According to Memphian Jennifer Chandler, "it's not a very glamorous story." But it's a good story — good enough, it turns out, to eat. Chandler, food editor of MidSouth magazine and Nashville Home and Garden and regular food columnist and feature writer for The Commercial Appeal, explains:
"Rutledge Hill Press, the Nashville publishing house, ran a contest among its staff. The publisher was looking for concepts, and the winning concept would be made into a book. Someone came up with an idea for a cookbook based on doctoring up bagged salads, and that idea won. All they had to do was find a writer, and thanks to a friend of mine, cookbook developer and Memphian Ellen Rolfes, I sent in some writing samples and a written proposal, and they chose me. It's my first cookbook, and it was a labor of love."
"It" is Simply Salads ($24.99), and nothing could be simpler: more than 100 recipes to spruce up those conveniently bagged greens — from the humblest iceberg lettuce to the fancier mâche rossettes — that you find at the grocery store. So, put your salad spinner to rest — Chandler has — and put some thought into the finishing touches: wasabi peas drizzled with ponzu ginger dressing; edible flowers covered in champagne vinaigrette; a meze platter of tabbouleh, hummus, and dolmas over hearts of romaine; or baked polenta salad with a balsamic grainy-mustard vinaigrette.
If you're in the mood for some American classics, Simply Salads has them too, as in the three Cs: the Caesar, the Club, and the Cobb. Other recipes come from Chandler's kitchen. Still others take inspiration from restaurants such as Automatic Slim's, the Grove Grill, and Houston's. And thanks to photographer Langdon Clay of Mississippi — working inside Chandler's and her mother's kitchens — picked, pre-washed, packaged greens never had it so good.
Chandler had it good too, when she trained as a cook in Paris after operating her own special-events business in Washington, D.C., a town she got to know during her years as an undergraduate at Georgetown University. After graduating, she got to know her true calling.
"While an event was going on, instead of hanging out in my office during down-time, I hung out in the kitchen," Chandler says. "I watched what the chefs were doing. I thought, That's the business I want to go into. So I started looking into cooking schools and went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris. It was an incredible experience. Obviously, you learn the basics. But the French appreciate food. It's not a science. For the French, it's an art."
It took business smarts and the art of fine food for Chandler and her sister Susan (a chef herself) to open Cheffie's Market and More in East Memphis in 1999. The store specialized in quality take-home entrées, side dishes, and baked goods and proved to be popular until Chandler learned the refrigeration system would have to be reinstalled. "At the same time, I got pregnant with my second child, and it just seemed like one thing after another," she says. "We thought maybe God's telling us something. We decided, after three years, to close."
So Chandler decided to go a different route.
"I always thought food writing was something I'd retire into," she says, "but right now it's the perfect thing for me. I can still be in the food business, still cook, still meet people but not have the restaurant hours. [Those hours] are not family-friendly. My husband Paul and I have two small children. Maybe when they're out of school, I'll have that lapse into insanity again."
But in the meantime, Chandler already has a couple of cookbook proposals. Watch for them. And in the meantime, go green. Make that "greens." Simply Salads makes it easy to.
Jennifer Chandler will be signing Simply Salads at Babcock Gifts (4626 Poplar) on Saturday, April 21st, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Look for future signings at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in May and at Square Books in Oxford in June.