Chit Chat: Writer really cooks

Best-selling author honored as St. Charles distinguished alumni

Former St. Charles High School student and best-selling author Karen Page has certainly distinguished herself since graduating from St. Charles High School in 1979.

The two-time James Beard Award-winning author received a Distinguished Alumni Award on Feb. 22 during a ceremony at the Royal Fox Country Club in St. Charles. Her books include bestsellers such as “The Flavor Bible,” “Culinary Artistry,” “Becoming A Chef” and “What To Drink With What You Eat.”

Page lives in New York City with her husband, former professional chef Andrew Dornenburg, and the couple have collaborated together on several books. Kane County Chronicle reporter Eric Schelkopf recently did an email interview with Page about the honor.

Eric Schelkopf: Congratulations on receiving the St. Charles School District’s Distinguished Alumni Award. What does it mean to you to receive the award?
Karen Page:
It means I’m getting older! When I think about it quickly, high school seems like it was maybe 20 years ago – certainly not the 35 I discover when I run the actual numbers. How did those years fly by so quickly? I’m reminded that it means I need to take the time to appreciate each and every day.

I was thrilled to have an opportunity to meet with some of St. Charles High School’s current student newspaper staff on Friday, as I have so many fond memories from my own days on the staff and as its co-editor-in-chief in 1979.

ES: I understand that former St. Charles High School journalism instructor Candace Perkins Bowen, along with staff member Esther Kaplan, inspired you when were attending high school. How did they inspire you? What did the experience of being the co-editor of your school newspaper teach you?
KP:
The year I served as co-editor-in-chief, our St. Charles High School school newspaper, the X-Ray, won All-American (the highest) status in a competition of high school newspapers. I think that says everything about what an extraordinary staff we had during the 1978-79 school year, including the first semester editor-in-chief, Barb Linder (now Millard, of Batavia), who was a dear friend of mine and someone with whom I’ve been happy to keep in touch all these years.

She’s run a transcription company that does excellent work and which I’ve used to transcribe countless taped interviews I’ve conducted for a number of my books, so Barb and her team had confidential access to some fascinating conversations about food and wine that made it into several award-winning books.

And I think that says everything about what an extraordinary newspaper adviser we had in Candy Perkins, who raised the bar for us and taught us to always aim for excellence. She also helped to instill a level of impeccability to do whatever it takes to make deadlines.

When the weight of the snow on the roof of St. Charles High School caused the official closing of school, she supported us in unofficially coming in to school on our own time to get the paper out.

Esther Kaplan worked in the guidance office, and the fact that she took the time to line-edit some of my stories after they’d already appeared in the paper (at my request) also exemplifies the level of excellence I found at the high school. I learned – and am still learning – to be more concise.

ES: What words of inspiration do you have for high school students who might not yet know what they would like to do with their lives?
KP:
I believe Joseph Campbell had it right when he said, “Follow your bliss.” Go down the avenues that interest you most, and keep learning more. And John Irving had it right when he advised, “get obsessed and stay obsessed.”

Get to know yourself, get to know others and get to know the world. Be passionately curious about all three.

I used to spend a lot of time in magazine stores skimming for articles that captured my attention. Today, the Internet is such a gift – all you have to do is surf the Web to see where your interests take you.

Keep an eye out for problems that need to be solved and solve them. Every one of the books we’ve written is the solution to a problem, and I’d venture to guess our most successful books have been effective solutions to pressing problems.

ES: The books that you and your husband have written have been described as “the best place to experience the cult of the New American chef.” What would you like your books to do?
KP:
I write the books I want to read that don’t exist yet – so my aim is always twofold: To learn something about a particular subject, and to share what I learn in a way that is useful to others.

I am so touched when we visit restaurants and the chef apologizes for asking us to sign a well-worn, dog-eared copy of one of our books that has sauce stains on its pages. There could be no higher compliment to an author that her book is actually being read and used. We have literally signed curved inscriptions around those sauce stains, which we believe to be badges of honor, and seeing duct tape holding the spine of an obviously much-loved book together always melts my heart.

ES: There are an abundance of books and shows these days revolving around food. Why do you think food is such a popular topic these days?
KP:
We can experience food physically, emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. Food is such a universal topic that touches so many fields, including anthropology, art, business, economics, geography, health, history, politics, religion, science, sociology, you name it.

I’ve learned so much about the world in general through the lens of food. Food touches everyone and everything – which is why I think these books and shows strike such a universal chord in the public.