Everyday Icon: The Inspired Chef

Chef and blogger Anna Watson Carl shares her tips for simple recipes and cooking.

Image Credit: Nate Poekert

Anna Watson Carl of The Yellow Table is one inspiring woman. She’s a chef, wife, writer, recipe creator and world traveler who recently added self-published cookbook author to her long list of accomplishments. But what strikes us most about Anna is her ability to create simple, delicious food that encourages people to connect around the dinner table. We had a chance to talk with her about connectivity, food and creativity and found so much wisdom in her answers:

The story behind the name “The Yellow Table” is heart-warming. Will you share with us how it came about?

My mom bought a mustard-colored wooden table back in 1974, as a single 25-year-old girl living and working in Nashville. (Little did she know that it would one day inspire a blog and a book!) Later she married my dad, had my brother, sister, and me, and our lives literally revolved around that table. It sat in the center of our kitchen, and we ate nearly every meal around it, celebrated birthdays and holidays, and worked on countless school projects there. But most of all, the yellow table taught me what community looked like and deeply engrained in me a love for shared meals, conversation, and hospitality. My mom gave me the table as a college graduation present, and it’s traveled with me to Pittsburgh, Nashville, and now, New York City. It is truly one of my most treasured possessions—the memories attached to that table are priceless.

We live in a plugged-in world these days, but your ultimate goal is really about connecting with loved ones face-to-face over a simple, no-fuss meal. What do those personal connections mean to you?

It means everything to me! As much as I love meeting new people around the world online—via my blog or social media—nothing can compare with sitting down face-to-face and sharing a meal with friends or family. Everybody has to eat, so mealtimes are the perfect moment to press pause on outside distractions and focus on the people around the table. I’ve definitely been influenced quite a bit by my time living in France. There, they would never eat a meal in front of a computer, while in the U.S., that’s totally normal. I started The Yellow Table blog with a mission: to inspire people to create simple meals, and to take time to connect with the people they love around the table. I’ve found that the simpler the meal, the more likely that people will actually take the time to cook –that’s why you won’t find any overly complex recipes on my blog or in my book.

You often share behind-the-scenes photos of dinners in your walk-up apartment in New York (dishes in the bathtub! a tiny kitchen!); take it from us, your real-life approach to cooking and hosting parties is appreciated. If we were to tell you we wanted to host a small dinner party tonight, what would be your three best tips to keep us from worrying about “perfection?”

I’m so glad that you all like my real-life approach! Of course there’s always a temptation towards perfection—I totally struggle with it, too—but my best tips for combating it are:

  • Remember that you’re cooking for friends, not a panel of Top Chef judges! Your friends aren’t there to critique you. They are happy just to spend time with you and to eat a home-cooked meal.

  • The whole point of having a dinner party is to enjoy your guests. I try and plan a menu that can be made mostly in advance so I’m not stuck in the kitchen all night! Typically I make the dessert a day ahead, and try and make a main course (like Boeuf Bourguignon or chili or a soup) that can just be reheated before sitting down. That way, all I have to do before the party is toss together a salad and a quick appetizer. (Also my kitchen is tiny, so I have to cook in shifts!) But you said that the dinner party is tonight (!) so I’d just make something really simple, like my Honey-Dijon Roast Salmon, with some couscous and roasted broccoli. The whole meal – from start to finish – takes around 30 minutes to make.

  • Don’t try and do it all yourself! I’m a big fan of letting friends pitch in—whether that’s bringing a dish to bookend the meal (like a dessert or an appetizer), a bottle of wine, or even something pretty for the table (like flowers or handwritten name cards). It’s enough work to clean my house and make the meal, so I’m always happy to friends help out by bringing something!

In your recently self-published cookbook, you’ve broken the recipes down by season. What are some ways we can all pay a little more attention to cooking with foods that are fresh and in-season throughout the year?

It’s easy for me to eat seasonally because my cravings change by the season! In the winter, I love making heartier foods like ragu with polenta and broccoli rabe, lamb tagine, pasta carbonara with garlicky greens, and citrus salads with ricotta salata. In the spring, I am craving fresh peas, fava beans, rhubarb, and strawberries. In the summer, I can’t get enough tomatoes, basil, eggplants, and zucchini, plus lots of grilled fish, salads, and fruit desserts. Then in the fall, I love eating butternut squash, root vegetables, pumpkin everything, dark leafy greens, and lots of soups. Shopping at your local Farmers’ Market is the best way to stay in touch with what’s fresh and seasonal. Not only does the food taste better, but it’s also nice to support local farmers.

Clementine Daily’s mission is to live an intentional and authentic lifestyle while celebrating the simpler pleasures in life. How do you relate to this mission in your everyday life?

I love your mission!! It’s definitely the way I try to live my own life. Cooking every day is one of the main ways I seek to live intentionally. It takes both time and planning to make the majority of my meals at home, but eating healthy, delicious food—and sharing it with my husband and friends—is really important to me, so it’s worth the effort. I also try to savor small pleasures in life, whether that’s a sunset jog, a good cup of coffee or homemade chocolate chip cookies, or taking time to handwrite a note to a friend. It’s easy to just focus on the big moments in life, but it’s those small things that I most enjoy. And finally, I am a big believer in journaling. Life passes so quickly, so I try to take time each day to jot down my thoughts and feelings. It helps me process how I’m feeling and what I’m learning. I’ve done this since I was a kid, and now I have my life documented in over 25 notebooks.

We want to know: what are a few items you wouldn’t want to live without?

My yellow table (obviously!). My Bible. My current journal. My wedding ring(s). My Le Creuset Dutch oven. My Wusthof 8-inch chef’s knife. Dark Chocolate. Coffee. Wine (preferably sparkling!). Good bread. My MacBook Air. And though I kind of hate to admit it: my iPhone!

Obviously, 2014 was a whirlwind year for you. What are your hopes for the 12 months ahead?

Yes, 2014 was a total whirlwind!! In January, my husband and I are spending a few weeks in Sicily, which is a total dream and a much-needed break after a year of nonstop work. So for January, my goal is to get re-energized and re-inspired for the year ahead (and hopefully find some new culinary inspiration, as well!).

Amazingly, my cookbook sold out in just 6 weeks, so I definitely want to reprint the book and get it in a lot more book and specialty stores. I would LOVE to see The Yellow Table in Anthropologie, West Elm, Barnes & Noble and Williams Sonoma. Fingers crossed!! Beyond that, I’d love to turn my focus back to my blog: developing new recipes, creating some videos and hopefully to start teaching cooking classes again. I hope to do some more fun dinner party collaborations with other bloggers and I would love to do a second book at some point as well. We will see!

p.s. Want to learn more about Anna’s journey? Listen to her pre-publishing interview on the Creating Your Own Path podcast!