, you’ve got the escargot, you’re in France, you’ve got that garlic butter and it’s all green, and as a kid you take your baguette, you stick it in the butter, but you do not touch the snails because ew, right? And I just would love that snail butter so much, and I remember taking my fork and finally tasting a snail, and I was like, wow this is really good. It’s earthy, it kind of tastes like mushrooms. Take that memory and fast forward 40 years, and now I take snail butter and I take shrimp and mushrooms and I make a dish, because snails really kind of taste like shrimp crossed with mushrooms, right? And so this stuff stays with me; like those memories, it still influences how I cook.

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FL: What’s another recipe you came up with from those memories?

MC: From France I remember being a little kid. I barely remember eating this, but I remember the physicality of making this. We’d always take sandwiches to the beach. In France, there’s a kind of sandwich called a pan bagnat, and basically it’s a tuna fish salad sandwich, except instead of mayonnaise you had the provincial flavors of tomatoes and olives and capers and tons of olive oil. In restaurants, what they do is they weight these sandwiches down. They make the sandwiches – you take a big country loaf or you could use a baguette. You’d almost hollow out the middle and you’d stuff it full of tuna and all those flavors I just mentioned, and then you’d flatten it out with a weight. But if you are my parents and you have two small children you make them sit on the sandwich. I remember as a little kid sitting on this big sandwich – it was a giant loaf of bread. I was sitting there in my bathing suit, really wanting to go the beach, like can we go now? No, you gotta sit on the sandwich!

FL: You’re making lunch, honey. Keep sitting. [both laugh]

MC: It was well wrapped. We wrapped in many layers of foil, so it was definitely protected, but it was just this funny memory. It was like this tuna fish cushion. I took this memory and I love to make a pan bagnat. When my daughter was young I could get her to sit on the sandwich, especially when she was three and four. Now she’s almost eleven, and she looks at me and rolls her eyes like, okay fine, and I take a big frying pan and fill it with cans.

FL: To be fair, with an 11-year-old, it doesn’t matter what you do. The eyes are going to roll.

MC: Right. And I think I could probably bribe her to sit on the sandwich, but it’s this funny tradition of physically helping make the food before I could cook. I’m feeling almost a little bit proud of that.

FL: For sure. Now you can cook, and very well. As an adult, though, when you’re traveling are you actively looking for recipes or do you just do your thing and let the inspiration hit you?

MC: Both. I always actively look for recipes. I actively look for flavor combinations I haven’t seen before, so more so than asking someone how do I make that dish, especially when I’m traveling. When I was in India it was hard to communicate because I didn’t speak the language and often I was with a group, so it was hard to talk to the actual cook and get the recipe, but the flavors stayed with me. And when I came back I craved spices in this intense way. If I’m going to cook with spices I’m probably not going to cook with as many spices as I tasted in India, so it pushed me in that direction, and I was combining them in ways that I hadn’t done before. I’ll look for those flavor combinations. There was this one dish that I remember. I had just gotten back. I went to India last fall and I was craving spices, and I wasn’t just craving them in India food. I was craving them in everything. For example, skillet pasta, like a cheesy skillet pasta, something where normally I would skew Italian. I’d get my tomato sauce and my cheese. It’s like no, I need spices. So, I added a ton of spices. I added cumin and turmeric and garam masala and I created this really spicy skillet pasta, and it wasn’t Indian food and it wasn’t a normal Italian skillet pasta; it was this weird hybrid. I put cheddar cheese all over the top and onions in there and it was absolutely delicious. It was really good. It was just trying to recapture this memory, but it wasn’t even something I ate. It was just these scents and these fragrances of spices that I needed. I felt like I needed them.

FL: It didn’t have to be literal, right? It was impressionistic.

MC: Exactly.

FL: It was like, what is this feeling I felt?

MC: Yeah, it really is. Or the things that I smelled. I wanted to be back there. I loved it so much I wanted to be back there, and since I couldn’t get back there I had to cook my way to a state of being.


Francis Lam
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.