Hetty Lui McKinnon on Málà Project’s Secret Sauce and Why You Won’t Find Coca-Cola in Her New Cookbook

We cooked through author Hetty Lui McKinnon's latest cookbook, "Tenderheart," and got to talk to her about her favorite things right now.

Hetty Lui McKinnon Tenderheart

Simply Recipes / Photo Illustration by Sarah Crowder / Shirley Cai

Welcome to One Quick Bite, where we share smart, cool, and weird conversations with our favorite authors about their new cookbook and beyond.

Dear reader, this interview with Hetty Lui McKinnon, cookbook author of the newly released Tenderheart, was supposed to run earlier this month. I have a solid excuse for my delay: As any dependable writer should, I dove into the cookbook and picked a handful of recipes to try and report back on. I made Curry Gain Lan Chow Fun, Four Court Omelet, and Brussel Sprouts and Green Onion Oil Noodles (my favorite) for my family over three dinners, and then found myself flipping through the cookbook again on the fourth day—we had Cabbage Carbonara-ish.

It's been four weeks, and my nose is still stuck in the 500-plus pages of Hetty's recipes. I've become enchanted, and my wok has been working overtime. Tenderheart is the kind of cookbook you tuck on a low shelf in the kitchen for easy access, and expect it to be dotted with food stains. I'll be making Hetty's recipes again and again, and at some point, I may forget whether they're hers or mine. That's how good they are.

I got to know Hetty through her recipes and the sweet stories she coupled them with in her cookbook. Then, I got to ask her fun rapid-fire questions, about her favorite things right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your cooking style in four words. 
Borderless. Surprising. Bold. Comforting.

Your five favorite songs on your cooking playlist. 
"Imitation Of Life" by R.E.M.
"Stay up Late" by Talking Heads
"Lovesong" by The Cure
"Praying for Time" by George Michael
"Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order

What do you always keep on your kitchen counter?
My Nutribullet blender. I bought it to make my morning smoothie, but it has become my go-to for salad dressings and pastes. It has become essential to daily cooking.

A kitchen tool you wouldn’t be caught dead using.
I'm a bit "less is more" in the kitchen so I don't like one-use gadgets. A garlic press, in my opinion, is pretty superfluous. It's more hassle than it's worth. So much garlic is wasted in the crevices and you have to clean it all out! 

If you could pass a ban on one ingredient, what would it be?
I recently saw someone cooking with Coca-Cola, using it for its apparent sweetness and acidity. I'd like to think there are better ways of achieving sweetness and acidity without the preservatives.

Tell us about the most stained cookbook you own.
The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook. It got me through many kids' birthday parties. It's also sentimental because we used to go there for their cupcakes when my husband and I lived in Notting Hill, London.

What is one recipe you want to be known for from Tenderheart
Honestly, I want to be known for the entire collection because the recipes are all part of my vegetable ecosystem and they exist as a collection. If I want to call out one, I might say the Fennel and Gnocchi with Fennel Frond Pesto. It's a wonderful example of how to show all the different sides of one vegetable. Vegetables have so much multidimensional personality and I am always looking to show that in my recipes. 

What is the first recipe you taught your kids to make on their own? 
I'm going to be honest, my kids don't really cook much! Their mum is too much of a control freak in the kitchen. (I also didn't cook much when I was a kid.) My oldest is experimental and she is very tactile so she likes to taste and feel her way through the kitchen. When she has the opportunity to cook, she does love to make the lemon pasta from my cookbook Family.

What do you feed your kids when you don't feel like cooking?
Frozen dumplings! I always have an array of frozen dumplings in the freezer so I can make a quick dumpling noodle soup or dumpling salad. Frozen dumplings are also a great after-school snack.

If you could only eat at one restaurant for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
Málà Project in New York City. I am obsessed with their málà dry pot! They are customizable and I always include my faves: taro, lotus root, starch noodles, and beancurd sheets. Why would it be the only restaurant for the rest of my life? Because the málà sauce is made with 24 secret herbs and spices that I'm not able to replicate at home!

Name three dream dinner guests.
My three children! Always and forever.

You’re catering the State dinner at the White House. Name the appetizer, main meal, and signature cocktail you would serve.
As an appetizer, I'd serve mushroom cheung fun. The main would be kale and matcha noodles with ginger scallion sauce. The cocktail would be a MSG Martini like the one served at Bonnie's in Brooklyn.

BUY THE COOKBOOK:  Tenderheart