Colu Henry Knows Pasta and Cabaret

"When people come to my house, I want them to relax."

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. How many people can turn a hashtag into a cookbook? Before writing Back Pocket Pasta, Colu Henry started sharing #backpocketpasta on Instagram to keep herself motivated to cook while juggling a busy schedule at Bon Appétit. Since her debut book came out in 2017, her recipe work extends far beyond pasta (she's a regular contributor to the New York Times!), but her outlook has stayed the same: make use of whatever you have in your fridge and pantry, and keep home cooking casual and as stress-free as possible. At home in upstate New York, she demonstrated how to make pasta all'Amatriciana in The Dutchess.

I grew up in a food-obsessed family. Essentially, we had family dinners pretty much every night of the week, and Italian dinners every Sunday night, making meat sauce all day. It was a wonderful thing to grow up around; food is pretty much the only thing that anyone talked about. A passion for food was ingrained in me from an early age.

But it didn't actually really evolve into a personal thing until I went away to college, when I was studying musical theater but working at a martini jazz bar. And then I moved to New York to pursue cabaret singing and I started bartending at a restaurant on the Upper West Side to pay the rent. But I needed health insurance, so a friend of mine said to me, “You should get into PR.” At the time, I didn't really know what PR even was — this was back in, like, 2000. I ended up getting a job in fashion PR and then hospitality PR, and then I went to Oregon to work for the Oregon Wine Board. But I am an East Coast girl at heart and ended up landing a job in PR at Bon Appétit, shortly after editor Adam Rapoport had taken over.

I was cooking at home all the time, and I started using the hashtag #backpocketpasta on Instagram. It was just about me cooking meals at home, utilizing what I had in my pantry. I was working super-late hours and I didn’t want to order takeout every night. Pasta is something that I know — an easy thing to sort of play around with — so I just started making it more and more. A friend of mine said, "You should write a book.”

I started using the hashtag #backpocketpasta on Instagram.

I had no idea what I was committing myself to, but I was at a point in my career where I was like, I have all these skills; I've been doing this for over a decade; I really want to start using these skills and applying them to my own career. I was tired of working for other people, and I wanted to go out on my own, and it seemed like this was a good use of everything I knew how to do.

Back Pocket Pasta published in 2017, and now I’m working on two more. The first one comes out in March 2021 and is called Please Bring Dessert. It is 100 recipes to get you out of your regular routine and encourage you to explore new ingredients. There’s going to be some entertaining essays in there; I’m really excited about it.
I was also approached by the New York Times last year to start developing recipes, and also I get to contribute to the paper occasionally, which is super special. I focus on sophisticated weeknight dinners, and it’s fun to be able to cook other things than pasta — to be able to showcase to people that that's not the only thing I can do.

I struggle, as I think a lot of women do, with impostor syndrome. I feel so lucky that I get to write books for a living, to write recipes for a living. It's such a joy that we have the opportunity to be able to share those things with people.

Cooking for a living actually makes it feel more casual for me, in a way. I've been just having more fun and not taking it so seriously. Like, I love being able to serve things in the vehicle that they are cooked in. The Dutchess is a beautiful product, so why wouldn't I want to showcase it on my table? I think it actually just makes people more comfortable to not have things so formal. When people come to my house, I want them to relax.

When people come to my house, I want them to relax.

One of my favorite things to make in The Dutchess is pasta all'Amatriciana. There’s a great pasta shop, called DPNB, in Nyack, and I got my ingredients there. I rendered guanciale with some garlic and added San Marzano tomatoes and onion. Then I added the most beautiful fresh pasta. This kind of recipe comes together super quickly, and the red color looks pretty in the mustard Dutchess.

I've made so many pork shoulders in The Dutchess, and I braised lamb shoulder a couple weeks ago. I've done chickens in there. I've done soups in there. I made a really yummy farro and spring-vegetable soup in there a couple weeks ago, too.Photos by Chad Silver

We’ve lived in Hudson for about four years now full-time. I have a different cadence to my life, in a way. I feel like it only adds to the work that I’m doing — it's nice to have a bigger kitchen, to be able to pick up my farm share, and to know exactly where my food is coming from. I know that sounds really bucolic, but it's completely how I'm living my life.

There's also this beautiful new hotel bar in Hudson that said I could play a cabaret set. I've been so overwhelmed with writing recipes and doing other things that I haven't gotten around to it, but it is going to happen! I love the food industry so much, and I love the people, but I also just want to get out of my own way sometimes. Doing something that’s completely unrelated to your day job is a great way to stay creative.