I first met Nathan Lyon in 2010, when he was MC’ing the dineLA Quickfire Challenge at Petrossian. At that point, he’d already achieved success on television: making the final four on the second season of “The Next Food Network Star,” co-hosting a PBS show called “Growing A Greener World” and hosting “A Lyon in the Kitchen” on Discovery Health and Fit TV. To start 2012, he added a new medium – print – publishing a market-driven cookbook called “Great Food Starts Fresh,” which he divides into five seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Chocolate. We caught up online, and Lyon shared culinary insights about his new cookbook and more.
How did Great Food Starts Fresh come about?
Great Food Starts Fresh is a culmination of seasonal recipes that I have been developing and testing over the past 9 years. It was about 6 years ago, during the filming of A Lyon in the Kitchen on Discovery Health and Fit TV that I made the decision to actively start working on this cookbook.
In what ways was it important for you to distinguish Great Food Starts Fresh from other cookbooks on the market, and how did you go about doing that?
Because Great Food Starts Fresh is self published I had the ability to create the cookbook of my dreams. A book where every page lays flat, (it was designed in a landscape format), each recipe is broken down into numbered steps making it easy for the user to follow along, the font is very readable, and there is a lot of negative space throughout the book (no added fluff). Also, since I worked with California farmers at farmers markets for over 10 years, I wanted my cookbook to be broken down into seasons, therefore I broke the cookbook down into the 5 seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter, and the universal season – chocolate.
Why and when did cooking market-driven and seasonal food become so important to you?
My brothers and I were latchkey kids growing up and I spent the majority of my days with my grandparents who lived just a few houses down from where we lived. It was there that I learned how to garden in my grandfather’s garden and I also learned how to cook, can, and preserve with my grandmother using the produce straight from their backyard garden. In addition, my Mom and I would frequent farmers markets and food coops. This lifestyle has continued for me and eventually led me to working for Ken of Ken’s Top Notch Produce at the Hollywood Farmers Market and other Los Angeles farmers markets 4 days a week for over 10 years.
Would you say that you’ve had any mentors over the years? If so, who, and what did they teach you?
I have had many mentors. My grandparents who taught me how to garden and cook, my mom who also taught me how to cook. Another mentor for me is Graham Kerr, who I watched daily growing up. In fact, I had the opportunity to meet him and cook with him in his kitchen last year for my PBS show, Growing a Greener World. It was a dream come true.
What was the criteria for recipe inclusion in the cookbook?
All of the recipes that made the cut had to be: made with fresh, seasonal ingredients; well balanced to offer the home cook a wide variety of menu options and cooking methods; accessible for the home cook (using ingredients and kitchen tools commonly found), delicious (as signed off on by my neighborhood test tasters), and make it through the rigorous testing process (me, my Mom, a selection of home cooks from around the country, and finally, my sous-chef / girlfriend who tested them all in my small galley kitchen – only the best of the best made it – 135 recipes).
What’s an example of a recipe you tested that didn’t make it into the book? Why didn’t it make the cut?
My delicious black-eyed pea succotash. I so wanted to include it, however given the similar ingredients used in my Spicy Corn and Black Bean Salad with Grilled Lemon Garlic Chicken and because I had to keep my cookbook to 350 pages, it didn’t make the cut!
What was the biggest challenge about working on Great Food Starts Fresh?
The biggest challenge was finishing it! Because I self-published, designed and tested the recipes, wrote all the copy (stores, recipes, and a whole section dedicated on how to pick and store seasonal produce), and did all the photography, it took almost 2 years longer than I anticipated. That said, I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.
What’s your first farmers market memory?
I was in Washington DC with my Mom (I grew up in Arlington, Virginia). I was probably 4 years old. I remember looking up at the tables of produce. It was in an enclosed structure, almost like a warehouse. I remember the beauty of the colors, the dirt on the produce, fresh flowers, and people smiling.
What’s a misconception that people might have about farmers markets?
That everything is organic. What’s so great about farmers markets is that you get to speak with the people who grow your food. I always encourage people to speak with their local farmers and ask questions. Many farmers spray their produce to ensure the maximum yield of their crop, however some spray with synthetic and some with organic pesticides. So, if you are into organics, you gotta ask.
What was the last ingredient that took you by surprise at the farmers market, and how come?
It was a cantaloupe. My farmer buddy, Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, gave it to me to enjoy. I remember him saying that he thought that particular variety was too sweet. When I got home, I sliced it open and took a bite. Time stood still. It was by far the best cantaloupe I ever had. It was the perfect synergy of flavor, texture, fragrance, and sweetness. My girlfriend and I ate the entire thing right there in the kitchen, standing over the sink, ooohing and ahhing the whole time.
Can you ever imagine opening a restaurant? If so, where would you locate it, and how would the concept differ, if at all, from food you’d find in Great Food Starts Fresh?
Yes! I would love to open a small restaurant one day that would serve seasonal cuisine. I keep thinking Northern California, the Berkeley area, might be just the spot.