Isaac Mizrahi has been a certifiable star since the 1995 fashion documentary Unzipped, which then made way for his early-2000s TV talk show, a QVC line, cabaret shows at Café Carlyle, and now his Broadway debut as Amos Hart in Chicago. It could seem that the fashion designer and performer’s dalliances with the food world are only as old as his viral July 2022 pesto tutorial. But he’s long been an enthusiastic home cook, even giving Epicurious a tour of his kitchen in 2008, where he shows off a chef’s knife that was a gift from Jacques Pépin himself.
It’s the videos he’s shared of himself as of late however—baking an apple tart, showing off an array of salts and citrus squeezers, and giving his thoughts on sinks (best to have two)—that have taken off on social media for their lived-in feeling and infinite wisdom, peppered with the bons mots and humor that have kept him in the public eye for more than three decades.
On an Internet filled to the brim with cooking content, Mizrahi stands out by showing what experience and showmanship can do to inspire a bit more joy and pride in the kitchen. He’s hitting the sweet spot where his videos are intentional and smart, but also feel natural—like you really did just happen to walk in while he was making an egg white frittata with extra cheese. He talks over the counter at the audience like a friend who’s a good cook and doesn’t need help with anything (though maybe you could wash the dishes?), but will serve something homey and delicious, with a smart touch that will take it into the realm of gourmet. It’s an old-school idea, that a creative person should know how to host and cook well, that Mizrahi embodies, and it certainly helps that he has years of performing under his chic belt to make it all so entertaining.
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It’s no wonder, then, that his videos have found an audience with food writers and personalities, like TODAY show food contributor and host of PBS’s The Great American Recipe, Alejandra Ramos. “There’s something very soothing about Isaac Mizrahi’s hosting style,” she tells me. “He makes you feel like a guest in his home. He’s relaxed and informal, and not too precious—almost like he’s letting you in on a secret.”
“I love talking about food,” he tells me immediately when we meet over Zoom for BAZAAR.com. And so we did.
You’ve been floating about the food world for so long. I was watching you do a kitchen tour for Epicurious in 2008, and you’ve collaborated with Jaques Pépin. How did this become a significant part of your life?
I started to cook when I was in my 20s, when I first got out of my mom’s [house], and I had my first apartment, which had a tiny kitchen. I just liked the subject. I always liked the subject of food. So I started cooking a lot, just from cookbooks. Cut to however many years later, and I had relationships with all kinds of great restaurateurs. You know, the wall talks. I don’t know if you remember Chanterelle—it was this incredible place—and Rocco DiSpirito! Then, I had a talk show for seven years, and when you have a talk show, darling, you do a lot of cooking segments. It’s so funny, because when you’re in a room with people, and they’re showing you the steps to make something, it just takes all the mystery out of it. But from there, I got even further into cooking.
What were some of those first cookbooks you really got into?
I have to say the first one, of course, was the Julia Child cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volumes One and Two. The thing is, I can’t explain this to you; it was just a different time. It was a different scene. If someone says to you, melt some butter in a saucepan, add a couple of tablespoons of flour, and mix it up and mix it up and mix it up, and then add some heated milk to it, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing—you’re just doing it. Now add nutmeg and some salt and some pepper. You know, basically, that’s a roux. That’s called béchamel. But who knew? Maybe it was béchamel on the page, but you didn’t codify it that way. And then, along came the Food Network, and they made us understand that if we’re making a cheese sauce, usually it starts with béchamel. That’s how I learned the hard way.
But I have to say this one thing, which I keep saying: No matter how bad it is, usually—unless you have absolutely no aptitude for it—usually it’s pretty damn good, right? I remember the first few times I made pasta—you know, making the actual pasta and passing it through, and then cutting it or putting it through the extruder or whatever. I remember thinking, “God, this is good. This is so much better.” Even while not knowing what I was doing. I swear to you, I think it was Marcella Hazan who taught me how to make pasta. Jacques Pépin taught me how to debone a chicken and how to roast chicken. I got some pretty damn good lessons, by the way.
Jacques, man, he’s the one. Those were the books. La Methode, and the other one is called La Technique, which was [all about] technique, and this was pre–Food Network. This was pre-cooking show on every network constantly. They have step-by-step-by-step photographs and all these instructions—those books are some of the greatest books.
The other person who taught me a lot about Italian cooking was—even though she probably doesn’t know it—is Lidia [Bastianich], because she was on my show a few times, and she brought these recipes. There’s this one recipe that she has, where it’s penne, pork sausage, fennel, and a little tomato paste and some onions and some hot chile flakes. It is the most delicious thing. We made it and I was like, “No, this is too delicious.“ She walked me through all the steps; it was such a lesson from her. We did a few things together, me and Lidia; she was on my show three or four times. But you see what I mean? You accumulate a lot of dishes [over time].
Why cooking videos?
To be perfectly honest, I think that social media is a really important factor in our lives. And you are quite young. I am not so young. So it took me a minute [to get over] the million qualms, which I think the younger generations don’t have with it.
Finally, I’ve arrived at this place where I really like it, and I am completely addicted to it, and I don’t mind being addicted to it. It’s fine. I really got past that. I’d been addicted to television, because I’m from that generation. I’m from that TV generation where in the ’70s and ’80s, we grew up watching reruns of I Love Lucy, and then later Golden Girls, and then Friends. Now everything is about this social media thing. It’s about these little snippets, and because I’ve been working as a performer a lot, I’ve been cultivating my Instagram and my YouTube accounts and my Facebook accounts and all of that. I just decided why not just do it.
Once I was alone in my house in Bridgehampton, and I was about to make a pesto, and I realized the way I make it is different than the way most people make it, because I don’t like raw garlic. I don’t like the taste of garlic. So what I do is I make, like, aglio e olio, and then I make a pesto without garlic and season it with pasta water, then add the aglio e olio and it is divine, because then you’re getting garlic and basil and pine nuts or whatever you decide to make pesto out of—pistachios and arugula, whatever, right?—but it’s something about when the garlic is cooked, it’s just deeper. There’s a little hot pepper in it, so this is what I did, step by step. I filmed it myself, and I put it on, and it was just so popular. I think that was the first cooking video.
I watched that, and it was interesting, because you see that evolution, where it’s like, “Oh, I’m just making this, so I’m filming it myself and I can’t grate cheese while I’m doing it.” But now you’re—it’s not contrived in any way, but it’s a lot more of a production. How did that happen?
Now I have people that work with me on Instagram, and so we have days where we’re shooting things. Because of the success of the little cooking videos, we decided, “Oh, why don’t we do cooking?” I used to do it all the time. What I find so hilarious is that the minute you’re making—because pie dough, for me, I have a knack for it. It does not fail me, and rolling it out, like I’m telling you, right? And then, of course, the day that I make this tart, it’s, “What? I’ve never seen this before.” [Even though] I’ve done this a million times.
It’s probably because I used a little bit less water or something, but I also think it didn’t have the time in the refrigerator to fully hydrate, because we had to rush. But it was hilarious. I’m going, “Oh, pie dough? No problem!” Cut to two hours later, I’m like, “Oh, my God, this is not gonna work.” That’s what happens, darling. That’s what happens on Christmas, or when you have to cook for really bitchy, bitchy people who are coming over to dinner. You have to do it. That’s when it doesn’t work.
I think that’s why my friends who are also food writers or food people love the videos. I tweeted about wanting to interview you about cooking, and then Nigella Lawson was like, “Can I come?” But, we all have too many graters; we all have too many citrus squeezers; we all have a tool we use a couple times a year. And so, are you finding that you’re inspiring people to get in the kitchen? Is that what you want to do?
What I want to do is—this is my dream—is I want to make the subject a little smarter. I mean, it’s a very smart subject already. There are so many incredibly smart shows. But there are also some shows where it’s like a little kind of—what’s the word? Facile? It’s a little facile.
And also, personally, I’m not one who wants to spend no time in the kitchen and get a dinner out of it. I’m not this, you know, 40-minute meal or 10-minute meal person. Of course, occasionally, yes, I love a quick thing, and if you can do it, hurray. That’s why I have problems with, “You have 40 minutes to do something with truffles, eggs, and celery—go.” I’m gonna say, “You know what? Here’s four days to do something incredible.” Because trial and error, and you try it and you did it. So for me, the clock part of it I want to take out for reality TV. It’s more interesting.
You’re making food at home, you’re doing fashion, you’re performing—are there similarities in these creative pursuits?
So much, so much—I can’t even tell you. I’m preparing to appear in Chicago, the musical. I think today is my fourth day of rehearsal. The first day was great, because it was getting to know [everyone] and talking and a little singing. It was lovely. The second day, they threw all this stuff at me. It was like, “You go here, and you rip this, and you can get back, and then saying, and then you talk, and then you do your hands, you do that!” It’s like, “What? Are you real? Are you crazy?”
There was kind of a fright that I was thrown into. For me, the act of creativity is overcoming darkness. That’s across the board. It’s like there is darkness out there—and, by the way, a lot of it thrives on the Internet. If you can keep this center of beauty and love and creativity and whatever it is, and you can just take away all the noise, all the noise has to go away, and then you can focus and do your best. And then, no matter what, it’s a beautiful product. So that, in and of itself, is a very good description of the creative process.
Will you be cooking while you’re on the show?
I don’t think so. That’s the other terrible part about cooking. It’s like talking French. I used to talk fluent French. It took me a very long time to learn, because I didn’t learn it as a kid. And I was so on it, and finally, I could speak French, and then after two months, you start talking less French and less French, and then you forget everything.
It’s kind of the same thing with cooking. Even just something as simple as smashing garlic or separating eggs. You have this way of doing it—I don’t know if you notice this, but when you cook a lot of eggs, you can crack them and just open them, and the yolk is intact and it all just goes along. The minute two or three days pass between handling eggs, you start going, “Oh, that busted.” You have a bowlful of whole eggs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Alicia Kennedy is a writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She has a weekly newsletter on food culture, media, and politics, and her book on the culinary history of plant-based eating will be out next year from Beacon Press.