Gwyneth Paltrow doesn't have to cook. She's a movie star. Her mother, Blythe Danner — a formidable actress herself — much preferred the stage to the kitchen. But Paltrow's father thrived there.
Bruce Paltrow was a producer and director, mostly of TV hits such as St. Elsewhere. He was also a father who doted on his daughter — until he died, suddenly, nine years ago when he was just 58.
Now, Gwyneth Paltrow has a cookbook called My Father's Daughter, celebrating family and togetherness, as the subtitle puts it. Paltrow's passion for cooking began when she was a very young aspiring actress and found herself joining her father in the kitchen.
"I started to learn how to cook with him," she tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne. "And it was something that we did together. We were so often side by side in the kitchen, just quietly chopping or whisking. It's a very physical memory that I get of him when I'm in the kitchen; it's almost like I can feel him standing behind me."
Paltrow explains that her father came from a big family, and mealtime was an important part of communication.
"He came from a house where the family dinner was very, very important," Paltrow says. "Every night my grandfather would have the whole family at the table at 6 to eat dinner all together, and my grandmother would cook, and they would all chat and it was their family time. He didn't grow up with a lot of money, so when he could afford to go out to restaurants and take us, he was so excited, and I think that's where I got the idea that food is very special and exciting."
My Father's Daughter features several recipes inspired by Bruce's kitchen experiments, including "Bruce's World-Famous Pancakes." Though the recipe is quite traditional — flour, buttermilk — Paltrow says her father's version was always just a bit better than others she tried.
"They are honestly the best pancakes," she laughs. "They are thin, they're tangy. They're not these giant fluffy things. I think what made them world-famous is, well, everyone loved the taste of the pancakes, but it became such a thing that he would cook for all of us and our extended family. It was almost about the experience as much as the pancakes themselves."
In the cookbook, Paltrow offers some healthier alternatives to her family recipes. For example, she provides an alternative to her mother's blueberry muffin recipe that includes soy milk instead of whole milk, and vegetable oil in place of butter.When asked if her version tastes better, however, she demurs.
"No, no, it doesn't," she admits. " Nothing tastes as good as my mother's super-fattening, sugary, blueberry muffins. [Mine] taste pretty good. But you can't beat the butter and sugar, let's face it."
Some of the recipes in My Father's Daughter feature foods that Paltrow herself does not eat — she doesn't eat red meat, for example, but she decided to include her family's brisket, as she has such fond memories of the dish from childhood.
"Basically, we grew up having brisket," she says. "It's the pride of the Jewish mother, to have her version of brisket. So even though I don't eat red meat anymore, I loved brisket, and I thought, we have to include it in the book. So I started doing research and asking all the women in my family ... and it seemed that the secret ingredient was rubbing it with Lipton onion soup mix. I thought, let's do it a little more homemade than that."
Though the cookbook is already a best-seller, the public perception of Paltrow has not always been that of a culinary queen. In fact, she was famous for her limited macrobiotic diet around the time she won an Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love in 1998. She says she was dieting that way as a response to her father's throat cancer diagnosis.
"When he was diagnosed with cancer, it was my absolute worst nightmare. And I thought, gosh, he's got to eat healthy. So I started doing all this research into how people allegedly cure themselves through macrobiotics and very healthy diets," she says.
"I was hoping he would adapt some of these principles in the hopes that it would help his health, but he was pretty resistant. I think he equated sugar and caffeine with being healthy. So by proxy, I thought, I'll get really healthy, and somehow that will make him healthier. It didn't work, but I tried."
Paltrow says every recipe in the book has a personal connection to her past, but none so poignant as that for duck ragout. The dish brings up the memory of the last great conversation she had with her father before his death.
"We were in Italy," she muses. "We had gone to Italy for my 30th birthday, and my present from my dad was that we were going to have a road trip through Tuscany and Umbria, and on the first night we went to this little town called Cortona, and he wasn't feeling well. I didn't know how unwell he actually was feeling, but we took a walk up the little cobblestone streets and we went to this little trattoria and we had duck ragu, and we had this incredible night where he really opened up. We had a heart to heart. It was our last ... our last conversation in a way, because it became about doctors and all of that after that night."
She continues: "If you could write your perfect last conversation with the person that you love most in the world, it would have been that night."