Her career may have gotten a jump-start when she appeared on the cover of Esquire’s November 1996 issue as the fictional Allegra Coleman, but in the intervening years, Ali Larter has made a very real name for herself. A native of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, the actress has captivated audiences in big-screen hits like Varsity Blues, Final Destination, Legally Blonde, and Obsessed, and rose to even greater stardom on NBC’s cult drama Heroes.

Still, Larter’s most cherished roles are those of wife (to Chicago’s own Hayes MacArthur) and mother to 2-year-old Theodore. Along with her roles in You’re Not You, Lovesick, and TNT’s upcoming series Legends, Larter is also celebrating the debut of her first cookbook, Kitchen Revelry: A Year of Festive Menus from My Home to Yours ($32.50; St. Martin’s Press). In an exclusive interview with Michigan Avenue, Larter shares her greatest loves, from cheering on the Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks to advocating for others around the world.

You’ve been spending a lot of time here lately. What do you think of Chicago?
ALI LARTER: I’ve just completely fallen in love with the city. I hadn’t been before I met my husband, and he has introduced me to my great love of the Blackhawks. I have been so inspired by that young team. I love being able to walk around downtown and pop into different shops like Trabert & Hoeffer—my husband’s family has been getting beautiful things there for years and years. We love taking our son to the zoo; it’s incredible that Chicago has a free public zoo. We love to meet Hayes’s friends from elementary school—people he’s known his whole life—and, you know, you can’t go through Chicago without going to Gibsons for a New York steak. It’s really the people, though—it’s the energy of Chicago that I’m so attracted to.

You’re in the big-screen drama You’re Not You with Hilary Swank and Emmy Rossum, and the romantic comedy Lovesick with Matt LeBlanc. How do you transition between such different genres?
AL: What’s funny about Hollywood is that it’s becoming tighter and tighter. It’s more competitive than ever, but on the other side there is also more opportunity; you’re not being boxed in. You’re Not You is really incredible. Hilary plays this woman who is battling Lou Gehrig’s disease. [The film explores] how that affects friends and family and how certain people are just not able to be the person they wish they could be at those times, and how other people are able to really care for each other. Lovesick is so much fun. We tried to keep it very real and grounded. I’m not somebody who’s really into big, broad comedy; I like things to be a little bit more natural and realistic. Matt is hysterical. [His character] becomes obsessed in love, and it’s so funny to watch him kind of battle himself for the girl he wants. Drama will always be my first love. I love figuring out ways to communicate the pain that people feel; that said, there is nothing better than being on a comedy set.

You’re also starring as Crystal Quest in TNT’s upcoming series Legends. How are you preparing for this role?
AL: Howard Gordon has created this show where you get to push yourself as an actor, and it’s going to be so much fun to create different personas; when they go deep cover, they create these identities, and it’s a psychological drama about how you blur the lines between your personal and your professional life, and the psychological toll that takes.

You’ve played so many strong characters throughout your career. Do you have a favorite?
AL: Each time you work on a project, there are different things about the character that you’re really either excited to explore, or you’re like, “Ugh, I can’t believe I have to go to that place.” I try to keep an open mind about the needs and desires of the characters I’m playing even if they’re not that savory. I definitely loved the challenge of playing Niki [who had a split personality] in Heroes. Being able to do that and figure out the yin and the yang was really fun to explore. I loved doing Legally Blonde and the Claire Redfield character in Resident Evil [who people know] from the video games. To be able to play someone who people have so much love for is a lot of fun.

You’re venturing outside of acting with Kitchen Revelry. What inspired you to publish a cookbook?
AL: When I was younger, the kitchen was always the place to hang. My mom made it the sanctuary of the house. When I started traveling, I’d go into these cities and not know anybody, and my way of connecting with people was through food. I had a Polish roommate once, and I asked her to teach me how to make pierogi, and when I was living in Tokyo, I learned how to make miso soup. Kitchen Revelry is really a philosophy; it’s about enjoying the process, having fun, not worrying about the outcome, and finding beauty in imperfection. We shot [the photographs for the book] in my home, and I made sure that it was messy: There’s lipstick on glasses, napkins, crumbs.... The book provides two menus a month in a calendar year, so you flip to October and see “Harvest Party.” It’s things that are naturally in season, so it takes some of the guesswork out of it.

What are some of your favorite recipes from the book?
AL: My peach barbecue sauce I love; my brownies are amazing—everyone should know how to make a great brownie. I love making steak au poivre or meatballs. I like dishes that don’t make a lot of mess, and a lot of my menus are where you make the main course the night before because I like not having to be in the kitchen all day the day of a party.

Has entertaining always interested you?
AL: It has. I grew up with my family having barbecues and throwing parties all the time. I remember sitting at the top of the stairs while my parents would be having parties and hearing the clinking of glasses, laughter, and great Neil Diamond music. It always felt so romantic to me.

Do you and Hayes have similar taste preferences?
AL: He used to just be excited that he was getting dinner. [Laughs] Now he makes requests, and he’ll be like, “Honey, you haven’t made anything in a couple days—what’s going on?” or “I think that you put a little bit too much of whatever.” I love that he gets excited and appreciates that I cook dinner and love making big brunches on the weekends. Not only is it about having great food, but it’s about connecting with friends and family.

You’re parents to Theodore. How has motherhood changed you?
AL: He’s a very, very curious, verbal, fearless guy, and he keeps us on our toes. I’m so excited to be on this journey with him. It’s such an incredible joy. I don’t know what it’s like to sleep late in the morning; I don’t know what it’s like to ever really feel relaxed or have an extra minute to yourself—but I adore being a parent, and I think that any parent of toddlers knows that it’s such an exciting, thrilling moment of life.

Switching gears here, let’s talk fashion. What inspires you?
AL: I’m not someone who stays on trend. I love classic styles—Lauren Hutton, Ally Sheedy.... At this point, I know what clothes work on my body and what I feel comfortable in. I like to stay in blacks, white, grays, and if it’s going to be a really short skirt, then I’m going to [pair it with] a big turtleneck sweater. It’s finding that balance of things being chic, but also having a bit of a sexy edge.

In 2010 you participated in the United Nations conference “Women Deliver.” What first sparked your interest in that?
AL: It’s important for me to understand what’s happening in different places around the world. We can forget all the [opportunities] we have in the United States. Women’s rights and women’s issues are very dear to me. Hayes and I also work with The Art of Elysium—an organization my friend Jennifer Howell started—and we are getting the Spirit of Elysium award this year. It’s about exploring how the power of positive thought, energy, and creativity can help in the healing process. I also did this documentary on food insecurity in the US and talked about the BackPack Program—it’s just such an incredible, incredible program under the banner of Feeding America; teachers found a very discreet way of getting [underprivileged students’] backpacks filled with vouchers for bread and cereal bars. And Communities in Schools is really important for me; it’s about encouraging high school kids to go to college or figure out ways for them to follow their dreams.

When it comes to your dreams, where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
AL: I don’t know where [Kitchen Revelry] is going to lead, and that’s what’s so exciting about it. It started as an honest expression of something I love to do, and over the last two-and-a-half years, the book has taken over our house—and my husband has dealt with so many dirty dishes. Hopefully Legends will be something that audiences connect to and love, and hopefully movies will still come and I’ll get to create characters that give me a chance to explore different sides of myself. And maybe going into different products—some stemware, plates—to give an affordable luxury for people to entertain. It’s hard to look forward. I’m so in this moment right now.

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