IT'S HIGH NOON AT SHEILA LUKINS' SIMMER house in Kent, Conn., and the kitehen is abuzz. While her husband, Richard, 57, cracks eggs into a frying pan and daughter Annabel sets the table, Lukins takes charge of the pots, pans, bowls and bottles. One minute she's steaming trout; the next, she is splashing olive oil over an avocado salad. "I imagine exactly what I want a dish to look and taste like," explains Lukins, 51. "Then I figure out what I have to do to get to that point."
Rarely has her imagination or her instinctive understanding of America's appetite failed her. As half of the hugely successful Silver Palate gourmet food and cookbook team, Lukins, whose 12-year partnership with Julee Rosso ended in 1989, created a yen for such then-daring delights as raspberry vinegar and ratatouille that revolutionized the way Americans eat. Now the peppy, 5' gastronome has cooked up her first solo work, Sheila Lukins All Around the World Cookbook (Workman), an epicurean adventure inspired by two years of travel to 33 countries.
The book marks both a professional and personal comeback for Lukins, who nearly died from a cerebral hemorrhage—caused by a congenital defect—in 1991. Forced to relearn such basic skills as walking and reading, Sheila nevertheless resumed her travels, accompanied by her husband or an assistant, just three months into her recovery. "I looked so bad," recalls Lukins, who continued to suffer slight seizures and kept her shaved head swathed in scarves, "that people didn't know whether or not to give me money in the marketplaces."
After travel to Bali, Bangkok, Bombay and points west, Lukins would return to her New York City kitchen to fine-tune recipes such as Mambo Mango pork and Lalli's Turkish pilaf. "Work saved my life," she says. "I knew I had to finish my book. The doctors thought I would die or be left in a vegetative state, and here I am."
Growing up in Westport, Conn, Lukins was raised by her mother, Berta, a former dental hygienist, and stepfather, Mike Olderman, a manufacturer. Sheila worked as a graphic artist before marrying Lukins, a wealthy businessman turned theater producer. After graduating from New York University in 1970, the couple moved to London, where she took up cooking at Le Cordon Bleu to keep busy.
Returning to New York in 1972, Lukins launched a catering business from home while taking care of Annabel, now 20 and a senior al Lehigh University, and Molly, 19, a sophomore at Middlebury College. So impressed was one client, ad exec Julee Rosso, that she convinced Lukins to go into business. Thus was born the Silver Palate shop, which opened on Manhattan's Upper West Side in 1977. Rosso was the marketing genius; Lukins the brains behind the food.
The business, including a line of gourmet food products and three best-selling cookbooks, became an estimated $10-million-a-year concern by the mid-'80s. Borrowing money to expand their business in 1986, the pair was unable to repay the loan when an investor backed out. After the deal fell through and left them in debt, the partners were forced to sell the company. After fulfilling a three-year contract with the new owners, Lukins and Rosso parted ways.
Rosso moved to Michigan, married and started a newsletter, Cooks' Notes, then in 1993 she published Great Good Food, a collection of poorly conceived recipes that critics skewered. Meanwhile, Lukins plunged into work on her own cookbook, which has received mixed reviews. Just back from Moscow, she was experimenting with a ham recipe when she felt a stabbing pain in her head. After two operations and a month in the hospital, she spent eight weeks at the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, N.Y. "All I did was cry," she says. "I looked around and saw 300 people in wheelchairs; it was like a giant mirror." Treated for depression with Prozac and psychotherapy, she summoned the will to walk again.
During Lukins' rehabilitation, Rosso called frequently, but Sheila was later devastated to learn that her former partner blamed months of delays in her newsletter in part on her preoccupation with Lukins. "Needless to say," read a letter sent to subscribers, "when one foot is lame, the other must work a little harder." Since then, the two have not spoken. "I really don't want to fight in public," says Rosso, 50. Still hurl, Lukins says, "I don't care about it. I don't care about her." Then she softens: "There are those moments when I think about all the fun we had and I get pangs in my heart."
Now embarked on a 15-city promotion tour, Lukins has rejected several Hollywood offers for TV rights to her story. She is not interested in tuning into her life; she is simply grateful to still be living it. "If I had died, my life would have been good," she says. "But I wanted another 50 years. I want the second half to be wonderful."
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