Rank #1: Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman on Not Pretending to Be Perfect [1/2]
A week after sitting down with Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes, I got to reminisce with another seminal food blogger: Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen. Deb started Smitten Kitchen in 2006, the same year that Serious Eats launched. Twelve years later, Smitten Kitchen has millions of readers who come to the site for both her fine recipes and her realistic portrayal of her insanely busy city life, testing recipes and posting on her blog with two young children underfoot. Somehow she's managed to also write two best-selling cookbooks, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and her recently published Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites.
When I posited that one of the reasons Smitten Kitchen resonated with so many people is Deb's ability to laugh at herself and readily admit to failure, she responded, "Yeah, I thought that was so strange, that we were supposed to pretend we were perfect. How hard would that be to maintain? I'd last maybe a day, like a week perhaps...That's not life."
What explains the success of Smitten Kitchen? Deb isn't sure, but she said, "I'm hoping that I'm speaking about things in real language. I hope that I'm not pretending to be something I'm not, pretending cooking is something that it's not. I just think, 'Okay, so this is super hard to try to cook this with like a kid underfoot.' Why would I lie about that? Because this is real and we're all dealing with this. I kind of do it [the blog] to share the burden a little bit, like, 'Why should I feel like I'm carrying all this myself when we're all dealing with this?'"
Perelman is ever hopeful, whether it comes to the latest recipe she's testing or the future of food blogs. "I really do like the fact that that you can have a long, crappy day, and make a recipe that's new and fun, and it can be the highlight of your day." As for food blogging, Deb said, "You know, it didn't begin and end with me, and...I know that blogs sound like a very dated thing, but I always feel like if you're trying to get yourself out there, put yourself out there. So what if you have ten people reading? When somebody wants a link to your clips, there it is."
For more pearls of wisdom from Deb Perelman, check out part 1 of her Special Sauce interview.
The full transcript for this week's episode can be found over at Serious Eats.
May 02 2018
Rank #2: Special Sauce: Kenji on His Food Safety Article
It's obviously still not business as usual at Serious Eats (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter), so we're going to continue to produce Special Sauce episodes that deal with the coronavirus pandemic. On this week's episode, we once again hear from Serious Eats's Chief Culinary Advisor Kenji López-Alt. Kenji has been pitching in mightily on so many coronavirus-fighting efforts, both on Serious Eats and off.
On Serious Eats, he published an epic post on coronavirus and food safety that millions of people have found useful. We followed that with our first Special Sauce episode focused on the impact of coronavirus, which detailed what's happened at Kenji's restaurant Wursthall since the pandemic broke out. Then we released a video featuring Kenji in which he answered many of the questions he posed in the original post. To complete this multimedia effort, this week's Special Sauce episode features the audio track from the aforementioned video, since we think the information is that important.
Here are some examples of the kinds of questions answered in this episode: Can I be infected by coronavirus by touching or eating food? Is it safe to eat raw foods? What is the safest way to shop at the supermarket? Is it okay to buy produce from open bins?
And as Kenji and I both note in this episode, he has promised to continually update the original post as new information becomes available in this rapidly-changing situation.
On a personal note, Kenji has really helped so many people in these exceedingly tough times by answering these questions. The least we can do is ask that you return the favor, if you're able. If you can afford to support Kenji's Wursthall-centric coronavirus initiative by donating to his Patreon account, or by directly purchasing meals-for-free from Wursthall's own take-out website, please do so.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats:
Apr 02 2020
Rank #3: Special Sauce: Uncovering Pizza's US Origins [1/2]
We rarely deal with breaking news on Special Sauce, but when said news concerns pizza's US origins, exceptions must be made. As soon as I learned that Peter Regas, a Chicago-based statistician by day and pizza obsessive by night, had discovered that there were pizzerias operating in Brooklyn and Manhattan years before Gennaro Lombardi opened what has long been thought to be the country's first pizzeria in 1905, I knew we had to have him on the podcast for an extended interview. I even brought in reinforcements: New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, and Serious Eats senior editor and veteran pizzaiolo, Sasha Marx.
Here's a taste of what Regas shared with us: “What we know there is a man named Filippo Milone who had probably come, it's not clear, but he'd probably come around 1892 to America from Italy...The first indication that we have hard evidence of him owning a business is at 47 Union Street, again in Red Hook…That would be then in the early part of 1898....Then what we have at Spring Street, 53 Spring Street [the site of Lombardi's original location], we have a permit that's applied for in the summer of 1898. That's for a bake oven. The man that appears in the next directory cycle, which would be the early part of 1899, is...Phil Malone, Filippo Milone, it's the same man.”
Pete Wells told Regas that when he heard the news, he tweeted that "it was like if we found out some other dude wrote The Federalist Papers and The Declaration of Independence and then, like, gave them to Madison and Jefferson and we never knew it. It was some guy named Tony all along.” Wells urged Regas to continue his research, telling him, “Follow the mozzarella, Peter.”
Pizza nerds (and even plain old pizza enthusiasts) will rejoice in the conversation that ensued. To get started on your own mozzarella journey, check out this week’s episode, and stay tuned for part two next week, when Regas expounds on his discovery and Kenji weighs in on all things pizza.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=441852
Feb 19 2019
Rank #4: Sara Moulton on Leftovers, College Gig, and Not Looking for Attention [1/2]
This week's guest on Special Sauce is food television personality and pioneering chef Sara Moulton, who is as unpretentious as she is accomplished. And when I say accomplished I mean accomplished. Sara is currently the host of the PBS series Sara's Weeknight Meals and the co-host of Milk Street Radio. She previously was the host of the live television show Cooking Live on the Food Network for almost ten years. Suffice it to say, Sara should be familiar to anyone who has watched cooking shows on television.
Want an example of her lack of pretense? Here is her take on leftovers: "I'd rather open up a refrigerator filled with leftovers than start with a blank canvas. Leftovers talk to me." Or how about this detail from one of her many food-related jobs in college: "I was a waitress at an all-night diner where we had to wear a DayGlo orange uniform and white nurse's shoes." It may have been the uniform, and it may just have been the job itself, but whatever it was, Sara's mother was horrified by her situation, and tried to help her in a way that would only make sense to a parent: "My mother wrote to Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, did not ask me, and asked them what her daughter should do if she wanted to become a chef."
After her many years on television, I was surprised when I found out that Sara was a reluctant TV host. "I thought that was vulgar," she explains. "Being a good WASP, it's like, "Oh, then you're looking for attention." I also loved hearing the advice she'd give to guests on Cooking Live: "Smile constantly for no particular reason."
As for her pioneering days as a young woman chef, Sara has some harrowing stories, but for those you're just going to have to tune into part 1 of her Special Sauce interview.
*Ed note: For those of you wondering where part 2 of my Special Sauce interview with Matt Goulding is, we'll be publishing it in a couple of months.
The transcript for this episode can be found over at Serious Eats.
Apr 05 2018
Rank #5: Special Sauce: Kenji on Coronavirus and Its Impact on Restaurants
Editor's note: The Coronavirus story is unfolding at a breakneck pace. That means that something said that was true at the time may no longer be so. On this episode please note that Lola, the Tom Douglas restaurant in the Hotel Andra in Seattle, is now closed, as is the hotel itself.
Before the sh*t hit the proverbial fan, I had the next several episodes of Special Sauce all queued up. They were going to feature Susan Spungen, the founding food editor of Martha Stewart Living and author of Open Kitchen: Inspired Food for Casual Gatherings; and Alexander Smalls, an opera singer turned chef-restaurateur and cookbook author (Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes From My African American Kitchen). But when the coronavirus pandemic struck with full force, destabilizing and eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs in our industry, I realized that we needed to put those episodes on hold and change up the Special Sauce MO. So over the coming weeks, the podcast will be focused on the virus' effect on people in the industry who sustain and feed all of us, like chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, bread bakers, servers, and so many more.
For our first episode in this vein, I knew I wanted to speak to our very own Kenji Lopez-Alt. Kenji, along with his partners, opened Wursthall in his adopted hometown of San Mateo, CA in March of 2018; like the rest of California's restaurants, they were forced to close their doors to all business but takeout and delivery earlier this month. He's spent virtually all his time since trying to aid his laid off workers and keep the restaurant going in order to rehire as many of his people as he can. Miraculously, Kenji did find the time to pen a ridiculously comprehensive and clear-headed guide to food safety and the coronavirus for us.
On this episode of Special Sauce, Kenji shares the problems he, his restaurant, and his staff are facing, and the tactics he's employing to keep the lights on and the burners fired up. Just as importantly, Kenji also talks about the macro socio-political and cultural issues the coronavirus pandemic has merely brought to the surface for businesses like his.
I hope that those of you who can are able to support Wursthall and its employees past, present, and future. Kenji has opened a Patreon account, and 100% of donations will soon go directly toward producing and providing meal kits for local San Mateo families affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
In addition to their own local initiatives, the Wursthall crew has been working with organizations, including Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, to deliver meals to various organizations in need, including Samaritan House San Mateo, the Oakland Fire Training Center, and San Francisco General Hospital emergency room. Folks will also be able to directly buy meals for families, individuals, and front line workers who are affected by the pandemic. Go to the Wursthall website for the latest details about this program.
One more note about this ever-changing crisis: Even if the proposed multi-trillion dollar federal legislation is passed in the next day or two, all of these efforts are desperately needed in the short, medium, and long-term.
Mar 26 2020
Rank #6: Special Sauce: Kenji on Cooking With Fish Sauce and Adam Chandler on Fast Food [1/2]
This week's Special Sauce episode kicks off with Serious Eater Marc Lampert asking Kenji about the process of cooking with ingredients packed with umami. "Does umami cook out like an acid would?" Marc asked. Here's part of Kenji's response: "A general rule of thumb for cooking is if you can smell it that means that its concentration in the pot is going down...So if you are cooking a stew and it smells like there's this wonderful red wine aroma that means that the more you smell red wine in your house, the less is left in the stew. There's a finite bucket of it, and if it's in your house then it's not in your pot."
With Marc's question squared away, the episode moves on to my far-reaching conversation about fast food with former Atlantic staff writer Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom. He described to me the high school fast food ritual that started his journey: "On weekend nights, we would all pile into our cars and go to Whataburger. It was the last thing we did before we rushed across Houston to go home for our curfews. And that was our sacred ritual. I have the fondest memories of sitting down, and having breakfast with my friends right before we all went to bed...They have something called a breakfast taquito, which is eggs, a tortilla, hash browns, and American cheese...It's my deep-fried madeleine right there. It's just perfect."
I asked Adam why that taquito was perfect, and he said, "It was a comfort food for me. I think that was all I really considered it to be as something that even the adult menus at fast food restaurants kind of feel like a kid's menu. There's something about eating something with your hands, and taking it out of paper wrapping that feels kind of like a celebratory innocent thing...There was no formality required."
Adam and his wife even celebrate Valentine's Day with fast food. "We have a ritual for the last four years. We've gone to White Castle on Valentine's Day, so I have to do a special shout out for that because I don't know if you know this, at White Castle, they do table service every Valentine's Day. They have a red tablecloth."
Finally, the episode moves on to Daniel Gritzer, who talked about his favorite ways to cook a steak, which includes a technique that many cooks have been told is verboten. He said he does use a smoking hot pan, but then he busted a myth about flipping your steak just once while cooking.
To hear the rest of Kenji's explanation of how to use flavor agents, lots more fast food wisdom from Adam Chandler, and Daniel's steak-cooking tips, you'll just have to listen to the whole episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/10/special-sauce-kenji-on-cooking-with-fish-sauce-and-adam-chandler-on-fast-food.html
Oct 24 2019
Rank #7: Ask Special Sauce: Kenji and Stella Answer Your Holiday Questions
This year, my wife and I managed to get through Thanksgiving without any major mishaps or blow-ups. That domestic and culinary tranquility was thanks (at least in part) to the answers Kenji and Stella gave on our special episode of “Ask Special Sauce.” This week, “Ask Special Sauce” returns with even more reassuring answers to an impressive array of holiday cooking questions posed by serious eaters all over the US and Canada.
We got straightforward inquiries, like how to navigate holiday baking when you’re avoiding gluten, dairy, and refined sugars or what’s the best way to crisp up sweet potatoes. But we also helped untangle some tricky family traditions. Listener Heather North came to us for advice, explaining, "My in-laws grew up using primarily box desserts, jello, cream cheese, Cool Whip, that sort of thing. And they continued those traditions.” Heather explained that every year she offers to make pastries or bake a pie, but her in-laws always request things like “that yellow salad with the pretzels or pudding pie....Something I don’t consider baking.” Her question? “How do I, without offending them, merge what they consider desserts with what I would consider more traditional baking?” As always, Stella came to the rescue.
Meanwhile, Kenji tackled a question from Brad. “I’m looking to update a family favorite recipe, a fixture at our table has always been broccoli rice casserole. And since taking over primary cooking responsibilities, I just haven't had the gumption to make it. And I think that's because of what goes into it....It's four main ingredients, right?...Minute rice, a bag of frozen broccoli, a big old jar Cheez Whiz, and crumbled saltines on top.…That's it. Sometimes a diced onion would go in. Sometimes we'd use jalapeño Cheese Whiz instead of the normal stuff for extra zing.” Without a trace of snobbery, Kenji helped Brad out.
We had a blast helping these serious eaters answer these holiday cooking and baking questions, and my guess is you’ll enjoy listening to this episode just as much. On behalf of Stella, Kenji, and me, we want to wish you all happy holidays. May each of you find yourself surrounded by seriously delicious food and people you love.
--- The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/12/ask-special-sauce-kenji-and-stella-answer-your-holiday-questions.html
Dec 19 2019
Rank #8: Sara Moulton on Why Female Chefs Should Head West [2/2]
In part 2 of my Special Sauce interview with Sara Moulton, she plunges headfirst into the issues women face as chefs. "When I first moved to New York...I couldn't get a job. But not only that, about every five years there'd be an article in the New York Times saying, "Where are all the women chefs?" It pissed me off, because I'd be like, "I know where they are. Being kept down or going to California where it's far easier to get a job, because nobody will give them a job here."
Here she is on why she thinks she lost her long-running show on the Food Network: "The way I see it is, competition and cleavage took over. I had cleavage, but they didn't want to see mine. But that's all right. And that's not what I was there for. I'll be honest, I was devastated."
Sara also talks about checking in with women in the industry periodically: "I always talk to them and try to find out what's the deal, how we're doing, how are we moving forward? I mean, I'm no longer doing that. But, how are women chefs doing? What they say consistently is they're still not getting the same publicity, and they're still not getting the same real estate deals and backing for new restaurants. They're still being treated like second-class citizens."
As for what she would tell a young woman chef about how to proceed: "The advice I would give to them is pretty much the same as what I used to [say]: 'Head West, young lady. California is so much better a place.'"
As a mother of two children who has been married for a long time, I asked her what she tells women chefs about having it all: "That is still a really difficult question and answer. I have no idea. You either have to have a partner who is willing to stay home...I mean, Jody Adams, you know, from Rialto*, her husband stayed home...If you can set that up, yes, you can make it work. But...it's striking when you think that this is not an issue for a man to be working 80 hours a week and [have] a family. But it is for most women. That is where I always hit a wall. I have no answers except the one I just gave you. It's rare to find the person who's willing to just stay home."
*Editor's note: Rialto shuttered in 2016. Adams is now chef and owner of the restaurants Porto, Saloniki, and TRADE.
Sara Moulton is smart, savvy, talented and pulls no punches. Listen in and I'm sure you'll agree.
The transcript for this week's episode can be found over at Serious Eats.
Apr 12 2018
Rank #9: Special Sauce: Jason Wang on the Origins of Xi’an Famous Foods [1/2]
One of the many reasons I love doing Special Sauce is I get to interview people who shed light on various parts of the food culture I know very little about. People like Jason Wang. Wang and his father, David Shi, are the co-propietors of Xi'an Famous Foods, the fast-casual Chinese food concept that introduced New Yorkers to dishes like as lamb burgers, liang pi "cold skin" noodles, and the legendary lamb face salad that's unfortunately no longer on the menu. Wang emigrated with his family from the city of Xi'an, China, when he was eight, and life was not easy for the Wang family. "My father's work life in the U.S. is kind of what you would imagine it to be [for] someone who is a middle-aged immigrant from China who doesn't speak any English," Wang says. "There's only a few things that he could really do in this country, and one of those would be working in a restaurant." Wang's father would be away for weeks or even months at a time working at restaurants all along the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, the family lived in Queens, NY, in the basement of someone else's home. His dad "would take a bus somewhere, and someone would pick him up from the restaurant [he was employed by], and he would basically live in the boss's house with the other workers," Wang says. "So in middle school and high school, I wouldn't see him for at least one or two weeks [at a time]." Wang's family really wanted him to get a college education, and his mom and dad ended up saving up enough, when combined with some scholarship money, to send him to Washington University in St. Louis. While he was away at school, his father finally was able to leave his itinerant restaurant work behind. Shi had saved up enough money to open a bubble tea franchise in one of the subterranean food courts that dot the Chinese-American enclave of Flushing, Queens. And that's where X'ian Famous Foods was born in 2005.
Besides selling bubble tea, Wang says his father also "sold some food on the side from our hometown, namely our cold skin noodles, our liangpi, the burgers, and a little bit of the noodles. It was just a side thing." And, after a brief stint at Target after graduation, Wang joined his father.
During our conversation, Wang offers up a concise description fo the defining elements of the food he and his father make and sell. "Traditionally," Wang says, "every region of China has a few words to sum up their food. Like, Sichuan is 'mala,' so it's spicy and tingly. That's their profile. Our profile is xiāng là and suān. So 'suān' means sour. 'Xiāng là' means fragrantly spicy. So that's kind of how our food is. If you've had our food before, you see a lot of use of the black vinegar, a lot of use of, of course, the red chilies."
Wang's story, his father's story, and the story of Xi'an Famous Food's beginnings, had me riveted. When you listen, I think you'll be mesmerized as well.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/05/special-sauce-jason-wang-on-the-origins-of-xian-famous-foods.html
May 02 2019
Rank #10: Ask Special Sauce: Kenji and Stella Answer Your Thanksgiving FAQs
I don't know about the rest of you Thanksgiving hosts out there, but my wife and I tend to become increasingly stressed as the holiday approaches each year. On more than one occasion, I've reached out to Kenji and Stella to help relieve my cooking-related anxiety. It was during one such conversation that I came up with the idea of having a call-in Thanksgiving episode of Special Sauce co-hosted by Stella and Kenji. We put out the call for your Thanksgiving-related cooking and baking questions and Serious Eaters from all over the country submitted their most pressing questions. As usual, Kenji and Stella had answers in spades.
We fielded inquiries about what foods travel well for a Thanksgiving feast, how to get pumpkin pie filling to set properly, and whether it's better to cook stuffing in or out of the bird. From Lani Houck’s question about whether turkey can receive the reverse sear treatment to Adrianna Lahti’s request for an improved take on her mother’s questionable pie crust, Kenji and Stella offered answers with their customary elan, grace, and humor. Their seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of all things cooking and baking will take out at least some of the stress associated with Thanksgiving, I promise.
Happy Thanksgiving, Serious Eaters.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/11/special-sauce-kenji-stella-thanksgiving-faqs.html
Nov 21 2019
Rank #11: Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman on the Perils of Publishing [2/2]
In part two of my terrific interview with Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman, we move from the creation of her blog into book writing (her second book Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites was just published in October 2017), and how social media has (or hasn't) changed what she does.
The first thing I learned was that writing books was never part of Deb's grand master plan: "From 2003, I had been hearing from agents and editors. No, I did not think I needed to write a book. I thought it was like...'Why would I need a book? The web is all I'll ever need.' And that was really very much my mindset. It's so ridiculous to say this, and it's so insulting to somebody who really wants to write a cookbook, that I was so flippant about it, but I had to be talked into it."
Deb admitted that she was more "terrified" than anything else when her first book was published, particularly about how it might be received: "It was actually going to ruin...take the blog down with it when the book was panned. These were live and real things that were in my head, until the first day that it maybe hit the bestseller list, and then I was like, "Okay, one week of not thinking this way. Let me see if I can make it to next week."
I guess it isn't surprising that it did so well, in light of the fact that 85% of the recipes were new and couldn't be found on her blog: "I wanted it to be of value. I was really concerned about long-term readers feeling like this was not a book for them. It had to be of value to them. I wasn't going to ask you to buy stuff I'd been giving you for free, like you didn't know how money worked, you know?"
Deb's concern for her readers getting the most out of the work she does also plays into the way she uses social media: "You have to know what you're selling, I guess. For me, it's the stories, it's the recipes. So, I always felt social media has to meet people where they are. If you want to find out about my site on Facebook, let me show up on Facebook and be there. If you want to get your news on Twitter, I will be in all those places. I will meet you there. But I'm still going to tell you what I'm doing, where I'm doing it, if that makes sense."
Perhaps what's so surprising about Deb's success, in the end, is that she has kept Smitten Kitchen a one-woman show. "It's not the smartest thing I've ever done...It's not making me feel younger. I do my own everything. And part of it is that I...You could say I'm a control freak, but it's more that who else...How are you going to answer email for me? How are you going to write for me? How are you going to edit photos? It's all my vision."
To hear more about that vision and what makes the person behind Smitten Kitchen tick, you're just going to have to tune into the show.
The full transcript for this week's podcast can be found over at Serious Eats.
May 10 2018
Rank #12: Special Sauce: René Redzepi on Apprenticeships, El Bulli, and Being a Better Leader [2/2]
In this week's Special Sauce interview with René Redzepi, he describes his journey from being a 15-year-old novice cook to culinary visionary, which started when he was an apprentice at Pierre André, a Michelin-starred, classic French restaurant in Copenhagen. "I spent four years with [chef-owner Philippe Houdet], and it was an incredible time," Redzepi says. "I mean, I basically went from being a child to being an adult like overnight. Just like that you're working 85 hour weeks and with responsibilities."
Those four years were incredibly important to Redzepi. "I still think of him so much, when I think back to these moments that make you, and that give you the courage and the power to believe in yourself further on."
But what really blew Redzepi's mind as a young cook was a meal at El Bulli. "I was with a friend and Ferran [Adria] was there, we ate and it was just mind blowing to me at the time," he recalls. "So different to anything. I thought everything was French food and suddenly you see yourself in Spain and it's like, I cannot believe what's going on here. What is this? It broke everything for me. So I went up to Ferran immediately after the meal and said, "I want to work here. Can I come and work here?" And, after writing Adria a letter, he did.
Following a stint at the French Laundry Redzepi returned to Copenhagen and opened the original Noma in 2003. He believes that Noma's location has played an important role in its development. "One of the reasons why I think Noma's become what we are is we were lucky to be in a small town where nothing was really happening," he says. "We were the last stop on the subway, culinary wise, and suddenly all this attention started happening and everybody sort of chipped in...the community sort of embraced it."
Redzepi is candid about the fact that the restaurant's original success was not due to his leadership skills. "I spent years being an outrageously bad leader," he confesses. "I was a screamer for many years, I was. I just didn't know how to handle things. You become so thin-skinned that the smallest problems become disasters and then at a certain point you're like, 'What am I doing? You go into work and you're not even happy...You go to work and you're angry. What's the point?'"
Redzepi says that finding a way to become happier in his work played a crucial role in both his and Noma's development, but to find out just how he managed to do that, I'm afraid you're going to have to listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce. -- The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/01/special-sauce-rene-redzepi-part-2.html
Jan 03 2019
Rank #13: Special Sauce: René Redzepi on Opening Noma at 25 [1/2]
It was a thrill to sit across the table from René Redzepi to record this episode of Special Sauce. The pioneering chef-restaurateur is the force behind Copenhagen's Noma, which has been declared the best restaurant in the world no fewer than four times. As you might easily imagine, our conversation was far-reaching and revealing.
Redzepi and I started off by talking about his new book The Noma Guide to Fermentation, co-authored by Noma's fermentation lab director David Zilber. Fermentation, he told me, is "basically adult Legos you play with. And then as we started fermenting, it was like two basketfuls of them and it's up to us as cooks to figure out how to build with them and what goes what, where, and how. And once you figure that out, cooking becomes easier and more delicious." René is a true believer in experimenting with fermentation, and recommends home cooks give it a shot. He told me that he thinks once people "discover and figure out how to use fermented products in their daily lives, [their experience] cooking will be better and easier."
Our conversation transitioned from fermentation to Redzepi's childhood, which was partially spent in Macedonia. "It was a very rural lifestyle," he explained. "If you wanted to visit a neighbor, you went on a horse....No refrigerators at home, every single meal was cooked. They were farmers, they worked the land. If you wanted a glass of milk, you milked the cow. If you wanted butter, you had to churn the cream." Redzepi said his extremely modest childhood helped fuel his passion, adding that "the reason why I have had the drive that I have is because when you grow up with nothing, and even going hungry to bed often as a child, this urge to make it was just a really, really powerful urge I had when we first started. I wanted to make it no matter what."
How did that drive propel him to open Noma 15 years ago, at the tender age of 25? And why did he close up shop at the height of the restaurant's acclaim? To get the answers to those two intriguing questions I'm afraid you'll have to tune into this week's Special Sauce. You'll be glad you did. I promise.
--- The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/12/special-sauce-rene-redzepi.html
Dec 07 2018
Rank #14: Special Sauce: Chef Anita Lo on Cooking for Michelle Obama [1/2]
This week on Special Sauce with the terrific chef and fine writer Anita Lo. Anita had Annisa, a great restaurant in Greenwich Village, for 16 years before closing it in 2017. She was part of the first wave of women chef-restaurateurs in New York. Anita was also the first woman who cooked a State dinner for the Obamas at the White House. Finally, she is the author of the recently published elegant and pithy cookbook, Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One This week's episode focuses on Anita's cooking experiences at other people's restaurants, sexism in the restaurant biz, and cooking at the White House.
With politics being front and center these days I had to ask Anita about cooking a state dinner for the Obamas and President Xi of China. I asked if she got to hang with the President and First Lady. "Yeah it was awesome. We got a picture with them. I shook their hands. It was sort of like a wedding line. The Obamas and the Xis were there, and then we all walked through and shook their hands and took a pictures and went out the other door."
Anita really cut her teeth in the restaurant biz in New York in the nineties in the kitchen of the first incarnation of Bouley, chef David Bouley's influential Tribeca restaurant. I asked Anita if she felt that she was a victim of the rampant sexism there that pervaded so many fine dining establishments at that time. She calmly replied, "Certainly, on some level, but at the same time, my mother had been a doctor and there were very, very few female doctors at the time when she became a doctor. I think she was the only female doctor in her hospital, or at least in her hospital wing. That was my role model, so I knew you just had to endure..."I did get some sort of nasty banter that was meant to make you not feel welcome...Yeah, we still have a long way to go, certainly (in that regard)."
I asked Anita if being a women chef-restaurateur makes it harder to find investors. She nodded her head and said, "I just think we're wired culturally to support men and to see men as leaders and see men as the money makers, and that leaves a lot of smart, talented women behind...Well, at least we're talking about it, and just because we've had a me too moment doesn't mean that bad things still aren't happening. Look what's happening in our government."
Anita has a unique perspective on these kinds of issues born of both sweet and bitter experiences. And that is what makes her Special sauce episodes required listening.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/01/special-sauce-anita-lo-1-2.html
Jan 25 2019
Rank #15: Elise Bauer on Turning a Food Blog Into a Business [2/2]
At the end of part 1 of my Special Sauce interview with Elise Bauer, she had just described starting Simply Recipes in 2004 after coming home to live with her parents in Sacramento to recover from a serious case of chronic fatigue syndrome, and in this week's episode we pick up where we left off. At the outset, Elise says she was making enough money to splurge on movie tickets, but then things started to change. "The more content I added...the more we got picked up in search and the more traffic we got." And back then, as I can personally attest, more traffic meant more revenue.
But then, just as Simply Recipes was starting to take off, Elise suffered a relapse. Was it because she attempted the swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco again? "I didn't go back to Alcatraz but...I actually think it was hot yoga that got me into trouble...I spent the entire summer of 2005 in bed." It would take her another five years to fully recover. "I didn't go on a date for seven years," Elise says.
In addition to talking about her getting Simply Recipes off the ground, Elise and I got into a very lively discussion about the evolution of digital food media, particularly about the impact social media has had on the industry. "It used to be that if you had a blog, a good quality blog, people would then come visit your blog. Now you're expected to have your content show up where those people are, not the other way around," Elise says. "Social media's become a lot more important in terms of having a presence in the marketplace. It used to be it was 80% content, 20% marketing. Now I think it's 20% content, 80% marketing and marketing from social media."
Elise also offers up three important pieces of advice for anyone embarking on a digital food media adventure. But to hear what one of food blogging's true pioneers has to say about that, you're just going to have to listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce.
The full transcript of this week's episode can be found over here at Serious Eats.
Apr 27 2018
Rank #16: Simply Recipes’ Elise Bauer on Alcatraz Swims and Blogging as Medicine [1/2]
The full transcript for this week's episode can be found here at Serious Eats.
Apr 19 2018
Rank #17: Special Sauce: Kenji on Eggs, Plus Wisdom From Two Master Bakers [2/2]
In part two of my conversation with the extraordinary bakers Amy Scherber of Amy's Bread and Melissa Weller of High Street on Hudson, we take a deep dive into what makes a proper (and I would say perfect) bagel, keeping wholesale bread fresh and high-quality, as well as the balancing act required to make entrepreneurship, marriage, and parenthood work.
Both bakers have overcome extraordinary hurdles in the process of building their baking empires. Melissa recounts making bread in an outdoor wood-burning oven, without easy access to running water. Amy gets into the importance of crafting a unique product and opens up about the experience of juggling work, motherhood, and marriage- especially difficult when your husband is your VP of sales.
Also in today's episode, Kenji helps Serious Eater Nate the Greatest answer two egg-related queries. First, he wants to know whether boiling eggs in a flavored broth imparts any flavor, and second, whether marinating the cooked egg in that broth has any additional effect. Kenji, of course, has all the answers.
After Kenji schools us on eggs, we head into our test kitchen to catch up with Stella Parks, who takes us on a brownie-baking journey. "I've thought about brownies more than anyone else alive. I think about brownies every day, and I think about how fudgy they should be and how chewy they should be. I test batches side by side, over and over and over again. So join me on this journey as we make brownies from scratch." It’s hard to argue with that.
So, what makes a perfect bagel? How does a superstar baker manage her personal relationships and grueling hours? Plus, Kenji on eggs and Stella on brownies….Now that's what I call a perfect episode of Special Sauce.
--- The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/12/special-sauce-kenji-on-eggs-plus-wisdom-from-two-master-bakers.html
Dec 13 2019
Rank #18: Special Sauce: Eggslut’s Alvin Cailan on Ruckus-Causing as a Career Path [1/2]
Every now and then on Special Sauce, I just hit it off with a guest, feeling immediately as if I've known them all my life. That's what happened when I talked with Eggslut founder, chef-restaurateur, and ruckus-causer Alvin Cailan.
Cailan, who grew up in an LA suburb, got his first kitchen job while still in his teen years, washing dishes at a retreat house run by the Catholic Church. His very religious mother thought it would keep her wayward son out of trouble, and it worked- sort of. "[I was] in my car on my breaks...getting stoned, and the next thing you know, a nun would knock on your window and was like, 'Hey!' And I'm like, 'Oh, my God'.... And so I slowly started to change, because their way of fixing that was giving me more responsibility.... At first, I was hired as a dishwasher, and the next thing you know, I'm the janitor. Next thing you know, I'm the prep cook, and the next thing you know, I'm on the line cooking food."
After college, Cailan went into construction management, but his heart remained in cooking, big time. "It was very tough, because every day I would look up recipes, and then every Friday, when I'd get my check...I would go to the gourmet grocery store, I would go to Costco. I would break down whole tenderloins, and I would buy pork butts, and I would smoke them all weekend, and that was the thing I wanted to do. I was like, this is what I'm supposed to do. And one day, after wrapping up an invoice for $40,000 for a reconstruction of a bathroom, I think that was probably the line in the sand. I was like, I've got to do something different."
Cailan moved to Portland, Oregon, where he worked in fine-dining kitchens and learned how to make charcuterie at Olympia Provisions. But, impatient to start his own project, he saved up some money and started Eggslut in 2010, serving a variety of gourmet egg sandwiches from a food truck. "I was approaching 30 years old, and I was like, man, I really need to step up my culinary game.... I wasn't really getting the opportunity to get the big-salary positions in these [fine-dining] restaurants, and so I was like, you know what? I'm going to take it up into my own hands."
When Cailan first started Eggslut, he had enough money to keep it going for just six months- which meant he had six months to "cause some type of ruckus," as he puts it, and get his business noticed. "[My generation] is like the gangster rap/punk rock era of chefs, where, in 2010, 2011, there were so many celebrity chefs. I mean, there was—like, every single person was getting a show on the Food Network. They were either going on Cutthroat Kitchen, or they're going on Chopped, or Top Chef, and they were becoming these mega-superstars, but then these dudes that are, like, line cooks that are hard-working, who've been doing it for years, were not getting any visibility whatsoever."
Cailan then moved back to Los Angeles and started another Eggslut food truck. There, a food critic forever altered the course of his career after trying his signature dish- the "Slut," a coddled egg set on what Cailan calls "[Joël] Robuchon buttery potatoes." Which food critic was it? All I'll say is that it's not who you'd think. Just listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce to find out.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/07/special-sauce-alvin-cailan-part-1.html
Jul 11 2019
Rank #19: Special Sauce: Alvin Cailan on What “American Food” Means in 2019 [2/2]
In part 2 of my extraordinary chat with chef-restaurateur-activist Alvin Cailan, we delved deeply into his socio-political motivations, but we still managed to fit in some laughs.
Cailan says he's always been motivated to confound the pessimism he frequently encountered growing up, akin to what former President George W. Bush described as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
"I grew up in the early 1990s in the rebellious era of gangster rap and...the rise of the immigrant voice," Cailan tells me, and that spirit helped him push back against the people in his hometown of Pico Rivera in California, who would tell him his ambitions were fantasies. "Everyone tells you, 'Oh, you can't do that.' 'Don't even think about going to UCLA or USC.' My whole entire life I've always been fighting for,'I can do it, too.'"
That can-do attitude basically led to the creation of the popular web series he hosts on First We Feast, The Burger Show. After convincing the producers of the FOX cartoon Bob's Burgers to allow him to run a pop-up that offered burgers featured on the show ("I had seven days, seven chefs, seven pun burgers and we did out of my incubator in Las Angeles."), Cailan became known for his burgers. Or, as he puts it, "I became the burger dude. People started asking me to go on their shows, their podcast, whatever. Finally, [the producer] Justin Bolois...asked me if I can host this show he's working on." And he couldn't pass it up. "I love burgers," Cailan says. "I never really intended to be a TV or personality."
The Usual, one of Cailan's restaurants in New York City, has an unusual sandwich board sign in front: "American comfort food cooked by children of immigrants." I ask him what the story is about that. "I want people to know, when they're coming here, they're going to have food cooked by people of color and it's American comfort food, but influenced by our ethnicity and our culture...It's American food in 2019."
I also get Cailan to explain to me why you can't order one of his signature sandwiches at The Usual, but to find out what sandwich that is and why he can't give it to you, you're just going to have to listen to find out.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/07/special-sauce-alvin-cailan-2-2.html
Jul 18 2019
Rank #20: Special Sauce: Kenji on Pizza Dough; Amy Scherber and Melissa Weller on the Business of Baking [1/2]
This week's Special Sauce episode unintentionally turned into a carb fest. Although I knew I was having on a couple of the finest bakers in the land- Amy Scherber, the founder of Amy's Bread, and Melissa Weller, a baker and partner at High Street on Hudson- I had not anticipated that the other segments of the show would have a similarly starchy focus.
But let's start with the bread-bakers: Scherber founded Amy's Bread way back in 1992, and it was one of the first artisanal bread-baking businesses in New York City, established long before "artisanal" became such a ubiquitous marketing term. Weller, who used to be the head baker at Per Se and has overseen a number of well-regarded baking operations around New York, is now turning out some of the finest bagels in the city (and that's saying something). The two of them gave me some much-needed insight into what it was like to earn their chef stripes in all-male kitchens and, more importantly, what it takes to finally say, "Screw it!" and start your own business.
In the advice portions of the episode, Kenji fields a question from Serious Eater Melissa Staricha about the food processor he uses for his New York-style pizza dough, which sends him on a Kenji-like riff about enzymes and autolysis and how to make good pizza. And, finally, just in time for the holidays, Daniel Gritzer offers some advice for how to make mashed potatoes way ahead of time and "still have them shit the table as good as new."
Kenji on pizza dough, Amy Scherber and Melissa Weller on their paths to bread-and-pastry entrepreneurship, and Gritzer on making mashed potatoes in advance to ease your holiday cooking stress. As someone on a low-carb diet at the moment, I have to say this episode of Special Sauce is an exquisite and yet thoroughly enjoyable form of torture.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=450340
Dec 05 2019