In Conversation with Claire Matern, on Intuitive Cooking

Fellow humans who love food are infinitely fascinating to me. More so, what a human’s unique perspective is on that love of food, the how and the why, the meat of it (if you will), feels so interconnected with their identity and their stories. Food feels like a way in for so many of life’s most important subjects, and family and community and sense of self always seem to come up when you delve into the personal relationships we have with food.

I encountered Claire Matern, a human who is deeply connected to food in all senses, on Instagram of all places (who here is in any way surprised by this?). I immediately recognized her as a kindred food-loving spirit, and we discovered that we have a number of mutual friends in common, too. But what really got me interested in talking to Claire (besides her love of cheese) is how she has cultivated the idea of “intuitive cooking,” and how she is using her platform to have conversations around exploring this idea and its iterations. Yes, she is a culinary expert, writer, and food world personality. But she is also doing something deeply human in these conversations about food, and all I wanted to do was listen and learn more. 

We sat down (virtually) to have a chat about her life, her kitchen, her time in quarantine, and her views on sustainability, and I got so very much out of hearing her perspectives on, well, everything. There’s also a new recipe at the end that she’s sharing with Caro’s City readers, and I personally can’t wait to make it in my own kitchen. 

 

  • Your curiosity and openness about food is inspiring. How did your own food journey begin? What did this mean to you growing up, and how has it evolved as you’ve become an adult?

I’ve truly been around food my whole life. My dad is a trained chef and worked in specialty food retail, and so we actually lived in Switzerland where he ran the food hall in one of Zurich’s department stores. Vacations were spent going to local farmers markets, grocery stores, and reading restaurant menus wherever we were, so food, and being open to learning and trying new things, has definitely been the overarching theme of my life. But, I wasn’t the kid who was always in the kitchen. I didn’t actually start cooking for myself until I moved to London for college. 

Universities in the UK don’t have meal plans and cafeterias, so in order to eat, I had to cook. Being on a student budget meant I had to learn how to use basic pantry essentials and how to be economical with them. This is when I realized how much I’d actually picked up just from being around my dad even though I wasn’t hands on with him in the kitchen. Since dinners growing up were pulled together from what we had around, employing those basic techniques and whatever might be in the fridge in terms of veggies to be used up or basics in the pantry, not from following recipes, I learned to do that myself. So then I could get whatever was on offer when the pursestrings were really tight, or treat myself to some farmers market finds, but could use them in exactly the same way. 

I’ve learned to look at ingredients as building blocks, actors, or because of my fashion background, as pieces of a wardrobe. No one ingredient has one set role–it can be used differently each time you use it, or a similar item can take its place if that’s what you have. I think that’s what keeps the curiosity and excitement for knowing about ingredients, telling their backstories, and trying new things fresh for me–because they’re a new piece to the collection that can be reached for and used depending on the mood I’m in, or they become the hero when the question of “what’s for dinner?” pops up. 

 

  • It’s funny how the term “intuitive” has become such a buzzword of late. It’s like we’re all trying to get back to our own instincts that we used to know as kids, that we were born knowing. You use the word intuitive in terms of cooking, and I’d love to hear more about what this means to you, both in concept and in practice.

My dad always taught me that cooking isn’t about following a recipe, but instead to learn basic techniques and when and how to apply them to whatever you might have on hand. He showed me how to use the senses we have: smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight. Those become your universal tools in order to do anything. Really, they, plus that extra sense we all have, common sense, are our universal tools for living, we just seem to forget about applying them to the kitchen. 

Cooking is about being present with all your senses, so that instead of rereading a line in a cookbook to see when your chicken is done, you’ll know from the smell three rooms away to go check, then from the color of its skin, the touch of the thigh when you gently prod it, and the color of the juices that it of course is done. 

It’s so interesting for me to see the word intuitive becoming a trendy thing, and especially in terms of intuitive eating, a concept I also agree wholeheartedly with. I’ve been using the term intuitive cooking for years now, along with the concepts of common-sense cooking, and what I call #kitchenimprov. For years I’ve been writing recipes “intuitively” and showing, rather than telling, what senses to employ and how while pulling together a meal. 

 

  • You’ve segued your passion for food and cooking from a hobby to a career. Can you tell us a bit more about this entrepreneurial journey, and what it actually looks like to be developing recipes and writing about food professionally?

Just like making iterations and pivots in life and the kitchen, building a career from scratch is all about taking small but smart steps. I always knew that taking a traditional job was not for me. The last few years have been a constant experiment of working in fashion and just loving and writing about food on the side, keeping it more to myself, then basically doing a 180 and devoting all my time to food and keeping fashion as a personal interest, to most recently realizing I need to find the balance of the two in my life and career. 

Both are such strong influences on our lives that I’ve been trying to incorporate themes that both industries share into my writing and content. Developing my unique voice in writing recipes in a more prose-driven way, invoking the sights, smells and all the rest of it that you will experience when making a dish has helped me and propelled my career on a slow but steady uptick. I am a player of the long game, that’s for sure, so I’ve had to make tough decisions not to jump on the bandwagon of any given food trend. It’s the slower, steadier way of doing things, but being an entrepreneur always teaches you to make the decisions that make the most sense for you. A guiding and reminding question I always ask myself when an opportunity is presented to me is, “It is a hell yeah?” Because if it isn’t a hell yeah then ultimately it’s a no. 

 

  • During these current times of change and uncertainty, how is your business, your platform, and your message evolving?

This has been a weird time, and I have to admit that for the first month or so I didn’t do much of anything. It was so jarring for me to have spent the week before lockdown hosting events and demos, with plans such as speaking on a panel about food trends and being in talks about a few exciting filming opportunities that all got cancelled. I definitely fell into a bit of a valley of disappointment. It didn’t help that it felt like I was just adding to the noise of all the new and constant IGlives and videos, and how suddenly it felt like everyone was a cooking expert. For me personally, it started to feel like what I had been working on, just being this voice for cooking tips, didn’t feel like it was serving me and giving me the energy and excitement that it used to.

What has been interesting about this time is how much I feel like it’s given me an opportunity to pivot and expand on my content. I’ve widened the conversation to include other things that I’ve worked on in the past and topics that have been driving forces in my life. Something has shifted, I think because this time has thrown open the door to the realization that we live in such a globalized and interconnected world, and I’ve felt compelled to have the conversations I’d been craving with people in both the food and fashion industries, to explore and discuss how our shopping habits, trade relations, supply chains, everything has changed and will continue to change. My mission has become greater than just showing my audience how to cook. It’s become a larger conversation of wanting to know more about ingredients, the stories behind how things grow, are raised, are made, in the hopes too of demystifying things that may have felt out of reach. I want food and cooking to feel approachable and attainable and I’m excited to broaden and expand my content to reach that goal. 

  

  • I can’t let a conversation go by without touching on sustainability – what does zero waste living mean to you?

Sustainability has been a great influence on my daily decisions and shopping habits for a long time. For example, I always carry a reusable tote because that’s what I got used to doing as a child when my family lived in Switzerland in the late 90s. It’s just ingrained in me to always have a tote bag on me. Now I always try to have my bamboo cutlery set and a metal straw in my purse too so I can easily use those when out and about (note: not that I’ve had to use these items during lockdown).

When it comes to food and reducing food waste I live by the rule all chefs and people who work in the industry keep in the back of their heads: FIFO–first in, first out. Zero waste living is really trendy now (and I’m glad it’s becoming more mainstream!) but it’s easy to create lasting habits like using what is in your fridge first before buying more, and being really aware of what is in your kitchen cupboards. That all ties into my style of cooking and the way I was raised to cook, which is “kitchen improv.” Not feeling tied to individual recipes is an easy way to become more zero waste. By having a handful of “blank canvas” ideas like soups, risottoes, frittatas and scrambles, baked polenta and pasta dishes etc. you can mix and match with whatever veggies or protein you have around so things aren’t languishing in the bottom drawer of the fridge. They can be slotted into any array of meals so they don’t go to waste. 

 

  • What’s your favorite thing that you made this week, and can you share the recipe with Caro’s City readers?

I made a big batch of a spiced carrot soup, admittedly because I had some carrots that were starting to look a little sad, but it’s also such a comforting thing to have for lunch or dinner. A blended soup like this  is also completely versatile and doesn’t have to just be made with carrots and is a great way to use any herbs or spices you have in your pantry or growing fresh in a window box or garden. There’s no real set recipe, the amount of carrots you have will dictate how much soup you end up with, but you can kind of think of it as a 1:1 ratio. I had 3 big carrots and ended up with 3-4 nicely portioned servings. 

 

A nice guide to the base recipe is:

Onion (I had a quarter of one in my fridge that I used up. Anything from that amount to a whole small one works)

Garlic (1-4 or so cloves depending on their size and your preference)

Fresh ginger (optional. But about a 2 inch piece peeled and finely chopped adds great flavor and warmth)

Carrots 

Stock (veggie or chicken) or water if you don’t have anything else

Add a teaspoon or two (you can taste and add more so start with less) of any of the following herbs and spices, or anything else you have in your cabinet. Choose what you like, smell, taste, and experiment with a combination of some of them:

Harissa

Paprika (smoked or sweet)

Cumin

Chili powder

Curry powder or garam masala

Oregano

Rosemary

Sage

Parsley

Marjoram

 

Heat a heavy-bottomed pot over a medium flame and add a glug of olive oil. While the oil is heating up, peel, trim and chop the onion and garlic (and ginger if using.) 

Hover your hand over the oil and if your palm feels warm, add the chopped aromatics to the pot, agitating the pot or stirring them so they don’t take on color. 

Allow them to sweat and soften, but turn down the heat if they begin to brown. (If it browns, stir well, pull the pot off the burner for a few minutes and add a splash of water.) 

If using additional spices, add whatever you chose to the pot, along with a couple generous pinches of salt and grinds of pepper, and allow to heat with the onion and garlic. 

Peel, top and tail the carrots and roughly chop (don’t worry too much as it will all be blended, but the smaller you cut them the faster they cook) and add them to the pot. 

Pour in your stock (if you can, heat it before adding to the pot–cold stock just stops all the cooking you just did) until everything is just covered. Bring up to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the carrots are fork tender. Taste, and add any further seasoning. 

Blend, either with an immersion blender or transfer in batches to a blender. Blend until smooth, adding splashes of additional stock if needed so the desired consistency of soup is achieved. 

Serve hot, at room temperature or chilled from the fridge. Top with a dollop of plain yogurt, crème fraîche or sour cream, fresh chopped herbs or a squeeze of lemon. 

 

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