The Culinary Adventures of Myla Dalbesio

Myla Dalbesio runs such a long list of accolades that adding ‘great cook’ seems like an afterthought; but the model and artist’s food stories run the gamut—and globe. One afternoon amidst her mesmerizing travel schedule—she is a tough one to track down—the Wisconsin native had Aftertastes over to her Fort Greene kitchen to share those stories and teach us a few of her (co-opted) cooking tricks.

My mom was the one who cooked. She always made everything from scratch, which was great, but as a kid sometimes you just want Chips Ahoy and Lunchables. She got cancer when I was in the first grade and switched us to this very healthy diet. She served us raw kale salads, and the only dressing we ever got to have was lemon juice, which is the worst dressing for a salad. She was really ahead of her time; she was doing CSAs and farm shares in ’94. You can’t grow up in Wisconsin without being surrounded by farmland, and I remember spending mornings before school waiting in somebody’s driveway for someone to drop off a box of organic lettuce. Back then I thought it was weird, but now I think it’s rad.

She died when I was in fifth grade. My dad was working all the time, so my sister and I learned how to cook for ourselves pretty early on. When you’re cooking in sixth grade you’re really just making spaghetti with sauce, or tacos—Midwestern tacos, with ground beef and cheddar cheese and those Taco Bell seasoning packets and a hard shell. I love a hard-shell taco. It’s not a real taco, it’s very Tex-Mex, but I love it. I would still crush a whole plate of those terrible tacos.

In college, I made homemade mac ‘n’ cheese and Caesar salads. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I got properly into cooking. I started making fancier foods—or I guess I should say ‘I started developing my palate’—after watching tons of Top Chef. The show taught me the language behind food. Before Top Chef I never thought about the balance of a dish; I couldn’t tell if a dish needed more acid, or didn’t have enough fat. I was following a lot of recipes. I love the idea of following recipes until you figure out what certain foods do, and then you can take it from there and make up your own shit.

Through Top Chef I got really into Thomas Keller. He is incredible. He owns the restaurants the French Laundry, Per Se, and Ad Hoc. His book Ad Hoc at Home is great because it has all these kitchen tips. One that I love: he talks about using your fingers instead of teaspoons to measure salt. Or making sachets for boiling potatoes: I use a tea pod and put crushed garlic cloves, thyme, and black peppercorn in it, and toss it in the boiling water. Also, before reading the book, I never thought about cooking ingredients separately for soups, which makes a lot of sense to me now. You can’t just throw all your vegetables in at once or they’ll lose all their flavor.

“WITH [MY EX], I TRIED FOODS THAT I NEVER WOULD HAVE THOUGHT ABOUT EATING, LIKE TIGER LILY PODS.”

I inherited a lot of my kitchen stuff from my parents. This cookie jar was my mom’s; she used to collect them. My sister just got me this Le Creuset dutch oven for my birthday. I haven’t taken it to its extreme yet—just ribs, spaghetti sauce, and meatballs so far—but I love it. I also really love the Vitamix, which Thomas Keller told me to buy. He has a list in Ad Hoc at Home about all the machines you should get. The Vitamix is totally worth it but it’s expensive as fuck and I feel guilty that I don’t use it to its full potential.

When my ex and I first moved into this apartment, we had just one side of the kitchen: sink, stove, and refrigerator. So he built these two marble tables. They’re my favorite pieces of furniture. He also built the extra shelf. He left me with so many treasures.

While we were dating, we cooked together a lot. He’s a hunter, so he taught me a lot about meat, and we ate lots of deer and wild boar. He was also into foraging, so he would forage for wild mushrooms. We were just two people, though, and I couldn’t keep eating the same mushroom every night. I told him to sell some to the grocery store nearby that sells wild foraged stuff, or to one of the restaurants that uses local ingredients, but he was just so attached to the food that he never would. I suppose it was easier for me to say that to him because I wasn’t the one hiking for miles and finding all the food. With him, I tried foods that I never would have thought about eating. Like tiger lily pods—if you get them just before they bloom, you can cook them like asparagus. They have a similar texture but a totally different flavor and they are really delicious. You can eat the flowers as well, but they are juicier before they bloom.

The weirdest meat I’ve ever made was probably tongue. Or bugs. I traveled through Venezuela a couple of times, and on one trip we climbed this holy mountain in the plains of rural Venezuela. There’s an indigenous population there, the Pemon, and one of their main sources of proteins are these ants that they harvest and use in hot sauces. First they dry-roast the bugs. The ants have these big fat butts, and when you eat them dry-roasted, they just taste like popcorn. The Pemon then mix the ants with chilis and this paste that they make from yucca. It makes this really awesome hot sauce called korachi. I brought some back with me.

“You gain so much knowledge about food from traveling, and you get to introduce dishes into your repertoire that you’ve never had before.”

Food is still a big factor with my current boyfriend, just in a different way. We dine out a lot more. He took me to WD-50 for my birthday this year; it was my first tasting menu and I think I cried, it was so good! He follows a paleo diet though, which I’m not always into—I like potatoes and bread. But it’s also nice to have his influence. And yeah, he eats that way a lot, but if there is an incredible doughnut in front of his face, he’s not going to say no. I try to cook dinner for us every Sunday.

When I’m in town I cook much more for myself, but I’ve been traveling so much these days that it’s happening less and less. I try to bring certain foods back from my travels, like olive oil or meats from Spain—sometimes I think about bringing back a leg of Ibérico ham, but what would I do at customs? “Oh, that’s just a hoof sticking out of my bag, no big deal!” When I go to Sweden I usually bring back fish and caviar. That is one good thing about traveling so much—I get to taste food from so many different places. You gain so much knowledge about food from traveling, and you get to introduce dishes into your repertoire that you’ve never had before.

My favorite thing to do in the kitchen is cook for a big party. I usually have a barbecue at the beginning of the summer, and I’ll host Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a big Easter dinner too. I’ve also thrown food parties for my birthday, where I cook all of my favorite foods, and I tell everyone to bring their favorites—either food or cocktail or wine. It’s so much fun, and you learn all their kitchen tricks.