November 23, 2012 6:38 pm

Lunch with the FT: Martha Stewart

The former stockbroker who built an empire out of American domesticity talks to the FT’s fashion editor about surviving prison – and Christmas
Illustration of Martha Stewart by Seb Jarnot©Seb Jarnot

Pity poor Martha Stewart. Every time she goes out to eat, America’s dom­estic goddess/dictator (depending on your point of view) is plied with extra dishes “compliments of the chef”. “It’s the bane of my existence,” she says. “I go on a diet, and I get sent 14 desserts!”

I guess this is partly why we were supposed to meet in Martha’s test kitchen, where she tries out all her recipes (as featured in assorted Martha-branded books, magazines and TV shows) and often makes her own lunch. But then came superstorm Sandy, which flooded the basement of her office building in Manhattan and put the furnace out of action, which in turn affected the gas lines that power Martha’s stoves. The actual offices of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia – on the ninth and 10th floors – were generally fine – as were her houses in East Hampton and Bedford, New York, though she lost some old trees – but her ability to cook was compromised. So we moved to plan B. Or, rather, plan ABC. ABC Kitchen, that is.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s place on Broadway seemed the next best thing to Martha’s kitchen. (In some ways, it might have even been better, since I had been slightly nervous of revealing my paltry kitchen skills.) It is one of the celebrated French chef’s “market” restaurants, known for its fresh, of-the-moment ingredients – a very Martha thing, since she is famous for using ingredients straight from her enormous garden in Bedford. Besides, ABC Kitchen is also connected to the luscious furniture emporium ABC Carpet and Home, where Martha wanted to scope out the Christmas display to “get ideas”.

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Vanessa Friedman

“Hello Ms Stewart,” says the woman at the desk when we walk in; “kiss kiss” goes co-owner, Phil Suarez, as Stewart sits, business-like, in a leather-sleeved brown wool collarless Vince coat, leather Vince trousers and kitten heels, her famous blonde bob coiffed just so, square crystals twinkling in her ears. Before I know it, chef Dan Kluger, whose name is embroidered on his white chef jacket, is there too, sharing in the Martha-greeting and poised to chat about the menu. I assume this obeisance is simply par for the course. On a certain level, almost everyone knows Martha Stewart – the brand, if not the person, though they can be hard to separate.

Stewart is, after all, the former stockbroker who commoditised domestic arts, turning the pursuit of the perfect home into an empire in 1997 and taking it public in 1999, ending up on the Forbes billionaires list in 2005 (Stewart is still the company’s largest shareholder).

It was Stewart (as Stewart will tell you) who understood media and commerce would soon be one and the same thing, decades before Net-a-Porter launched a magazine and magazines launched their own storefronts; it was Stewart who suffered a public fall from grace in 2003 when she was indicted for making false statements and obstruction of justice in relation to a stock trade – she was convicted by a jury and spent five months in prison in West Virginia; and it was Stewart who re-emerged blonder and tougher and, product-wise at least, more ubiquitous than ever, with 8,500 Martha Stewart-branded items sold everywhere from Macy’s to Home Depot to PetSmart and Staples.

Today, despite 2.6m Twitter followers, Stewart’s business is under scrutiny. Following a $50.7m loss in the third quarter of 2012 (against revenues of $43.5m), Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia announced it was laying off about 70 employees and making one magazine, Everyday Food, a supplement to Martha Stewart Living.

Yet despite the ups and downs, she is still so well known that a new TV show is in the works called The Tao of Martha, based on a book of the same name by Jen Lancaster about a party girl trying to become a better role model. Whether Stewart will remain a symbol of the relentless pursuit of the perfect life, however, or segue into a symbol of survival, seems unclear.

“What shall we have?” she twinkles at the chef as he hovers. He recommends the fish of the day, fluke, and the sucrine salad. Neither Stewart nor I have any idea what sucrine is (a small French lettuce) but, while I am busy being shocked by this (an organic foodstuff Martha does not know!), Stewart decides to embrace the sucrine, the fluke, and the Arctic char. I order the tuna sashimi and the crispy shrimp salad. “I always like coming to Jean-Georges’ restaurants,” she says once Kluger has disappeared back to the kitchen, “because he works with all these wonderful young chefs, and it’s a good learning experience for me.”

One of the things Stewart’s detractors accuse her of is not cultivating enough diverse and younger talent. Unlike Oprah, another branded personality with whom she is often compared, Stewart has not filled Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia with new stars; it’s still mostly Martha most of the time. And she is 71. On the other hand, she does yoga every day, gets up at 5am to write, be it a column or a foreword to one of her many crafting/cooking/entertaining/gardening books (77 at last count) and, when I ask her if she has considered retiring, looks horrified and says, “What would I do? My mother never retired. She was a teacher, and then babysat until she was in her nineties.”

Stewart (who was born Kostyra) grew up in New Jersey, one of six children, and began her career on Wall Street; she didn’t embark on her adventures in public home-making until the 1970s, when she and her then-husband, publisher Andy Stewart, moved to Connecticut and – having taught herself to cook from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking – she opened a catering business. Things soon expanded, as they have a way of doing around Stewart.

A surprise plate of bruschetta arrives. “Compliments of the chef,” says the waiter, noting the toast is topped by spiced pumpkin and goat’s cheese. “Oh, how nice,” says Stewart, levering a piece on to her bread plate and cutting a small forkful. When you are continually plied with food, you need to pace yourself. Or, as Stewart says: “You just keep going, one step to the next to the next.”

She was actually talking about life not food when she said this. Stewart is a believer in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contention that there are no second acts in American life, though this is because she doesn’t believe in endings. “Nothing ends,” she says. “Even when you get divorced, a marriage isn’t over.”

Presumably, she is speaking from experience: she was divorced from Andy Stewart in 1990; they have one daughter, Alexis, who has two children and has made something of a career from reacting to her famous mother (on a TV and radio show called Whatever, Martha!). When I ask Stewart about her biggest mistake, thinking it would be to do with legal issues, she says first, “I have made so many,” then announces decisively: “Not having more children.”

Prison, on the other hand, is referred to as “the hole I fell into; luckily it wasn’t a very deep hole” and she claims the experience didn’t teach her much other than “be careful. The world is a difficult place in which to manoeuvre, and there is danger lurking at every turn. Just kidding!” she says. “Actually, the only time I ever felt that way was just after 9/11, when I found myself starting to look up at the sky ... ”

We look up now to see the waiter with our appetisers. “Oh, isn’t that pretty!” says Stewart, gesturing at her small piles of little white fluke fillets. Suddenly she takes her phone out and positions it at the edge of her plate. “What are you doing?” I ask.

“I am going to tweet it,” she says. Stewart loves to tweet. She says she started very early on, though she doesn’t do it that much – “five minutes a day”. It’s very good, she says, for gathering information. “Do you know what a group of turtles is called?” she asks. I shake my head.

She tells me how she had recently been on a nature walk in Florida, where she spotted – and tweeted pictures of – some turtles. “I tweeted about seven pictures in a row and asked the question. And someone tweeted back that a group of turtles was a ‘bale’,” she says. “I love the puzzle of doing something in 140 characters. I’m so good at it now, I often get to 140. Exactly. I’ve even written recipes in 140 characters. I could do a whole cookbook in tweets.”

In the same breath as she celebrates Twitter, however, she blames it. “The internet is responsible for our short-term mindset,” she says. “I am convinced of it. We think with our thumbs instead of our minds. It’s very damaging. When the internet started, I thought it was this extraordinary thing to save time, which is always what I want, because that then makes time: to create, to plant trees. But it has been just the opposite! It has become an all-consuming passion.”

What’s the solution? I ask as the waiter attempts to take away the appetisers. Stewart hasn’t started on her salad, so she places a protective hand on top. “Limits,” she says. “I make phone calls. When my assistant emails the person in the next cubicle, I get really pissed off and tell her to just talk over the wall!”

She also eschews sites like Pinterest (though, confusingly, on her website you can follow her on Pinterest). “I don’t pin. I refuse to. I think it’s a faulty business. I have a very good visual memory, I don’t need to put a picture on my computer to remember it.” I do not ask why, then, as the main courses arrive along with an extra side of roasted Brussels sprouts, “compliments of the chef”, Stewart is taking another picture with her phone. I get the impression she is not that interested in exploring her contradictions, and would rather simply push through them.

. . .

I ask if she has heard of Chris Anderson’s book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, which argues we will all soon become our own manufacturers. “I agree totally!” she says, starting on her fish, tasting a sprout. “My greatest lesson was always that people love to make things. There is a basic human drive to fulfil a dream by crafting, sewing, knitting, accomplishing a simple task. Not everyone is going to build an Apple or a Martha Stewart Living, but to make even a beautiful doily is so rewarding. I realised it when I was three.”

Recently Stewart appeared on the Home Shopping Network to sell her new “circle punch”, a tool that, well, makes perfect circles in square paper for, say, placemats. Or doilies. “It’s brilliant!” she says. “You never have to attach a string to a pencil, or use a compass, again. We sold $3m worth in one programme.”

Stewart is replete with new ideas. For an app. For a device that will replace everyone’s desktop, which will be like an iPad, but different: “The iPad is too heavy and imbalanced; when I want to watch movies on it at night in bed I have to prop it up on a pillow,” she says. “I can sort of visualise this [idea], but I don’t think it exists yet.” She recently signed a deal with the department store chain JC Penney for a new line of Martha Stewart for JC Penney products focused on “celebrations” that should launch next year. She would like to open a Martha Stewart store. Of course, apropos of her business issues, she knows “this is a very tough time” – “but that’s not a lunch conversation,” she says when I ask her to elaborate.

She says the best piece of advice she ever got was: “If you feel very passionately about an idea, go for it, no matter what other people think,” but when I ask her how you find the self-confidence to pursue an idea if others are pooh-poohing it, she says, “Rarely do people tell me my ideas are not good.” Her top tip for the holidays is: “Start planning before you think you should. I have already,” she says, “designed my invitation for my Christmas open house, and have started editing last year’s guest list, and have my helpers hired.”

The restaurant’s help comes to clear our plates and offer the dessert menu. “Should we have something to share?” asks Stewart. “Let’s have one small scoop of the ice-creams.” Normally, I presume this would mean one bowl with three little scoops, but what we get is two bowls and a plate: one bowl filled with a trio of sorbets, one with a trio of ice creams, and the plate filled with cookies – “compliments of the chef”.

“Oh, my driver will be so happy,” says Stewart, scooping the cookies into her napkin, and leaving behind only a chocolate chip cookie that she has tasted. “I always bring him cookies.” She takes small spoonlets of the different ice-cream flavours, as do I, but after all the complimentary dishes it’s more a taster; in the end, a puddle is left in the bowls.

After our lunch she has a bunch of meetings, then a cocktail party, then a wine auction and a private dinner to go to, all before heading back to Bedford for the night – but first she wants to check out the ABC store. I trail after her as she says goodbye to the maître d’ and thanks the dessert chef for the cookies, pointing out, as we stroll by a large cake under glass: “She didn’t send us a taste of that.” I’m pretty sure she’s joking, but Stewart is so serious about what most people consider “fun”, it can be hard to tell.

On the ground floor of ABC Carpet and Home, an Aladdin’s cave of crystal chandeliers and decorations, Stewart makes a beeline for the trees. “It’s all about the twig tree this year,” she muses, scrutinising various “trees” painted white or made of wire and hung with ornaments.

Then she looks closer. “You know what this is?” she says, turning a white twig number upside down to scope out the bottom: “It’s the top part of a dead tree that has been spray-painted.” She chuckles. “Now I know what to do with all my fir trees that have lost their needles.”

She said it before: nothing ever ends. Except, in this case, our lunch.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor

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ABC Kitchen

888 Broadway, New York, NY 10003

Iced tea $3.00

Line-caught tuna $16.00

Sucrine salad $15.00

Shaved fluke $16.00

Shrimp salad $24.00

Arctic char $28.00

Club soda $3.00

Cappuccino $4.00

Ice cream $6.00

Sorbet $6.00

Total (inc tax and service) $131.74

This article has been subject to a correction.

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