Mr. Christmas, AKA Johnny Mathis, Talks About His Love of Cooking

Johnny Mathis was running late for this interview, but he happened to have a great excuse: He lost track of time while shopping at his local supermarket for a lunch he’d be cooking for a friend. Besides being a major player in the history of popular music, with dozens of gold and platinum discs and more than 350 million records sold, Mathis is a serious cook who’s been working the stove ever since he was a kid.

I caught up with Mathis to talk about his love of cooking, his role in memorializing my favorite veal marsala recipe, and to wish him luck at the Grammys. His latest work, Sending You a Little Christmas, is up for an award, no surprise for a guy the industry has nicknamed Mr. Christmas because of his holiday hits.

You go to the market every day. Why not go every two or three days, buy a big load, and save yourself some time?
I can’t do it. I tried it, but that’s not the way it is for me. I’d rather starve than not have what I really want to eat. I’m good at preparation. So when I come home late from playing golf [Mathis, 79, is an avid golfer and still exercises regularly], I already have in mind what I want to eat. 

What are you making this afternoon for your friend?
He’s going to have a tiny chicken, like a game hen. They’re very flavorful and cook very fast. Maybe some frozen peas and onions. I also have some leftover stuffing in the freezer. I always have homemade chicken stock in the refrigerator. I’ll reduce it, maybe add a little cream and a few shallots. Before you know it, eureka! It’s the best.

What’s your secret to making a good meal?
Preparation, preparation, preparation. Sometimes it’s fun to wing it, but not on a regular basis.

Do you have a favorite cookbook?
I have one room off my kitchen filled with nothing but cookbooks and recipes that are sent to me from around the world. Every two years I have to go through them and pick out ones to send to the local schools. There’s a need for books, especially cookbooks. When I go out shopping and pass a bookstore, I always grab a couple of cookbooks, so I have a library of them. I end up keeping many that I got years and years ago because they work so well. I like James Beard. I love Mexican food and a have a few cookbooks from Diana Kennedy. I also have a few from Simone Beck. 

Are you currently following any cooking trends or styles?
I love European cooking. The secret, of course, is using ingredients that are local, which is usually the case in Europe. The ingredients are so far above ours because much of it is so processed and pasteurized. It’s kind of sad, but that’s the way things are. I know a lot of people who go to Europe just to eat.

You said you’ll be working on Christmas, but could you describe how you approach building a holiday menu or signature Christmas dish?
I’m a big fan of people who figure it out and make it work. I think nothing about preparing food and doing it the way it should be. Julia Child was always a favorite. I use her as a bible for things I haven’t done before; I know her recipes have been thought out. 

Do you still cook for yourself while you’re on the road?
Sometimes, when it’s possible. When hotels like the Residence Inn started [they have full kitchens], I was over the moon. We used to play the same place for a week so it was very comfortable to have that situation. Now it’s only one, or two nights at most. I don’t go crazy about ordering something fantastic on the road. I usually want some red meat and some vegetables, something that gives me strength for the performance. I need fuel.

Congratulations on your Grammy nomination. Were you surprised or is it something you expected?
I’m absolutely amazed. Face it, I’ve been around a long time and most of my successes were a few years ago. At this point in my life, whenever I get recognition, it’s quite surprising. 

How is cooking a meal for you similar to recording or performing a song?
The most important thing about cooking a meal is the ingredients and preparation. Preparation is essential. Without it you won’t have a good meal. And that’s the same approach I take to how I sing. Sometimes I’ll sing something special on stage that night that has a lot of history, or what I feel will be appropriate, or that will get the attention of the audience. When I’m cooking, I find out what people like and cook that. It’s as easy as that.

More music and food:

Chef Sean Brock chats with Patterson of the Drive-By Truckers

What’s up with all the food in music videos lately?

Country music star Kacey Musgraves talks vodka and Nashville eats

What music do you listen to in the kitchen?