Food Well Done

Cooking Newsletter Demigod Sam Sifton on How To Get an Impossible Reservation

Portrait of Sam Sifton by David Benthal.

You probably haven't heard Sam Sifton’s voice, but after reading a few of his amorous culinary treatises that appear in NYT Cooking's newsletters, you may as well have. After reading Sifton's writing in your inbox, it's not hard to imagine him whispering tips over your shoulder as you stir a béarnaise.  The New York Times assistant managing editor, and beloved founding editor of the paper’s Cooking platform, has transformed the lives of many home cooks—after all, there aren't many chefs who would describe a morning glory muffin as tasting "of hippie optimism," or who would share a recipe for Roman egg drop soup with the power to "change the color of your mood ring." From perfecting the basics to presenting unexpected food combinations like “Peanut Butter Sandwiches with Sriracha and Pickles,” Sifton inspires readers to both honor simplicity and venture into new culinary terrains. As we settle into summer, the New York- and Maine-based writer of No Recipe Recipes, 2021, and See You on Sunday, 2020, tells CULTURED about his favorite meal of the day, a gas station stack he can’t get enough of, and the kitchen utensils he swears by.

CULTURED: Where are you, and what's in your system?

Sam Sifton: I'm in the newsroom, full of strong tea and scrambled eggs, ready for news.

CULTURED: What’s in season, and what do you make with it?

Sifton: Asparagus is here, and I'm roasting it to serve under hollandaise sauce, alongside seared scallops. Could I make that a pizza, maybe with some fontina? I think I could.

CULTURED: Where have you traveled recently, and what’s one dish that you fell in love with there?

Sifton: I was in Mexico City a few weeks ago and ate an enormous number of tacos al pastor, which makes me want to spin up a vertical rotisserie at home, a trompo of pork with a pineapple on top. I'd carve tacos off that thing all day long.

CULTURED: Breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Why?

Sifton: I forage for breakfast. I always regret lunch. And I relish the chance to cook something awesome for dinner, almost every time. So, dinner? You'd think so. But those breakfast discoveries—a stash of leftover sourdough waffles in the freezer, say, or a pint of fresh strawberries my wife bought that I didn't know about until finding them in the fridge, maybe a piece of cold fried chicken? They're pretty fantastic. Serendipity!

CULTURED: Tips for getting a table when the reservation book is full?

Sifton: Go to the restaurant and put yourself at the mercy of the host at the door. Most restaurants reserve seats for walk-ins, and you could be one of them, if only you're there to claim the seat. Be polite and hopeful while trying to make some sort of connection, but don't try to bribe anyone. This isn't a mafia movie.

CULTURED: Go-to bodega order? Gas station snack?

Sifton: At the bodega: sausage, egg, and cheese on a toasted roll with butter, salt, pepper, maybe a squeeze of ketchup. A Mexican Coke. “Shukran!” On the road: fried pork skins or a buttered roll, maybe some Fritos, definitely a big iced tea. “Y'all have a bathroom?”

CULTURED: What in your kitchen do you splurge on, and what do you save on?

Sifton: I buy organic dairy products and the cheapest seltzers available. I splurge on cheese and have a fondness for cheap vinegar. I like my fish wild-caught, but I cook commodity pork. It's a kind of math, or a balancing act.

CULTURED: A kitchen etiquette rule you live by?

Sifton: Clean as you go. As the professionals say, I like a clean station.

CULTURED: Kitchen utensil or tool you use the most? The least?

Sifton: I start every kitchen session with a cutting board, chef's knife, and a dish towel. Those will take me far. But I love a bench scraper, too, and my set of big stainless bowls. I use those a ton. Tongs, too, and a big spoon. As for the other end of the spectrum? I know I have one of those Italian pasta machines somewhere. I don't think I've used it in over a decade.

CULTURED: What’s the dish that represents where you're at in your life right now?

Sifton: I'm in the midst of a quest to perfect a home-style Sicilian pizza that's the equal of the Sicilian squares you can find at slice joints across New York City. It's a work in progress, which feels about right.