I’VE NEVER LIKED THE CORNBALL EPIGRAM Do what you love and the rest will follow. For instance, I used to absolutely love to drink wine, and let me tell you: what followed was not what I’d call ideal.
However, when you consider John Donohue’s career, the idea seems to really hold up. He spent decades as a writer and editor (he’s the man behind the 2011 bestselling book of essays Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their Families) before switching courses, and he now lives this old chestnut in a way that’s inspiring.
It’s never too late.
Today, doing what John loves means drawing, which also pays the bills, by way of a project to draw every single restaurant in New York City. “People all around the world own my work,” he said, sounding incredulous.
But it all started out as a sideline that he used to bring balance and calm into his brain—and into the rest of his life.
I should say right now that if you’d told me John Donohue found the thing that he was meant to do I would have assumed he’d found a job eating sandwiches.
We worked together for a very long time at The New Yorker when I was in my 30s, and our desks were in such close proximity that we probably knew a little bit more about one another than was appropriate.
But I never knew that he drew. And I certainly never saw him drawing. But boy did I see him eat.
He would usually devour his packed lunch by 10 a.m. or so. At around 11:30, he’d rise from his chair, unfolding his very tall, very lanky frame like a ladder you use to wash windows, and disappear for about half an hour, returning with a supplementary lunch. There would be snacks later in the afternoon, and often food with drinks before we all went home. Our mutual friend Kevin Conley was his roommate in Brooklyn before they both got married and had kids. He told me that one afternoon John got sick and barfed but that ten minutes later he was in the kitchen making a grilled cheese sandwich, which was probably delicious since John was a short order cook when he started out in journalism, “because if I worked in a restaurant, then I could feed myself and get paid,” he said.
In fact, part of the anxiety in his life came from how much money he was spending on food because he was constantly hungry. “I couldn’t stand to think about it,” he said.
“Really, up until a few years ago, I was never able to get enough to eat. I can count on one finger the times I’ve overeaten and been uncomfortable. It only happened because I ate before going to a dinner party where I thought the food wouldn’t be any good. And then the food was good.”
It’s important to note that “a few years ago” in John’s life corresponds to the period when he began to feel less hungry, or fuller, in life, too. “I guess I’ve nourished a different part of myself,” he said.
In January 2017, John started a project to draw all of New York City’s restaurants, which quickly turned into a three-book deal (there’s All the Restaurants in New York, A Table in Paris, and an upcoming one focussing on London). All of which led to his business selling prints of his work (which, in case you’re still shopping, would make fantastic holiday gifts). He also works on commission.
“I’m trying to get my life organized so I can spend more time drawing. A funny thing is the best way to understand my life as an artist right now is to know that before I became an artist, I never used spreadsheets.”
It sounds kind of magical and glamorous, and John likes to say that his success was lucky. But of course it was much more than that. He had to go through the ringer first, and then he had to pay very close attention to what his mind and body were telling him.
The therapeutic part of John’s drawing career was activated not by a fancy restaurant but by a lowly dish rack, which he started drawing every single day after getting fired from The New Yorker after more than 20 years. It put him in a state of high anxiety—about many things.
“It was excruciating because I was pushing 50 at that point,” he said. “But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. So, one of those stories.”
He’d taken classes at the Art Students League and had been drawing all along—sketches of people on the subway, or standing in line somewhere—including cartoons published in The New Yorker. “But when I was in the long process of getting fired, which was like torture, I also started doing this treatment called neurofeedback.”
John turned to the process after reading The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk. “His basic theory about trauma is you’re stuck in it and you keep maladapting to it, but if you can let it flow through you, let it flow out, process it, then you can move on with your life.
“It seemed like smoke and mirrors—except I hadn’t cried since I was a boy and I found myself starting to cry. And so I knew there was a physiological change.”
Neurofeedback made John calm. Really, really calm. “I was like, ‘Hey, it’s a big world. Don’t worry. I’m losing my livelihood and don’t know how I’m going to feed my family and my wife doesn’t want to talk to me because I don’t have an income, but anyway.’”
But John’s severance was not going to last forever, so he had to give up the expensive therapy.
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“I was at home, unemployed, with really no career prospects, and I was taking care of [my two daughters]—they were in elementary school. And I discovered if I drew... the backpack or the shoes or something, everything would just chill out and it would be better. And then, because I was in the kitchen a lot, I just started drawing a dish rack, and I’ve drawn it every night since 2016, at least.”
Drawing puts John in such a state of undistracted flow that it has become like a drug—a good one—that he remembers to take wherever he goes, including when he was in France doing the corresponding restaurant book illustrations. “I have stalked hotel kitchens and staff to draw their dish racks,” he says. “When I went to visit my in-laws, they didn’t have a dish rack. I went out and bought one at the dollar store.”
In the end, John says, drawing the dish rack calmed him down enough to figure out he could find another career, which he did, in nonprofit fundraising, which he loved.
But he’s been able to give that up, too.
John told me that he makes each restaurant drawing standing on the street. Each one takes about 20 minutes, and he works on paper, in ink. Which seems nerve-racking to me. All those crumpled pieces of paper on the street?
“Well, it’s actually very liberating,” he said, pointing out that he gives himself just that one shot. “This is the heart of the matter, because the things that hold us back are our fears of making mistakes. When you’re drawing in ink, you don’t have to worry about making a mistake because you’re going to make a mistake. And you don’t worry about correcting it.”
Which is not to say that John’s drawings are not beautiful (in a way that captures the mystery and allure of restaurants). While his style is well-suited to architecture (“Well, anything hard-edged that doesn’t move”), he’s not trying to be an architectural renderer.
“If it works well, that’s why the ink is so important. My drawing puts me in the moment—it’s all about being in the present moment. And I sell the editions in limited editions of 365, so each one becomes a beautiful reminder of how our days are numbered.”
I didn’t have to ask John for a salad. He already had a few terrific quinoa numbers that his daughters love, which we’d been talking about for a while. I wanted to give you all three but I got sick this week, again, and am still exhausted, which is why this newsletter is two days late. Which I apologize for. But not in an obsequious way.
Because I recalled something John said when we were talking about his style, regarding the virtue of its limits. “Ink is a limit. And I only use one color in each drawing, which is like setting up the rule of a sonnet or something. We don’t have enough limits in our lives.”
So I’m using that as an excuse to give you just one recipe right now. I’ll be making another one later this week, and I also hope to get around to discussing the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, too. Maybe we’ll have an open cookbook thread?
*RECIPE: John Donohue’s Quinoa Salad with Sweet Potato, Prosciutto, and Arugula
This salad is a little bit like John’s art: at first glance, you’ll think it’s something he threw together effortlessly, but the final product is sublime. His daughters love this salad, and so did my god-daughter, Mariah.
For the salad
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed (John uses Japanese sweet potatoes; I used a purple and another of unknown origin)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup red quinoa, cooked (John cooks his like rice, in 2 cups of water, for about 20 minutes; I’m more persnickety. See my Method Note below)
1 large cucumber, peeled in stripes lengthwise, cut in half lengthwise, seeds scooped out, then diced (I used a large English cucumber)
4 good handfuls arugula
3 or 4 scallions, thinly sliced (include some pretty green tops)
8 slices of prosciutto, whole or torn into large pieces
For the Dressing
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Zest of ½ lemon
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, more to taste (I used closer to a teaspoon)
1 small clove garlic, grated
In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine all ingredients and shake well to completely emulsify. Taste for salt and acidity; use more lemon or rice wine vinegar as desired.
Preheat oven to 425°F (218°C)
In a large bowl, toss cubed potatoes with the olive oil to lightly coat. If you need a bit more oil, go ahead but don’t drench them. Season them lightly with flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Spread in a single layer on a parchment- or tinfoil-lined sheet pan and roast, checking occasionally, until tender and crisp, about 20-25 minutes. I like them to get pretty dark on one side for a nice chewy/soft/sweet contrast. Set aside to cool.
After making the quinoa and letting it cool a bit, pour about 1/2 of the dressing over it, stir to combine, fluff a bit with a fork, and place it in the fridge for a couple of hours.
Combine the sweet potato, as much dressed quinoa as desired, cucumbers, arugula, and scallions along with a bit of the remaining dressing and gently toss. Taste for more dressing, salt. Serve on four plates topped with the prosciutto.
METHOD NOTE: To make the quinoa, bring 2 cups water to boil in a large heavy bottomed pot with a lid. Once the water is boiling, add the quinoa and stir. Cover, turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook for 10-15 minutes, until the water is absorbed, the grains are translucent, and the germ is visible (this is like a little thread circling each grain). You should check the quinoa after 10 minutes. You want it to be slightly al dente. When fully cooked, fluff it with a fork, place it in a large bowl, and let it cool slightly.
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