taste test

Hetty Lui McKinnon Is a Vegetable Whisperer

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Shirley Cai, Getty Images, HBO, Amazon, Jamie Oliver/Youtube

If you’re in the habit of perusing Bon Appétit, New York Times’ “Cooking,” or the cookbook section of your local bookstore, you’ve probably come across a Hetty Lui McKinnon recipe. The chef and writer, who grew up in Australia eating home-cooked Cantonese food, infuses her dishes with expertise on the cuisines that shaped her life while deftly navigating the dicey territory of fusion food.

After starting her food career with a salad-delivery business in Australia, McKinnon relocated to Brooklyn in 2015. Between five cookbooks, a monthly ABC Everyday column, and regular contributions to popular recipe sites, she has written a vast collection of endlessly adaptable, always approachable recipes that front-load vegetables not as replacements to meat but as stars in their own right.

McKinnon credits a lot of that approach to her father, who worked as a vendor at a produce market in Sydney and brought home crates of fruits and vegetables that her mother would experiment with in the kitchen. Her new book, Tenderheart, is dedicated to him. It’s somber — McKinnon lost her father when she was 15 — but joyful, relishing his legacy with concoctions such as garlic chile oil, cauliflower adobo, creamy mushroom noodles, and even a semi-sophisticated take on Tater Tots.

Between sampling all the fresh farm fare Sydney had to offer, McKinnon spent her childhood listening to ABBA, watching Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson cook on TV, and, like most Australian children, snacking on Vegemite with butter. “So many of the childhood memories I’ve kept with me are linked to food,” she says. “The way I understand myself and my identity, the way I want to see myself, that’s all expressed in the food.”

Tenderheart is dedicated to your father, who introduced your family to a ton of fruits and vegetables through his job at a produce market. Did he influence your decision to become a vegetarian?
Not directly. We lived a life surrounded by vegetables and learned to value them. I went vegetarian a few years after he passed away, when I was an older teenager. I don’t think vegetarianism is for everyone, but it was a very easy lifestyle for me. I grew up in a Chinese household eating Cantonese food, so I ate all the meats. Tripe, pig’s intestines — those were everyday fare for me. I wasn’t squeamish around meat. But since I became a vegetarian, I’ve never looked back, so I’m very considerate when it comes to recipe-testing. I want everyone to enjoy the food; doesn’t matter what label we put on your diet.

Plant-based, meatless, vegan, whatever you want to call it — cutting down on meat has become much more popular in the past decade. What’s the most common misunderstanding?
That you’re missing out on something. That’s how vegetarianism and veganism is portrayed a lot in mainstream press — like it has to be super-healthy and is rooted in wellness and you have to eat all these superfoods. I try to portray that meat-free eating is more, not less. More flavor, more texture, more creativity. We’re always scratching around, trying to find a substitute for a hunk of chicken or steak. That’s not even in my realm of thinking.

Beyond the actual recipes, the writing in your books is superpersonal and casual, kind of like talking to a knowledgeable friend. What do you want readers to feel while cooking your food?
I hope to give them a sense of intimacy and invite them into my life. We hear a lot that food is a connector, but I think for people to really understand why I cook the way I cook, they need to step into my world a little. That’s why I give so much of myself in the headnotes and the recipes, because I do want people to understand my point of view. I try to see my books and recipes as a way of building bridges.

Is cooking always therapeutic for you?
It’s more like a release. So many of my childhood memories are linked to food, or perhaps those are just the memories I’ve chosen to keep with me. The way I understand myself and my identity, the way I want to see myself, that’s all expressed in the food. But I never see cooking as a chore. It’s thinking of what to cook that’s the hardest thing. Tonight, I don’t know what I’m gonna cook, and I’m slightly disturbed by it. It has something to do with black garlic because I have two bags of black garlic and I’ve never used it before.

Do you have a favorite vegetable to cook?
Broccoli is the peacekeeper in my family. I have three children, and they’re very good eaters, but they have their little quirks. One doesn’t like slippery textures, so mushroom and eggplant can get controversial. With broccoli, no one’s complaining about anything.

What would your last meal be?
Ginger fried rice.

Last meal you cooked for dinner?
Mapo tofu last night.

Worst thing you’ve ever cooked?
A cauliflower-crust pizza. I don’t know why I tried it. It was someone else’s recipe, and I don’t like replacing things. If I’m eating a vegetable, I want to eat it in its pure form, so I don’t normally cook like this, but I tried this recipe. It was the very first time my husband said to me in our decades together, “Please do not make that again.”

Do you listen to or watch anything while you’re cooking?
When I’m cooking for pleasure, I listen to ’80s music. I used to listen to Arrival, by ABBA, on my family’s huge record player that looks like a piece of furniture. Every song is incredible. I listened to that, like, four times last week while I was cooking.

How often do you entertain?
Since January, I’ve been hosting at least one lunch every month. When I moved to New York in 2015 during a very cold winter, I would just invite complete strangers over for lunch. Some of these people are still my best friends. It’s such an intimate act, having people around your own dining table and cooking for them. During the pandemic, it all stopped, obviously, and at the end of last year, I felt like my arm was missing. Something wasn’t right, and I needed people around my table. So I started doing it again. We don’t entertain a lot at night because kids are around, so it’s easier when they’re at school. Lunch is amazing because you’ve taken time out of your working day to come and do it, so there’s a commitment everyone’s made. I think lunch is the new dinner.

What’s the worst thing someone can do at a lunch party?
Dominate the conversation. It stops other people from contributing and getting their points of view across.

If you could invite five celebrities over for lunch, who would you invite?George Michael, who I’m obsessed with. Nigella Lawson — I could listen to her talk all day. Joan Didion. Anna Wintour ’cause I feel like she would make things interesting. Vivienne Westwood would bring the style.

What’s one dish you’d recommend for someone who needs a little convincing in the kitchen?
A noodle dish is always very approachable. People think noodles are harder than they actually are, but it’s exactly the same thing as pasta, if not easier because most noodles cook a lot faster and don’t break down as easily as pasta does.

Where do you get your best culture recommendations?
I love Alicia Kennedy’s Substack. She’s an academic, she lives in Puerto Rico, and just has really interesting things in there. I also read Elissa Altman, who writes a Substack called Poor Man’s Feast. I’ve gotten back into reading actual novels this year, so I also go to Instagram for book recommendations.

What’s the last book you couldn’t put down?
I’m reading one right now called Ghost Music, by An Yu. It’s about a musician in China. I’ve been carrying it around the house with me just in case I have three seconds to read a paragraph.

What’s your comfort rewatch?
Right now, it’s Jamie Oliver, though the way he talks about food can be pretty culturally inappropriate sometimes … he and Nigella were the first food-TV stars for me when I lived in Australia, so they’re still very comforting to watch. On Saturday afternoons, there are three hours of Jamie reruns from maybe ten years ago.

What do you like to do when you’re homesick for Australia?
I crave Vegemite pretty often. It fills a void.

Is there a show your husband isn’t allowed to watch without you?
Until recently, it was Succession. It’s been quite explosive. There were too many spoilers, so we had to watch it together as soon as it came out on Sunday night, before the internet went crazy ruining things. My oldest daughter watched with us too.

Does your husband ever cook?
He did when we first met, but I’m a little bit of a kitchen hog. Recently, I was away with my daughter, and he cooked stuff from my books. He and the kids will send me photos of what he makes.

Favorite piece of art you own?
My father-in-law, who died a couple years ago, was a tree-faller in Australia in the days when they would cut down massive Australian white-gum trees with their bare hands. There’s a photo of him standing on a ledge that he had put into a tree. The man against the vastness of the world — that’s kind of what it represented to me. After he passed away, I really wanted this painting of that photo, so I finally asked my friend Sara Woster, who has a painting school in Brooklyn.

I also have a collection of ceramics by this ceramicist in Japan, Hikari Masuda. I first fell in love with her work because she creates a lot of whimsical animals, including koalas. But I have figurines, cups, a large kokeshi doll of hers.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received?
To look at what creators are doing on Instagram and copy that; look at trends and copy that. Trends are gonna be here today and gone tomorrow.

How about the best advice?
The food writer Diana Henry, who’s a friend but also kind of my mentor, told me she’s not above writing for one of the supermarket magazines in the U.K. She said, “I write for a living, and I need to live through my writing. Everything is fair game. And I’m here for longevity.” That’s what I subscribe to in the work I do. Food is a really fast-moving world, and you’re expected to be a celebrity at the same time as you’re a cookbook writer and a recipe developer and also be able to produce videos … I just always stick to that piece of advice: aiming for longevity and aiming to be here in ten, 20, 30 years’ time.

Hetty Lui McKinnon Is a Vegetable Whisperer