An (Unabridged) Q&A with Chefs Nancy Silverton and Carolynn Carreño

The two have a fascinating relationship, which came through in our conversation about this year’s Valle Food and Wine Festival

American chef, baker, and author Nancy Silverton and her cookbook collaborator, Carolynn Carreño, dreamed up the idea for the Valle Food and Wine Festival over lots of libation, as Nancy recalls. The two have a fascinating relationship, which came through in our conversation about this year’s festival in Baja. It returns on October 22 and 23, for its fourth year, moving to a picturesque new location in the rugged wine region east of Ensenada. 

I’ve known Silverton for a few years and Carreño, who was born in Tijuana, for two decades. Back in 2002, Carreño was working on her first cookbook, a collaboration with a New York chef, called Once Upon a Tart. At the Long Island summer house we shared with six others, I tasted spectacular French tomato pastries layered with Gruyere, herbs de Provence and ample Dijon mustard. She has since collaborated on cookbooks with Kenny Shopsin, Ben Ford and Sara Foster. 

In the conversation below, I spoke with Silverton and Carreño about everything from Silverton’s regrets about never visiting her mom on the set of General Hospital in the 1980s to the new Anthony Bourdain biography, and why Angelenos ought to drive down to the festival—with decent traffic, it’s a four-hour drive from Los Angeles; tickets are on sale now. This year’s roster of chefs includes Aarón Sánchez, Rick Bayless, Gabriela Cámara, Neal Fraser and Valerie Gordon.

Silverton: My phone is dying. 

LAMag:  Let’s get right to it then. How did you two meet?

Silverton: I needed someone to write a book and she needed a job writing a book, so we were brought together by our mutual literary agent. That was the first book of five, right, Carolynn? 

Carreño:  The Mozza Cookbook  Twist of the Wrist, Mozza at Home, Chi Spacca, and The Peanut Butter Cookie that Changed My Life. And every time after we’re done with a book, we say “never again.” Not because we don’t like each other. Just because it’s hard. And then when we sign a new contract, she writes me a note: “Are we crazy?”

LAMag: What works about the collaboration?

Silverton: She takes away the tedious part of not only writing the recipes but also having to be articulate when you just want to say, “It tastes good, make it.”  She is able to turn that into something that’s more interesting and channel my voice. Oftentimes when I read other people’s books, well-known chefs that I know, I’m like, “You did not write this, and this is not you.” I don’t hide the fact that there’s a ghostwriter, I celebrate it, including making sure that her name is on the cover. But it does sound like me. Most cookbook authors like to pretend they wrote the book on their own. 

LAMag: Carolynn, why do you think you’re able to channel Nancy?

Carreño: Honestly, I’m able to channel all of them. It’s like a weird gift because I just hear it like that. And even our editor who’s a black belt editor and writer, when he tries to insert things for her, Nancy and I both cringe like, “Oh, she would never say that.” This is the stupidest, most minute detail ever, but there was this weird thing in Nancy’s latest book with a recipe that said to sprinkle cinnamon to taste on top of an apple crisp. I emailed her in London, saying “This is such a non-Nancy-like move. You really want it?”  And she was like, No, thank you for asking. 

LAMag: Nancy, the tip that Carolyn told me of yours that I love the most is to add sour cream to whipped cream instead of vanilla.

Silverton: There you go. 

Carreño: Oh also, there was the “salt and pepper is not one word.” Yeah, those are my words, but it’s her philosophy. She adds salt to everything and adds pepper to like three things.

Silverton: Right. And it’s probably dessert.

LAMag: When did you come up with the sour cream thing?

Silverton: Crème fraîche really, but my first book, which was in the early 90s, was desserts. Crème fraîche wasn’t as readily available as it is now. It was a way that I noticed from a French recipe that I made where it called for whipped cream and crème fraîche mixed together, it was like, oh, wow, this makes the cream more palatable, it makes it shinier, it makes it more voluptuous. Plus I’m someone who really likes all foods to be acidic. And so it adds another layer of acidity to that cream.

LAMag:  How did the festival come about?

Silverton: I went down to the Valle with Carolynn, and we had dinner at Javi’s place [Javier Plascencia’s Finca Altozano]. And we were all having such a great time as one does down there—there’s lots of libation to help you have a great time down there—and being outdoors and eating food that’s really meant to be shared. Everything’s lifting your spirits. It’s like “This should be celebrated by more people. There should be a food festival down here.” And Carolynn bit. Have you been to it yet?

Salkin: I was there the last one that happened, 2019

Silverton: It’s magical.

LAMag: What’s different this year?

Carreño. A different location, which is Bruma, a fantastic but really down-to-earth and of-the-region style low-key resort and vineyard. And it’s smaller in order to win the love of the winemakers and farmers there because they don’t want massive events. They want to develop the region as an agri-tourism and agricultural region. We are on board because we’re not people who want to see the Valle become the next Cancun. 

LAMag: You make a point to have chefs come to the festival who are relevant to that place rather than just big names, right?

Carreño: We try to get people there, and I think Nancy feels this way too, who will appreciate the region and will be like, “Oh my God, wow, this exists.” We try to invite different chefs every year. Rick Bayless definitely is one of our people that will always be in the festival. And yeah. So what did you ask?

LAMag: Well let me jump ahead…

Carreño: Cooking style.

LAMag: Go ahead.

Carreño: Whose cooking style blends with the region? For instance, Burt Bakman. He is a barbecue dude. He doesn’t cook Mexican food, but just the way he is, he’s so relaxed and fun and he cooks over an open fire and so his personality fits the Valle and he will love it.

[Clicking noises]

LAMag: Um, Nancy?

Carreño: Nancy is still with us.

Silverton: Yes, I’m right…

LAMag: Okay, good. 

Carreño: When Nancy thinks her phone is dying, it usually just means it’s red so it has like 18%…

Salkin. Ah, then you have a long way to go. 

Silverton: Oh, I have, um, 14 percent. 

LAMag: Oh. So I’m not doing my normal charming Allen interview style. I’m just firing them off here. Nancy, why should people come from L.A for this?

Silverton: First, because it is so close! They’re not getting on a plane, they can drive there. And it’s an area that so many people are intimidated about going to. They’ve heard stories about how scary it is across that border, and yet it’s right there in our own backyard. Second, what’s so special is that it is a wine area. When people think of wine area, they think of Napa, they think of Sonoma. Now they’re starting to think of the Central Valley just north of Santa Barbara. But that’s all about these very polished communities. You go down to the Valle and it’s so rugged that it is almost comical or it was for me the first time where I had to drive down on some of those dirt roads and I thought, wow, you’ve gotta really want to be here, right? Baja California is the original California, you know.  So I think that both it’s a way to celebrate this festival but also to have a reason to leave the comfort or what they think of the comfort of their own living spaces and go down there and then they feel like they’ve really been somewhere.

LAMag: What are you making this year?

Silverton: Oh, we’re doing smashburgers!

Carreño: Nancy, why did you decide to do that? I was actually gonna ask you that.  

Silverton: I think it was because you asked me a question and I don’t know why you asked me something about smashburgers and I thought you were asking me something about smashburgers because you thought that would be a good thing to do in the Valle. 

Carreño:  Nancy, what? I sent you a picture. That’s what I did. I just sent you a screenshot of making burgers on a bed of onions. 

Nancy: Yeah, that’s what we do. 

Carreño: And you thought I was asking you to make it for the festival and I was just, “Oh, that’s such a Nancy thing to do.” 

Silverton: Yeah. 

Carreño:  And then she thought I was asking her to make it for the festival, and then by the end of the misunderstanding she was making it at the festival. 

LAMag: All right, so I’m sure you read that article about Anthony Bourdain, about the new book. 

Silverton: Oh, uh.

LAMag: No, you didn’t read it? There’s a New York Times article about this new book on Bourdain’s life and death that Charles Leerhsen just came out with where he reveals he got a lot of access to what really happened the last 24 hours plus a lot of other stuff. 

Silverton: What happened? What happened?

LAMag: Well, really it was love addiction, rather than okay, he was drinking more, his alcoholism was up and everything else, but ultimately it was him upset about that relationship with Asia Argento. There’s a text exchange that is depressing and horrendous as they get.

Silverton: Oh God.

LAMag: She basically tells him, “Leave me alone.” And he says, “Okay.” And then he kills himself.

Silverton: Well, oh God. 

LAMag: I’m only asking because it’s in the news, and I don’t think you were best buddies, but you certainly knew him, right? I mean, I’m wondering about your thoughts about him.

Silverton: We certainly crossed paths. I don’t know if this is a compliment or not, but he told Michael (her romantic partner, the writer Michael Krikorian) that I was one of the only women who could keep up with him. [To Krikorian who I didn’t know was listening]: What did Anthony Bourdain say? 

Krikorian: That you’re the one woman who could hang with him. 

Salkin, At a bar you mean, drinking? 

Silverton: Probably that’s not something to be proud of. But the other thing is that I didn’t know him really as a cook, I didn’t know him as a restaurateur. I knew him as a food spokesperson who will never be rivaled. I don’t care how many people try to talk about food and understand food and culture and people the way he did. I don’t care who you are, nobody can come close.

LAMag: Everybody tries to be him, but they can’t. Two more quick things and then I’ll let you both go. Nancy, what do you remember about Luke and Laura’s wedding?

Silverton: That’s so funny. Why are you asking me that?

LAMag: Because I know one of your parents worked at General Hospital.

Silverton: My mother. If I have one regret, my mother used to say, “you never watched a single General Hospital,” and I didn’t. She was a head writer and she was there for the Luke and Laura wedding.

LAMag: You never went to a taping or anything?

Nancy: I didn’t really realize, but I think it really bothered her. 

Carreño: If you knew the list of things Nancy has never done, you would think she lived on another planet. Like you have never had a lemon bar or…

LAMag: Your mom has passed away?

Silverton: Yeah, she died a while ago, more than 20 years. And if I could do it again, I would’ve watched Luke and Laura.

LAMag: I hear you. 

Silverton: What’s that Michael? Well, I don’t know what this means but Judge just hit 61. [This refers to a professional athlete tying a famous record.]

LAMag: He did! Is there anything you think I should ask you or that you wanna make sure is in here?

Silverton: It’s a really fun festival and people should go.

LAMag:  Got it.

Silverton: So build that part up.

LAMag: Thank you, everybody. And thank you Michael for letting me know about Judge.

Get tickets to the Valle Food and Wine Festival here.

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