Katie Lee Joel—food columnist, cookbook author, Extra! correspondent, Iron Chef judge, former Top Chef host and third wife of singer-pianist Billy—was recently recounting her March 24 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“I made a meatloaf, and she liked it!” said Ms. Joel, 26, between bites of an avocado salad at the cafe Sant Ambroeus on West Fourth Street, near the townhouse she shares with her husband and two pugs (they also have homes in Miami and on Long Island). “My husband’s not big on doing TV. But he likes Oprah, and he knew that it was important to me.”
Indeed, such is Mr. Joel’s love for his young wife that he brought his entire band to Chicago to perform his hit “Only the Good Die Young” on the show, after which he endured an uncomfortable solo interview with Ms. Winfrey that focused on his DUI record (“Would you say you’re a bad driver? ”) before the Queen of Talk finally introduced his wife, fresh and bubbly in an olive green dress. The couple sat on the couch, hands intertwined, as Ms. Joel plugged her new cookbook, The Comfort Table (out April 1 from Simon Spotlight Entertainment), which includes a recipe for the aforementioned meatloaf, or as the authoress calls it, “man-loaf” (“because if you make it for a man he’s destined to fall in love with you”). Ms. Winfrey’s verdict: “God, is it moist, too! That is really moist!”
“It was so fun,” said Ms. Joel, who met her husband, who is 58, on the rooftop of the Peninsula hotel in Manhattan while still an undergraduate at Miami University in Ohio and married him in 2004. “I am such an Oprah fan.” Her publisher moved the book’s publication date up a month and tripled the print order after the segment was booked, perhaps in anticipation of a sellout sales run à la Deceptively Delicious, the Oprah-approved cookbook of another famous wife, Jessica Seinfeld.
Wearing Stella McCartney skinny jeans and a collegiate oversize gray hoodie, Ms. Joel spoke with a Southern accent; she was born and raised in Milton, W.Va., (pop. 2,206). Although she is married to the man who wrote “Uptown Girl,” she shops at vintage stores and doesn’t like to venture north of Whole Foods on 24th Street. “I love to have dinner parties in New York,” she said generously, “because so many people don’t have a big kitchen.”
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The young culinary enthusiast did not look like someone who cooks fatty foods for a living, but then, part of her goal is to revive the image of so-called “comfort” food. Ms. Joel’s first cookbook features recipes for gussied-up peach cobbler, deviled eggs, pulled pork BBQ and fried green tomatoes. “I think people think of comfort food as big gloppy food,” she said. “So it was important to me to have the food look stylish, chic. … Comfort food can be served at a nice dinner party. It’s definitely the food I grew up on. I’m not from a family that was having high-end dining by any means. We were a very modest-means family but we ate like kings.”
Ms. Joel was born Katherine Lee, the only child of a single mother, a teacher (her father, a stockbroker, lives in Cincinnati). Her maternal grandmother played a central role in her upbringing. “My grandma had a garden, my cousin raised cows, we had another cousin that raised pigs and everybody kind of shared their food,” she said. At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, she majored in journalism and took food science classes to satisfy a science requirement. “I started thinking, ‘Is there any way I can combine my love of food with my love of writing?’”
Fortuitously, a template for the temptress-who-cooks-and-writes was forming in the personages of Nigella Lawson, Padma Lakshmi and the like.
The pretty co-ed was on a tourist weekend with a girlfriend in New York when she first collided with Mr. Joel, coming out of a bathroom. “Oprah, he could’ve delivered a pizza to me and I wouldn’t have known who he was!” she exclaimed to Ms. Winfrey. Luckily, her friend recognized him and invited him to drink at the hotel bar. Mr. Joel whisked the duo off to dinner and to Movin’ Out, the Broadway show based on his music.