AT HOME WITH VITA is a monthly interview with artists, designers, and friends who inspire us.
This month, Vita sat down with global food expert and tastemaker, Nilou Motamed. Nilou has been shaping the conversation in food and travel for more than 20 years, first as Editor-in-Chief of both epicurious.com and Food & Wine, and now as an Emmy-nominated TV personality. Born in Iran and raised in Paris and New York, she brings a genuinely international perspective to her work, informed by a love of food and wares from around the world. Nilou is a permanent judge on Netflix’s Iron Chef: Quest for An Iron Legend. An accomplished home cook and restaurant obsessive, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband, writer Peter Jon Lindberg, and can always be found gathered with friends around a charcuterie board. You can also find her on Instagram @niloumotamed.
Describe your entertaining style.
Nilou Motamed: I’m definitely a maximalist when it comes to entertaining – I think it comes from the Iranian sensibility of “more is more.” Entertaining for me is all about setting a seductive mood and including lots of surprise and discovery throughout the evening. We’ll do a casual tasting of olive oils or amari we’ve brought back from recent trips. I love it when our guests are having so much fun that they don’t want to leave.
What are your essentials to setting a festive table at home?
NM: Pairing handmade serving pieces we have collected during our travels over years with amazing heirlooms from my mother – and grandmother – makes our dining table feel like a true reflection of us. Loads of candles are a must, as are delicate vintage etched glass coupes. And, while we’re at it, I can’t get enough of large format bottles of bubbly to give it a festive feel. Everyone perks up when there’s a gorgeous magnum of grower champagne making the rounds. A party isn’t a good party without great glassware and great lighting.
How has your career in food and travel - both editorial and TV - impacted your approach to cooking and entertaining at home?
NM: Working in food has underscored the importance of prep – you’re only as good as how much you get done in advance when you’re throwing a dinner party. Just like in a restaurant kitchen, mise en place is key. True to my magazine editorial background, I love a theme, even if it just means gravitating toward a general region of Italy or France to draw inspiration from. I find it also helps focus the lens for the wines and cocktails I’ll be serving. The most important thing I’ve learned from my time on Iron Chef is how meaningful it is to take guests on a journey with the food you serve. It’s so much more powerful to eat a dish if it’s accompanied by a great story. Most important tip: Guests are the priority, not what you’re serving.
Who or what has inspired your entertaining and home decor style?
NM: There’s no question that my mother is my true North Star when it comes to entertaining. She’s the OG entertainer and I’m grateful for all the tips and tricks she’s taught me that have now become essential parts of my repertoire. She’s an exquisite self-taught cook and all of my Persian recipes are directly cribbed from her. Growing up, I remember the amazingly glamorous dinner parties she threw – sparkling crystal, gleaming, silver, platter after platter of jeweled rice and stews redolent with saffron and turmeric. I honestly didn’t realize how her refined entertaining style had been imbued in me until I found myself trying to recreate her parties as an adult myself.
What is your favorite meal to serve guests?
NM: I love to serve Persian food when I can because it’s still pretty foreign to most Americans. Everyone loves to cheer along as I flip a pot of rice to reveal the crispy, golden tahdig. And it’s always fun to kick things off with some osetra caviar – which I grew up with in Iran. I mean everybody swoons over caviar but many people don’t realize that the best caviar in the world is actually from Iran, which is right on the Caspian Sea. I guess I just love to include anything that’s memorable – food, for me, is about sharing joyful moments with the ones you love.
No meal/party is complete without:
NM: No dinner party is complete without a killer playlist, a magnum (or bigger of champagne) and lots of talking late into the night.
Do you have a favorite place?
NM: I’ve just spent two weeks bopping around the Med and spent a good bit of time in Sicily. I feel a real kinship to Sicilians’ mischievous sense of humor, enthusiasm about food and family, and their singular focus on showcasing the glorious products grown in their sun-splashed region simply and authentically.
Coming from a rich multicultural background with distinct cuisines and culinary traditions, do you have a favorite?
NM: Of course, I’d have to pick Persian food traditions because they’re such an integral part of my DNA but I also grew up in Paris so French “cuisine de tradition” is incredibly compelling to me. And I’m obsessed with all manner of food from Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Thailand, Laos. Wait, I can’t forget about Indian cuisine – which is an entire continent of flavor on its own. I’ve tried to play this desert island game before and I always fail miserably. I love that my life has given me access to such a diverse palette of flavors and influences. I’m grateful that I can choose not one but all of them to explore.
Who features heavily on your entertaining playlist?
NM: It really runs the gamut: Curtis Mayfield, Bill Evans, Bobby Womack, Harry Styles, Caetano Veloso, Tabu Ley Rochereau.
What excites you the most about being a permanent judge on Iron Chef?
NM: Iron Chef has such a huge history – it’s truly legendary. I love that Iron Chef builds on that legacy – and improves on it. The star power is truly gob-smacking. Yes, getting to eat amazing food by exceptional chefs is exhilarating but it’s about learning the story *behind* the chef, where they’re from, what drives them through the dishes they create—that’s the real magic, and what keeps viewers (like me!) coming back.
What are your favorite purveyors or resources to pick up local produce, provisions, or catering?
NM: I definitely love the European approach to food – going to specific shops and purveyors for what they do best. We live in Brooklyn so a lot of my favorites are in our borough – but not necessarily in our hood. I’m willing to travel for excellence.
Winner — the baguette and sourdough and malted chocolate chip cookies Frenchette Bakery —The tiny bakery in an arcade in TriBeCa has lines out the door for a reason: their olive fougasse, baguettes, and croissants and croustillants are worth a trip across the Brooklyn Bridge! Murray’s Cheese — I love chatting with their cheesemongers. Their selection and affinage is truly great. TheOrchard —Mitchell Spitz’s fruit nirvana in Midwood, Brooklyn (not far from the legendary Di Fara pizzeria) is where I go to splurge on the finest figs, persimmons, exotic citrus, and other treats you can’t find anywhere else in New York. Mercado Central — Spanish specialty foods store a few blocks from our place – always terrific recommendations. Il Buco Alimentari —the best for Italian salumi and olive oils. Carroll Street Farmer’s Market — love Lani’s Farm for greens (their wild arugula!) and Yellowbell Farms for heirloom eggs with the blue shells. They have the orangest yolks. Shiraz MarketandKalustyans — for all my Persian cooking essentials Esposito’s Pork Store — I have a weakness for good mortadella and my neighborhood pork store is happy to oblige. They know my standing order and slice my mortadella so thin, you can see through it.
Who would you love to have as a dinner party guest in your home, and why?
NM: I just spent a dreamy couple of days with Sicilian pastry master Corrado Assenza from Caffè Sicilia. You may have seen an episode of Chef’s Table dedicated to his café in the beautiful Baroque town of Noto in southeastern Sicily. Over the most delicious almond granita and perfect brioche, Corrado and I talked about the cultural importance of heirloom ingredients like the Romana almonds he almost single handedly brought back to popularity with his recipes. He spoke so eloquently and so passionately – and so emotionally -- about the humble Sicilian dishes he grew up eating. It would be an honor to break bread with him and his family, to be a part of that culinary communion.