Serenbe Style and Soul

with Marie Nygren



October 2016

Spirit Sisters, Part 2: Pulling Strings to Meet Joshua Bell

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Years ago, I saw a movie called Ladies in Lavender directed by Charles Dance. Starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, it’s the story of a gifted Polish violinist, a ship, a shipwreck and the two women who nurse him back to health when he washes up near their Cornwall home.

It is one of my favorite movies of all time, but not just because of the story. The soundtrack was so exquisite that I sat through the credits, found the name of the violinist, went straight to Barnes & Noble and said to the man behind the counter, “What do you have by Joshua Bell?”

The man looked at me and said, “You’ve just seen Ladies in Lavender, haven’t you?”

I have followed Joshua ever since. Like I wrote last week about Robert Spano, I am in awe of the depth and breadth of Joshua’s talent. There’s something so beautiful and pure about what he does and how he does it. I see him every time he comes to Atlanta, including his performance at the pre-season opening concert last month with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

It was an all-Tchaikovsky performance: Robert did six pieces from The Nutcracker, plus Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy. After the intermission the symphony returned to the stage, Robert came in and welcomed Joshua.

His performance was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto No. 1 — and it was breathtaking. Everyone was on their feet with bravos and applause.

When he returned for his encore, Joshua said, “It’s been an all-Tchaikovsky evening and I think we need a little break.”

This is one of the many things I love about him. He understands how to play serious but also how to play and have fun.

Then he said, “Years ago, I did the soundtrack for a film and no, it wasn’t The Red Violin. I had the honor of playing music by one of England’s greatest composers, Nigel Hess.”

My friends Phyllis and Lynn, who knew the whole history of Ladies in Lavender, reached for me. They knew. And I thought, oh my God, he’s going to play it again.  

Over the summer, on the Atlanta stop of his national tour with jazz trumpeter Chris Bodie, Joshua said, “I want to play a song now from the soundtrack to a movie a lot of people have never seen.”

“I saw it!” I yelled out.

But now, during this performance with the symphony, I gasped (because one does not yell out during an ASO performance). I’ve listened to that CD weekly since 2004. It is my soul song — I know it note by note. And to see him perform it live? Not once but twice? And with one of the greatest maestros and greatest symphonies in the world?

He played it again. And I cried.

Music transforms us. It re-alters the vibrations in our body and the best musicians know that. Robert knows it. Joshua knows it. And they play in hopes that someone else gets it, too. By the grace of God, I got to sit there and listen to it live. To say that it was a life moment is an understatement.

If it ended there, right there, that’s all I needed. But there was more.

Because Lynn is a Symphony board member, the three of us were invited to a party in the Robert Shaw room, named for the man who made the ASO what it is. I went in and positioned myself and thought, I’m just going to stand here. I don’t have to talk to him. I’m not going to bother him.

That’s about me, of course. Joshua is so accessible: During intermissions he goes out and signs CDs in the foyer. It’s unbelievable and says a lot about his character. He knows he’s an instrument for divine music and he’s unbelievably gracious about it.

Joshua came in with his Stradivarius strapped across his chest, probably because it’s worth millions of dollars.

“You’re going to talk to him,” Phyllis said to me.

“No, I don’t do that,” I replied.

“Marie, if you don’t do this, you will regret it for the rest of your life,” she said.

So she and Lynn took me by the arms, put me in line and stood on either said of me. When it was my turn, I said, “Hi. I want to thank you for playing Ladies in Lavender.”

And he said, “You know, when I hit the first few notes, I remembered I played that same song here this summer.”

He was expressing regret for choosing it again.

“Trust me,” I told him, “this is a completely different audience. Thank you for playing one of my favorite songs of all time. It was just as beautiful tonight as it was when you played it this summer. It’s the song that made me fall in love with your work.

And the next thing I knew, someone came up and asked if they could get a photo of all of us together. And there I was, taking a photo with Joshua Bell. And when it was over I thanked him again, then turned to Lynn and Phyllis and thanked my spirit sisters for opening doors, pushing me through them and helping my dreams become reality.



September 2016

Spirit Sisters, Part 1: Spano at Serenbe

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For years, I’ve had a not-so-secret crush on Robert Spano — the six-time Grammy Award winning music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The music director of the Aspen Music Festival.  One of the top five maestros in the world. One of only two classical musicians inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

It’s not like I want to make out with him in a parked car. I’ve admired him from afar for a very long time for his incredible talent, what he’s done for the ASO, his passion for music and devotion to mentoring young artists. He humbles and inspires me.

Atlanta is silly with celebrities and I couldn’t care less. But for years I’ve asked people, Do you know Robert Spano? And if so, can I meet him? 

Nothing ever came of it, but I have faith in timing. I knew the universe would send me what I was supposed to have, when I was supposed to have it. And recently it sent me spirit sisters who’ve been showing up and shaking things up in a big way.

It all started with Lauri Stallings, my friend and the founding artist of glo — the movement group that defies description. What that woman creates is not of this world. She is not of this world. Lauri read Kierkegaard when she was 11. She wears these big, clunky shoes that I’m convinced keep her on this earth and not floating above it.

Turns out, Lauri and Robert Spano are two peas in a pod. Robert commissioned her to do a collaboration between glo and the ASO. And Lauri, in her infinite magic, had honest-to-God sod brought in and laid on the stage of symphony hall. Instead of walking in from the usual entrance, patrons had to enter from backstage and walk across the sod to their seats. After everyone was settled in, the symphony sat down and played on the grass.

img_7099Their latest collaboration, cloth field, was set to open September 7. One day, Lauri called and said, “Hey Marie. I’d like to do a fundraiser for glo and thought I’d bring Robert Spano to do a preview of cloth field at Serenbe.”

To say that my jaw dropped is an understatement. You want to bring Robert Spano to Serenbe? Really? 

And so it was that the Sunday before the debut, Robert Spano played a Steinway. In a skirt. On the grass. At Serenbe.

Robert arrived early; he’d heard of Serenbe but had never been. We had dinner. Oh my.

Afterwards, he went out into the meadow and played a Steinway. In a skirt. On the grass. At Serenbe. I thought I was going to levitate.

We were sitting where, exactly one year before, Micah and Kara had their wedding dinner. Twelve months later, Micah held my grandson, Amos, and sat right beside the piano. Later, Micah said Amos went into a dream state while Robert was playing. He must’ve been remembering when he was in utero and Kara played classical music to him every day.

While glo was moving, fireflies appeared and danced with them. When the performance was over, Lauri opened it up to questions. John Graham, executive director of the Serenbe Institute and, in his former life, the executive director of the Florida Philharmonic and the Boca Pops, asked Robert if the music he was playing was Debussy. Robert replied that it was his own original composition.

I audibly gasped. Robert Spano played a piece he’d written himself. On a Steinway. In a skirt. On the grass. At Serenbe.

What Robert and Lauri did was church. Magic and beauty was there, all in one. And my heart overflowed because Robert Spano was there, all my children and my grandson were there and it was a gift beyond words.

After they finished, I hugged both Lauri and Robert and cried over the exquisite beauty I’d witnessed in my former backyard. It was breathtaking and in my top five best things that have ever happened at Serenbe.

I invited everyone in attendance back to my house for libations, savories and sweets. I had wine and Robert’s favorite vodka, Tito’s, served cold. And there was Robert Spano. In my house. Talking to me. Blowing my mind.



September 2016

Seeds of Change: New Hands in the Soil at Serenbe Farms

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Photo by J Ashley Photography

Some people call it coincidence. Some people call it fate. But when one door closes and another opens around here, I call it a Serenbe Moment.

Over the years, Serenbe Moments have resulted in new neighbors, new businesses, new relationships and so much more. The most recent one resulted in our new farmers, the husband-wife team of Matt and Kali Clayton.

“We’d been following Serenbe for quite some time from our living room at our old farm in Wisconsin,” says Matt, who’s a fourth generation vegetable farmer. “Then, when we landed one road over from the community, it felt like fate — or as Marie calls it, a Serenbe Moment.”

Kali’s family lives in Georgia and, with two children under the age of two, she was eager to be closer to her mother. They leased some farmland near Serenbe but had a challenging relationship with their landlord. So Matt called Alice Rolls, the executive director of Georgia Organics, for help. And Alice called Steve.

One week before that, Ashley, Serenbe Farms’ manager, gave her notice.

View More:“As farmers, getting to have a fully established brand behind your produce is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Matt says. “Farming is a business and building a client base can be one of the hardest parts. Farming can also be very isolating as you are often out on a large piece of land. So for our family, getting to plug into a community that celebrates and supports our farming goals and personal philosophies was a dream come true. We get to work on a farm, then play in the woods with our kids in a safe community — the best of both worlds.”

Matt and Kali’s farming philosophy is to work smarter, not harder — one I took to heart while turning the intern house into the farmer house and vice versa. While I cleaned out years worth of stuff, they made plans to implement water wheel transplanters and beautify the look of the farm.

So this season, in addition to the radishes and rutabaga, we’ll have a new crop of farmers in the fields. I wish Ashley well at her new farm and, with Matt and Kali’s plans for a Serenbe orchard already taking shape, I’m excited to enjoy the fruits of their labor.



September 2016

Rite On: A Baby, A Bris, A Brunch

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bris-3When Michael Taylor, my bonus child and family Jewish expert, heard I was hosting a bris for my grandson Amos, he said, “Oh Mama Marie, I am so excited to have some whitefish salad.”

I was like, whitefish what?

I was raised Catholic and Kara converted to Judaism before she married Micah, so these traditions — and the foods that go with them — are unfamiliar to me at best.

Turns out, Costco has a section dedicated solely to Jewish foods. I texted a picture of their whitefish salad to Michael and said, “Is this good?” He replied that it was and I was so relieved. I could make an arugula and herb salad or shrimp and pasta salad with my eyes closed. But whitefish salad? No clue and — because I’m not a fan of smoked fish — no desire.

bris-2So I bought that, along with smoked salmon, bagels, cream cheese, capers, red onion, tomato and the whole bit. Then I asked Michael, “Can I include a salad? Eggs?” He said I could, so I did a green salad and a fruit salad. Micah’s mother, Kristen, made a vegetable frittata and Uncle Matt made challah so good it stopped the rabbi and mohel — a professional trained in circumcision — in their tracks.

I offered Steve’s mother’s silver challis to hold the wine used in the ceremony and some of Steve’s ancestors’ silver platters for the food. We broke the bread together, drank wine together and though the ritual itself was new, some parts felt very familiar. I love that we’ve added a new layer of tradition to the family.

In the Jewish religion, the bris has to happen 8 days after the birth of the son. Amos was born two weeks early on June 27, so his bris fell on July 4th. Micah’s father, brother Bo and his family had planned to celebrate the fourth at Serenbe, so they were all in town for the bris. It worked out beautifully.

That morning, we attended Serenbe’s annual Fourth of July parade, then the family came to our house for the bris and brunch. After that, everyone went swimming in the new swimming hole created for Kara’s summer camp. We had it all to ourselves and, now that I think back on it, it was like the Nygren family version of a baptism.




August 2016

State of the Art: An Anniversary Present 16 years in the Making Becomes Serenbe’s Newest Sculpture

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IMG_3013abIn the months following Serenbe’s first charette back in 2000, sculptor Marty Dawes of Cherrylion Sculpture Studios brought back a maquette, or small-scale model of an unfinished sculpture. It showed a man and woman dancing — each had one leg kicked out behind them and the other legs combined into one on the ground.

Steve and I were completely taken with it because Marty had honed in on the essence of Serenbe and how it’s a dance between masculine and feminine energies. And there it was in 3D form. We knew that one day we’d have him create it for Serenbe.


IMG_2997aLast April, a full 15 years later, Steve mentioned he wanted to stop by Marty’s studio before our dinner at Bacchanalia to celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary. When we walked in, there was a bigger maquette of the original sculpture — about three feet tall and on a stand. “Happy anniversary,” Steve said.

The sculpture, named The Dance, arrived and was installed one year later, just in time for our 33rd anniversary. The day coincided with the Serenbe Playhouse gala, so we asked all the kids to be at our house beforehand. We toasted our anniversary with Champagne and walked deep into the wildflower meadow to see the statue as a family. I asked everyone to save the last sip of Champagne and we all poured it around the statue to christen it.

In creating the piece, Marty, who was just commissioned to do the new MLK statue at the state capitol, was also inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s passage on marriage in his book, The Prophet:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love: 

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. 

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. 

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. 

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, 

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.  

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. 

For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. 

And stand together yet not too near together: 

For the pillars of the temple stand apart, 

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow. 

What I love most about the sculpture, besides its rotating base that makes it look like it’s dancing, is that it’s textured, like Marty put the clay on piece by piece. It’s not smooth. It’s all the cracks and crevices that we bring to our relationships and make us human.



August 2016

Egging Them On: Making Frittatas and Friends at Cooking Camp

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frittataIf you peeked into my kitchen during the kids cooking camps I held this summer, you would’ve seen 10 kids, 20 adoring eyes watching me and 10 little mouths responding, “Yes, Miss Marie” to my questions.

Well, most of them, anyway. On Tuesday, when we made salad and vinaigrette from scratch, I asked if everyone had tasted romaine lettuce. One hadn’t, which just blew my mind. This leads me to rule No. 1 of Ms. Marie’s cooking camp:

You have to at least taste it. The kids garden in the morning, either at the farm or Inn garden, then bring me what they’ve harvested. While we wash and chop — knife safety is part of the instruction — we talk about what I call the vital necessity of fresh. Why buy salad dressing when you can make your own?

It’s fun to watch them taste different lettuces and vinegars and learn the difference between oils. Most of them have never had kohlrabi, which I can understand, but they have to taste every ingredient before they pass judgment. I assure them I’m not going to give them cow brain.

kids cooking fritatta

Mothers ask me, “How did you get him to taste kale? He won’t try it with me.” I say, “Because I told him to. It’s not a negotiation.”

Just like the past two years I’ve hosted this camp, we do a set menu. Monday was pasta, Tuesday was salad and Thursday was blueberry cobbler. Everything is super simple and can be easily replicated at home.

On Thursday I did a frittata, which is a baked egg pie with no crust. In Spain, they use it for tapas and it can be served at room temperature. It’s one of my mainstays for a brunch or lunch buffet party. With a well-oiled cast-iron skillet, some eggs, meats, vegetables and cheeses, a child can make it and feel like they’ve made dinner.


This is my favorite frittata recipe. The beauty of a frittata is that you can do any ingredients you so desire as the kids did for camp. We had 10 different combinations!

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup minced onions
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 cups chopped kale leaves
  • 1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese
  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco
  • 8 large eggs
  • Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 375.

In a 10 inch cast iron skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Stir in onions to coat and turn heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes until golden.

Meanwhile, crack eggs into large bowl and whisk. Add desired amount of salt and Tabasco.

Add garlic to onions. Cook one minute. Then add kale, turn up heat and sauté until bright green and tender.

Add eggs and cheese. Stir to combine.

Place in oven and cook 20-25 minutes until puffed and golden.



August 2016

In Their Nature: Spoken Word Poets Share Their Gifts with Serenbe

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photo from AIR Serenbe,

A few weeks ago, Steve and I attended “An Evening with Sarah Kay and Mahogany L. Brown,” a spoken word performance at The Inn at Serenbe Pavilion.

Sarah is a bestselling author, TED speaker, the founder of Project VOICE and a three-time alumnus of Serenbe’s Artist in Residence program.

California born and Brooklyn-based, Mahogany is a writer, educator, activist and the recipient of the SWACC! Focus Fellowship. This was her first experience living and working in the country.

The enormous caliber and quality of their talent aside, the performance was nothing short of incredible. And it was one of those moments where Steve and I turned to each other and said: Can you believe this is happening in our woods? 

I adore poetry and it means so much to me that, through the AIR Serenbe program, we can give artists like Sarah and Mahogany a place of respite where they can really go deep and work on their words. Then they take their work back out into the world where it can soothe, excite or enlighten audiences.


Everyone who comes here becomes a spokesperson for what time and nature can do for your soul … and your soul’s work.

Here’s Mahogany in her own words:



July 2016

AA Meeting: Losing A Cat and Gaining A Grandson

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It all started with Felix.

Six years ago, when Kara and Garnie lived together, they adopted a beautiful flat-faced Persian cat that had been abandoned in a mobile home park in South Georgia.

They named him Felix but called him Monkey Man. He was the coolest cat ever.

On June 26th, Felix had a heart attack and died. One minute he was walking around and the next he was gone. Garnie texted the family and we headed to her place. When we get news like that, we all just show up.

We gathered and said goodbye to Felix, then went our separate ways. Kara’s mother-in-law Kristen was in town for the impending birth and she and I set off on a walk through Mado, Serenbe’s newest hamlet-to-be, with Steve and four other people. As we walked through the woods, we got a call from Kara, saying, “I think my water has broken.”

Low and behold, it had. And this is normally where the story would include a mad dash to the hospital, but Kara was having none of it. She was two weeks shy of her due date, in the process of turning Camp Serenbe over to her assistant, and could not be convinced to shut down her laptop. Micah said, “We need to go to the hospital,” to which Kara replied, “No, I’m not ready.”

Typical Kara: She has things to do.

So Kristen and I retired to our respective places to await the call that Kara has gotten everything done and was en route to the hospital. In the meantime, I packed a bag of food: cheese, prosciutto, watermelon, blueberries, chocolate and a couple of sandwiches.

Typical Marie: Wherever we’re going, let’s be well-fed.

We got the call and headed out, desperately trying to keep up with Micah, who was speeding because the contractions had started. They got there, checked in and we were right behind them.

The wait began.

Steve and I were in the room with Kristen, who’s a certified midwife, but we could only talk to Micah per Kara’s instructions. Watching the two of them together — and seeing Micah tend to her — was nothing short of exquisite.

Garnie and Quinn arrived, planning to stay only an hour. Kara was in active labor – Kristen and I knew what she was going through, but unless you’ve done natural childbirth, there’s no way you can describe the pain. Though she’d never been to a birth before, Garnie walked in, assessed the situation, walked over to Kara and essentially became her doula.

Typical Garnie: The CEO of everything. Lead the charge; deal with the situation.

When Kara and Garnie were in high school, they were on the cross country team together. Garnie brought that training into the labor room and it clicked. “See the top of that hill? That’s where we’re going. Just focus on that hill,” she said and totally got in synch with Kara.

After 10 hours of active labor, Amos Nygren Adler, all 6 pounds, 6 ounces of him, arrived at 2:54 a.m. on June 27th.

amos collage



July 2016

Get Canned: Linton Hopkins Fires Up His Best Bolognese

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In all my years of cooking, it never occurred to me that there was a difference between pomodoro sauce and marinara. Then Linton Hopkins appeared for the Southern Chefs Series with his canned tomatoes and chittara cutter and taught me a thing or two.

Pomodoro is made with fresh tomatoes. Marinara is made from canned. And not just any canned, but D.O.P. certified, or Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, which means they’re strictly regulated according to things like the strain of San Marzano tomato, how they’re grown, where in Italy they’re grown and how they’re harvested (by hand, of course).

Full of knowledge from his trip to Italy last summer, Linton made both a Bolognese and a marinara. He did the Bolognese first because — and he was very adamant about this — a true Bolognese has to cook for three hours.

He was also adamant about the size of the onion, celery and carrot we chopped to sauté in olive oil and butter before adding the ground beef. They had to be tiny so they could “melt into the sauce.”

Fun fact: At Restaurant Eugene, Linton only allows chefs to have two knives at their station: a 10-inch and a paring knife. If they can’t do it with those two, he says they don’t need to be in his kitchen.

I had one Dutch oven in the house, so Linton said, “Go find a romantic pot, Marie.” I was like, what? But I went to a neighbor’s house, asked for a romantic pot and came back with a lovely enamel pot. Crazy to think it makes the sauce taste better, but it just might.

Though we made it on Sunday, we ate the Bolognese on Monday with gnocchi. Linton used Marcella Hazan’s recipe — a truly authentic Bolognese with no flash or pizzazz.

And it makes a damn good sauce.

Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese

  • For 6 servings, or 2 ¼ to 2 ½ cups
  • 2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons chopped celery
  • 2 tablespoons chopped carrot
  • ¾ pound ground lean beef, preferably chuck or the meat from the neck
  • Salt
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 cups canned Italian tomatoes, roughly chopped, with their juice

1. In an earthenware pot or deep, heavy, enameled cast-iron casserole, add the chopped onion with all the oil and butter and sauté briefly over medium heat until just translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook gently for 2 minutes.

2. Add the ground beef, crumbling it in the pot with a fork. Add 1 teaspoon salt, stir and cook only until the meat has lost its raw, red color. Add the wine, turn the heat up to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, until all the wine has evaporated.

3. Turn the heat down to medium, add the milk and nutmeg, and cook until the milk has evaporated. Stir frequently.

4. When the milk has evaporated, add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly. When the tomatoes have started to bubble, turn the heat down until the sauce cooks at the laziest simmer, just an occasional bubble. Cook, uncovered, for a minimum of 3 ½ to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Taste and correct for salt. If you cannot watch the sauce for such a long stretch, you can turn off the heat and resume cooking it later on. But do finish cooking it in one day.

This sauce can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or frozen. Reheat until it simmers for about 15 minutes before using.



July 2016

Feel-osophy: Linton Hopkins at the Southern Chefs Series, Part 1

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View More: Linton Hopkins arrived last month for the Southern Chefs Series, he had 4 things he’d never brought before: a plan to cook Italian food. a chittara pasta cutter; a four-ounce bottle of vinegar that cost $120; and his 17-year-old son, Linton V.

But he had that same all-encompassing passion for food and knowledge, which always strikes me, no matter how many times he visits. Every time that man walks through my door, I learn something.

The words “cooking class” only loosely describe what happens when Linton straps on his apron and starts talking to guests in my kitchen. It’s a food history, cooking technique and philosophy class rolled into one.

At some point — possibly when he was showing everyone the Peugeot peppermill he bought in Paris that lets you change the grind on the pepper — I just sat back and listened. He is such an unbelievable teacher. Here are four things he said that spoke straight to my soul:

1. Cooking well means having a love affair with food. And no one wants a crappy lover. That means using the best ingredients — the best olive oil; the best cut of meat. He didn’t use that $120 bottle of balsamic to dress a salad; he put a drop of it on top of a thin slice of sautéed garlic sitting on top of a thick slice of bacon he’d cured at Restaurant Eugene. And it was heaven.

2. Ten thousand hours. This was Linton’s response any time someone asked him how long it took him to learn how to poach an egg, or crack one with one hand. It takes practice, he told them. Hours and hours of practice. It reminded me so much of that scene in Julie & Julia when Julia Child refuses to be defeated at Le Cordon Bleu because she can’t chop onions correctly. So she gets a huge sack of onions, goes home and practices until she gets it right.

3. Fail forward: If you fail, keep moving forward. Don’t stop and don’t let it get you off track. Keep moving, keep trying, keep thinking your way to success.

4. Get your hands dirty: Linton is a huge kitchen gadget geek, but the most essential tools are his hands. He asked, “How can we learn to cook — how can we learn how the food really feels — unless our hands are in it?”

Come back next week for more about Linton’s homemade pasta and another thing I learned: the difference between marinara and pomodoro.