One recent afternoon at the airy West Side apartment that former prima ballerina Heather Watts shares with her beau, New York City Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel, the conversation leaped among assorted topics, including New York fashion week, the far-flung festival of frocks recently commenced here in the Toasted Bagel.
“Since the shows are all over town, maybe people should bring their lunches, like school, in a brown bag or lunch box,” suggested Ms. Watts, her humor of a sweet, yet deviled flavor.
Jock Soto, the New York City Ballet’s principal dancer, in the black jeans and sweater he’d worn to ballet rehearsal earlier that day, served up the first suggestion. For Bruce Weber, their photographer friend with whom Ms. Watts works often in her capacity as a contributing editor to Vanity Fair , Mr. Soto suggested: “Fruit salad for Bruce and Milkbones for his dogs, wrapped in a beautiful bandanna.”
“For Marc Jacobs,” another friend, Ms. Watts decided: “a Marlboro carton with a couple of packs of cigarettes and a White Castle burger.” For the dieting Isaac Mizrahi: a sack of rice cakes. For Anne Bass, herb tea and three butter cookies in a Japanese box from Takashimaya. For Patrick McCarthy, chairman of Fairchild Publications, a handy tin of the best caviar and a mother-of-pearl spoon.
What do dancers know from food? Well, Ms. Watts and Mr. Soto have written a volume on it: Our Meals: Making a Home for Family and Friends , a spirited cookbook and guide to entertaining just published by Riverhead Books. Mr. Soto was Ms. Watts’ most frequent dance partner on stage before the sad night in 1995 at Lincoln Center when the prima ballerina retired after 24 years with the company.
Our Meals is not the Junior League cookbook. The authors, who seem to have taken to the book business like swans to a lake-on Nov. 9 they will return to the Tampa, Fla., sound stages of the Home Shopping Network for their second selling session-like it when dinner plates do not match. They think Polaroids are more amusing than engraved place cards. They encourage mistakes. This is a cookbook for Ellen DeGeneres, not Carolyne Roehm.
“It’s an alternative,” Ms. Watts said. “We try not to bash Martha Stewart, but I find the perfectionism of her approach so frustrating.” Ms. Watts recalled Christmas a couple of years ago when she spent hours trying to wrap gold ribbon around the banister of the weekend house she shares in northwestern Connecticut with Mr. Woetzel and Mr. Soto. “The ribbon got so lumpy, I got impatient. Why was I stressing out turning my banister into a candy cane? By the same token, we don’t mean to be Ab Fab -absolutely fabulous drunken brawls. We think of ourselves as a fun how-to.”
When Ms. Watts announced her retirement from the ballet, editors and publishers tried to convince her to write a memoir, a juicy tell-all. Although she was tempted by the money, she “didn’t want to gossip, to talk about myself. There isn’t much to say. Everything I had to say I said on stage when I danced.”
Riverhead Books editor Mary South-sister of one of Ms. Watts’ best friends, Hamilton South, an executive at Ralph Lauren-wanted to find a project Ms. Watts might do. She took Ms. Watts to dinner. “A book for young dancers was suggested, but I thought not. The dance world isn’t as easy as when I started, when The Turning Point was everyone’s favorite movie,” Ms. Watts said, “and Misha [Baryshnikov] was a pin-up poster. There are just as wonderful dancers now who aren’t getting that kind of attention.”
At dinner with Ms. South, Ms. Watts confided that what she cared about most was, somehow, continuing her life with Mr. Soto. They had been dance partners since his early ascent in the ballet company after he joined it in 1981. “I told Mary that I wasn’t scared of life not dancing, but I was scared of not spending time with Jock.”
Invitations to dinner parties given by Ms. Watts and Mr. Soto are coveted by a certain set. The idea for a cookbook and entertaining guide seemed natural. “It took nearly three years to write,” Ms. Watts said, “because I went into a coma when I stopped dancing.”
“A well-deserved coma,” Mr. Soto offered.
These are self-taught hosts. Ms. Watts, the daughter of an aerospace engineer father and British war-bride mother, was raised in Los Angeles. “In those days, it was considered a sign of affluence to buy the new packaged foods. I remember we’d drive past the farmer’s market to Ralph’s grocery store so we could buy frozen food.”
Mr. Soto grew up near a Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona: “We never saw real vegetables. And you can’t drink the water. My mother learned to cook Spanish rice for my father, who is Puerto Rican, and we had it every day with fried cornbread and, sometimes, mutton.”
“That’s old lamb, like me,” Ms. Watts interjected.
Mr. Soto was 16 when he joined the ballet in New York. “I started to acquire taste because we were asked to dinners and holidays at the home of artist Jane Wilson and the writer John Gruen. Jane is an incredible cook.” Although Ms. Watts was also a frequent guest at the Wilson-Gruen household on the Upper West Side, her interest in food developed more slowly. She remembered a time, while she was living with Peter Martins, now the New York City Ballet’s master in chief, when he announced he’d invited “Misha for dinner that night. I looked at Peter as if he were deranged. I kept books in our oven! So I ran to the Silver Palate and told them a Russian was coming for dinner; what should I serve? They recommended Russian salad, chicken salad and potato salad. All mayonnaise, but no one complained.”
The cooking partnership of Ms. Watts and Mr. Soto began its boil, if you will, when Mr. Martins-long before he married Darci Kistler and Ms. Watts ignited with Mr. Woetzel-took a weekend house in Connecticut about 10 years ago. “All our guests would go off water-skiing or whatever, and Jock and I would head into the kitchen,” Ms. Watts recalled.
“It was such a relief from dancing, from performing all the time,” Mr. Soto said. “We could stay in this cubicle with each other and talk about our lives, talk about performances and, while doing so, we learned to cook.”
The recipes they selected for Our Meals were chosen by remembering the various feasts they had prepared over the years. “Sometimes we remembered the pasta first,” Ms. Watts said, “sometimes we remembered the people.” Or favorite failures. For instance, the time Mr. Soto wanted to impress Jane Wilson and John Gruen by bringing tiramisù for Thanksgiving dessert. Mr. Soto had danced the night before and was rushed that morning. The nearest gourmet shop was out of the mascarpone cheese needed for tiramisù. “So I bought the nearest cheese; cheese is cheese, right?”
Except when it’s Gorgonzola, which was Mr. Soto’s replacement.
“And all anyone wanted was pumpkin pie,” Ms. Watts said.