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What Happens When an Ex-Teen Heartthrob Takes to the Kitchen

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You probably know actor Freddie Prinze Jr. Think: She’s All That, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Normally I wouldn’t introduce someone by citing films they were in nearly two decades ago, but Prinze introduces himself that way in his new cookbook, Back to the Kitchen. As he puts it, “Hey, don’t forget, I was dreamy back then.”

Remember him?
Remember him?

And it’s true: Many women of my generation at one point had a thing for Freddie, as he shall be called from here on out. (I was more of a Joshua Jackson girl myself, but to each their own.) For those of us who graduated high school around the turn of the century, the name Freddie Prinze Jr. still brings to mind his character in She’s All That: a slack-jawed, teenaged Mr. Popularity watching Rachel Leigh Cook, newly made-over in a borrowed dress, walk down the stairs to Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me.”

Not one bit of this suggests that come 2016, he’d be a cookbook author. But according to the book’s introduction, Freddie has been serious about cooking since he was a kid: His mom showed him the ropes, and he was in culinary school when Hollywood first came calling. The cover of Back to the Kitchen describes him as a “food-obsessed actor,” and indeed the book is full of name-droppy references to Freddie’s on-set culinary adventures during his heyday: pancakes for Parker Posey on the set of The House of Yes, jerk chicken for Dulé Hill on the set of She’s All That, enchiladas for the cast of Buffy the Vampie Slayer, sea bass with Rosie O’Donnell on her daytime talk show, wood-fired pizza on the set of “that talking dog movie” (that’d be Scooby Doo).

He is much less in the public eye these days, though, especially compared to bestselling celebrity cookbook authors like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chrissy Teigen. Recent cookbooks from Instagram phenom Teigen and lifestyle guru Paltrow (now on her third book) were highly anticipated and reviewed all over the place, with hot takes galore, both positive and negative.

And while Freddie has worked since the 90s—a lot of voiceover acting in video games and cartoons like Robot Chicken and Star Wars Rebels—he’s not in front of a camera. At first glance, Back to the Kitchen seems like a D-list offering, perhaps in a league with recent cookbooks from Sammy Hagar and (dare I say) the 90s band Smashmouth.

Is there any reason, then, to buy this cookbook beyond 90s nostalgia and/or a burning to desire to know exactly what Freddie puts in his morning protein shake? Shockingly, yes. Much to my surprise, Back to the Kitchen manages to be a halfway decent introduction to the slow burn, chile-laden world of New Mexican cooking.

Freddie grew up cooking this food: Born into a Puerto Rican family and raised in Albuquerque, the food he cooks at home often draws on both traditions. Too often drowned out by the food of its noisier neighbor Texas, New Mexico contains a wealth of regional specialties from stacked, blue corn enchiladas to its famed chile sauces. Back to the Kitchen includes New Mexican classics like adovada (a spicy braised pork stew) and green chile cheeseburgers, and Freddie brings that chile-laced tradition to Puerto Rican specialties like his grandmother’s fried chicken.

Which, perhaps, still wouldn’t be that novel—”90s actor cooks the food he grew up eating” isn’t going to win any James Beard Awards—except that in my experience, New Mexican cookbooks are much more rare than they ought to be. Is it just that the ingredients—the famous fresh green chiles, the long braids of dried red chiles—are hard to acquire outside of the state? Are people unfamiliar with Southwestern flavors like hominy or deep, earthy sauces? Can they not handle the heat?

Whatever the reason, I have been on the hunt for a go-to volume for years, a book that digs deep into New Mexican traditions, explains their history, and outlines the variations on traditional dishes and techniques. And while Back to the Kitchen might not be that, exactly, it is certainly welcome.

I made two of the New Mexican dishes in the book: the grand comfort food of the Southwest, green chile stew, and a bright green salsa. I served them together. Neither one was as spicy as I wished, although that could simply be that chiles are not quite in season right now. (Freddie does give advice on toning down the spice level in several recipes, if you’re averse to heat.) But both recipes were easy to understand, easy to make, and pretty tasty.

And aside from Freddie’s strange, apparent affinity for veal—it’s featured in several recipes, often alongside potential substitutes—the recipes I read and cooked from were overall pretty accessible both in terms of price point and skill level. They’re recipes for home cooks, explained clearly by an ex-teen heartthrob turned cheeseball dad joke machine.

Yes: The cookbook is basically written in the voice of a stereotypical sitcom dad. There’s a sidebar about getting your kids to eat anything by lying to them: ”Trust me parents. LIE to your kids. Lie, I say! My mom told me everything was chicken, and now I love everything.” He buys time on his X-Box by making his wife enchiladas. “TIME!!!” yells Freddie, all caps, is “the second most valuable commodity, behind tacos, of course.” Of course.

Isn't he dreamy, making that stew?
Isn't he dreamy, making that stew? Photo by Ellen Silverman

There are also non-Southwestern recipes; you can’t eat chiles all the time. Freddie offers the old school Italian-American food his New Yorker wife (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself) adores, and some kid-friendly recipes from pancakes to “fancy” grilled cheese to a mango dessert his daughter invented. But the New Mexican dishes are where Back to the Kitchen really shines.

It’s nowhere near being my ideal New Mexican cookbook: the focus here is Freddie’s family life, and thus it’s devoid of the cultural information one would look for in a thorough exploration of a regional cuisine. It’s not intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. But it is a better-than-average family cookbook, wherein the family happens to be from New Mexico. (And, you know, happens to be helmed by famous former teen heartbreakers.)

So Freddie Prinze Jr., despite his cheeseball dad-joke writing voice and weird name dropping that seems to beset all celebrity cookbooks, has something Gwyneth and Chrissy, and other celebrity books, don’t: a unique point of view.

Don’t get me wrong, Paltrow and Teigen’s books have unique voice, but their recipes often lack focus and seem to be as much ripped from Pinterest trends as they are from real life. The recipes in Teigen’s book Cravings include a bit more personality—a chapter on her mom’s Thai food comes to mind—but Paltrow’s latest book, It’s All Easy, is stuffed with healthy-ish trends from smoothie bowls to collard wraps to cauliflower rice and often seems to be just checking off boxes on a recipe trend hitlist.

And while Freddie’s book is not always the coolest or most on-trend (who cooks with veal these days, anyway?), he is writing from experience about an underexposed cuisine, providing accessible recipes that nearly anyone can make.

I’ll take that over a Paltrow-approved version of avocado toast any day.

Tags: Cookbooks