Magazine / People

Interview: TV producer and cookbook author Susie Heller

Susie HellerSusie Heller (BA education ’72) has cooked up quite the career over the past 25 years. After a chance meeting with the famous Jacques Pépin in 1985, Heller began working as a culinary producer on his television show and on shows with his friend Julia Child. She’s since produced dozens of television series and specials and collaborated on cookbooks with celebrity chefs including Thomas Keller, Michel Richard and Michael Chiarello. But ask her what she really likes about food, and she’ll tell you it’s hanging out eating great barbecue.


Q How did you get started writing cookbooks and producing TV shows?

A I started as a caterer, then I owned a restaurant. I lived in Cleveland and I wrote restaurant reviews. Then I met chef Jacques Pépin in 1985. I started working with him on his cookbooks and on his television show. Through Jacques, I met a producer who was bringing Julia Child back on air, and he asked if I would work as a culinary producer on that show. I have worked with Jacques, most recently as his executive producer, for 25 years. I worked with Julia on three series and two specials. Through it, I met chefs from all over the food world, and I started working with them on their cookbooks.


Q Do you have a favorite food?

A Great barbecue is always right up there. But when I’m working on a book, it’s those foods that I cook and eat for the period I work on the book. Then I move on to the next thing. My favorite foods are never anything overly fancy; they are more soul-satisfying dishes that you want to keep revisiting.


Q What’s the collaboration like when you are working on a cookbook with a chef?

A My niche has been to work with professional chefs. I don’t want to write my own books. I like learning and growing on every project that I do, so if I decide to do a project I do it because I’ll learn something as well. The chef and I write a table of contents and try to create balance in the book. You want to make sure you interest the home cook and the professional cook. We have both those audiences. When I’m [working] with Thomas [Keller], we’re about keeping the integrity of the dish but making it work for someone at home.


Q What do you think about food television today? With the advent of the Food Network and competition shows like “Top Chef,” the concept seems to have changed quite a bit.

A It’s wonderful because it’s brought so many people to cooking. I worked with Emeril [Lagasse] and Julia didn’t know who he was, and I said, “He is going to be the new face of New Orleans.” And he changed cooking. He was a real trailblazer and he was a tremendous chef. He’s paved the way for many of the chefs on the Food Network, and this makes home cooks become better cooks and then raises the level of all cooking.


Q What is it about food that piques people’s interest?

A Everyone thinks they’re an expert in it. You can be an aficionado of the French Laundry, eat at top restaurants in New York and think you really know food, and then you can talk to someone who eats at chain restaurants regularly and they think they really know food because they think everyone else is a food snob. Everyone has an opinion on food. It’s our unifier. Everyone has a favorite restaurant; they have food they like and don’t like.



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