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by C. Jeanette Tyson

Shelley Wiseman is lounging on the back deck of a house just minutes
from downtown Austin that looks all the world like it should be nestled
in a stand of trees somewhere in southern France. I feel as though I
should’ve arrived at the oversized door with a basket of fresh herbs
and vegetables on one arm and a chicken under the other. And for some
inexplicable reason, I should’ve worn linen, a long dress probably,
with a sweater wrapped around the shoulders.

Or maybe I just spend too much time with my monthly copy of Gourmet.

Shelley is a food editor at Gourmet. With her feet propped up and
coffee mug within reach, she exudes the kind of calm one should have
when one’s career will include handling eight or nine pans over open
flame with excitable French men screaming at you, in French. But
something lurks beneath the calm. As fascinating as it is to hear
Shelley talk, you want to follow her to the kitchen to see that passion
unleashed. You want to see that magic happen, figure out how it works.
But alas, she’s on vacation.

Shelley (or Shelton ; she appears as both in the magazine) has been with
Gourmet nine years or, roughly, five hundred original recipes. In fact,
the first thing she does is debunk the idea that cooks there merely
test recipes from other sources. Though that happens, they are
primarily responsible for developing new things you can do with, for
instance, strawberries. That sense of ownership, the credit for being
creative, is important to her. When Ruth Reichl took over as
editor-in-chief of the magazine in 1999, it was the first time people
on the front line, meaning in the kitchen, had their own byline.
Shelley’s known for both her French and Mexican specialties and likes
to flaunt it. The kitchen is a good place to show off; I began to
suspect she might not be, after all, so terribly different from you and

But the point is, of course, she is. I assemble food.  Shelley cooks. 
She started at the age of 23, when she was in New York studying art and
philosophy and needed, she said, to procrastinate. She would cook
something then call friends to come over and eat it. There was no angst

If Shelley claims she’s not a natural cook, moving abroad and working
with some of Paris ’ top chefs cured that. There she learned difficult,
exquisite dishes, preparing a dish over and over again, so many times
that she learned everything that could go wrong and how to fix it. But
after six years of working both day and night shifts, as is the custom,
she was ready for a change.

She moved to Mexico and began a cooking school there which led to a
radio show. Then, in her personal seven-year cycle, she moved back in
New York , into restaurants, and then to the magazine.

“For me, cooking was a creative expression that’s practical and
down-to-earth. The artist was satisfied. The philosopher wasn’t able to
destroy it because it began and ended in short increments.”

So what are dinner parties like at Shelley’s place? While some of us
have trouble ramping up, Shelley, for a while, had to figure out
entrees that didn’t take three days to make. The trick is appreciating
the subtleties in something simple. One of her favorite dishes now is
shrimp popped into the oven, with feta crumbled over it, served
dripping with olive oil, right there on a table covered with newspaper.

What advice does she have? Her first tip is to do all the hard stuff
ahead of time. Her second: don’t do a lot of hard stuff. Serve one new
dish but for the rest stick with things you know people will like. The
third: no matter what you’re doing, drop it all when the doorbell rings
and be with your guests for the first ten minutes. Then get back and
finish up fast.

“It’s you the people want, not dinner,” she says. “Believe it or not,
it took me a long time to learn that.” Or maybe, just to remember it.

Shelley currently doesn’t even have a dining table, which limits the
guest list and makes for very intimate gatherings.  A woman who’s made
a career, a life, out of bringing the most wonderful things to the
table has apparently realized some of the best meals are about the cook
getting out of the kitchen.

Something simple, yet exquisite, from Shelley Wiseman:

  2 navel oranges
  1/4 cup sugar
  1/2 cup water
  3 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur
  20 shelled natural pistachios, chopped (about 3 tablespoons)
  With a vegetable peeler remove zest from oranges in strips (about 2 by
1/2 by 1/4 inches) and in a small heavy saucepan simmer strips in water
to cover 10 minutes.

  With a sharp knife cut a slice from top and bottom of each orange to
expose flesh and arrange, a cut side down, on a cutting board. Cutting
from top to bottom, remove peel and pith. Cut oranges crosswise into
1/4-inch-thick slices and arrange on 2 dessert plates.

  Drain zest in a sieve and return to pan. Simmer zest with sugar and
1/2 cup water over moderately low heat 10 minutes, or until zest is
translucent and syrup is thickened. Add liqueur and simmer 1 minute.

  Arrange candied zest decoratively on and around orange slices and top
with syrup. Sprinkle oranges with pistachios.

  January 1997

C. Jeanette Tyson is a freelance writer, mama to Jackson and Maddie and
AustinMama.com's beloved Foodie. 



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