Interview with Sur La Table's Renee Behnke

I was raised in a small Midwestern town – an unfortunate spot smack in the middle of America, bordered by the murky Illinois River and corn fields as far as you can see. Like the Sears catalog for turn-of-the-century farmers, the Sur La Table catalog was our lifeline to the rest of the world.

Delivered with the mid-afternoon mail, the arrival of our Sur La Table catalog was steeped in ritual. Everything came to a halt. Mom would brew a fresh pot of coffee, grab a pack of Marlbrow Lights, and while away for hours, dog-earring nearly every page. While she never actually made a purchase, in a way, it didn’t matter.

“Dreaming,” she would say, “Is more fun than owing.”

Situated on a steep slope in Seattle’s bustling Pike Place Market, is the original Sur La Table. When I first visited Seattle, the Sur La Table catalog had such a hold me, I couldn’t imagine an actual store! It was like visiting Never Neverland. Merchandise towered to the ceiling, and gleamed with stainless steel racks. I stopped in a momentary blindness, as the sun glinted amongst a crock of wire wisks. Tagines from Morocco, pasta machines from Italy, Le Cruset and dainty financier molds from France! I was in heaven…


Renee Behnke (right) and her neighbor

Armed with a savvy retail background and a passion for cooking, Renee Behnke purchased Sur La Table in 1995. Seventy-four stores –and counting—she is transitioning into her new role as president emeritus. Cooking, entertaining, and her massive garden are at the heart of who she is. Travel, as always, figures prominently.

Renee is engaging and extremely generous, and what follows is a discussion about her life in food. While shorter pieces prevail in online media, I hope you will indulge me. This is our conversation, in its entirety.

Traca: Your book “Memorable Recipes” was named by NPR as one of the 10 Best New Cookbooks for summer. And it’s up for another award this week. Congratuations!

Renee: It’s exciting. Attention for the book is coming from a lot of different directions. When you think about writing a cookbook, you never know. There’s so many that come out.

I tried to appeal to a broad cross-section of people. I also talk a lot about my garden and how it plays such a big role in the food that I cook and eat. In the back of the book, there’s a section with party notes. I outline how to plan parties, and tie it together with recipes in the book. I think it gives the book a different twist.

Traca: Gardening is a big element in your life. Tell me a more about your garden.

Renee: It’s over the top! We have three full city lots. The front of the house is an herb garden. And one lot is my working garden with vegetables. It’s all raised beds. We planted 37 tomato plants and last year, I canned over 50 quarts of tomato sauce--half roasted and the other half we made on the stove-top.

When I travel, I bring back seeds. I have seeds from Europe and I planted Spanish beans, brought fig trees in from Italy. We’ve got corn, peas, lovage, lots of lettuce, and a large variety of garlic. It’s an amazing garden for someone who lives in the city.

Traca: What motivates you to grow such a large garden? Do you manage to consume all the food?

Renee: We give a lot of it away. We have neighbors who are East Indian (pictured above), so I grew a variety of peppers for her. She pickled the peppers for different Indian dishes. We use a lot of the produce, and give the surplus to friends.

We entertain a lot and a good deal of that food is from my garden. I host four to five major dinner parties a month, with more than 10 people attending each party.

Traca: Tell me about your dinner parties. I can’t imagine hosting five dinner parties a month!

Renee: The number of parties vary, but I have two fabulous women who help clean up.

I have a lot of famous chefs that come to town and they’ll cook with me. When Marcella Hazaan or Alice Waters visit, we’ll cook a meal together. And then I have a lot of friends. We enjoy cooking dinners together.

For years I did Sunday night dinners with family and friends. When I was working, I didn’t have much time to do big dinners, except on Sundays. So we would invite different couples with their kids. I think one of the things that happens is that you know your friends, but you often don’t know their children. I’d make a big dinner and there’d always be something the kids would never eat. Some kids only ate hot dogs and Cheerios, but everyone had to sit at the table together. After dinner, sometimes we’d have a talent show. It was great because we got to know everyone’s kids better, and their kids got to know everybody else.

Traca: You’ve been hosting Sunday dinners for over 30 years. Where did the inspiration for that come from? Are you part of a big family?

Renee: I am part of a big family, but only my sister lives here. The rest of my family lives in Oregon.

When I was married before and went through a divorce, we had a lot of kids. Then when I married my current husband Karl, he had two young kids. Sunday dinner was a way to get families together. At the time, I was also on the road a lot and Sunday was a great time to bring everybody together.

When I was on the road, I’d travel to different countries and cook with people in their homes. And then, when I came back, I’d want to practice cooking what I’d learned. So I was able to test recipes and try new techniques. I’d let everyone know, “I was just in Vietnam for a week…and we’re going to make a new dish.” They’d come over. I’d make the dish and we’d try it together.

I also rent houses and invite friends to travel with me. We’ll split the cost and rent a house for a week. We hire a chef… and cook together. It really raises your awareness about sharing food with friends.

Traca: Your passport gets a workout! What is it about travel that fuels your passion?

Renee: I’ve always been fascinated with world cultures.

Traca: Ethnic food in America is another thing entirely.

Renee: If you’re in Italy, you eat Italian. If you’re in Vietnam, you eat Vietnamese food.

We live in a multi-cultural country. All these people have come to the U.S. and just because they’ve moved here—for whatever reason—they didn’t quit eating the foods they grew up with.

In the United States, you and I could have great Vietnamese food for lunch. For dinner, we could go to a great Mexican restaurant. Tomorrow morning, we may have French pancakes. You can go anywhere in the U.S. and eat cuisine from around the world. That doesn’t happen in other countries. That is only in the United States.

Immigrants in the U.S. immerse themselves in foods their homeland.

Traca: And that’s reflected at Sur La Table?

Renee: When we bought Sur La Table, it was a French cooking store and it was modeled after stores in France. I traveled extensively, and was fascinated by the food of each country. So we changed the original concept to reflect a broader, multi-cultural appeal.

Traca: You took a hands-on approach, exploring foods from other cultures. But cooking those foods in America has its own set of challenges. What was your experience?

Renee: I researched and cooked in all these different countries.

The more I traveled, the more I was overwhelmed by their love of their cuisine. People that live in Greece or Morocco – unless they’ve traveled a lot – have never experience cuisines outside their country. Their passion for local food is unmistakable. And when the food travels back to America? It’s not the same.

Very seldom do you find authentic ethnic food in America. For example, when you go to Mexico, our thought of Mexican food is tacos and quesadillas. But when you go to Mexico, like Oxaca, those people spend days making their family’s recipe for mole. Nobody here is going to make mole! And half the people don’t know what it is.

There are very few restaurants in America that make truly authentic Mexican food. That’s true of every country, actually.

When I cook in another country, and you attempt to translate it back to the American table, it becomes a very different thing.

Traca: For example?

Renee: Cooking in Morocco…it’s important to understand the concept of the tagine, which is the basis of most of their cooking. But when you come back and you want to enjoy a lamb tagine in America, finding an authentic recipe is difficult. You either buy a book by an author based in that country, or you go online and try to find a recipe. But most of the recipes online are not tested. Even in cookbooks, there’s an element of risk. Only about 20 percent of the recipes in cookbooks have been tested by somebody else. So they’re not proven recipes.

If someone wants to make a chicken and apricot tagine, the first thing they do is go to Costco and buy a big bag of apricots. Those apricots have all been pumped up with sugar! And then the recipe says to add 1/3 of a cup of honey. The finished dish ends up being syrupy…and it’s not the real deal.

The way a recipe translates…is not always correct. So my mission was to help people understand the difference, and make it the best it can be.

Traca: Creating that authentic experience can be a challenge, especially since cookbooks have changed so much over the years.

Renee: The old recipes from Julia Chilld, Paul Bocuse, and Marcella Hazaan…those recipes were all tested by experts. Now, you’ve got people who just pump out cookbooks. The recipes are not necessarily good. It’s frustrating because people spend time and money to create a recipe, and it’s not always the best.

In a modern sense, Ina Garten has proven recipes that are easy to prepare. Your results are always good. But you can’t say that about a lot of the new cookbooks.

Traca: Food in America is quite different now. What changes have you seen over the years?

Renee: A lot has changed. The Food Network came into play, and along with that, the rise in celebrity chefs. Some of the celebrity chefs cook amazing food and others…just don’t. It also became very expensive to eat in a restaurant that has quality ingredients.

I was reading an article in the LA Times about chickens. Have you seen it?

When we were growing up, we got chicken from a guy that raised them. And then the grocery store phenomena exploded. Today there are so many rules about raising chickens and selling them in a grocery store, that chickens are soaked in a chlorine solution. If you buy chicken at the grocery store and it has that thing that looks like a diaper under it to collect water? That’s horrible! 20% of a chicken’s weight is water that’s been pumped into it.

Today, people are focusing much more on what they are eating.

When we were young, nobody ever talked about cholesterol, or roughage. We just ate really good food! There was no fast food. McDonalds came into the west coast around 1963. And if you went out to lunch and ordered a “diet plate”, you had a hamburger patty, a scoop of cottage cheese, a slice of tomato and a piece of lettuce. You’d get two rye crisps and then they’d put a big basket of bread in the middle of the table. That was your diet plate!

For the next forty years, people went sideways because what they were eating was terrible.

Now, if you order fettucini alfredo, everybody at the table looks at you like you’ve lost your mind! It’s important to eat everything in moderation.

Traca: What about the plethora of cooking shows on TV? It’s helped promote cooking again, yes?

Renee: People are cooking more at home. But too many young people today rely on mixes. They don’t know how to bake a cake from scratch. Baking is a science.

Traca: True. When I moved to Seattle, I started taking classes at Sur La Table. That’s how I learned how to cook. When did you start cooking in earnest?

Renee: I started cooking in New York, in Little Italy when I was in my mid-twenties.

I worked with a man in the garment industry and we went to dinner in Little Italy. I started talking with this old guy, asking how they made the various dishes. He said, “If you want to come when you get off work, you can cook in the back with me. “ This guy was in his 80’s. So I started doing that when I was in New York. I was there about 10 days a month and I’d cook with him in Little Italy. I never wanted to work in a restaurant, but I was so fascinated, learning from this old guy.

Traca: And from there, you expanded into other cultures?

Renee: I was a buyer for Nordstrom and left because I was hired away by Bon Marche (department stores). I went on buying trips to Europe, going four times a year.

Then when I went to Israel and I met this woman who worked with our Asian buyers. She gave cooking classes in her home. This woman was born and raised in China, and left. I took classes from her for three years. We cooked food from every province in China.

I was fascinated by authentic Chinese food; it was so different from the food we had in Chinatown. For three weeks a month we’d go to her house for cooking classes and one week a month we’d visit one of her friend’s restaurants and eat whatever she ordered for us. Then we’d learn how to cook those dishes the following week. I got so fascinated by it!

So then, whenever I would travel and meet different people on business, I’d say “How did you make this?” They’d invite me to their house…and I’d get to cook with them.

In my 30’s, there were cooking stores near my home and I started giving classes. It was a growth progression. I was totally fascinated by what you could do with food.