Novelist Monica Ali Now Knows How to Eat Steamer Clams

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Ali has a cup of coffee at Cookshop. Photo: Melissa Hom

"I kind of like food," Monica Ali says by way of explaining her most recent novel, In the Kitchen, set in the sprawling underworld of hotel food service. "You see the TV shows with chefs sweating or swearing and it's supposed to be gritty and real, but that's just telly-land. I was interested in exploring some of what goes on below stairs." To get the details right, Ali spent a year on the line. "I ended up with a knife in my hand more than a few times," she recalls. "When you're in a kitchen, you have to earn people's trust." As a visiting faculty member at Columbia this semester, the London-based writer took a break from the stove: "I've not had to cook for several months," Ali says. "It's been great." Find out what other people have cooked for her in this week's New York Diet.

Friday, May 28
I got takeout delivered on Thursday evening from Chef 28, so what did I have for breakfast Friday? Cold Chinese takeaway — chicken with snow peas and broccoli. I didn't even heat it up. I just wanted to get back to my laptop, and I ate it while I was still working. That was a pretty disgusting start to my day.

I just carried on working all day. I knew I was going away on Saturday morning, so I just couldn't lift my head [from work]. I was completely wrapped up in what I was doing — I didn't have any lunch, and I had an apple for dinner.

Saturday, May 29
I went to East Hampton on the Jitney that morning, and I had a coffee from Starbucks while I waited.

For lunch, my friend and I went to an Italian restaurant called Cittanuova. I had a glass of Prosecco, and we shared two appetizers: fried calamari with zucchini and tomato-basil aïoli, and a verdura mista — mixed greens with artichoke, marjoram, fava beans, pecorino cheese, and olives. That was all really nice. For a main course, I had beef carpaccio with a mustard aïoli, Parmigiano cheese, arugula, and lemon. It was really special, really light. I felt as though summer had arrived.

We went to Sag Harbor in the evening and ate at B. Smith's, right on the waterfront, amid all the very swanky yachts. I started with a watermelon margarita which was just really watery, and I didn't like it much. But it got better after that no-so-good margarita: Blue Point oysters to start — I like lemon on them. They tasted of the sea; they were really soft and melty and they barely even really needed lemon. They were just fantastic. For a main course, I had soft-shell crabs on a bed of asparagus salad. We got a bottle of Albariño, a lovely Spanish wine that's very crisp. When we got home that night, I had a chocolate-chip cookie.

Sunday, May 30
Sunday was a very good food day. For brunch, I had a huge bowl of blueberries and strawberries and Greek yogurt.

We were invited to Michael McCarty's house for the afternoon — he owns restaurants in New York and L.A. called Michael's. There were about twenty people there, and he was cooking for everyone. The food just kept on coming: We started with steamer clams, which I'd never had before. I had to have a lesson in how to eat them. They were marvelous! I somehow thought they were going to be gritty, but they weren't at all — they were full of flavor. You dip them in a bowl of melted butter, but they were kind of buttery anyway — they didn't really need more. We were drinking Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, which went perfectly with the clams. Then there was local lobster — a big lobster, which of course was delightfully messy to eat. You just have to get your hands dirty and get stuck in there. There were lots of juices flying all around the table; it was kind of entertaining, seeing who was going to spray whom next. It sort of rolled on into the evening: There was wild salmon on the barbecue, various salads, and a côte du bœuf, also done on the barbecue. Strawberries and ice cream for dessert.

Monday, May 31
In the morning, I had more strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and crème fraîche.

For lunch, we made bagels with smoked salmon and tomato and took them to the beach, along with our bag of cherries. It seemed exactly right.

That evening, we were going to go to Montauk for dinner. We had this car that belonged to the people whose house we borrowed for the few days, but it broke down on the way. There were clouds of steam coming from the bonnet of the car, and this guy pulled over in his big red truck who thought our car was on fire. Since it was Memorial Day, there were no garages open or anything. Fortunately, this very nice guy called his friend who was a mechanic, and he came out and fixed us well enough to drive home. We were two hours on the side of the road when we should have been in Montauk eating and drinking, so when we got back to East Hampton we just went to Cittanuova again. We shared a plate of prosciutto to start, and I had breaded veal with lemon and caper sauce. We had a very nice bottle of Pinot Noir.

Tuesday, June 1
We went for a two-hour walk along the beach in the morning, so we worked up a big appetite for breakfast, which we had at the Golden Pear Café, where I had a spinach-and-tomato omelette, a multigrain toasted roll, and some grapefruit juice. It was a big breakfast; I was very hungry.

I had some Spanish Marcona toasted almonds on the Jitney back to Manhattan. They're great, and I'm sure they're so high calorie that it was about a lunch's worth. They're pretty oily.

For dinner I went to Momoya in Chelsea. I had miso soup, and then their crispy trio sushi, which is my favorite thing there. I can't get enough of it; it's delicious. It's salmon, tuna, and a white fish, which might be hake, and avocado, all on crispy rice. I felt like I'd been drinking quite a lot in the previous few days so I just had water.

Wednesday, June 2
I got out of bed in the morning and had a cup of tea. I didn't even get dressed; I went straight to my laptop.

I didn't move until I went to yoga at 6:30 in the evening — I had about four crackers for lunch, which was the only thing I had in the apartment.

I was going to carry on working after yoga, but I bumped into a friend who invited me to have a cocktail at her apartment, so I did. It was vodka and seltzer with some cherries in the bottom of the glass — and it was a pint glass! It was a huge cocktail. By the time I'd drunk that, I knew I wasn't going to get any more work done, so I went out with her and our friends to Le Singe Vert, which is one of my favorite local restaurants. They closed down for a little while and got a little makeover and a new menu, so I was interested to see what they had. I had a salad to start which was cucumber, heart of palm, avocado, and orange with a minted-lime dressing. And then I had the roasted hanger steak with bone-marrow cocotte, very velvety, and a mushroom and pea risotto. We had a Cotes du Rhone, which went really well.