The Emmy-nominated actor has hosted the James Beard Awards twice, but he's also a talented cook in his own right.
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Jesse Tyler Ferguson and cooking partner Julie Tanous sitting outside holding whole corn on the cob
Jesse Tyler Ferguson and cooking partner Julie Tanous
| Credit: Courtesy of Jesse Tyler Ferguson

Whether on stage or on set, entertaining comes naturally to Jesse Tyler Ferguson. He can trace his interest in acting to just eight years old. But Ferguson, best known as Mitchell on "Modern Family," finds entertaining in the kitchen just as innate. His love for cooking led him to meet friend and "cooking wife" Julie Tanous, and their collaborations led to a blog and a cookbook that debuts March 9. Food Between Friends includes the kind of recipes the two cook in their California kitchens, melded with the ingredients and dishes of their upbringings in the South and Southwest. 

On this episode of Homemade, Ferguson shares some of the stories behind his favorite recipes with host Martie Duncan, including the Christmas Sauce of his New Mexico roots and the biscochito cookies (another state favorite) that his mom made every holiday. The two laugh about his relatable dinner flops, from tackling Thanksgiving dinner without any help to the dinner party mistake that Ina Garten once made, too. Plus, the actor tells us about his favorite projects and productions he's worked on. Download it for free at Apple PodcastsSpotify, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts beginning March 3.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson with a plate of fried food
Credit: Courtesy of Jesse Tyler Ferguson

About Jesse Tyler Ferguson

Jesse Tyler Ferguson moved from New Mexico to New York City at 17 years old to attend a conservatory program before landing his first Broadway role in On the Town at 21. In addition to belonging to the original cast of the Tony Award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Ferguson has appeared in theatrical adaptations of The Producers and Spamalot, Fully Committed on Broadway, and more. For his debut television role in "Modern Family," Ferguson received Emmy Award nominations for five consecutive years. While working on his first cookbook, Food Between Friends with Julie Tanous, he undertook a new role as parent. He and husband Justin Mikita welcomed a son in 2020.

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Episode Transcript

MARTIE DUNCAN Welcome to Homemade. I'm Martie Duncan. My guest today has always loved to entertain — whether it's on the Broadway stage, on television, or in his own home surrounded by friends. You know him best as Mitchell Pritchett from the hugely popular sitcom "Modern Family," which earned him four Screen Actors Guild awards and five Emmy nominations during the show's 11-year run.

And when not in front of a camera or an audience, Jesse's hugely passionate about cooking. He hosted the James Beard Awards ceremony twice, and along with his cooking wife, Julie Tanous, an Alabama girl like me, created a hugely popular blog featuring their favorite recipes. Now, Jesse and Julie have their first cookbook, Food Between Friends, coming out Tuesday, March 9.

I'm so thrilled to welcome Jesse Tyler Ferguson to Homemade. Thanks so much for being with me today, Jesse!

JESSE TYLER FERGUSON It's so good to talk to you. I love your little Southern voice. It reminds me of Julie, who's also from Alabama, my cooking partner. It's just very comforting.

MARTIE I love that you call her your cooking wife. That's so funny. Anyway, congratulations on the cookbook. I saw you open that box on Instagram and I know what that feels like. I've done three cookbooks, myself. You see the galleys, you see the electronic copies. But when you touch it and you see the photography and you're able to see a year or two years of your work right there in a book, it feels like you have given birth to a child, I think. 

JESSE Absolutely. I'm also scared to look at it too closely because like, are there some mistakes that slip through? Who knows? Who knows? 

MARTIE You, a notable cook and entertainer in your own right, paired up with a friend that you met at a food event. And the next thing you know, you started cooking together. And then, tell me how the cookbook came about.

JESSE So Julie and I were cooking together. You know, I've always wanted to go to culinary school, never had the time. I was very busy with my own career.

But Julie and I started cooking together and I sort of used her as my unpaid tutor, and she taught me how to dice an onion properly, how to spatchcock a chicken. She just told me so much about different flavor profiles, and we started putting recipes together just sort of on our own free time and we housed them on a blog.

It caught the eye of some publishers at Clarkson Potter. And they offered us this book and we'd always sort of toyed with the idea of doing a cookbook. And we had a few ideas and things that we might pitch. But I always sort of felt like, it's not time. We need to develop more things on our own. And I think a lot of it was just, you know, we were happy in the kiddy pool. And then Clarkson Potter was like, no, you need to get into the deep end. And they sort of forced us to take that leap of faith, which I'm so glad they did.

MARTIE Well, I think the timing must have been just about right, because after, what, 11 years of "Modern Family," you were getting ready to roll that up and this kept it from being like a big vacuum after that ended, I imagine. That was really helpful.

JESSE I was so grateful to have something to focus on after as I was wrapping up "Modern Family." And it was also a blessing, in a weird way, that some work that I was maybe going to be doing this year slowed down because of this thing called the global pandemic. And I was able to really focus on the finishing touches of this book. So it's been, yeah, you were saying it's about a two year process and it feels really astonishing when I look back on those two years and all we've done. 

MARTIE I did three books myself, most of them are about food from my home state of Alabama, and I traveled the state to get the recipes together. And it is shocking how long it takes. Just the testing of the recipes over and over and over again, making sure they work. I can tell that you went to an enormous amount of trouble to make sure that the home cook, as well as a professional, could use these recipes. I can tell you went to a lot of trouble to make sure they made sense. And I can tell that you went to a lot of trouble to tell the stories that go with them, which is the part that I love the most.

JESSE Right. Right. I mean, you know, Julie and I sort of were beating ourselves up a little bit at the beginning of the process just because there were some recipes that we really wanted to do. And, you know, almost everything's been done. 

MARTIE Oh, sure. 

JESSE There's very few recipes that are absolute 100 percent, where did this come from, this is a true original, I never even heard of it. And we really let ourselves off the hook because, you know, this was our version of ratatouille. This was our version of shepherd's pie.

MARTIE Yes. 

JESSE This is our version of mole. What it becomes is the stories around why these recipes mean so much to you that really makes the book feel like a special thing and a unique thing.

MARTIE I've read through the book; I didn't know you'd grown up in New Mexico. And there is a lot of Southern from Julie, but there is a lot of New Mexico from you. And I want to dive into that with some of the recipes that are in the book.

But before we do that, I mean, you've been acting since, what, were you were like eight? How in the world does a person know at eight years old that this is what they want to do? And then it happened!

JESSE Yeah, no, I was very fortunate that I always had a dream and I was able to see it through. And that was something I feel very blessed that I was able to do. Yes, at age eight, I started acting at local community theaters in Albuquerque. I wasn't being paid anything, but it was something that was a hobby and it was fun to do. And there weren't really theater programs at my grade school or my high school. So I would go elsewhere to get that my artistic juices sort of flowing. 

And I was part of the Albuquerque Civic Light Opera, which would do big musicals, and so it was always something I knew I wanted to do professionally. And I always knew wanted to go to New York City. And I went, when I was 17, basically out of high school, I got into an acting school in New York, a conservatory program. And my dad and I drove cross-country, and he left me in New York, which I think was really terrifying for him.

MARTIE I'm certain. 

JESSE Yeah. Certainly the life of an actor is a very uncertain career to get into. And I think my parents were very concerned about that. But I was very lucky at age 21 that I got a big break and I made my Broadway debut in a very major role in a musical. And I certainly had patches that were very dry where I was babysitting to make ends meet and, you know, working at Starbucks, and I worked at a theater gift shop in Times Square selling t-shirts. You know, Phantom of the Opera t-shirts..

MARTIE Cats. I have one. I bought one.  

JESSE Oh, absolutely. I probably sold it to you. But it was always something that I knew I could do. And I just had a lot of confidence in myself. I don't know where that I came from because I wasn't the most confident kid growing up. But with my acting ability, I was always very confident.

MARTIE I don't know where one gets confidence, I wish there was a way you could determine it because we would certainly share it with the world. My dad said, "There's nothing you can't do." And I believed him because I believed everything my daddy told me. And the fact that your dad drove you to New York, put you out of the car, like, "Oh, my God. I can't believe I'm leaving my kid here." And then I'm sure there must be just, "Oh, my God, look what happened."

JESSE Well, they're just relieved.

MARTIE Exactly!

JESSE I mean, totally relieved.

MARTIE Exactly.

JESSE I don't know if it's even pride. It's more just relief.

MARTIE What was the favorite thing you've done so far? And you've done a lot. I love "The Extreme Makeover." You've hosted the James Beard Awards. I mean, there's just so much you've done outside of "Modern Family" and, of course, your musical career, as well. What touched your heart? What was your favorite thing?

JESSE You know, my career has constantly surprised me. I never thought I would be on TV. I thought I'd be like a musical theater actor in New York. And then here I was on a huge sitcom. And like "Extreme Makeover," which you just mentioned, is another example of, I never thought I'd be in a home renovation show and the role of Ty Pennington, rebooting "Extreme Makeover." And here I was telling people to move that bus. And so I'm really so grateful that I've had a full and varied career. And even this book is a great example of something I never thought would happen, the fact that I would author a book, much less a cookbook.

I think my first love is will always be theater, live theater. I was able to do a one-man show on Broadway called Fully Committed, which was really exciting. And I was part of the original cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

MARTIE Where you're Leaf, right? You played Leaf.

JESSE Yes, Leaf Coneybear. So, and I got to originate that role and help develop it, and I think that will always sort of stand out, at least up until now. There's still a lot of life ahead of me. But like, up until now, that's been a really highlight of my career. 

MARTIE I'm sure.

MARTIE Sitting in a room at the Emmys or the Golden Globes or any of those things, that must be the most surreal thing in the world to see that along with your peers, that you can stand and be recognized.

JESSE It's very cool. It's very cool to see celebrities, who I've looked up to for so many years, who tell me that they're fans of mine. Sissy Spacek came over, like, so excited to meet me. And I was like, "You're Sissy Spacek. It should be the other way around! Please back up and let me approach you with an excited air. You cannot be approaching me like this. It's overwhelming for me."

MARTIE All right, so, I have to tell you, I am known as Martie Knows Parties. I have a love of entertaining, getting people together. It's what I've always done. Is that this all really started in your heart, like with the cooking? Or you just wanted to feed yourself?

JESSE Uh, a little bit of both. Living in New York, I did not have much of a kitchen setup. I lived in a very small apartment in New York. But when I moved to Los Angeles, I had more space and I just challenged myself to be more ambitious in the kitchen.  I remember wanting to tackle my first Thanksgiving dinner after I moved to L.A. and getting in way over my head and really wanting to do everything. I did not want anyone bringing anything.

MARTIE We've all done it. We've all done it.

JESSE We've all done it. You do it once and then you realize, that doesn't ever need to be done again.

MARTIE So you and Ina Garten have something in common. I think I read somewhere your first dinner party, you thought you would make everybody omelets. She did the same thing and realized that is a hard thing to do.

JESSE Yeah, very hard. There's no consistency. I mean. Yeah. Not a good idea. Not a good brunch plan. But, I do love entertaining, and it's been a joy to feed my family, my friends. It's how I show my love to people.

MARTIE You're listening to Homemade. Stay tuned as we'll talk more with Jesse Tyler Ferguson about traditional New Mexican cookies and what makes his version of chicken & dumplings truly unique. There's more to come, after the break.

I'm Martie Duncan, and my guest today is Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

We brought up brunch, and I love the fact that you've got a big brunch section in the book. Is that brunch a big thing at your house?

JESSE Yeah, I mean, like a good Sunday weekend brunch is something I live for it. Julie and I toyed with the idea of just doing a breakfast chapter. And I just feel like, you know, I don't know what more I can add to that. I mean, I love eggs, I love bacon, I love pancakes. But I wanted to do something a little more special. Like this is like that this Sunday special breakfast chapter. So, brunch is something I love.

MARTIE I love some of those recipes. Which one do you think most — like if I showed up at your house for brunch, what would I, without a doubt, find at your table?

JESSE One of my favorites from the book is the Christmas Chilaquiles. 

MARTIE I thought so. 

JESSE Chilaquiles with red and green sauce. And that's how any restaurant in New Mexico that serves — any New Mexican restaurant in New Mexico — that serves chile, there's always the option of red, green, or Christmas. And I always go for Christmas.

MARTIE So you get the red and the green. 

JESSE Get the red and the green. 

MARTIE I love the way that you explain about the red chiles, the green chiles, Hatch chiles, how important they are to New Mexico and to the culture there. Will you educate us a little bit on all that?

JESSE I mean, I'm still learning as as we're going, but I learned so much with just a little research I had to do for the book.

And I've always been fascinated with chiles. Now, they can taste so different. And truly, even a variety of chile can taste different depending on the weather or the humidity or if it was a year with a lot of rain. I mean, it really affects the taste of the chile, which I think is fascinating. 

Hatch green chiled actually come from an area called Hatch, New Mexico. Basically it's a very small town. And every chile season in Hatch, there's a huge influx of people that come to the city to harvest the chiles and bring them back home. And it happens like in a window of time. I'm not sure exactly what that window of time is, but it's the town just grows. It booms during that that Hatch chile season. So I always like to have some in my freezer. My family is always sending me Hatch chile from that time of year.

Such a staple of New Mexican cuisine. And there's both Hatch green chiles and red. We've all been to the grocery store and we've seen the little cans of the diced green chile. 

MARTIE Right. 

JESSE It says Hatch green chile. And it's basically that, but in a canned form. But of course, if you can get a fresh and roast to yourself at home, either on the grill or in the oven, it's even better.

MARTIE That is one I'm going to add to my repertoire. I also love that your shakshuka because you did it green. Instead of tomatoes, you used a lot like, I think we'd say probably L.A. style. You put a lot of green to it, and it's maybe a little healthier than a regular shakshuka.

JESSE Yeah. Yeah. That was one that Julie sort of helped me develop. And I remember her leaving me a voicemail where when we were brainstorming ideas. And she goes, "Ooh! Ooh! Southern Shakshuka. Southern Shakshuka." So that's her kind of take on a Southern Shakshuka.  

MARTIE Oh, see, I kind of attributed that to you because it has it has the tomatillo and the Hatch chillies and the kale, all that I thought was probably a little L.A. slash New Mexico.

JESSE It's a perfect hybrid. I think there's a lot of recipes in the book that become true hybrids of Julie's history and mine. There's another — so much green chile in the book. There's a Hatch green chile chicken enchilada, pot pie.

MARTIE I saw that. That looked great.

JESSE Yeah, it's great. But with a lot of the same components that make it a true pot pie, but with corn tortilla instead of flaky crust, which is really fun. But there's a lot of recipes like that that are true hybrids and marriages of Julie's histories and my histories. 

MARTIE I'll tell you one that shocked me. It was your chicken and dumplings, not hers.

JESSE Right!

MARTIE That shocked me. You've got the sweet potato in there that looks so good. Walk us through the chicken and dumplings, if you don't mind.

JESSE So, I had never made chicken and dumplings, and it's Julie's go-to comfort food. And it was during the early months of the pandemic and she was walking through her standard recipe for chicken and dumplings. And there were so many of the ingredients I could not find. The stores were just, the inventory was really low at the beginning months of the pandemic. 

MARTIE Oh, gosh, yes. 

JESSE So I was just sort of grabbing what I had in the house, substituting certain things for other things. And I kind of ended up creating my own chicken and dumplings that was very good. And so Julie tried it. Julie sent it to her mother to try. Julie's mother was so confused by the addition of sweet potatoes. 

MARTIE Sweet potatoes, yup. 

JESSE Yeah. She really was not — she was like, "I don't know about this. I don't know if this is going to work." And now that's the only way she'll make it. She only makes with sweet potato now.

MARTIE Well, you know, we sweet potatoes here. 

JESSE Yeah.

MARTIE So I don't know why we never thought of it. Way to go though. Good job! Another thing that I really want to learn how to make from the book, so I thought I would teach myself today right before we did this. And it was a favorite cookie recipe of yours that you have around the holidays. Now, I'm not sure if I'm going to say it right. I'm probably just going to butcher it to pieces. Biscochito? 

JESSE That's basically it. Biscochito. 

MARTIE So tell me about that. How did you come to have that in your life and why did you include it in the book?

JESSE I mean, biscochitos were made every Christmas, every holiday season. They're a traditional New Mexican cookie. It's basically a celebration cookie. I think in the early '80s, it was named, like, the cookie of New Mexico.

MARTIE Oh, wow. 

JESSE Which I didn't know. It's like a shortbread cookie. They're actually made with lard, which we do not make ours with lard. We make ours with butter.

And we decided to. Change them into cookie bars, so they're a little bit more like a blondie, but like still has the spirit of the biscochito. It's got great licoricey flavor from the anise and the cinnamon and the sugar. They're just really delicious cookies. But I have such nostalgia for them because I had them every single holiday. My mom would absolutely always make them.

MARTIE I feel the same way about my mama's fruitcake cookies. So I know exactly.

JESSE Yeah. 

MARTIE That just has, I don't care who you are, where, if you have that thing that just sits in your heart and you I mean, when you taste it just transforms you, takes you back. And it's just not Christmas without those things. Right?

Well, I read in the book there is a place that you have to go when you go home, and it's the place that inspired that green chile chicken enchilada. Is it called Sadie's Cocina? 

JESSE That's right.

MARTIE Because you love that so much, you recreated it and put it in the book.

JESSE Yes. I used to work at a restaurant called Sadie's. It started off as a little three-stool restaurant in a bowling alley, and it became so popular that people would wait hours and hours and hours to get a seat at the counter and have this Mexican food. So finally they expanded into a full-size restaurant and the restaurant itself kept expanding, like they would add rooms and just sort of grew into this thing. And it's probably one of the largest restaurants in New Mexico now. 

MARTIE Wow. 

JESSE And I worked there as a host. And even want to expand it into this massive restaurant with like five dining rooms, there was still such a high demand for the food and long waits, especially on weekend nights for a table. And I was the keeper of the keys as the host. You know, I'm the one who gave people the table. And it remains one of my favorite restaurants to this day. A lot of it's just nostalgia. I love walking into that space and sort of the smell. And it takes me right back to working there when I was 16 years old.

But I would always, always, always get green chile chicken enchiladas, which is a very standard dish in New Mexico, and really a lot of Mexican restaurants, as well. But you can tell when it was a Sadie's green chile chicken enchilada. And so I took the spirit of that and we made it. We have a green chile chicken enchilada pot pie in the book. 

MARTIE I can't wait to make that one. So one other fun thing I want to mention about the book, so, y'all have to help us. Because Julie and Jessie included a recipe in the book that's from a church lady cookbook, and I'm the giantest fan of church lady cookbooks. I got a huge library full of them, but they have one that's called Tammy's Party Squash. 

So Tammy, they don't know who she is, but she wrote a recipe for this cookbook, and they use that recipe as the basis for their recipe in their book. It was so good and they liked it so much. So it was from the First United Methodist Church and Cullman, Alabama. So if y'all know who Tammy is, shout out, let her know that they have called her out in this wonderful new book, Food Between Friends. And she's apparently a friend, too.

JESSE A lot of questions for Tammy. Yes. 

MARTIE Yeah, me too. I know we can find her.

JESSE There's gonna be like 900 Tammys who are gonna call you saying, "I have a squash... a squash recipe."

MARTIE Right. I absolutely love this book for a lot of reasons. But y'all have called out a lot of chefs and a lot of people who've influenced your own cooking, and I think that's wonderful. But the other thing that I love is that I'm also, through the book experiencing, this whole New Mexico thing with a lot of the different chiles and things that I didn't know about. So I'm looking forward to those. I think you've really blended those two things so nicely. And like you said there, your recipes, they're her recipes. And then there are these compilation recipes that blend the two of you together, like the Christmas sauce. 

JESSE The Christmas sauce, exactly.  

MARTIE Yeah. Yeah. So I want to just say another thing that I thought was so important is your dedication in the book. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

JESSE The dedication to our, to our kids? 

MARTIE Yes. 

JESSE Yeah, I mean, I'm a new dad. My son is now, at this recording, almost seven months old. And Julie has two kids. And I just sort of put that there as a placeholder. I was like, I'm not sure. Maybe we'll dedicate it to our children. Maybe we won't. But as I stared at it more, I just felt that was the right thing to do. Because so much of the book is is recipes are our parents passed down to us. And I felt like it's just an extension of that.

MARTIE I think that's so important. That's what recipes and cookbooks and all of this were supposed to be about from the beginning, is passing these heirloom dishes and these family traditions down from one generation to the next. All right. So your favorite dish in the book to cook?

JESSE  Oh, my gosh. That's that's like asking...

MARTIE Your favorite kid. I know.

JESSE Exactly, well, I only have one right now, so that's easy. 

MARTIE Yeah. 

JESSE But uh gosh. Oh, no. I'm going to to tell you the dish I make the most. 

MARTIE OK.

JESSE It's a sorghum stir-fry.

MARTIE Really?

JESSE Yes.

MARTIE Oh wow.

JESSE It's sorghum stir-fry. Sorghum is an ingredient that I didn't know really anything about, and Julie loves it. 

MARTIE Yes.

JESSE I'm sure you know all about sorghum, and..

MARTIE I do. 

JESSE I make all the time. It's also an ingredient that's sort of hard to find unless you live in Alabama. 

MARTIE Oh, yeah. Yes. It's like a winter wheat flour or stone ground grits. 

JESSE Exactly. 

MARTIE Yes. It's not that easy to find.

JESSE I ordered some off of Amazon. I actually have a few in stock, and the base of this stir fry sauce is sorghum syrup. And it's really good and really easy. 

I just hope people enjoy the book. I'm looking at cookbooks in a different light, having been a cookbook author, now myself. But the head notes are just so important, the stories about why these recipes are in the book, I think, are just really so important and really make the book what it is.

It's a very humorous read, too. Their heartwarming moments in the book. But also I think some of the head notes are pretty, pretty funny. So I'm hoping people will enjoy it and also be entertained by it.

MARTIE It was my favorite part of the book. I mean, I love the recipes, of course, but I love reading the notes. I love reading about how you guys interacted and how things came to be or where it came from or who influenced you.

Yeah, loved it all. And you should be very proud of yourself because I know what kind of work goes into this. So, congratulations.

JESSE Thank you.

MARTIE I think you've done a really great job, and I feel like there might be a Beard nomination in your future. You never know. 

JESSE Oh, come on!

MARTIE You never know! And it's not like, you know, you haven't been there before, but I bet it'll feel a lot different sitting in that seat if your book was nominated. 

JESSE It sure would. Yes. 

MARTIE All right. Well, listen, thank you again for taking the time and sharing some of your day with us. I know everybody's enjoyed it and I certainly have enjoyed getting to know you a little bit. I'm going to post a picture on Instagram of this biscochito. 

JESSE I cannot wait to see it. Yes. 

MARTIE OK. All right. Fingers crossed. I'm going to run in there right now and take it out of the oven.

JESSE All right. Enjoy. Thank you, Martie.

MARTIE Food Between Friends comes out this coming Tuesday, March 9. In it, you'll find modern California food with unique Southern and Southwestern flair. The recipes are easy to follow and you'll love the stories behind the recipes. Find it wherever you buy books, or visit julieandjessecook.com for more information. 

Coming up on the next episode of Homemade, I'll be joined by Camila Alves McConaughey. While you may know her best as Mrs. Matthew McConaughey, she's also a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, a mom, and a great cook.

Camila It's not as hard to do better for you as most people think it is. And it starts with this simple thing. Parents say this all the time. Parents go, "My kid will not eat this. My kid will only eat this." But, eventually, at the end of the day, we are the ones responsible for what we bring into our household. We're the ones buying the stuff, and not just for the kids but for ourselves, too. But if you start there, it's already a huge change that you can make that will trickle down.

MARTIE Camila is so inspiring. I absolutely loved talking to her.

So you don't miss an episode, please subscribe to Homemade podcast right now. It's easy, just one click. And we'd love your feedback. If you could, please rate this podcast and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it. 

And don't forget, you can find thousands of recipes, meal ideas, and cooking how-tos from the world's largest community of cooks at Allrecipes.com. 

This podcast was recorded in Birmingham, edited in Atlanta, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts. 

Homemade is produced by Allrecipes with Digital Content Director Jason Burnett. Thanks to our Pod People production team Rachael King, Matt Sav, Danielle Roth, Jim Hanke, Maya Kroth, and Erica Huang.

I'm Martie Duncan, and this is Homemade.