Peter Miller on the Importance of Lunch -- Plus a Giveaway!

April 15, 2014

We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today: Peter Miller, author of Lunch at the Shop, convinces us that life's most fleeting midday meal should really be our favorite.


Shop the Story

About 8 years ago, Peter Miller began preparing lunch in the back of his eponymous Seattle shop, where he's been peddling architecture and design books since 1980. Communal staff lunches are now an essential part of the workday, and have inspired a new cookbook, Lunch at the Shop; The Art and Practice of the Midday Meal.

After an introduction to the shop's lunchtime history and a handful of pages discussing tools, ingredients, and strategies, Miller offers up over 50 recipes, with advice on what to prep in advance and which steps can be done at the office. There is a section on lentils, Miller's favorite legume; a few pages on pasta; a treatise on proper salad composition.

It is a cookbook with recipes, but it reads like a longform poem to lunch. Miller is an advocate for the midday meal, for stopping, and sitting, and coming together with coworkers over food. His language is elegant and lyrical, but his advice is specific; it's the most practical poetry you'll read all spring.

More: While you read, sip on this rhubarb cordial.

Until we can convince him to join us for a Not Sad Desk Lunch at Food52 HQ, we're talking to Peter about which tools and ingredients to keep on hand, and how lunch can be a great equalizer. Read on for a lentil recipe you'll want to eat tomorrow, and a chance to win a copy of your own.

Fennel and Tuna Salad on Food52

Why is lunch so important?
??It is not important that it be elaborate -- like most people, I am going back to work and I have work to do. It is important that it be separate. I love stopping what I am doing, taking a seat, even if only for twenty minutes, and getting away. And it is, to my mind, crucial that whatever I am going to eat, it be clean and fresh and cared for. I will be honored if you pack a sandwich for me but thrilled if we can make a salad right then to go with it.

??Lunch is halftime, intermission, a strip of land between work -- stop there, take a break, then go back and get to it.?

What are the most important tools and ingredients to keep on hand to make lunch at work?
Have a good knife and a flat cutting board. A simple cheese grater, a good pepper grinder (with GOOD peppercorns), some sea salt, good olive oil, and good vinegar, a lemon, a lime, a chunk of Parmesan, two stainless steel mixing bowls (they can be dented, old, thin, cheap, or expensive). Have some parsley that has been washed, perhaps cilantro as well -- they store perfectly in large, reused yogurt containers with the lid on.

More: Stock your work pantry with goods from Provisions.

Spanish Olive Oil on Food52  French Vinegar on Provisions by Food52

??Obviously good is only part specific -- the olive oil, for example, need not be the most expensive but it must be good, and that can be a little tricky. Taste it -- it will be showing up later and you do not want to find that it is a bully. ??That is the subtlety of lunch -- for a moment, everything matters. The preparation is so quick that you can taste each part.

Once you have a few tools and ingredients on hand, then start bringing in the cast -- the avocado and the bread and the soup and the grains and the pasta and the vegetables. Whatever you fancy, bring it in and see how it plays. ?You always have bread and cheese for a back up!?

More: This Roasted Carrot Soup packs particularly well. 

Roasted Carrot Soup on Food52

Due to your staff's lunch tradition, you've started selling cooking equipment alongside books. Has your cookbook collection been affected as well? How so???

We now have about 12 to 14 different cookbooks, not very many, and they are all there for particular tales. We have carried the Canal House books from the start and had literally no idea who they were, but loved each volume. We have Da Silvano's book, with the lulu photo of him in cargo pants on the cover among the olive branches. Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy is, to my mind, a great piece. And every August and Autumn I pull Ripe out to help me with bounty. There are many brilliant cookbooks I love that we do not carry -- it is not our task.? 

What cooking tips have you picked up from your coworkers? Any ingredients you've started cooking with that you hadn't known before?
??I am still amazed that I so completely misunderstood cilantro. I would delicately chop the flowers of two or three stems. But then a class from Mexico City came to visit and they would wildly chop four or five bunches of cilantro and scatter it all over the meal and the kitchen and the bread and the olive oil and then I understood. And they would do the same with the parsley -- and the salt.??

And rice -- someone could offer a Rice Sanctuary, where you go for a week, change into work clothes and study the hundreds of ways that the rest of the world cooks their rice. The ways are complicated and brilliant and, of course, make all of the difference.

How does a communal lunch affect the relationships between your shop's employees???
All is fair at lunch. For a moment, the hierarchy is based not on pay or position but on food and, quite frankly, that gives people a place to share and a place to feel comfortable. There are a million ways to help and sometimes it is no more than saying, "that was great."

Lentils Folded into Yogurt, Spinach, and Basil

Serves 4

1/2 ?cup pine nuts or chopped walnuts
2 ?cups baby spinach
1 ?cup fresh basil leaves
1? cup cooked lentils
2? tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
1? garlic clove, finely chopped
1? lemon
1 ?cup Greek yogurt
1/4? cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here. 

We're giving away 2 copes of Lunch at the Shop! Tell us in the comments: What's your go-to weekday lunch? We'll choose 2 winners at random this Friday, April 18. 

Author photo and lentil photo by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. Salad photo by Kristy Mucci. All other photos by James Ransom.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



Lucia M. October 16, 2015
My go-to weekday lunch for my husband and I is a Caprese salad but with the addition of fresh slicked avocado on top of the tomatoes, fresh mozza, basil, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. It's very filling and satisfying and not too time consuming.
Lucia M. October 16, 2015
I have just started recently reading the Food 52 articles and have found several great ideas. I am also working hard to make healthier, special, but not too time consuming lunches for my daughters at school. It's sometimes tricky but these kind of articles really help.
Englishteacher October 14, 2015
Greek yogurt and cheese. Sometimes fruit. If I'm desperate, there's a Starbucks in the building.
Bonhomie February 24, 2015
Lately, I often roast some sweet potatoes and vegetables and then mix with rice or quinua.
rhustonpdx May 6, 2014
Crunchy, waldorf-y salad: apples, celery, scallions, toasted almonds, grapes or pomegranate seeds and slivers of kale or romaine, all tossed in a stone-ground mustard vinaigrette.
drlbennett April 21, 2014
Dinner leftovers!
pretty_pathetic April 18, 2014
I usually take a can of plain tomato soup and add whatever vegetables, cheese, etc. I have in the refrigerator. Eat with toast.
Stephanie L. April 18, 2014
Leftovers from dinner last night...glamorous, I know.
Barb K. April 17, 2014
Leftovers, a spinach salad, and a square of dark chocolate.
natalie April 17, 2014
my go-to lunch is whatever was for dinner the night before, probably wrapped in a tortilla
CarlaCooks April 17, 2014
In Denmark, we have smørrebrød for lunch: dark rye bread with a variety of cold toppings - pickled herring, thin cold cuts of meat, paté, or sliced hard-boiled eggs. With the thick bread, you don't need more than two or three slices to feel full.
WabiSabiSab April 16, 2014
Avocado & cheese sandwich on whole wheat. Gotta love living in California :)
anotherfoodieblogger April 16, 2014
A tuna melt on an English Muffin!
The O. April 16, 2014
I love making a salad with Israeli couscous, roasted squash, mushrooms and kale, tossed in a garlicky dressing.
sewz April 16, 2014
a quick delicious lentil salad- lentil, fresh salsa, cilantro and avocado on top.
[email protected] April 16, 2014
halved avocado filled with a mix of baby shrimp, cilantro,chopped roma tomato, and red pepper flakes with just a little fresh lime juice squeezed on top.
The W. April 16, 2014
We usually grill some chicken breast for a salad with a mix of greens, cherry tomatoes and a little bit of cheese.
Terri D. April 16, 2014
Spring mix with roma tomatoes, kalamata Olives and champagne vinaigrette with a small bowl of something warm: soup, beans, vegetables.
Sarah G. April 16, 2014
A simple greek salad -- just tomatoes, cucumber, feta, red onion, olives, and capers.
Mandie April 16, 2014
I usually do left overs from dinner the night before. This week was roasted butternut squash coconut curry soup. I like to do hot sandwiches on the weekend with brie, honey, apple, and basil