You know that fantasy question: Who would you like to have a meal with? Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi has always struck me as a perfect person to include in that fantasy dinner. Funny, smart, opinionated, he's turned his life as a designer into TV, film, books, magazines and even comic books. But most interestingly, he's a fine cook as well.
On learning to cook
When I left home at the age of 20 -- I don't know how this happened -- but the first thing I bought was a set of Le Creuset cookware. It's blue, I still have a lot of it and it was a set. In those days you bought it for $150 and you thought, "Oh my God, I'm spending $150 on cookware."
Also, I got Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is the Julia Child book. I got Volume 1 and I started cooking recipes from that book. Let me tell you, that's not an easy book to follow. I made some of those recipes a number of times until I figured out what she was talking about. I started with boeuf bourguignon. I went right to that. I was in bed for a week after I made that.
On the kitchen of his dreams
Does anyone have the kitchen of their dreams? Let's put it this way, I love my kitchen. I have a tiny kitchen in the city that I never use. It's kind of cursed. Every time I try to entertain in the city, something goes wrong.
Then I have this little house in Bridgehampton, Long Island, N.Y. About 3 years ago, I redid it and made it the "kitchen of my dreams" -- I say it with air quotes.
In my fantasy, I am a cross between James Beard and Martha Stewart. I'm always cooking for people.
But in the reality of things, I get very chicken. As I get older, I keep thinking it's harder and harder to cook for more than two people. It's like laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. I am a very complicated person.
Every weekend, I cook for my boyfriend like crazy, churning ice cream and desserts, baking muffins in the morning and soufflés. I really love cooking for him because somehow it's just easy and fun. But the minute you put one more person in that equation or two more people in that equation, I freeze up. I don't know what happens. I have performance anxiety.
On cooking performance anxiety
I don't really talk about [cooking] too much because I have anxiety about performance. I've been cooking and cooking and cooking my whole life. If you tell people about that, then they come to expect great things when they come to your house for dinner.
God forbid you should say you're a good cook, then someone remembers when you were 24 and you gave them bad oysters and they were sick for 3 weeks. They say, "Oh yeah, he's such a great cook."
They should make a pill for it like a cooking Viagra so that you know that you'll always be able to perform when you're cooking.
On hosting people for the Kentucky Derby
I had some friends in for the Kentucky Derby. We decided we were going to invite Vance because she's this girl from Tennessee. She has this incredible recipe that she got from her mother for actual Southern fried chicken. Basically the ingredients are chicken, flour, salt and pepper, and Crisco. Those are all the ingredients for Southern fried chicken. Anyone who tries to tell you about buttermilk, breading or cornflakes -- it's delicious, but you have to taste Vance's fried chicken.
It's amazing. It's like this whole alchemy of cooking it with the skin-side down in the very, very hot Crisco, and covering it and uncovering it and covering it. The skin is golden and very crisp and the meat is very juicy. It's really something incredible.
I thought, "OK, now I'm having six people to dinner. Invite Vance and make her do it." So it's Vance's fault if it's messed up. I'll make the side dishes. This is a good idea, because mac and cheese, how can you mess that up? It's carbohydrates with cheese. Everybody likes that.
And guess what? It wasn't as delicious as my normal macaroni and cheese is. If I were just making it for Arnold, I wouldn't be so afraid.
On what makes a gathering work
Booze. I'm not kidding. Liquor makes it; it really does.
One thing about the Kentucky Derby -- we thought, "Mint juleps." So we made these mint juleps and everybody was happy. Nobody even noticed that things weren't up to par. Everybody was like, "It's delicious."
But honestly, a festive drink like a drink de occasion, you know? You make up a special kind of drink. You would never call it a "tini" anything, like a Isaactini. I would probably kill myself before I did that. If you make up some kind of a drink, even if it's not alcoholic, I swear, it really is a conversation starter.
"This is yerba mate, everybody." And they're like, "Yerba mate, what's that?" Then suddenly that leads to other discussions about caffeine and about Brazil or wherever yerba mate comes from.
You can't go wrong if you make ginger ice cream. You can't go wrong if you make mint chocolate chip ice cream. Then you bake something to pair it with. I have this great book, Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Shere. She really does a good job of describing what she's talking about. She will tell you sift this part of the flour and don't sift that. It's so specific. Those little tiny bits of information help me as a chef. They really do.
The first thing you eat and the last thing you eat -- it's like in fashion, if your hair is right and your shoes are right, everything in between is going to work. That's what Diana Vreeland said and I think that's true. I swear, if the drink is right and the dessert is right.
[See also: Isaac Mizrahi: The Key 3]