It's always fun to have a longtime friend on Special Sauce because I always learn so much about the person sitting across from me, no matter how long I've known them. And that's just what happened when I sat down with Washington Post Food Editor Joe Yonan.
Yonan spent the first ten years of his career writing, reporting, and editing for suburban newspapers in the Boston area, during which time he learned a lot of valuable lessons about telling stories. "You know one of the things that reporting does," Yonan notes, "especially if you start out in a small place, is that you have to learn how to make a water-and-sewer board meeting interesting and relevant to people who have no interest in it."
Eventually, he got tired of hard news coverage, and so he did what many other people at the time did: He read What Color is Your Parachute?, the enormously popular self-help book. "You're supposed to sit in a quiet place and have a pen and a pad down and you're supposed to close your eyes and imagine yourself both working and happy, believe it or not," Yonan says, recalling one of the exercises in the book designed to help you find your calling. "And I got all set up to do it, I had the pen and paper and I closed my eyes and in five seconds I was like, 'Oh, it's food.' Food makes me happy, food has always made me happy."
I met Yonan when I went to Boston to promote my pizza book in 2005, and I took him on a Boston tour de pizza for the Globe's food section, and during our conversation he reminded me of a sage bit of wisdom I gave him way back then, which I'd completely forgotten. "I don't know how many places we went to," Yonan says, "I mean, it was ridiculous. I remember at one point we're on place eight or nine or something, and I am suffering physically...Do you remember what you said to me? I've repeated it hundreds of times since then. You said to me, 'Joe, the good ones learn to eat through the pain.'"
For anyone interested in writing about food, becoming any kind of journalist, or just coming to terms with who you really are, or even about learning how to eat twelve slices of pizza in a three-hour period, this episode of Special Sauce with Joe Yonan is required listening.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/05/special-sauce-joe-yonan-1-1.html
In part two of my conversation with Xi'an Famous Foods cofounder Jason Wang, he and I talked mostly about the struggles and challenges involved in first getting the business off the ground, and then expanding.
The restaurant's original location, in a subterranean food court in Flushing, Queens, had a napkin problem. Money there was so tight, Wang said, "We had to cut back on things.... Back in the days, I'll be honest with you, we didn't give out napkins. We didn't have a napkin dispenser.... People were like,'Oh, you guys are so cheap, you don't give napkins out.' Fights started out because of napkins in Flushing."
Wang knew it was important that both Chinese and non-Chinese customers enjoy the food. "It's important for our food to continue to appeal to Chinese eaters that are in the US directly from China....They know what the food is supposed to taste like. If we have their, sort of, following, that speaks to the authenticity of the food. If we have other folks that are in New York City, we're lucky to have a lot of guests who are more adventurous. They're willing to try different things, try something new every night."
The keys to the restaurant's success? "Our food is very approachable. It's very reasonably priced. People can try without feeling like it's a big risk. It looks, smells good, people talk about it, so they'll come. Now, when they do come, there's a positive feedback effect that goes on. The Chinese people will see the American eaters, and the American users will see the Chinese people there. They'll look at each other, and the Chinese people will be like, wow, Americans like this stuff? That must mean it's high-quality, it's well packaged, because that's what the perception, the stereotype of Western products is.... Then the Americans will see the Chinese people, they'll be like, there's, like, a Chinese grandma that's just sitting there eating. She doesn't speak any English.... Yeah, it's legit."
As Jason and his dad, who cofounded Xi'an Famous Foods with him, began to expand the company—which now has 15 locations across New York City—they took seriously the challenge of preserving the qualities that had made it successful in the first place. "For our part, as we expanded—there's always the whole stereotype of that C-word, 'chain.' When you become a chain, it becomes very washed down, you start losing the soul of the food. My day-to-day job is, these days, really is to maintain that soul.... It's something I'm obsessed about. I think that's what we do on our part. My father's equally obsessive."
But Wang isn't all business, and he brings lots of smile-inducing surprises to this episode—including where he was headed to lunch when we finished talking, and which outspoken rapper/singer he wants at his last-supper table. You'll learn all that and more when you tune in.
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
When we last left chef and memoirist Kwame Onwuachi, he had dived back into his catering business in New York City. Business was decent, but he’d begun to see holes in his game. "The food tasted good, but was it completely hot when it hit the table? I would roast the meat perfectly, but by the time I got to the table it'd be a little overcooked. The sauce that I thought would be really good, when I reduced it down, it was a little bitter. It was like these little things I didn't know what was going wrong, and I needed to get to the bottom of it. I needed to scratch that itch, and education was the next step for me."
Onwuachi went to the CIA to hone his craft and then went on to extern and work at fine dining institutions like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. But he ultimately found his own cooking identity through the now-defunct pop-up dinner company, Dinner Lab. "I cooked a dinner for it. It was a culmination of my life story. It was labeled Candy Bars to Michelin Stars. I cooked everything from the cheesecake [his sister's recipe] that I made to…the Butterfingers I sold on the subway (we did those as mignardise)…It was an anecdotal tale through the food of my life."
Eventually, Onwuachi opened the high-end restaurant Shaw Bijou in Washington, DC. His inexperienced restaurateur partners told him money was no object; that, in fact, they didn't care about making money. Onwuachi naively believed them. "Yeah, it was like adding gas to a locomotive. I mean, we were adding coal. It was just like, keep going, keep going, we're powering the engine. I was so deep in it, there was so much going on. It was the first time dealing with a lot of press, and I was really, really young. I came from the South Bronx and I'm catapulted into the stratosphere of the dining culture across the country, and I was trying to just do anything to stay afloat really."
The restaurant failed after less than six months, its demise hastened by a less-than-stellar review in The Washington Post. "It was soul-crushing to read that," Onwuachi said. "I remember reading it in the back alley, and it was not a good review, but it also pushed me, you know? It pushed me to change some things up, switch some things around, get everybody excited again, and keep going. It wasn't like, ‘Okay, now we need to close.’ I was like, ‘Okay, we're gonna fix this. This is the first bite.’" But they couldn't fix it in time, because, as he put it, "We ran out of capital. That's why businesses close. That's the short answer."
The last chapter of Onwuachi’s book, Notes From a Young Black Chef, is called "The Lesson." Why? "The lesson that I learned (from Shaw Bijou) is to keep going," he told me. "Just keep going. Not to stop, no matter what obstacles get in your way. If you have your mindset and you have goals in place, stick with those goals, figure out how to adapt, how to pivot, and continue moving."
Kwame Onwuachi’s tale is as inspirational as it is cautionary. Catch it all in 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/2019/04/special-sauce-kwame-onwuachi-part-2.html
This week's Special Sauce guest, chef-restaurateur (Kith/Kin in Washington, DC) and memoirist (Notes From a Young Black Chef) Kwame Onwuachi, has led an interesting life, to say the least. How interesting? By the time he was 21, the now-29-year-old had already started a catering business and cooked on a ship cleaning up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico- all after discarding a previous life that included membership in a gang and selling "nutcrackers," or homemade alcoholic punch, on the streets in the Bronx.
Early on, Onwuachi discovered the satisfaction he could derive from cooking for other people, by helping his mom with her catering business: "Yes, serving food to actual paying customers...there's a certain high about it. You know, like being in the weeds, you know, prepping, putting stuff together, and then reaching that finish-line moment when you're serving it to the guests, and all is well. They're happy...and you can see the genuine joy that they get when eating the food. I love that moment, and I got addicted to it."
The entrepreneurial spirit he inherited from his mother had a way of colliding with some of his more destructive adolescent impulses. He would bounce back and forth between cooking gigs and less savory endeavors, including selling drugs, until he found himself at a crossroads around the time of Obama's first inauguration: "Obama is walking across the stage accepting his presidency. At that moment, for some reason, it clicked for me. Because...I went out and I voted for him, but I was like, 'There's no way we're gonna get a black president. There's no way this is gonna happen. No way.' And when he walked across the stage, I was like, 'What am I doing? This man defied the odds. Fifty-five years ago, we weren't even allowed to eat in restaurants; like, that was [when] the last restaurant was desegregated. Now this man is walking across the stage. That's huge. And I'm sitting here selling drugs?'"
After that realization, Onwuachi ended up starting a catering company called Coterie, for which he raised the start-up capital by selling candy in the subway- yes, you read that right. His most popular item: peanut M&Ms (take that, plain-M&M advocates).
All of this, of course, was before Onwuachi began his restaurant career-cooking at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, moving on to a seriously upscale restaurant in DC (which closed within three months), and, this year, being named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine for his current restaurant, Kith/Kin. But his pre-fine dining life was so eventful, we had to save all that for the second part of our interview. Rest assured, there's plenty here to chew on and listen to.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/04/special-sauce-kwame-onwuachi-part-1.html
When we last left the irreverent Robicellis in the first part of their Special Sauce interview, they had decided to leave Brooklyn, their beloved hometown. I wondered why Allison and Matt decided on on Baltimore. "It feels like the New York I grew up in," Allison says. "It is an inherently broken city. Everything is broken and if you're a creative type like me, there's nothing more electric than that. Because everything is a possibility. Everything about your life has stakes. Everything is fun, you know?"
The move to Baltimore actually made the Robicellis' podcast, the Robicelli Argument Clinic, possible. Allison says, "When I was in New York, we talked about doing a podcast for a while, and everything was like, 'Well you need to pay this person all this money, and we need to monetize, and who are our sponsors?'" But that changed after the move. "In Baltimore," Alison says, "you meet other people who are like, 'Let's just do this stuff because we want to.' The art scene there is incredible. Everybody has something to say. Everything influences you."
But moving was important for their personal lives, too. "It was really important for us to bring our kids to a city that had problems," Allison says. "Brooklyn was so messed up when I was a kid. I mean, we had, like, 21 hundred murders when I was in fifth grade. We had riots and all these things. And I'm like, 'If I teach my kids just to sit on Facebook and ignore these problems, or just have ideas about these problems while they're in a gated community, that's bullshit. I want my kids to be better than us.'"
Baltimore has been great for the kids for many reasons. "The way that they think, their empathy level, their ideas of how to be people and how to be solutions to problems and how to think big. The school that they go to, we've got kids there who...We raised money for a washer/dryer, so kids would have a place to do laundry for those who couldn't afford it. You know? And in Brooklyn, people would raise money for lacrosse uniforms. But my kids need to know that. My kids need to understand that they're such a part of something bigger, and the world isn't always perfect, but just by existing, by doing the right things every day and being motivated, we make huge differences."
To hear more of the Robicellis' brand of manic, madcap genius, you're going to have to listen to part two of their Special Sauce interview.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/04/special-sauce-allison-matt-robicelli-part-2-2.html
Sometimes our Special Sauce guests are just so idiosyncratic, so entertaining, so thoughtful, and so zany, I find myself alternately laughing and near tears for an hour and a half straight. That's what happened when I had Matt and Allison Robicelli on the podcast.
Allison is a longtime baker, cook, and James Beard- nominated food writer; Matt is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute who has cooked at City Bakery and Lutèce. Together, they opened the acclaimed bakery Robicelli's in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (which closed in 2015), and wrote a cookbook, Robicelli's: A Love Story, With Cupcakes. But before all of that- before they ever met, in fact- each of them faced life-changing events that indirectly led them to pursue their culinary interests professionally: Allison was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma, and Matt was a paramedic who suffered injuries while responding at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Neither had even reached their 21st birthday at the time, which helped them bond when they finally met. "I think one of the reasons we got along so well was because after I survived cancer, it's really hard to relate to somebody who's 22 and didn't go through that," Allison says.
Nowadays, Matt and Allison run a culinary consulting business, co-own a couple of New York food businesses, and host their own podcast, The Robicelli Argument Clinic, whose name is self-explanatory: "We just quibble a lot, and we argue," Allison says. "We've been together for 14 years, and somebody was like, that's entertaining. Cut to tape. That was it. So we decided to do a podcast of just- we have these ridiculous arguments, just any kind of food topic. We just want to have more fun."
I asked my standard question about what life was like at Matt and Allison's respective family tables when they were growing up. Allison dispelled the stereotype that everyone has warm and fuzzy memories of their childhood dinners: "I remember a lot of yelling [in my family], I remember putting a TV there because that would shut everybody up.... Food can bring up all the memories. It can bring up all of the feelings. It's complicated just like we are. I think that's the kind of beauty about it."
Family meals don't have to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, Allison contends: "There's all these beautiful stories on the internet about the family table, and not everybody had it. You know what? That's okay. If your family dinner was eating McDonald's in the car alone- that's fine." The table that the Robicellis share nowadays includes their two preteen boys, Toby and Atticus, and that makes mealtimes predictably challenging. "The pickiest eaters I've ever met," Allison calls them. "They drive me insane."
In keeping with their own podcast style, my conversation with the Robicellis turned out to be a series of wacky and wise, well, arguments, and you'll have to listen to this episode and the one that follows to enjoy them. Matt and Allison are two wonderfully human interviewees, and great company. My guess is that they'll make you laugh as hard as I laughed, and they might make you cry as well.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=443265
In part two of my wonderful conversation with Tommy Tomlinson, author of the impossible-to-put-down book The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, we talk about how he decided he was going to have to do more than just diet to successfully deal with his weight issues.
Tomlinson describes asking his friends and family about what they thought about his eating habits. "I learned a lot from them about how they would watch what I was eating. And they would be surprised that I would eat the same as them, but I was the one getting bigger. They didn't know that I would stop again at the drive through on the way home and get a second dinner or something. But I also learned about their concerns about me, and their worry that I was going to be gone too soon, those sorts of things. And then I had longer conversation on the record that I taped with my wife, Alix Felsing, and my mom, who are two people who've been with me for most of this journey."
Tomlinson credits his wife in a major way for helping him confront what he calls "the one big problem" in his life. "Alix has been this incredible kind of guide for me," he says. "Without ever nagging or hectoring or browbeating me about it, she has gently and lovingly nudged me to become a better and more healthy person."
Tomlinson writes in his book about something Alix once said to him, which I asked him to repeat on ai because I found it so moving. "She looked at me and said, 'You made my life.'" he remembers. "That was probably the best moment I will ever have as a human being, to know that I made her life. She has certainly made mine."
I hope that exchange, which brought at least one Serious Eater to tears, gets you to check out the rest of our conversation. This episode is as moving, as wise, and as human as a Special Sauce episode gets.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-tommy-tomlinson-2-2.html
It's pretty rare for a Special Sauce interview to speak so directly to me that it feels like I've been hit in the gut. But that's exactly what happened when I talked with Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Tommy Tomlinson, whose book The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America is a moving memoir about struggling with eating and weight issues.
As someone who has grappled with a weight problem my whole life, I identified with every word Tomlinson wrote and every bite he took, and I often felt during our conversation that he was speaking about my own experiences with food.
For example, here is Tomlinson on how food makes him feel: "I've never done hard drugs, but the feeling that I've heard people describe when they shoot heroin, for example that incredible rush and that warm feeling that goes over their body, is very similar to what I believe I feel when I have like a double cheeseburger from Wendy's. It's just this burst of pleasure and good feeling."
Tomlinson is similarly eloquent about how he started to make the connection between obesity and food: "I didn't really connect being overweight with eating because I was eating what everybody else in my family was eating. I just wasn't working the way they were working to burn off calories. And as I got older, I started to realize even more deeply that I had these two lives. I had this one life where I was successful and doing well, had good friends, had people who loved and cared about me. And had this second life where I had this addiction that I could not control. And...up until basically this book and me trying to figure it out, I never could reconcile those two things. And so, sure, I knew from early on that I had some fundamental issue, I just never could figure out what it was."
And here he is on the fraught relationship between food and love: "And then there's stuff that's very common in food which is it's about love and affection. Your family has made this gift for you often still to this day it's your mom or your grandmother or somebody like that has made this thing. And they've sacrificed and they've sweated over it. And they've worked on this recipe for years. And it's a family tradition. And they always have it. And so for you just to not indulge in it carries a whole lot of symbolic weight. It's like rejecting the people who love you."
This episode of Special Sauce made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think, and any podcast that can make you do all three of those things is worth listening to, whether you struggle with your weight or not.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-tommy-tomlinson-1-2.html
The superb young food and culture writer Osayi Endolyn is back again for this week's episode of Special Sauce. This time our far-reaching conversation includes a discussion of a brilliant piece on fried chicken Endolyn wrote for You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another, a fascinating anthology edited by former Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying and Noma's Rene Redzepi.
First, we talked about the fundamental premise of the book. "It's obviously not true that food always brings us together, and it's obviously not true that food necessitates a further reflection on a culture, right," Endolyn said. "A lot of us eat tacos or hummus without thinking anything more about where those dishes come from. But, if you took the premise that, we are more alike than we are different, and looked at food as the medium to do that, where could you go? And this book wanted to explore migration and immigration in ways that maybe we weren't always welcoming of having those conversations."
Endolyn picked fried chicken, one of my favorite foods on the planet, as her subject. She used the Australian Chef Morgan McGlone as a jumping off point: A classically trained chef, McGlone learned to make hot fried chicken while working for Southern uber-chef Sean Brock before returning to his native country to open Belles Hot Chicken, a mini-chain of hot fried chicken restaurants based in Melbourne. That cross-cultural recognition became the metaphor that shaped Endolyn's story. To quote briefly from her piece: "No matter where it’s cooked, American fried chicken carries the learning and effort and skill of a people who persevered against unfathomable odds. That Southern hue follows fried chicken all the way to Melbourne and Sydney, too. And therein lies an incredible opportunity. If everyone can agree to share fried chicken, then perhaps that’s a step toward sharing the weight of its complex legacy as well."
I asked Endolyn about fried chicken's legacy, and she said, "There's a lot of struggle, it doesn't always come from one direction, as I mentioned in the book. Because of so much of the hateful iconography, that was used to depict the African Americans stealing chicken and as kind of just gluttonous chicken eaters. During the post-enslavement period and into Jim Crow, you have a lot of people who still feel kind of unsure what it means to eat fried chicken. Whether or not to do so in public."
Where Endolyn nets out on fried chicken requires answering the two fundamental questions all of us must answer whenever we are eating something: "Is it delicious?" and "What does it mean?"
So if that's a question that interests you (and I hope it is) then you have to listen to what Osayi Endolyn has to say on this week's Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-osayi-endolyn-2-2.html
On this week's episode of Special Sauce, Ed speaks to Osayi Endolyn, a Florida-based food writer whose work regularly appears in major food publications across the country, and whose column in Gravy, the journal published by the Southern Foodways Alliance, earned a James Beard Award in 2018.
Ed and Endolyn's conversation starts off exactly where most Special Sauce conversations start off, namely with Endolyn talking about her family and the food they used to eat when she was growing up. But Ed wasn't prepared for just how fascinating Endolyn's family history is. For example, her grandmother, Ruth Harris Rushen, was something of a trailblazer, as she was the first woman and first African-American to sit on California's parole board.
Endolyn's family table had a mix of what she calls "California working mom cuisine" - tofu and noodles, roasted chicken and vegetables- and Nigerian dishes prepared by her father, who immigrated to the United States in his early 20s. Endolyn describes her father as somewhat mercurial, but a talented cook. "The food was glorious," she says. "Dinner was sometimes fraught and tense, but the food was really good." The quality of the food was somewhat surprising, particularly since her father, like many immigrants, had to figure out by himself how to prepare the familiar foods from home. And, of course, her father's cooking left its mark on her. "So," Endolyn says, "I think a lot about migration now and what people bring with them and what they leave behind."
Endolyn's current focus on the intersection of food and identity is something of a happy accident. She was living in Atlanta and looking into the roots of Southern cuisine, and saw parallels between food in the South and the food her father would make at home. The realization seemed to expose how writing about food could be about so much more than writing about what's on a plate. "Food can actually be this lens from which we can explore so many different things," Endolyn says. "Why certainly it can be something that I can use to talk about my experiences as a child of an immigrant, or as the descendant of someone who was in the Great Migration, or as a descendant of enslaved people or all of these other historic and personal experiences."
To hear more from Endolyn, tune into this both this week's and next week's episode. We guarantee it'll be well worth your time.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-osayi-endolyn-1-1.html
Welcome back to part 2 of Ed Levine's Special Sauce conversation about pizza in the wake of the revelation by pizza historian Peter Regas about the true origins of New York City pizza.
If you recall from last week, Regas has demonstrated that Lombardi's, which was long thought to have been the first pizzeria in New York, was in fact not the first. This week, Regas shares a little bit of what he's discovered about the origins of Chicago's iconic deep dish pizza. As is par for the course with any discussion about deep dish among pizza-heads, this bit of history is accompanied by a lot of talk about whether deep dish is or isn't a casserole. (It's a casserole, folks!)
Ed then gets Regas and Sasha to talk about their favorite pizza joints in Chicago and New York and beyond, which they do with only a little bit of reluctance. A few of the names you might recognize, as either a local or a pizza enthusiast: Coalfire, Spacca Napoli, Mama's Too, Speedy Romeo's...did I hear someone say the Illuminati?
In the second half of the episode, Ed has on J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who needs no introduction, and they talk about Regas's revelations and the nature of history. Kenji also gives us a preview of some new menu items on the menu at Wursthall, his restaurant in San Mateo, Calif, where he's planning on doing flammkuchen, which is a kind of-not really German pizza, and he shares a little bit of why he enjoys making pizza and pizza-type things so much. "Because you're interacting with a live thing," Kenji says, "that certainly takes a lot more skill than working with something like sous vide...There's nothing precise at all in the pizza oven. So, when you get it right, it's pretty nice."
That's just a small taste of all the pizza talk packed in this episode, and we hope you give it a listen.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-peter-regas-pizza-origin-story-2-2.html
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
On this week's Special Sauce, Doug Crowell and Ryan Angulo talk a lot about a lot of things, including their cookbook, the aptly titled Kindness and Salt: The Care and Feeding of Your Friends and Neighbors.
I asked them to dissect the unusual title, starting with "kindness." Doug explained, "It's a big part of what we do...We try to be kind in everything we do, in our relationships as a staff and also with our customers. So that would have to be a part of our book. That's our philosophy."
But what about the salt? Doug said, "The salt is sort of shorthand for just cooking...cooking with flavor and cooking with common sense and cooking with salt, literally...and salt has a double meaning, because sometimes we all get a little salty."
When I asked about the subtitle, Ryan noted, "That was our working title for the book pretty much since the beginning." And Doug pointed out, "That nicely encapsulates what we do."
I wondered whether that philosophy of caring for friends and neighbors extended to their kitchens, where in restaurant culture in general there has long been a traditional of verbal abuse. Does Ryan scream? "No," Ryan said. "Not at all. Well, it depends, but, I mean, you have to really be doing something like that's just really idiotic and just not respectful of the food or the restaurant to really make me mad. But on a day-to-day basis, no, I don't walk around yelling, and I know a lot of chefs do. That's kind of one of the biggest things I learned from working in kitchens is what I didn't want to do when I became a chef, and that was pretty much one of them."
Ryan and Doug also talked about the importance of the person greeting customers at their restaurants. "The person at the door has this dual responsibility. One is just friendliness, but the other one is this sort of mad air traffic control situation where you're trying to shuffle everything around and make it work and promise people they're gonna sit down in 15 minutes and they really will or an hour and a half and they really will. I think of that person as being second only to the chef as far as making the whole thing go."
According to them, one of their door people is from the South, and she has a magic word, a contraction in fact, that has disarmed many a peeved customer, but you're just going to have to listen to find out what it is.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/02/special-sauce-doug-crowell-ryan-angulo-2-2.html
On this week's Special Sauce, Chef Anita Lo talks about her new cookbook, Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One. To Anita, cooking for yourself is a journey of self-discovery. "I think cooking can be self re-affirming," she says. "I mean if food is culture and you're cooking what you like to eat, it's about you. It's about who you are...Food is identity."
She also says cooking for yourself is therapeutic and thought-provoking. "I've had a lot of people say to me that this book made them think about how far they'd go to cook for themselves and why they wouldn't do that," she notes. "That's interesting to me. I mean it, we need to take care of ourselves. If you don't take care of yourself, there's no way you can take care of other people."
Anita also obliged me by outlining for me in detail what exactly would happen on Anita Lo Day all over the world, including a long list of activities that starts with with, "People are eating. People are eating with abandon."
In other words, they're eating seriously.
To find out what else they're doing, you're going to have to listen to the always thoughtful Anita Lo on this week's Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/02/special-sauce-anita-lo-2-2.html
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
On this week’s Special Sauce I continue my delightful conversation with The White Moustache founder Homa Dashtaki.
I asked her how she makes her sinfully rich yogurt. Homa said, "There's nothing I'm doing different than the way I would teach you how to do it at home. And you can make White Moustache yogurt at home, and it's a very magical process, but it's so, so simple. It's just a matter of boiling the milk, letting the milk cool to a certain temperature, and then very mildly letting it incubate. And we are now making yogurt in a vat, in a 79-gallon vat, and we just mimic that process."
She paused before continuing: "And in that vat is the only time that machinery is ever used. It is entirely handled by human hands after that. We take it out of the vat in five-gallon batches, and then it goes into 2 1/2-gallon batches, and then it gets put into an eight-ounce jar, where we put the fruit in on the bottom by hand. And our seasonal flavors of like summer peaches and quince are so much fun to make, and we try to make them as authentically as possible. And this is where my dad and I are screaming at each other, 'Yeah, peel the peaches!' 'No, don't peel the peaches! Leave the skin on.'"
Homa and her father often argue about whether to automate their production, which led her to talk about what her ultimate goal was, which I found surprising. "White Moustache was such a miracle to begin with," Homa says. "Maybe we hold onto that, maybe we're not a food business, maybe we're an advocacy business. Maybe we kind of set an example for how you don't have to get really big and sell to PepsiCo. Maybe you can stay small and flourish."
Who or what determines what’s going to happen to White Moustache? Homa suggests it's not up to her or her dad. But for the full answer to that question, you’re going to have to listen.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/01/special-sauce-homa-dashtaki-2-2.html
I have a confession: Until Daniel Gritzer told me about The White Moustache a couple of months ago, I 'd never heard of it, much less its founder, Homa Dashtaki. Now, after interviewing Homa and trying her yogurt, I can tell you that Daniel was right when he said it would change my life. First of all, the yogurt is so tasty, so thick and creamy, that I can't think of a reason not to eat some every day (which I've done ever since first trying it). Secondly, Homa is a force of nature, someone whose point of view and story might be better than her ridiculously good yogurt, as you'll find out in her two episodes of Special Sauce.
Homa even arrived on this earth in dramatic fashion. "I was born the day of the Iranian Revolution," she tells me. "So the day that the Ayatollah arrived in Iran I was born, and my mom had to go to the hospital in a police escort because there was a curfew, and that's probably why I'm so wired to like chaos all around me."
After emigrating as a child to Orange County, she ended up going to law school and, yes, practicing corporate law for a while. Why? "Oh, I loved the whole idea of it. You would tell me what you wanted, you'd put down on paper, everything would be clear," she recalls. "And I remember when I first found out about prenups, I remember everyone was very negative about them. I'm like, 'How wonderful! When you're getting into this really intense relationship that everyone would just be above board, you either know how great it's gonna be, or how fucked you're gonna be. It's all laid out.'"
Her legal career was cut short after she was laid off from her firm. And, after a period of self-described drifting, she found herself drawn to one of the foods that was a staple of her childhood. "We picked making yogurt because to me it was easy, I was being lazy about it," she says. "I'm like, 'There's only one ingredient, milk, right? Now how hard can this be?'"
It turned out that Homa fell in love with making yogurt. "I don't know if you've ever made yogurt at home, but it's a very magical process," she observes. "It's almost like you step into a time portal, and you have to slow down time. In order for your yogurt to take, it has to be coddled. You have to boil the milk, and you have to get it to the right temperature. That's actually no easy task. You have to pay attention to the milk, you can't just set it and forget it."
She and her father started out making small batches- eight gallons to be exact- of yogurt overnight at a nearby Egyptian restaurant and selling it at a farmers market in Orange County. She was in heaven, until the state of California shut her down. "I had finally found something that was truly my own, and it felt so- I know it sounds cliché and it sounds cheesy- but it was so authentic, and I was so lost, that to have this thing ripped away from me felt so incredibly unfair," she recalls. "And I just fought back after weeping for days. I mean, it was like somebody had ripped something away from me."
To find out how she got her yogurt groove back, you're just going to have to listen to Homa tell the story herself on Special Sauce. It's definitely a story you won't want to miss.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/01/special-sauce-homa-dashtaki-1.html
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
Stella Parks and Daniel Gritzer are back for the second part of our Ask Special Sauce holiday edition, and we tackle some of the most pressing issues many of us face when cooking during the holidays.
For example, take the sticky subject of royal icing, which, according to Stella, is great for making a bunch of holiday-appropriate treats far in advance."You can make a bunch of frosted snowflakes, and they'll keep for weeks, without any kind of loss of quality, because there's nothing really perishable happening," Stella says. "The high sugar content of the frosting ensures that there's not really any bacterial activity coming from the egg whites."
Mr. Gritzer offers up some advice for prepping and storing fresh herbs, including the importance of using a salad spinner to wash and dry them. The key to storing tender herbs like cilantro and parsley? "Treat them like fresh-cut flowers," Daniel says. For further instructions, you're going to have to listen, but I will give you a hint that the next thing to do involves herb millinery.
Daniel also answers the vexing question of how to cook a beef tenderloin to satisfy both the people who like their meat rare and the folks who like their meat medium, which I will similarly leave for you to discover.
Finally, I asked both of them to tell me what they don't like about the holidays. Daniel's answer won't surprise you; his is a fairly common complaint. But Stella's, on the other hand, is most decidedly not commonplace. In fact, it's a hilarious, Grinchian shocker. But this is one gift I'm not giving away. You're going to have to find out for yourself by checking out the episode.
Happy Holidays, Serious Eaters, from all of us here at Serious Eats World HQ!
I had such a good time answering your Thanksgiving questions with Kenji and Stella on our recent installment of Call Special Sauce, we thought we'd do the same thing in a two-episode series leading up to the end-of-year holidays. This week and next, Daniel Gritzer joins Stella to answer your holiday cooking and baking questions, and I can tell you that I learned a lot. You'll want to listen to the episode or read the transcript to hear Stella's and Daniel's complete answers, but here's a preview:
If you're among the few Serious Eaters who haven't heard of roasted sugar, one of Stella's genius inventions, Stella offers a quick definition: "So toasted sugar is just plain, white, granulated sugar that has been tossed into an oven for some period of time, and that period of time, it's kind of like toasting bread crumbs or toasting almonds or something, where you can give it a little bit [of time] or a lot to pull out different flavor profiles, like a light toast or a dark toast.... The sugar starts to thermally decompose, which is to say, it starts to caramelize without ever melting, and so you end up getting this kind of dry, granular, lightly caramelized product."
What's in it for the baker, you might wonder? One advantage is that using roasted sugar in your holiday cookies makes them less sweet: "It's still mostly sucrose, so it behaves like sugar in any recipe that calls for white sugar. It's a total one-to-one swap, but because some caramelization has taken place, it doesn't taste as sweet, and it does bring a little bit more complexity, some toastiness, some nuttiness, and that sort of thing coming into a dough."
To improve on classic holiday sugar cookies- you know, the kind you roll out and cut into shapes and frost with colorful icing and pack into tins as gifts- Stella advocates a slight substitution: "Most cookies are all-butter cookies, but instead of using pure butter in this recipe, I substitute a little bit of it with refined coconut oil. And refined coconut oil is a style that has no aroma or flavor of coconut. So even if you're like, 'I hate coconut,' this is not something that's going to come into play in this recipe. It's just there for the added richness, because if you've ever made a rolled sugar cookie cutout, you may have noticed that they can be a little bit dry, especially over time, if you're trying to make a cookie that keeps well. So using a little bit of coconut oil in the dough helps it to stay more moist and rich, and it helps it seem more rich, because coconut oil is higher in fat per ounce when compared to butter."
Besides advising a reader on how to successfully cook a big (and pricey) standing rib roast, Daniel describes his method for making crispy Roman-Jewish fried artichokes, a traditional Hanukkah dish: "It's a two-stage cooking process, where first you cook the artichokes in olive oil at a lower temperature.... That's to make them tender. They come out. You kind of smash them flat a little bit and open them up so that they kind of look like flowers, and then you raise the heat on the oil to deep-frying temperatures, up to 350 or so, and then go back in, and you fry them until they're golden and crisp."
If you've heard that frying in olive oil can be dangerous, fear not: "There is no scientific evidence that I have been able to find to suggest that it is a bad thing to do. The Roman Jews have been doing it for millennia, literally, and it seems to be perfectly fine." The real risk might lie in that dry, out-of-season artichoke: "I have actually had an artichoke combust, spontaneously combust, while I was slicing it.... Sparks and char and tufts of smoke wafting up off the artichoke from nothing more than cutting it."
So don't sweat your holiday cooking and baking this year- we've got you covered, on both Special Sauce and the site. Next week, we'll answer even more of your questions in the second part of this holiday edition of Ask Special Sauce.
Happy holidays, Serious Eaters. I hope it's not too early to say that.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/12/special-sauce-holiday-cooking-part-1.html
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
In part two of my enlightening and heartfelt conversation with Chef Michael Solomonov and his partner Steven Cook, authors of Israeli Soul: Easy, Essential, Delicious we took a deep dive into- what else?- the soul of Israeli food.
First of all, I became really envious when they told me about the kind of research they did for the book, which involved going to over 80 restaurants in eight days. That's my kind of trip!
And, apparently, when you eat at that many restaurants, you end up discovering a lot about a place. Cook noted that in the book they try to explain where many of the culinary traditions in the country came from, and what makes them Israeli, by documenting "the stories of all these cultures that have come together in the last 100 years, and evolved the cuisine that was already there, and brought in new traditions." As Solomonov notes, too, part of what's unique about the country is that "most Israelis are a few generations away from their family coming from a totally different part of the world," which makes for an interesting mix of food traditions.
But Cook also had one observation that stuck with me about what makes Israeli cuisine unique. He said, "Because of the way that so many different cultures have established themselves in Israel, within the last several generations, I think that there's an attachment to tradition that is really special, and something that we see probably less of in America. As food obsessed as we are now, it's about what's new and hot. It's not about doing something, perfecting something over generations, doing one thing, handing it off to your children. And that's really an inspiring way, I think, to think about food, and I think it comes through in how it tastes."
I learned so much from these passionate, smart advocates for Israeli food, and I have a feeling that many serious eaters will feel the same way after listening to this week's Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/11/special-sauce-michael-solomonov-steven-cook-part-two.html
3:23 Kenji addresses a question about make-ahead savory foods for the holidays.
6:27 Stella’s tips for make-ahead desserts.
8:28 Kenji explains how to get the most out of kitchen space when planning your Thanksgiving menu.
10:25 Debate: Should pies be reheated?
11:57 The team debates the differences between stuffing and dressing. Kenji is going to steal Stella’s dad’s idea for including brown butter in a stuffing recipe this year.
18:51 Is it possible to make gluten-free pies or other desserts that are actually delicious?
22:33 Are expensive turkeys better than ‘typical’ turkeys? Kenji, Stella and Ed discuss heritage vs. organic vs. free-range vs. commercial turkeys. Advice from Kenji: Use a thermometer and don’t overcook. Animal rights issues and farmers.
27:50 Kenji and Stella offer suggestions of what to do with leftover pumpkin purée.
30:18 Is sous-vide a useful technique for Thanksgiving? Kenji says yes, it’s great for turkey, leftovers, and heating make-ahead dishes.