Silver palate, golden touch: Sheila Lukins tells Emily Green how she accidentally became a best-selling cookery writer

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SHEILA LUKINS's phenomenal success story began, like so many things, almost by accident. In the mid-Seventies she had a career as a graphic designer in New York. One day her neighbour rang her in a panic. He had invited Gael Greene, food critic for New York Magazine to dinner. Only he couldn't cook.

'In those days it was very chic to do Greek food,' she says. 'I sent dinner down in the back elevator in my dishes. George paid dollars 50 plus the cost of the food - that was much more than I was making with graphic design - and Gael Greene loved it. I thought, 'Ah ha] Why don't I just cook for single men?' ' And so was born The Other Woman Catering Company.

One colour spread later in New York Magazine, and the phone was ringing off the hook. 'I got 200 calls from single men the week the article appeared,' she says. 'I was nursing my second baby, and had another one pulling at my ankles and I thought, 'Oh my God, I could have had so many dates]' '

The call that changed her life was not from a single man, but Julee Rosso, then an executive for Burlington Industries, asking her to cook for a press reception. Lukins did, and Rosso came up with a second proposition. As Lukins recalls: 'Julee said, 'I hate this corporate life. Why don't we open a shop where people can just stop by and order a whole dinner?' '

So they opened the Silver Palate delicatessen in Manhattan in record heat of the summer of 1977. Lukins was the cook, Rosso the businesswoman. The deli did well, but what followed was, and is, their real triumph: Silver Palate Cookbook (1982), The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook (1985) and the New Basics Cookbook (1988), three best- sellers co-authored by the pair. They have sold more than 5.3 million copies and made their publisher, Workman Publishing, one of the most respected cookery imprints in the world.

LAST MONTH Sheila Lukins, briefly in London, called to see me. A petite, 50-year-old woman with frizzy hair, she grimaced as she peered up the hallway stairs. Limping noticeably, she groped for the bannister. The single flight was a difficult ascent. 'Hi, I'm Sheila,' she said in a warm New York voice. 'I should tell you, I'm a bit lopsided.'

Two and a half years ago, she suffered a brain haemorrhage while cooking a charity dinner for New York's homeless. 'When I woke up from emergency surgery,' she says, 'all I wanted was a nacho grande.'

Concentrating on food, she says, steered her through a remarkable recovery. Initially, Lukins could not speak, read or walk, yet she was back at work within three months. Ill health had rudely interrupted research on her latest book - on no less a topic than 'world food'. There was no time to waste. She had 32 countries to visit in two years in a total of 12 gruelling trips.

She had lived in France and Italy, and had already visited South-east Asia and Russia. She limped from 'rehab' straight off to Martinique and Cuba. 'I wanted to go to learn about allspice and jerk chicken,' she says. She must have wanted it badly. She could barely walk.

Trips followed to Turkey, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, India, the Netherlands, Scotland and Ireland. London was her last stop, and a special one.

Lukins regards London with deep affection. She lived here for two years in the early Seventies while working on the design of John Schlesinger's production of I and Albert. She shopped at Justin de Blanc's and did a Cordon Bleu course: 'I thought it was very good at the time.'

It was then that she returned to New York and stumbled into catering, cookery writing and partnership with Julee Rosso. Eleven years later, the partnership was finished. 'We wanted to do one more book - and that's when we did the New Basics,' says Lukins. 'When we sold up, it really wasn't about food anymore, it was about employees, insurance, lawyers. I don't know if it was because we grew too much or because we were women. We were like everyone's mother.'

New Basics alone sold 1.5 million, and became the volume Americans gave their children when leaving home. The root of its popularity becomes evident when one uses the book, or listens to Lukins. 'People enjoy taking the books into the kitchen because I've never professed to be a chef,' she says. 'I'm just a good home cook who makes tasty things.'

The homely approach is powerfully effective. Readers trust her books, so much so home cooks who might never have made a Madeira sauce will make one now; those whose salads were always ice-berg might buy frisee and rocket. Those whose dressings were corn oil, sugar and malt vinegar might buy olive oil, wine vinegar, Dijon mustard and garlic. And so on.

Her publisher, Peter Workman, recognises her talent and commissioned her to produce her first solo book on world cookery. So began her travels, and so began her deliberations as to how to make wildly exotic food accessible to American readers. 'Tamarind might be available in New York City,' she says, 'but not in Salt Lake City. I want people to be able to make a tamarind sauce, so I approximate it by mixing molasses, brown sugar and lemon.'

It is not just readers in Salt Lake City whom she has touched. Though Lukins and Rosso have never had British publishers, the west London shop Books for Cooks reports it cannot keep enough of their books on the shelves. The reader recipe column on these pages is constantly receiving their recipes from home cooks in Cumbria, Northern Ireland, Tyne and Wear. As Lukins loves Britain so, it might please her to know Britain thinks she's OK, too.

The new book on world cookery is due out in the autumn. The Silver Palate Cookbook and The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook ( pounds 10.95 each) and the New Basics Cookbook ( pounds 16.95), from Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 (071-221 1992).

(Photograph omitted)