Sarah Leah Chase, The Woman Who Can Make Flavors Sing
Sarah Leah Chase is well known for many things: an author of several bestselling cookbooks, a national food columnist, and a culinary consultant to the stars. She also happens to be our neighbor who has introduced us to many of our favorite dishes. My partner Ali has known Sarah from their earlier days on Nantucket, and frequented Chase’s specialty food store Que Sera Sarah on the island. It was during that time at Que Sera Sarah that twelve dozen croissants and a baked ham altered Chase’s life forever. Sheila Lukins, the co-author of the enormously successful Silver Palate Cookbook series, was vacationing on island that week and needed those items for a tasting she was hosting. “I dropped everything I was doing, stayed up all night baking, and met her the following day,” Chase says. In short time they became good friends and in time the Silver Palate would play a huge role in Chase’s life.
In the years after that momentous food order, Chase spent time traveling throughout Europe, a passion that took a stronghold just after high school, when, at 18 years old, she earned enough money to afford a six-week long dream bicycle journey from Vienna to Paris. The trip transported Chase through a long love affair with the winding roads of Europe, as well as its open-air cafes and markets. But Chase’s other desire of submerging herself into the culinary diversity of The Big Apple came to a tipping point. When she arrived in Manhattan, she immediately left a note at the 72nd Street office of the Silver Palate stating she was looking for work. As luck would have it, there was a new cookbook in the works called The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, a recipe tester was needed and Chase was hired. But the experience was not anything like she expected and Chase learned her way around the boroughs of Manhattan pretty quickly.
“They’d originally said it was going to be recipes they would make available, but it turned out that I had to come up with my own recipes! They gave me a taxi driver and told me to take the car as far as I needed and to spend any amount of money necessary. I ended up working so much on the book that they gave me co-author status when the book came out!” The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook became one of the first cookbooks to land on the New York Times bestseller list.
“The process of writing the book added an intellectual component that was missing from the drudgery of the day-to-day work in the shop. I was feeling a lot of steam from the success of the Silver Palate cookbook and decided to write my own book highlighting recipes from my store,” says Chase. In 1987 Nantucket Open-House Cookbook was published, which has seen 20 printings and has sold over 250,000 copies. In those days, when cookbooks sold on the merits of deliciousness and not on celebrity chef hoopla, these numbers are more than just a little impressive for a first effort.
In the late 1980s, with her name and charisma coming to the public forefront, Chase, a petite woman with platinum blonde hair, sky blue eyes, and a passion for cheery colored clothing, was approached by Butterball to help the company update its ho-hum Grandma’s Thanksgiving image by being the fresh new face of a national media blitz to promote their Butterball Turkey talk line, a phone number one could call with a fowl question, such as oven timing or basting queries, to get the newest recipe, or even to be talked off the ledge when the Thanksgiving dinner suddenly went kablooey.
For the next nine years Chase appeared as Miss Butterball on radio stations and TV shows like The Joan Rivers Show when the host playfully pardoned a turkey just before the holiday, the Today Show when carving turkeys and cutting jokes with Bryant Gumbel made viewer’s mornings and CBS This Morning when she was hand fed crispy turkey skin by host Harry Smith. It was a fun time in Chase’s life, full of fancy hotels, limo rides, and celebrity elbow rubbing. When Miss Butterball showed up, anything could happen!
With her first cookbook showcasing inventive summer recipes such as Chilled Clam Chowder, a Fresh Scallop Salad with Orange and Chervil Vinaigrette, Lavender-Scented Grilled Bluefish, and glistening Fresh Berry Tarts, her second book, published in 1990, beckoned for a change of season, so autumn and wintry offerings of Cilantro and Walnut Crusted Rack of Lamb, Mushroom and Oyster Bisque, Scallops in Sweet and Hot Lime Sauce, and Chestnut Mousse Cake, warmed the pages of Cold-Weather Cooking. Two years later she collaborated with her brother Jonathon Chase, a chef and restaurateur in Maine, on Salt Water Seasonings: Good Food from Coastal Maine, which, like her previous efforts, was given high marks by readers and critics alike.
Chase’s next two books were culinary journeys inspired by the annual bicycle trips she made every fall since that ride from Vienna to Paris. She was a cycling guide with Butterfield & Robinson, a luxury bicycle touring company based in Canada and even put cycling tours together around her home town of Nantucket, where participants would enjoy a lavish lunch at Bartlett Farm, a sunset beach clambake, and even a gourmet wine and burger pairing in the driveway of her favorite specialty food shop. Her publisher Peter Workman suggested putting her passions to paper which, in 1995, gave life to two books that were released simultaneously: Pedaling Through Burgundy and Pedaling Through Provence. Soon afterward, Chase’s life took yet another turn for the better.
She married her husband Nigel, the same year the Pedaling books were published, and two years later, their son Oliver was born. In 1997, she, Nigel, and Oliver moved from Nantucket to historic Barnstable Village where she spent the next 15 years writing, hosting cooking demonstrations, developing the take-out food program and buying cookbooks for CookWorks, acting as a consultant and recipe development for her friend and celebrity chef Ina Garten (which she still does to this day), and of course being a mother and wife. If that resume isn’t enough to make you feel out of breath, together Sarah and Nigel started Nantucket Offshore, creating drink rimmers, rubs, and other unique seasoning concepts for specialty food markets, and after a solid decade of success sold that business in order to start Coastal Goods, a company ignited from cooking in a boat galley in the waters of the French Caribbean. The couple became enthralled with the ease in which the vibrant herbs and spices of the French West Indies infused remarkable flavors into their limited shipboard menu and soon hatched a plan to bring the tastes of their tropical travels back home to New England.
When Workman suggested Chase explore the idea of a new cookbook, she knew it was time and after five years of research and working through recipes, the New England Open-House Cookbook was born.
“The idea of writing another cookbook made sense because I wasn’t traveling as much as I used to,” she says. With the farm-to-table movement well underway and the surge in appreciation for the Cape’s local bounty, Chase knew that it was an exciting time to put pen to paper. “I wanted New England to be represented,” she says. “As much as I love to go to hot and trendy restaurants in our neighboring cities, I really wanted the book to be about what I love the most: cooking at home.”
The result is a culinary journey through all parts of New England, with every flavor and color available, but simple enough that most can enjoy whipping up something delicious with little complication. New England Open-House Cookbook became the #1-selling New England cookbook on Amazon and its recipes certainly make it worthy of the shelf space closest to the stove, but it’s the magical, heartfelt stories of life in the northeast that reads more like a hard cover love letter to New England and beckons the reader to slide the book from the kitchen shelf onto the table next to their favorite comfy chair.
Sarah proposes she cook several recipes from New England Open-House Cookbook for the photoshoot for this article. Standing in her kitchen I’m struck by an odd thought...the photo shoot is going to look too staged. The kitchen is drop-dead gorgeous with beautiful, European-style tiling, floral prints, a butcher block island, and sunlight shining over bowls of fruit and vases of flowers so vivid in color that I’m sure some are fake (they’re not—I poked stuff when she wasn’t looking). Even the afternoon shadows look carefully painted. Everything is in its place. It’s like a TV show set, except better.
Besides keeping a pristine kitchen, Chase prepares food like one would tie a shoe, fluff a pillow, or leash a dog. Her actions seem completely effortless, which I admit makes even me a bit jealous. The spring pea soup with mint that I’m sipping while she prepares the next dish delivers exactly what was promised—amazing flavors with thoughtful layers of texture. “Pea soup should never remind you of fog,” she says. The soup is sweet and delicate, with bits of perfectly crisped pancetta and cool, silky creme fraiche for garnish.
If vegetables put on a big, bold Broadway spectacular, I would put the carrot in charge of the ripping the tickets. I thought the carrot dip was going to be a real snooze-fest and wished I had some pea soup left. I was wrong! It’s great to see a boring veg take center stage. Bright orange carrot shreds are dazzled with an Asian flair from fresh ginger, tamari, cilantro, rice vinegar, scallions, and black sesame seeds. Mayonnaise holds it all together and enabled me to pile it high on my crackers. The recipe is an adaptation from the Woodstock Farmers’ Market, a specialty grocery store in Vermont.
“This is my Cape Cod spin on the warm goat cheese salad Alice Waters made famous at Chez Panisse,” Chase tells me. The salad is being tossed in a beautiful wooden bowl, hand made from the West Barnstable Woodturner, just down the road. The balsamic glaze is made from wild beach plums harvested just at the bottom of the kitchen stairs. I’ve had warm goat cheese salad many times before and often the cheese is rolled in some lackluster herb, but this preparation is memorable. Toasted walnuts are finely chopped and offer a soft crunch that juxtaposes perfectly with the warm gooey cheese, while at the same time the sharp glaze plays perfectly with the richness of the cheese. The nuances are slight, but as a whole the salad made my entire afternoon.