The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Susan Alexandra is a designer, artist, and the owner of her eponymous handbag and jewelry company. At her colorful home in New York's Chinatown, Susan cooked her father’s recipe for fish risotto in Big Deal and talked about her 'more is more' approach to art and food.
My dad is a really amazing cook — everything he made was so incredible. He's so good at what he does, and he's very intuitive. I don't remember him ever looking up recipes. I learned everything from him.
Then my parents divorced when I was in the fourth grade; my dad moved out, and when I was at my mom's, her food was insufferable. I started to cook as a response to that. Soon I became the main cook in our home, and I found so much joy in cooking. I would come home from school and I would start preparing dinner. It was definitely an art form for me, and also something I really loved to do.
Some of my fondest memories from childhood revolve around food. My mom is not a great chef, but she makes things pretty. She’d make these little tuna-fish platters where she'd sculpt the tuna into the shape of a person and add vegetables to make the eyes and the lips and the hair. And I always carry that aesthetic with me — whimsical, childlike plating.
What I struggle with when I cook is precision.
There are so many similarities between making art and cooking. I think it's an understanding of how things work together and harmonize. Art takes a lot of intuition, and I think cooking is the same. What I struggle with when I cook is precision. And I also struggle with that in my art, so I’ve leaned into the fact that my art is not about precision, it's not about mechanics — it's more about the visuals. I love to do things that are more organic, like creating a sauce or making a salad where there's a lot of room to flub and expand.
I have always been drawn to color, texture, shape, and form, and cooking is a really fun way to express that. I like the challenge of it. I love layers and layers of flavor and texture; minimalism is not my thing. More is more. I want an ice cream that has 75 different flavors in it. I'm never a one-note person. I’m over the top with every ingredient under the sun.
Food is my biggest inspiration.
Food is my biggest inspiration. Whenever I'm making something, I always think about what makes me happy, and it's generally something food-related. I also think grocery stores are really inspiring. Whenever I travel I try to go to a grocery store just to see what’s on their shelves.
I see cooking as a very grounding and solitary activity.
I mostly cook for myself, in a small apartment, and I see cooking as a very grounding and solitary activity. I really like to come home and cook myself a beautiful pasta. It’s this healing activity for me to just wind down in solitude. I'm always out in the world, having to talk to people and schmooze and go to drinks. When I can be in my own space and control my own food, it's this healing, therapeutic moment.
My dad’s risotto was my food of love when I was growing up. He started making risotto because, when I was young, I gave my dad a cookbook all about risotto as a birthday gift. I think I was too young to even understand what it was — and I think I just selected it off the shelf — but he really invested in it. Every week he would make a different risotto, and now when I go home and visit it's the thing I request most. Weeks in advance, we plan what kind of risotto he'll make. In the summer it's risotto with fresh vegetables and fish; in the winter it's a little bit heartier. I've never actually attempted to cook it myself before this shoot.
I called him, and we had many hour-long phone calls where he walked me through the recipe. He gave me the measurements; he gave me the instructions. I didn’t Google them. That’s something that we don't do anymore, right? We don't reach out to people when we need something. I loved that it was a thing that he was really excited about, and I was, too.
First, warm your broth in Saucy, or a small saucepan. In another large pot, like Big Deal, melt some butter, then add some shallots and “sweat” them. You know, give them a little love. When they’re fragrant, add the rice. Toast the rice until it turns white and not transparent. Add your wine, stirring constantly until the pan is nearly dry. Set a timer for 18 minutes, and start adding warm broth in half-cup increments, adding more when the rice has absorbed the broth. When your timer goes off, turn off the heat and add the fish, Parmesan, parsley, and lemon zest. Garnish with more parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Still, I really loved preparing it. It felt like I was in a Nancy Meyers film and made me want to cook more.