For food writer Kathy Gunst, Maine is the key ingredient.
Walking into cookbook author Kathy Gunst’s light-filled, spacious kitchen, I feel as if I’ve stepped aboard an especially seaworthy boat, anchored in a sea of field and forest. Part of a 15-year-old addition to a 1760 South Berwick farmhouse, the airy room has two walls of windows, long runs of countertop, an enormous center island, a modern, red-leather sofa in one corner, and a deep soapstone sink with carved drain boards I immediately covet. Gunst, who has lived in the house with her husband, journalist John Rudolph, for more than three decades, has a cozy, bookshelf-lined office in the older part of the house, but the kitchen is her creative studio and sanctuary. In it she has developed thousands of recipes, cooked for Rudolph and their two now-grown daughters, and entertained the gregarious couple’s many friends, some of whom will be arriving shortly for an impromptu dinner party to celebrate Gunst’s latest cookbook, Soup Swap.
While I sip tea, Gunst puts the final touches on the menu. She slides a crostata—a free-form tart—with butternut squash, red onion, and feta into the oven, and whisks the dressing for a winter vegetable salad. The centerpiece soup, Scottish-style smoked haddock and leek chowder, simmers gently on the stove. It’s one of Gunst’s favorite recipes in Soup Swap, which grew out of a winter get-together proposed by her friend Hope Murphy several years ago. Six couples would meet at each others’ homes once a month through the winter; the host would supply salad, bread, and dessert, and everyone would bring a different soup, along with containers so they could take home leftovers.
After six winters of soup swaps, Gunst says there’s more to the concept than alleviating soup boredom. “After a few years, when the soups started getting more interesting and the group became really close, it felt like we were building a community with these people.” In 2014, she wrote an article about the soup swaps for Yankee Magazine. An editor from Chronicle Books read it and called her to propose a book; Soup Swap was published last September. When I meet with Gunst in early December, she has just completed a three-month book tour, in which she had an event every day. “It feels like the book has hit a nerve, and I think that has to do with the election,” Gunst says. “I think the idea of building community and sharing soup, sharing food—people are craving that so deeply right now.”
During a career that has coincided with the cultural transformation of cooking in America, Gunst has focused on the value—rather than the veneration—of cooking and eating well. She has traveled the world on assignments any food writer would envy, but when she won a 2015 James Beard Foundation Award, it was for a story on cabbage she wrote for Eating Well magazine. Since 2000, she has been the resident chef for NPR’s Here and Now, where her recipes feature straightforward techniques, such as roasting, and ingredients found at the supermarket. “Any time I hear from someone: ‘I was driving, listening to you on the radio, and I made a U-turn; I went straight to the market and cooked what you were talking about for dinner that night,’ I think, wow, I’m getting through to people. They are cooking. My work is having an impact.”
Raised in the suburbs outside of New York City, Gunst says her mother “did not like to cook. She was raising three kids in the ’60s and it was a chore.” Uninspired by college, Gunst left after a year and went to Le Cordon Bleu in London, where she learned the techniques of classical French cuisine. Returning to New York City, she worked in a restaurant kitchen while finishing her degree at the New School. She hated the job and thought it might be the end of her interest in cooking. “Then I realized it was really the restaurant scene—it wasn’t for me,” she says. “It was grueling to cook that quantity of food. It was the ’70s; I made 100 quiches every few days.” Having always wanted to be a writer, Gunst landed a job as an editorial assistant at a now-closed travel magazine, Diversion, where she eventually began writing food and travel stories. On a trip to Bologna, Italy, with famed cookbook author Marcella Hazan, Gunst met William Rice, food editor for the Washington Post, who was about to become the executive editor of Food and Wine. He asked her to come see him when she got back to New York City; she did, and at just 24 years old, was hired as the magazine’s culinary editor.
It was her job at Food and Wine that inspired her move to Maine. Assigned to write about the best restaurants along the New England coast, Gunst and her then-boyfriend Rudolph spent a series of weekends escaping the New York City summer heat for cool Atlantic breezes and copious restaurant meals. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, they landed at the Blue Strawbery, where chef James Haller offered a fixed-price, five-course menu—a groundbreaking concept in the region at the time. Gunst became friendly with Haller, who invited the young couple to visit him at his South Berwick home that Labor Day weekend. “We came and we met all his friends and spent the day having a picnic out at the Isles of Shoals. We said, ‘Oh my god, we have to move here. This is an amazing place and these people are living such interesting lives.’” Gunst and Rudolph sublet their city apartment and moved to Maine for what they thought would be a one-year experiment. She had just gotten a contract to write her first book, and Rudolph would continue his work as a reporter for NPR. When the year was up, they stayed, got married in their first house—just down the road from their current home—and embraced rural Maine life: cultivating a large vegetable garden, keeping chickens, and tapping their maple trees to make syrup.
These activities and more are chronicled in Gunst’s 2011 book, Notes from a Maine Kitchen, which features a chapter of recipes for each month proceeded by a lyrical, memory-laced essay. She has also written six cookbooks with Stonewall Kitchen owners Jim Stott and Jonathan King, as well as Roasting; Leftovers; The Parenting Cookbook; Lundy’s (recipes from the famed Brooklyn restaurant); and Relax, Company’s Coming! In between, she has continued to write for magazines and record segments for Here and Now, which earned her a 2016 International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Award for Culinary Audio Series.
“I often think I could not have had the career that I’ve had if I had stayed in New York, because it’s too distracting,” she says. “And there’s something about South Berwick; there are so many artists in this town—it’s an incredibly creative community here.” Four of the Stonewall Kitchen books were written over the course of a year, which Gunst says stretched her creativity to the breaking point. “When it was time to do the fourth book I thought, ‘I don’t have a new idea left in me. There’s nothing I haven’t cooked.’ I decided I would just not think about food for three or four days, which is almost impossible for me, but somehow I woke up on the fourth or fifth day and I had a hundred ideas, and that last book was maybe the best one of all of them.”
If novelists seek solitude, cookbook authors look for an audience they can feed. As the sky over Gunst’s snow-covered garden turns to deep pink, friends begin to arrive, pouring glasses of wine and lifting the lid on the pot of chowder to take a sniff. They settle in around the table in the dining room, where Gunst sets the soup pot on top of the woodstove to stay warm, and the couple’s yellow lab, Chloe, curls up at Rudolph’s feet. The lively conversation veers from politics to holiday plans to food, as everyone exclaims over the smoky richness of the chowder and the crostata’s flaky crust.
“In my world there is no better way to be with people than sitting around a table sharing homemade food,” says Gunst. “Of course I always try to cook with local, seasonal ingredients—from my garden or a local farm—and focus on simple home cooking. It’s all about the love that’s given and shared.”
As the wintery day turns to evening the convivial scene reminds me that it’s not just what’s in the pot that matters; it’s who gathers around it. Like Gunst, I have enjoyed fancy meals in high-end restaurants and prepared exotic dishes for writing assignments, but given a choice, I’d much rather share a pot of soup with people I love, at home in Maine.