Cooking with Matt Wagner!

Wed, June 14th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

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Yesterday, we spoke with Matt Wagner about his upcoming DC Comics mini-series "Batman and the Mad Monk." Now, at the end of that interview we teased that we'd have a second interview with Wagner about an entirely different subject, not exactly related to comics. Most of you probably don't know that in addition to being an accomplished comics creator, Wagner is also quite an accomplished chef. Myself, I'm no cook, but I do have an incredible appreciation for food as is evidenced by my ever growing mid-section (must go to the gym in the morning. Must go to the gym in the morning!).

When it came time to talk with Matt about "Batman and the Mad Monk," I wanted to do something a little different, so I asked him if he'd be interested in talking about his passion for cooking and maybe give some advice to guys like me who have an irrational fear of the kitchen. He was more than happy to participate and even included a simple recipe for Gazpacho that all of you reading can make on your own.

So, without any further delay, let's talk Cooking with Matt Wagner.

In 2003, Dark Horse Comics published "Autobiographix," a collection of autobiographical short stories by some of comics' top creators. As Wagner explains below, he participated in this book by including a short story about his own passion for cooking as well as a step-by-step recipe for making Chicken Parmigiana. Included with this interview is that story. Special thanks to Dark Horse Comics and editor Diana Schutz for their permission to reprint this story.
Allright Matt, so yesterday we discussed all things "Batman and the Mad Monk." But today, we're not going to talk comics at all (well, maybe a little). We're talking one of your big passions outside of comics, cooking! So, to start things out right, let's find out what's for dinner tonight.

Well, actually we're going out to dinner tonight because I'm doing this interview with you! [laughs]

[Laughs] Oh Man! My apologies to the family! OK, how about a recent meal you made the family.

Let's see, on Mother's Day I made for my wife grlled Ahi Tuna with a spicy mango glaze and braised fennel and a salad with macadamia nuts. That was pretty good.

It sounds pretty good!

It's not like I don't have standards I fall back on all the time. It's not always that fancy. But we always eat fresh. Nothing's ever out of a can. In fact, the other day I was somewhere and I bought one of those flavored rice mixes and oh, it was so wretched! The kitchen just ended up smelling like chemicals and salt by the time I was done. We didn't even eat it -- I threw it out.

I have two kids. One's a very adventurous eater and one's a very picky eater. When I was a kid, I was a picky eater.

Allright, so what are their requests? When their birthdays come around, what do you cook for them?

Well, my daughter's a big pasta fan. Her very favorite pasta is ravioli that has the ricotta and spinach stuffing. She likes that prepared simply, made with just melted butter and cheese.

The funny story I tell over and over again is for my son's 14th birthday I asked him, "Hey Man, what would you like me to make you for your birthday dinner?" Now, what would most 14 year olds ask for?

Probably pizza or burgers.

Right. Well, he thought for a second and said, "Would you make that African lamb stew with the pistachios and cous cous?" [laughs] I said, "Yeah, I like that one too! That's great!" [laughs]

When did this passion for cooking first start for you?

I had a roommate in college whose Dad was a good cook. And some of my first jobs involved cooking. Like, I was a cook at a Howard Johnson's for a number of summers. Now, that's not really fine dining, but it gets you used to the process of cooking. In fact, I've always said that the main skill I learned then was getting stuff ready at the same time so that all your dishes come to the table at the same time.

I first decided I was going to learn how to cook when I realized what a wonderful way it was to romance women!

[laughs] Really? That's excellent.

There's nothing better, buddy! [laughs]

That's excellent advice for the single guys out there reading this that don't know how to cook.

There is no better way. It shows you care.

Were your Mom and Dad cooks when you grew up?

No, not really. My Mom cooked and she taught me the basics of cooking. I was an only child and while I wouldn't call my Mom a giant feminist, but she was fairly feministic for her time period and era and she was just determined that I wasn't going to have to rely on a woman to cook. The side result of that is I wouldn't be enslaving a woman to take care of me! [laughs] So, she showed me some basic cooking.

Then, when my wife and I got together, my wife tried to cook for me once and she's just horrible at it. [laughs] We quickly settled that division of power.

[laughs] Sure.

So, I was like, well, I gotta get a lot better at this. It's just like anything in life - the more you try it, the better you'll get at it. I read a lot. Now that the Food Network's on, you don't even have to read, you can just watch TV and learn how to cook. You've just got to try it, not be fearful of it and learn from your mistakes, as with everything else.

Right. Now, in the early days of your cooking exploration or whatever you'd like to call it, were you reading books or hitting up people at Howard Johnson's for tips?

No, that's not real cooking at Howard Johnson's! [laughs] That's just diner cooking. But sure, yeah, I was reading.

Was there a specific influence at the time?

No, not any one. I'd buy cook books, I'd subscribe to "Gourmet" and "Bon Apetit" magazines. Cooking is interesting because it's science and an art. There are definite ways to do and not do things. Specifically, baking. Baking is very scientific and almost mathematical.

Here's a little tip I learned years ago for your readers. When you crack an egg, don't crack it against the lip of the bowl or counter. All that does is push the shell into the egg. Hit it against a flat surface, because that won't drive the shell inside.

Wow, that's not something I'd ever considered before.

Yeah, cooking is full of those little bits of lore. You just learn them little by little.

OK, now, back during your HoJo days, when you were much younger, sillier and, well, stupider [laughs] did you do anything to the food that you shouldn't have? Like maybe someone pissed you off one day and set you off.

No, but I did something else! [laughs]

Uh oh!

This was in a small town. I was so sick of these small town jobs and all that sort of crap. I really wanted to get out of where I grew up and move to the big city, get on with my life and not be cooking clams and french fries anymore. So, my very last night on the job, just to be sure it would be my last night on the job and there was no hope I could ever come back and work there, well, I got off work, went out back, I stripped naked and streaked around the building and jumped up and down outside windows while people were still eating inside. [laughs]

[laughs] So, you may not have done anything to their meals directly, but you certainly took away their appetites!

[laughs] Exactly. And there was this bitter, mean old woman that worked as the night manager and boy did I give her quite an eye full too, believe me!

[laughs] Oh man. Allright, so what sort of advice do you have for a guy like myself. I'm a bachelor and can't seem to find the patience for cooking. Am I, and guys like me, hopeless?

No, man. Just start simple. It's the same as drawing or playing an instrument. Where do you live, Jonah?

I'm in Los Angeles.

OK. There are plenty of good grocery stores where you live where you can get stuff that's basically already cooked for you. Even the simple act of correctly heating something up can instill a lot of confidence. [laughs] There's just not much reason to eat crap food anymore. Don't eat stuff out of a can, don't eat instant stuff. There's just so much other food available and you don't have to go to a lot of effort to enjoy it. A lot of good grocery stores will have refrigerated or frozen fresh pizza dough, so make your own pizzas. This way you can put whatever you want on it. You know how with a lot of take-out pizza you eat it and you're just like, "Oh my God, I feel like I've just swallowed a gallon of salt."

Yeah, absolutely, or a gallon of grease.

Yeah, right. When I make pizza, I love pepperoni, but if you get a pepperoni pizza it's just soaking in grease, so try putting salami on instead. Very similar flavor and it's not as greasy or salty. Get yourself a pizza stone, get some ready made dough. You can even get some bottled sauce and even get the cheese pre-grated. Again, if you do stuff, get some help out at the store, start out at a low level like that and your confidence will build each time you cook.

Get bagged salads and get a recipe for making your own salad dressing. That literally takes five minutes to make and it's so much better than what you can buy in the store. With most bottled salad dressings, the quality of oil they use is usually very inferior and is very strong in salt content.

Wow, that never occurred to me.

All these things are pretty easy to achieve. It's almost like working out. You start out by lifting 50 pounds and before too long you'll be lifting 75 pounds and so on. Are you married, Jonah?

Nope?

Got a girl?

Not currently.

Well, here's how! [laughs]

[laughs] Well, I'm going to have to put this to the test!

Do you have a favorite dish you like to make?

Nahh. I drive my kids crazy with this shit because they're always asking what's my favorite X, Y and Z. And I always come back with I don't have favorites. I have a favorite son. I have a favorite daughter. And I have a favorite wife. I just like too many things! I don't have a favorite comic artist, book, movie, food, etc. -- the selection's too vast, how could you focus on just one?

Fair enough.

A couple of years ago Diana Schutz put out a book for Dark Horse near the end of that imprint she had called "Autobiographix." Did you see it?

Yeah, I remember that.

Well, it was all about getting guys who don't normally do autobiographical comics to do an autobiographical story, which is its own sub-genre within comics. So, Frank Miller did a piece about being on the set of "Daredevil." Will Eisner did a piece about meeting one of his favorite illustrators at an ad agency when he was young. So, Diana wanted me to do one and I said, "Well, Di, I kind of get my autobiographical jimmy out in 'Mage.'" So, instead I did a comic book recipe.

Right, right.

The first page is a silhouette of me at my drawing table saying, "Most of you know that by day I'm a comic book artist. Many of you don't know that by night…" and then there's a shot of me in like a chef's jacket with a slotted spoon and a knife crossed in front of me! [laughs] I am comic book chef! [laughs] So, it was a step-by-step instruction on how to cook Chicken Parmigiana. Little illustrations on how to do it. It's pretty much no fail.

I've had so many e-mails from people who say, "Dude, your recipe is excellent!'

That's just a lot of fun, man.

In fact, to back up my theory about food being good for relationships, a guy was at a con and came over to me and said, "Dude, your Chicken Parmigiana? Great for the love-life."

Oh, that's awesome. You basically got a guy laid!

Speaking of all this cooking, have you ever heard of the manga "Iron Wok Jan" from Dr. Master Books?

I have not.

Oh, it's a phenomenal book I think you'll really enjoy. It's about a ground of teenagers in Japan at a culinary school who are all competing to be the world's greatest Chinese chef.

Oh, awesome!

It's one of the most unusual pieces of manga I've read because all the action takes place in the wok!

Sure! [makes cooking in a wok style noises] [laughs] So, it's like "Iron Chef" in Manga form. I gotta write this down. I have to track that down.

So, OK, we've got the Chicken Parm thing …

And I chose Chicken Parm because I didn't want to scare folks off.

Right. So, I thought we'd leave people with some sort of challenge for them to cook from you.

Hrmm … I was thinking about that today. I knew you'd ask me for some sort of recipe. [laughs]

And whatever you choose to challenge us with, I'll make it before we publish this story.

Do you like Gazpacho?

Absolutely. Great stuff.

I have a bitchin' Gazpacho recipe. I don't know if you've ever tried to make it.

No, not a chance.

It's so easy. Basically, you just throw a bunch of shit into a food processor and [makes food processor noises] and you're done. [laughs]

Have you ever thought of doing a Cooking with Matt Wagner book?

My wife has been after me for years to do that and I always had this concern that I don't have a hook.

But your hook is comics!

Exactly. Once I did the Chicken Parm story, there's the hook. So, yeah, I will eventually.

You have to do that because I want to see you hawking that book on "Live with Regis and Kelly." [laughs] That would be just too cool.

Sooner or later. As you may have noticed, right now my plate's a little full.

A lil' bit! But hopefully one day you'll be able to retire off some mad Hollywood money and can pursue such fun ventures.

You know, that reminds me, you might want to stick a mention in there to that we've just signed "Grendel" with Warner Bros.

That's right. It happened earlier this year, right?

Yeah, we finalized it just about four or five months ago. It's set up at John Wells Productions, who does "er" and "The West Wing."

Well, that certainly doesn't suck. You're clearly in good hands. What's the latest on that?

They're looking for a writer. Someone who's going to love the material.

How involved do you plan to be with that?

Well, not like Frank was with "Sin City," let's put it that way. I don't know that I want to be involved like that. I don't have allusions of wanting to direct my own stuff and I'm not sure I want to adapt my own stuff for film. It's not my medium. I'd rather have somebody do it who knows what they're doing in the film language who likes my work with the comic language. But, if you look at "Sin City" and "Hellboy" and the pre-production on "300," those are all other Dark Horse auteur comics and all three have gone out of their way to make sure it is the comic, they haven't tried to fix the comic.

Thanks, Matt, for talking with me today. Now I'm off to make some Gazpacho!

GAZPACHO by Matt Wagner

INGREDIENTS
3 cups tomato juice


3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth


1 teaspoon oregano


1 teaspoon basil


2 large cloves crushed garlic


Salt and pepper to taste


2 tablespoons lemon juice (fresh)


2 tablespoons olive oil


1 stalk celery


1 cucumber (peeled and seeded)


1/2 green pepper (ribs removed)


2 tomatoes


1/2 red onion


1/2 bunch green onions


1/2 jar artichoke hearts (packed in water, drained)


1/2 can olives


1 avocado (seeded and flesh scooped out of shell)

Chop by hand or pulse/grind all solid ingredients in a food processor. Add to liquids, stir well and chill for at least 4 hours.

Top with chopped hard-boiled egg, parsley and/or salad shrimp. Serve with a lime wedge and warm bread.

NOTE: This recipe makes quite a batch, serves 6-10. Cut it back by half or more if you need - simple math here, guys.

As I told Matt above, I would try making his Gazpacho recipe before publishing it on CBR. What's Gazpacho? It's a cold, vegetable filled soup from Spain that's perfect eating when served on a hot summer day. It's delicious and very healthy.

So, this past weekend I set out to make the above recipe. Now, keep in mind, I never cook - never. I generally find cooking frustrating, mostly because when I do cook my own food doesn't have the strong, complex flavors you find in restaurants. Of course, that's just because I've not taken the time to explore cooking well enough. When Matt said he was going to send over a Gazpacho recipe, I was actually quite relieved - there would be no actual cooking, which alleviated some of my concerns.

Now, I don't own a food processor and when I looked at the recipe I knew I'd be in for a lot of chopping and cutting, which wasn't going to happen. I knew either my mom or one of my sisters had to have a food processor and I was right. If you don't have a food processor, ask your friends or neighbors. It'll save you a lot of time and effort.

I then made my way to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients. I decided to go all out for this first attempt at making Gazpacho, so it was all fresh ingredients for me including fresh basil and oregano. I got home, set everything up and got cooking, err, chopping. All told, it didn't take long to prepare - about 25 minutes total. I could have cut that down by 10 minutes had I not insisted on chopping things up more than need be before throwing the ingredients into the food processor, (let the food processor do the work for you, duh!). What surprised me most about preparing this soup was how simple and fun it was to make - I usually loathe spending time in the kitchen, but I found myself bopping around the kitchen with the music on and, well, let's just say it's a good thing I didn't have an audience because it would have been embarrassing for everyone.

I invited some friends over that night to be my test subjects. When I first mentioned Gazpacho, they all gave me some ribbing for making cold soup, but they got over that pretty quickly once they tried it - no exaggeration, it was fantastic. Each of them asked for a second cup and one took some home to his girlfriend. It's (obviously) very fresh tasting, filled with amazing and complex flavors and let me tell you something, it's even better the next day as the flavors have a chance to mature.

I plan on making the Gazpacho again this summer, but I've learned from some minor mistakes my first go around that will make my second time easier. First off, no need to chop anything into even small or medium pieces. Secondly, I needed more tomatoes. I chose to substitute roma tomatoes for regular tomatoes since I generally find I like the flavor and thickness of a roma tomato over a regular tomato. Problem is I only picked up three roma tomatoes, which is probably more like 1 regular tomatoes. I'd also likely not get fresh basil and oregano again only because I was left with a lot of left over basil and oregano I'll not end up using. I ended up using the rest of the leftover ingredients the next day for a delicious pizza - only the second time in my life I made my own pizza and it was good. Red onions, artichoke hearts, olives, some salami, green pepper - tasty goodness. And next time I'll try using vegetable broth instead of chicken broth - that way my vegetarian friends can join in on the taste testing.

If you plan on making the recipe above, please drop me a line at jonah@comicbookresources.com and share your own experience. I'll pass along your thoughts to Matt as well.

Thanks, Matt. You may make a chef out of me one day. Now I just gotta figure out what channel the Food Network is on DirecTV.

 
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