Mixing equal parts charm, humor, and culinary expertise, Sara Moulton, ’81, served up a delicious presentation at the Alumni Center April 23 during a recent visit to Ann Arbor. Renowned as a chef, cookbook author, and host of “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” on public television, Moulton shared stories about her years as a student in the Residential College.
Like many students, she tried a few different majors while attending the University. “I pursued becoming a lawyer, a doctor, a biological medical illustrator, and a teacher,” she said. But it was her work outside the classroom that helped chart the course of her career. “When I came to the University of Michigan, I always had some kind of restaurant or cooking job,” she said. “I cooked for a professor and his wife for one semester, and that was fun. And then my last job was at the Del Rio bar.” It was there that she learned how to make the Det burger (see the recipe below) as well as other food that she’s written about in her cookbooks.
Following graduation, she applied to the Culinary Institute of America—which she called the “University of Michigan of cooking schools”—and was surprised when she was accepted. The experience was life changing. “Everything I learned, I was desperate to know,” she said.
About a year and a half after finishing at the institute, and while a caterer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she worked with a woman who volunteered on Julia Child’s television show. The co-worker told Child about Moulton, who was hired the next day. “And that started a lifelong relationship,” Moulton said. Child remained her mentor and friend until her death in 2004. “She opened so many doors,” said Moulton. “She got me an apprenticeship in France. When I moved to New York in ’81, she gave me an introduction to all the best restaurants. . . . She took me to the White House with her as her protégé when the Clintons were still in the White House and she was being honored. She was just the best.”
Moulton, a James Beard Award nominee, added that because of that experience, she makes a point of acting as a mentor herself in a career field where it is increasingly challenging to find a good job. She currently works with two interns who helped with Moulton’s recently completed cookbook.
As yet untitled and due for publication next March, the book is for home cooks and has kept her in the kitchen for the past year. She admits that the project has led to a bit of burnout when it comes to cooking. “However, the excitement is coming back—and there are new things I want to try.”
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, sliced (about 1 cup)
Eight 1½-inch crimin mushrooms (about 4 ounces), sliced
Kosher salt and freshly milled black pepper
One 4-ounce can sliced, peeled green chiles, drained
1/3 cup pitted, brine-cured olives such as Kalamata, sliced
1½ pounds ground beef chuck or round
6 ounces Cheddar cheese, cut into 4 slices
1/3 cup beer
4 hamburger buns, split and toasted
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over high heat until hot. Reduce the heat to medium; add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high; add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms have browned and the liquid they release has evaporated, 4 to 5 minutes. Season the mushroom mixture with salt and pepper to taste and transfer it to a bowl; add the chiles and olives and set aside. Wipe out the skillet.
- Gently shape the beef into four 4-inch burgers; season with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in the skillet over high heat until hot. Reduce the heat to medium-high, add the burgers, and cook 3 minutes. Turn the burgers and cook 2 minutes. Top each with a quarter of the chile mixture and a slice of cheese. Add the beer to the skillet; cover and steam until the cheese has melted, about 3 minutes.
- Transfer the burgers to the toasted buns and serve.