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Special Sauce with Ed Levine

Serious Eats' podcast Special Sauce enables food lovers everywhere to eavesdrop on an intimate conversation about food and life between host and Serious Eats founder Ed Levine and his well-known/famous friends and acquaintances both in and out of the food culture.
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Aug 16, 2018

For the next three weeks on Special Sauce I will be geeking out about pizza with Adam Kuban and Scott Wiener, two of the smartest, most passionate, and most knowledgeable pizza nerds on the planet. Adam Kuban is the founding editor of the seminal food blog Slice.com, which Serious Eats acquired right before we launched in December of 2006, and as part of the deal, Adam became our first managing editor. Adam currently runs Margot's Pizza, a mostly monthly pizza popup in Brooklyn.

Scott Wiener is the founder of Scott's Pizza Tours, the author of Viva la Pizza!: The Art of the Pizza Box, and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest collection of pizza boxes on the planet.

Of course, I asked the two about their love for pizza. Scott said part of its appeal is that it has a wide reach. "It's the food eaten everywhere, and everybody understands it, and it's just sort of an open invitation for conversation...When somebody says, 'Oh, such and such place is hands down the best ever,' nobody ever says, 'Oh. Okay, cool. Thanks. You want to go play some hockey?' No, it's never like that. It's always a conversation, and nobody's ever right, and nobody's ever wrong. It's like this friendly thing you can talk about."

Scott's love of pizza led to him creating Scott's Pizza Tours, which in turn set him on the path to collecting pizza boxes, and he now has 1,400 and counting. "I just figured, I have to understand every aspect of [pizza]," Scott said. "I was driving out to Long Island to see pizza oven factories, and tomato farms. I needed to know as much as could about everything. When I started noticing beautiful-looking pizza boxes, I had all these questions...Why go through all the trouble of putting this sometimes beautiful art, and sometimes absolutely atrocious art, onto a box that's just gonna get thrown in the garbage?"

Adam's love for pizza has found its expression at Margot's, which is so popular that all the seats sell out in a matter of seconds when tickets go on sale. The pizza is a little difficult to pin down, but it's all Adam. "It's basically an amalgam of many different styles throughout the country that I fell in love with," Adam said. "My first love was basically the Midwestern thin crust pies. It's got that thinness. I love New York pizza. I love how it's crisp and you can fold it still. When I went about making my crust, I made sure that it was crisp but you could fold it." How do people get tickets for Margot's? Go to the website linked above and follow the instructions. The next one is on September 10th at Emily in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and tickets will go on sale September 3rd at exactly 10 p.m. Pro tip: You have to be on the Margot's Pizza mailing list to receive the link to buy tickets.

I promise that this special three-part Special Sauce series on pizza will have you craving your favorite slice, no matter where you live. That is, of course, if you love pizza. And who doesn't love pizza?

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The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats.

Aug 9, 2018
In part two of my interview with former Obama personal chef and Obama White House food activist Sam Kass, I got schooled big-time about the role visuals play in how you eat at home. "The first lesson that I learned, that I think is maybe most helpful for people, is you eat what you see. How you set your home up can have a transformational impact on what you actually consume. Basically, the things you're trying to eat more of, you should put out in plain sight, and the things you're trying to eat less of, you should put on the top shelf or the back of the freezer, in the bottom of the drawer, because you see the bag of cookies on the counter, and then you say to yourself, 'Oh, I'd like a cookie.'" That's what Kass taught the Obama family, and if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me and probably for most serious eaters as well.
 
Though he served as one of the leading figures in the good-food movement, via his position as executive director of Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative, Kass doesn't have time for the purists: "It pisses me off, to be quite honest with you, that we make people feel a certain way about how they're wrong when it comes to how they're eating. This book"—Kass's recently published Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World—"is really an attempt to celebrate progress over the ideals, and also to give people strategies about how to actually do it, 'cause we spend so much of our time talking about what you should or shouldn't do, but no time on how to actually get it done."
 
And ditto for the kind of elitism that tends to be reflected in conversations around nutrition: "If we want to change the food system, you have to change most people. We're too satisfied in the food world with doing it really great for a really small number of people. Scale matters. That's one of the things the White House showed me, is that the world functions on a huge scale, way bigger than we can comprehend and way bigger than most people even have any sense of.... If you want to have an impact, you've got to deal with millions of people and millions of acres and huge supply chains. That means you're going to have to make some compromises. It means you're going to have to make compromises in what you're asking of people. If you can get a lot of people to eat just one or two more servings of vegetables a week, that's a big impact."
 
Sam Kass has a lot to say in his provocative new book, Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World, and he also has plenty to say in part two of my conversation with him on Special Sauce. You won't want to miss it.
 
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The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats.
Aug 3, 2018

All right, I admit it: I've always fantasized about having one of the Obamas as a guest on Special Sauce. And while I haven't given up hope entirely, I realize that Sam Kass, my guest on Special Sauce this week, might be as close as I get to that particular dream.

Sam is an author and food policy activist, and I first heard about him when he was tapped by Michelle Obama in 2013 to be the executive director of her Let's Move campaign, which focused on changing attitudes about food and nutrition in America. By that point in time, Sam had already been working at the White House for about four years, both as a chef and as an advisor.

Sam has since taken some of the lessons he tried to impart there and written the cookbook Eat A Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World, which is also something of a gentle food manifesto.

We started the conversation off with what it was like for Sam growing up, and he said that he started cooking for his family when he was nine; part of his allowance was even budgeted for the shopping. But he didn't really use recipes. "I would just make it up," Sam said, "I remember I cooked chicken thighs with a bunch of dried herbs and some onions, and maybe some mushrooms that I just sort of threw together. It came out actually really well...I got lucky, I think. Because then I tried to do it the next time, and put so many dried herbs into it that it was basically inedible."

Such is life as a nine-year-old chef.

As we talked, it seemed like Sam and I were bonding quite nicely. Well, at least until I brought up Chicago's deep dish pizzas, which turned out to be a sore subject. Here's a bit of the transcript:

Ed Levine: How did you feel about Chicago pizza? Were you a lover of deep dish pizza?

Sam Kass: Of course. Are you kidding me?

Ed Levine: I ask that because when I, I wrote a pizza book. A book all about pizza. In it I uttered some blasphemous statements about Chicago pizza.

Sam Kass: I'm amazed you're still alive.

I hope you'll check out both this week and next week's podcast to listen to how the talented and thoughtful Sam Kass became an invaluable member of the Obamas' White House team.

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The full transcript for this episode can be found here at Serious Eats.

Jul 25, 2018

On this week's episode of Special Sauce, the Pulitzer Prize–winning but ridiculously down-to-earth Rick Bragg digs deep into his mom, the subject of his latest book, The Best Cook in the World.

For one thing, Bragg's mother was not in the least interested in trendsetting: "Well, the first time she ever heard the term 'farm-to-table,' the puzzled look on her face—like, 'Well, how else are they gonna do it?...' They had it back in her day, too. They called it a flatbed truck."

Bragg's mother wasn't initially keen on the idea of a book about her cooking.

"Well, it wasn't that she didn't so much like the idea of telling the stories of her food. She didn't like the ego it would require to call it The Best Cook in the World.... When I told her she said, 'What would you even call it?' And I told her the title, and she said, 'I wasn't even the best cook that lived on our road.' And I said, 'Well, that may be true, but calling it The Third Best Cook on Roy Webb Road don't sing.' So here we are."

But a diagnosis of cancer and the ensuing years of treatment helped break down his mother's reluctance, and strengthened Bragg's own resolve:

"I began to think about what would be lost, but I did not want to imagine a world without my momma in it.... I would not do this when my momma was gone, I just couldn't bear to do it. I had to do it while she was looking me in the face."

Did Bragg's mother, who spent many years working in kitchens of all kinds, including restaurant kitchens, consider herself a chef? "She did but she.... The word 'chef,' and believe me, I understand the culture, and I understand the hierarchy. I mean, they insist on being called 'Chef' if they're a chef, and I get it, and I understand the importance. But to her, she went about it with the same blue-collar notion that she went about everything else, and she saw it as the best thing that she could do...with the limited resources she had, for the people she loved. Some people sew, some people kill themselves in a factory. My momma cooked."

And, he said, it was both the only thing she thought she could do well and a marker of prestige. "I never will forget her telling me, 'Your Aunt Jo can dance, and your Aunt Juanita can climb a tree like a man. But all I could ever do was cook.' And she said that not with any...in any kind of self-pitying way, but with a great deal of fierce pride. A cook holds an almost...and it's not just my culture, it holds an almost magical place in the eyes of, especially, working folks, and I've seen it in the Dominican Republic, seen it in Cuba, seen it in Miami and the Cuban community there, seen it in places all over the world. The cook is kinda like a high priest of good living."

There's truth and magic at work when Bragg talks about his mother and her cooking. Listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

Jul 17, 2018
We don't often get a chance to have a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist on Special Sauce–Jonathan Gold was the first–so I jumped at the chance to have Rick Bragg, one of my favorite writers of all time, on the podcast. Of course, Rick isn't known as a food or a cookbook writer, but his new book The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma's Table, is both an incredibly evocative portrait of his mother and a collection of his mother's recipes. 
 
Parts of the book read like poetry, so I asked Rick to read one of my favorite paragraphs to give readers unfamiliar with his work a taste of what they've been missing: "I did not know then like I know now that my momma never ate until we were done, or maybe I did know but was too young to understand why. I did not know then that she picked all the meat out of the soup and stew and put it on our plates. I did not hear her scraping pots, pans, and skillets to make her own plate after her three little pigs ate most of what we had, but I can still see her sliding the bones off plates and gnawing them clean after we were done saying how she just liked the meat close to the bone, that we just didn't know what we were missing. It's not that we were starving, just that the quality of life for her children inched up a little if she did without."
 
Though his family was literally dirt-poor, Rick says meals at his family table were most often filled with joy: "Well, it was the best time of day. It was the greatest time of day. My people don't think I have a real job because I don't get dirty, or usually I don't. I don't get dirty. If you have a real job, you have to comb the cotton lint out of your hair or you have to get some Octagon soap and wash the grease off your hands. I think they think I cut out paper dolls for a living or something delicate and easy. For those folks, my folks, the reward was, especially the worldly one, was being able to come home, they ate their lunch out of a sack mostly, but being able to come home, and it might be very plain. It might be beans and cornbread, sliced tomatoes, maybe sliced onion, maybe some greens. It may be something from a garden or it may be ... In wintertime, it was maybe fried potatoes and white beans, but it was savory, and it was good."
 
I could give you many more of Rick's poetic utterances, but then you would miss the joy of listening to the man say them himself. Although of course you can always just read the transcript, but I strongly urge you to make the time to check out both this week's and next week's Special Sauce episodes. They'll be worth your while, I promise. 
Jul 12, 2018
In part two of my terrific conversation with James Beard Award-winning pitmaster Rodney Scott, we discuss the fact that barbecue, like jazz, was developed by African-Americans, and yet most well-known pitmasters are white.
 
"I respect any human being, man or woman, that takes the approach to be a pitmaster...Black, white, tall, short, it don't matter," Rodney said. "I see dedicated people who stuck to what they believed in. Kept trying at it, kept going, and they finally got something recognized, the same way I got recognized...So my whole thing is whether that person is white or black, it doesn't matter. If you're working hard and producing a product that you're proud of that's good, that's gonna speak for itself regardless of who you are."
 
As we were talking, Rodney confessed to a few guilty pleasures, one of which might surprise some people. "McDonald’s. I go to the window, pretend I'm on the phone, and I cover up my brand. Keep my head turned away from the window. And I order happy meals so that they think I'm picking it up for my nine-year-old." 
 
Rodney was featured on the late Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations, and Rodney talked a bit about some of the advice Bourdain gave him. "He basically said, 'Rodney, don't eat the sh*t sandwich...Don't ever let the producers and the fame of people tell you how to do your thing.' He says, 'You do what you want. If they start telling you what to do, don't accept it. Stand behind what you believe in.'" 
 
To find out what else Rodney believes in, check out this week's Special Sauce. 
 
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The full transcript for this week's episode can be found here at Serious Eats.
Jul 6, 2018

Barbecue pitmasters are amongst our nation's greatest storytellers—they learn that all-important skill tending to their 'cue all night. But Rodney Scott, South Carolina pitmaster and James Beard Award winner, might just have the best story of all to tell, as you'll hear on this week's Special Sauce. 

When Scott was growing up, his family started making barbecue one day a week at their general store in the tiny town of Hemingway, South Carolina, two hours' drive from Charleston. As Rodney tells it, "We did whole-hog barbecue sandwiches like most gas stations do hot dogs. It was just an extra income, just a quick side meal. And we did it on Thursdays." But demand gradually grew until, finally, the barbecue itself became the core business, and with that shift came a huge increase in the hard work of producing it, all of it shared by young Rodney, an only child.
 
It started with cutting down trees and splitting wood to make the charcoal. "If we did two hogs, or four hogs, whatever, we had to have enough wood to get it done," Scott told me. "And my dad would never let you lay around in the afternoons. You got off the school bus, you did homework, you went to work.... Of course, after cutting wood, you had to load it, haul it, help unload at the barbecue pit. And if you were out of school, you had to cook.... My high school graduation, I'm 17 years old, I walk out and speak to my dad, hold up my diploma, and he says, 'You need to be at the barbecue pit at 12 o'clock tonight.'"
 
After he graduated, the work became even more intense. "Three nights a week, we worked all night long. We had guys there in the daytime, and I was there all night. So being there all night, you had to keep the fire going to keep enough hot coals to fire up your hogs.... You had to have enough coals to fire anywhere from two to 15 hogs, because you never knew how many you were going to cook."
 
Not only did this upbringing develop Scott's lifelong love for barbecue, the discipline and work ethic it instilled in him clearly assisted in his journey from driving a tractor as a six-year-old kid on a tobacco farm, to cooking for John T. Edge, to opening his own restaurant in Charleston and winning the Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast.
 
To get the whole story, you're just going to have to listen to the episode.

You won't be disappointed, only inspired.

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The full transcript for this week's episode can be found here at Serious Eats.
Jun 28, 2018

On this week's Special Sauce, seminal food blogger, pastry chef, and author David Lebovitz and I took a trip back into the past. And we had a blast.

David worked in the Chez Panisse kitchen for 13 years before he realized it was time to leave. "I left because I was getting older, and when your body hits a certain age," David explained. "It's hard to stand up for eight and a half hours. It's like, I need to listen to my body, I need to go to the bathroom when I have to go to the bathroom without someone knocking on the door asking where the desserts are."

How was his first cookbook Room for Dessert conceived? "I was kind of burnt out, and I'd had all these dessert recipes in my repertoire, and I had spoken to Alice Waters [about writing a book]. Lindsey Shere wrote the first Chez Panisse dessert book, and I said, 'Well, maybe I should write the second one. Would that be interesting?' And, she said, 'Write your own.'" And so David's first book was born.

That book was the reason why David started his eponymous food blog in 1999; David wanted to give readers an opportunity to ask him about his recipes, which made him one of the first food blogging pioneers. "I had thought my first book's coming out, and I should use this internet thing, and if people have problems with recipes they can contact me. Because, often you make something from a book and you think, 'Oh, well, this recipe, I don't understand what the author means,' or something."

Around the same time, David decided to leave the Bay Area for Paris. He explained that in part it was because his life partner died, which, combined with his leaving Chez Panisse, left him feeling unmoored. Or, as he said, "It gave me the moment to say, 'You know what? I don't have anything here left.' I pretty much lost everything, and it was like, 'What do I do now?'" David continued, "I just realized this recently, that the reason I moved to France was because it was sort of a horizontal move, it is very similar to Northern California, the climate, the food was similar—goat cheese, garlic, wine—and it seemed like a horizontal move to go to Paris."

From Chez Panisse to early food blogger to best-selling author, David's story is full of twists and turns. Which of course makes for an excellent episode of Special Sauce.

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The full transcript for this episode can be found over at Serious Eats.

Jun 21, 2018

My guest on this week's Special Sauce is the extraordinary blogger, author, and pastry chef David Lebovitz, whose latest book is L'Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home. David and I started off our conversation with the early days of blogging, and I asked him about whether he had ever intended to make money from his path-breaking blog. It is a question he frequently fielded at blogging conferences, where attendees would ask how they, too, could make a profit, to which he'd respond, "Do it for free for eight years."

"The whole idea of monetization didn't occur [to me]," David said. "I remember the first there were Google Ads, and you might make like $9 and you were so excited." For some people, it started becoming a business over the years, but that was never the focus of my blog."

David has had a number of interesting jobs in Paris. He was, for a very short time, a fishmonger. "I did that because I wanted to learn how to cut up fish, and because the guys who worked at this fish shop were unusually handsome. Even my straight male friends were like, 'Yes, those guys are really, really handsome.'"

Though L'Appart is ostensibly about his misadventures renovating a Paris apartment, David said it's also about something else. "It's how to live like a local, and be careful what you wish for. Everyone's like, 'I want to live like a local.' I'm like, 'No, be a tourist. Come visit, have a great trip, go home with your sanity intact.'"

As to what he learned renovating his apartment, David says, "Well, I learned if you want to be comfortable, stay home. You know, if you want life to be...you know, you want to watch TV, watch your favorite shows, not have to worry about returning things, stay home and that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. You know, you take a chance and that's when...you took a chance creating Serious Eats. It might have not worked out, and it...you know, it happened to have worked out, but you took a chance. If you didn't take a chance, it wouldn't have happened. So taking a chance is usually an okay thing, and it's also okay to fail at things."

I will say, finally, that David Lebovitz is quietly one of the bravest souls I know. Why do I say that? Listen to this episode of Special Sauce to find out.

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The full transcript for this week's episode can be found here on Serious Eats.

Jun 14, 2018

Listening to Roads and Kingdom co-founder Matt Goulding talk about the food culture in Italy on this week's Special Sauce was a real treat for me. Matt spent months eating his way through the country for his extraordinary new book, Pasta, Pane, Vino: Deep Travels Through Italy's Food Culture, and he explains that what he found in his travels was a vibrant and evolving food culture, not one that is frozen in time. Or, as he so eloquently says, "I wanted to toss off this idea of this calcified cuisine that's encased in amber, that Italian food is a museum piece...So what this book is really about is, yes, the traditions are beautiful and they shouldn't be screwed with half-heartedly. They need to be taken very seriously, but to say that Italian food is the same as it has always been...overlooks the fact that there are incredible chefs, young and old, and artisans and innovators that are doing amazing things with pizza in Naples or ragu in Emilia-Romagna."

Matt illustrated the tensions between staying true to time-honored traditions even as younger generations are looking to do something new with an anecdote about a burrata-making family in Puglia. "I realized very quickly that within their own family the entire complexity of this push and pull between past and present and future was contained between mother and father and then their three young sons...The mother and father thought the idea of putting matcha powder into burrata was fucking nuts and grandma's rolling over in her grave...These guys were like, 'Well we just came back from Japan. We brought burrata to them and now we want to bring Japan to burrata. Why can't we do that?'"

I do hope you'll tune in to this episode, as I expect you'll find Matt to be as entertaining as he is insightful.

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The full transcript for this episode of Special Sauce can be found here at Serious Eats.

Jun 7, 2018
In part 2 of my conversation with the remarkable chef and writer Edward Lee, we take a deep dive into his terrific new memoir-with-recipes Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine.
 
Lee writes in the book, "Much of what we think of as traditional American cuisine is being challenged. We're witnessing a reshaping of the food landscape, and it is thrilling to some, obscene to others, but that is when it becomes interesting. When the tension between two vastly different cultures creates something new."
 
Lee, a Korean-American, explains that one of the goals of the book was to emphasize how that collision between cultures is a good thing. Or, as he says, “I really wanted to write this book to celebrate the diversity of food that we have in America, but also to understand that's our strength, that what we have in common is that we all love to eat these crazy combinations of food, and that's what it means...to be American."
 
This line of thinking, of course, leads to issues of cultural appropriation. “This entire book, the recipes are all based on experiences that I have from other cultures, and I kind of lend my own sort of twist. Having said that, I think appropriation is about stealing, and the opposite of appropriation is collaboration, which is about sharing. Hopefully, we do it from a standpoint of respect, meaningfulness, and we give credit where credit is due."
 
Lee is just as insightful in his book as he is in conversation, and he is also full of surprises, like the revelation that his favorite pastrami sandwich in America is made and served in Indianapolis, Indiana. Where is it served? Well, for that delicious bit of info you’re just going to have to listen to the episode.
 
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The transcript for this episode of Special Sauce can be found at Serious Eats.
May 31, 2018

 

Having chef and memoirist Edward Lee on Special Sauce was the happiest of accidents. Sitting on top of a pile of books on Special Sauce associate producer Marissa Chen's desk was Lee's evocative and moving memoir, Buttermilk Graffiti. I read a chapter, was knocked out by it, and emailed his publicist asking if Lee–chef/owner at three restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky, and culinary director at another in Washington, DC, and Maryland–was going to be in NYC any time soon. By some miracle, he was, and you can hear the results of all this serendipity on this week's episode of Special Sauce (and next's).

Growing up in the then-polyglot neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn, Lee was exposed to all kinds of food, and he and his friends ate anything and everything: "We're going to get a beef patty, and then we're going to eat some Pakistani food, and then get a slice of pizza." But, he says, the household he was raised in didn't exactly encourage his interest in cooking from a young age. "It was interesting back then, coming from a traditional, patriarchal Korean family. I was not going to be the one to cook. I had an older sister, and it's the girl that the recipes get passed down to, not the boy in the family. I'm supposed to go off and do whatever boys do. I literally had to fight my way into the kitchen. I was very persistent, even as a little kid.... I basically said, 'Listen, I'm not leaving.' [My grandmother] would let me hang out in the kitchen. She wouldn't tell me what she was doing, but she would just let me hang out in the kitchen, and she would just be like, 'Well, if you're going to be here, be here, but I'm not going to tell you anything about this.'"

When he told his parents he was going to become a chef, they were not pleased: "For my parents, they said to me, they said, 'You're being a servant. You're choosing a life of servitude.' Of course, my rebuttal was, 'Hey, you become an accountant, you're still serving someone.' They didn't want to hear that. I was kind of a smart aleck. They didn't like those answers. There were no celebrity chefs back then. There was no ownership of your destiny, ownership of your career."

Before Lee truly embarked on that career, however, he fell in love with graffiti, an outlet that, to him, represented art at its most democratic and most ephemeral. For many of the young people he grew up around, it was a "futile attempt at leaving some permanence on the world, knowing that this thing was going to get covered up in a week or two, or month. There was something both tragic and beautiful about it.... Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but I make the comparison now that food is so much the same way. Food is so much about.... It's just a moment."

Lee eventually found his way to Louisville, where he encountered his first bowl of collard greens at a local soul food restaurant and was drawn in by the multiethnic nature of Southern food culture. You'll hear more about how his exposure to Southern culture transformed his approach to food, plus the important life lessons he learned during his stint as a short-order cook in college, when you tune in.

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The transcript for this episode of Special Sauce can be found over at Serious Eats.

May 25, 2018

In part 2 of the Special Sauce interview with artist and author Maira Kalman, we were joined by <a href="http://www.barbarascottgoodman.net/Cookbooks.html">Barbara Scott-Goodman</a>, who co-authored <em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Cake-Maira-Kalman/dp/1101981547/?tag=serieats-20">Cake</a></em>, and, of course, we talked cake. What else would we talk about?

The first question I asked was how the book came to be. Scott-Goodman said that she had always wanted to write a book about cake, but not one that dipped into the realm of baking bibles or took itself too seriously. She wanted a book "about moments of cake." And so she approached Kalman (they have known each other for years) and simply said "I want to do a book about cake." And that was that.

Of course, the way the collaboration worked was slightly unorthodox. "That process took a little while to figure out," Scott-Goodman said. "I work as a cookbook writer and think in terms of, 'First we'll do this and that' and when I said something about the yellow pound cake Maira said 'Well, then that would be the picture of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein.'"

But an unorthodox process was totally appropriate, in light of what they produced. "'Is it a cake book? Is it a memoir?'" Kalman said. "It's both of these things beautifully tied together."

One of my favorite moments of the interview (admittedly one I engineered) was when Kalman read one of my favorite passages from the book:

<blockquote>The Cakes of People I Do Not Know

All over the world, all the time, people are eating cake.

They always have and they always will.

A group of children have stopped playing to have cake.

A man taking a nap on a comfortable sofa will wake up to a lovely cake.

Together, or alone, celebrating or sitting quietly and thinking, someone is savoring a moment of cake.</blockquote>

The words on a page don't do this cake poem justice. To really feel the power contained in them you'll just have to listen to the podcast.

 

https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/05/special-sauce-artist-and-author-maira-kalman-on-savoring-moments-of-cake.html

May 17, 2018

I don't know how many serious eaters have heard of the brilliant, food-loving, and thought-provoking artist and writer Maira Kalman, but I've been a huge fan of hers for a long time now. So when I heard that she had recently co-written (with Barbara Scott-Goodman) and illustrated a cookbook, Cake, I knew I had to have her on Special Sauce.

Kalman worked with her late husband, Tibor, at the influential M & Co. design firm, where she worked on projects such as magazine covers and album design for David Byrne, and eventually took over the business. She's also the author and/or illustrator of many books, including Beloved Dog, And the Pursuit of Happiness, and The Principles of Uncertainty, and she famously provided the art for a new edition of The Elements of Style.

As an artist, Kalman seeks to represent joyful, meaningful moments: "All comfort is temporary. We know that to be a fact. But when you understand that, then you can really allow yourself to look at those moments during the day, and they become very important, and they're very shining moments.... And I think those are the happiest moments that people have, when you're alone and a fleeting something happens, and you feel a sense of joy. So, I'm looking for those."

Having established that she's passionate on the subject of food, we talked about Kalman's ideal setting for a meal:

"Room service breakfast in bed. Let's start with the basics. Usually, I've spent time traveling a lot, and I order breakfast in bed because I want to see how they serve it and what the dishes are and what's the tray in, what's the napkin, and I photograph it, and I do drawings, and I've done pieces for magazines. So, it's professional on my part. It's professional research. But I adore all the trappings of table settings and what goes around it. I would like to work in a hotel. I worked as a maid in an Irish castle for a few weeks, and that was heaven. I can see doing that. I'd like to get a job in a hotel, serving somebody else breakfast.

In this episode, you'll hear about what she'd serve for that hotel breakfast (in great detail), plus why she dislikes dinner parties and her special love for chairs that have been abandoned on the street.

Next week, we'll get into Kalman's new book, Cake, but this week's conversation will provide plenty of sustenance in the meantime.

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The full transcript for this week's podcast episode can be found at Serious Eats.

May 10, 2018

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.

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The full transcript for this week's podcast can be found over at Serious Eats.

May 2, 2018

 

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. 

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The full transcript for this week's episode can be found over at Serious Eats.

Apr 27, 2018

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.

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The full transcript of this week's episode can be found over here at Serious Eats.

Apr 19, 2018
My guest on this week's Special Sauce is Simply Recipes founder Elise Bauer, who was a veteran of Silicon Valley start-ups long before she started her blog. "In the late '90's I worked with a start-up and helped raise $35 million on Wall Street for what was similar to what is now Skype. But it was also in the late '90's when, what do they say, what's that great saying of venture capitalists, 'In a strong wind, even turkeys fly.'"
 
It failed and Bauer took its demise to heart. "The company went bankrupt, I decided I'm gonna take a year off and get into shape. And I was living in San Francisco and so I decided what better way to get in shape than to do ocean swimming. The ocean there is about 60 degrees in the summertime and what better thing to do with one's time, right? And I loved ocean swimming. I actually did the [swim from] Alcatraz to San Francisco twice."
 
But after the attacks of 9/11, and after unsuccessfully trying to nurse one of her best friends back to health through a protracted illness, she developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Unable to work or swim, she packed up her laptop, left San Francisco, and moved back to Sacramento to be near her parents and regroup. "When I moved home, I gave myself a year where I would only do things that brought me joy...Doing things that make you happy, that's pretty good life medicine."
 
So in 2003 she decided to launch her blog Simply Recipes to keep a record of her parents' recipes. The only problem? There was no readily available blogging software available at that moment, and so she had to hand-code all the HTML, the CSS, the recipe pages, and the navigation. "No one does it anymore, but that's what you did back then. Because there wasn't blogging software. And then when someone told me, 'Guess what? There's blogging software out there.' I looked into it. I thought, 'Oh my gosh. I don't have to hand-code every single page on my website in order to put up a recipe or put up an article.'"
 
Elise was expending every ounce of energy she had left on Simply Recipes, and she found it incredibly worthwhile despite the initial lack of compensation. Why? "Because food is fun and I think it's important to write this stuff down and I believe in sharing knowledge. I don't believe in secret recipes. I don't think you should take recipes to your grave. I think the way we as a culture improve and grow is by sharing information and learning from each other. So it really is ... I want everybody to know how to cook well because if everyone cooks well, then I'm gonna eat better."
 
Elise's story is remarkable and life-affirming in so many other ways, as you'll find out when you listen to this week's episode. As for how Simply Recipes became the food blog juggernaut it is today? You're just going to have to wait until next week to find out.

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The full transcript for this week's episode can be found here at Serious Eats.

Apr 12, 2018

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.

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The transcript for this week's episode can be found over at Serious Eats.

Apr 5, 2018

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.

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The transcript for this episode can be found over at Serious Eats.

Mar 29, 2018

As you can probably tell, I love interviewing people for Special Sauce. That's because we book guests who have compelling food-related stories to share with us. But Roads & Kingdoms co-founder and author Matt Goulding had so many interesting things to say about food and life that I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I probably enjoyed the time I spent gabbing with Matt more than any other interview I've done for the podcast.

Here's Matt on his dad: "My dad, I should say, as many men are, was a great griller and was great with eggs. It seems to be two things that men generally feel comfortable cooking, even in a relatively limited culinary household."

And here he is how he views his debilitating Crohn's Disease diagnosis: "The two ironies of my food life is, one, that I come from a family that didn't really value food, and the other is that I ended up being deeply in love with this world of food but nevertheless have a digestive illness that presents all these interesting challenges."

Matt is just as good about how he got into writing as he is about his personal life. His first editorial job was at Student Traveler Magazine, an experience he describes as definitive: "That was my entryway into actually being paid for writing, at ten cents a word, but it was a check, and it was a drug. Immediately there was this high of seeing your name in print, being able to tell your story. Anyone who's deranged and narcissistic enough to become a writer knows what that high feels like, and I was hooked pretty quickly."

He went on to become the food editor at Men's Health magazine, where he finally got his fellow editors to understand where he was coming from: "Finally at an editorial meeting I think I said something like, "The kitchen is the new garage."

Matt ended up co-writing 18 volumes of the Eat This, Not That series, which grew out of a column he wrote at Men's Health and ended up selling millions of copies. Why were those books so successful? "It was a brilliant four words. The convergence of syllables was extraordinary," he says.

What does he find so compelling about writing about food? "I can't stop moving. So one thing I realized is it's going to be a really lonely life unless I find a way to connect with people as quickly as possible. It's always, every single instance, food, no matter where you are, was just an instant entry point into a culture, into someone's home, into their lives. It happened over and over again, so to be able to share those stories in some way, it would be stupid not to."

And, finally, here's Matt's description of how Roads & Kingdoms, the James Beard award-winning website he co-founded with Nathan Thornburgh, transformed from being something only their mothers would read to the must-read site for anyone who has an interest in the intersection between travel, culture, and food, all because of the power of a single tweet: "We just kept writing these 5,000-word narrative pieces about the most random convergence of culture and politics that we could find. But we woke up at one in the morning on this houseboat after a long night out at Noma, and it was clear looking at my phone, something was happening. The phone was literally pulsating or something. Open up the phone, and it turns out that Anthony Bourdain had just sent out a tweet. It was very simple, but it said, 'These guys do consistently fine work.' It was just a link to the Roads & Kingdoms home page, and that was it."

If you want to find out how that tweet led to Bourdain being the one and only outside investor in Roads & Kingdoms</em> you're just going to have to listen to Part 1 of my extraordinary conversation with the equally extraordinary Matt Goulding.

Find the full transcript of this episode over at Serious Eats.

Mar 22, 2018

In part two of my interview with Andrew Friedman, the author of <em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Chefs-Drugs-Rock-Roll-Profession/dp/0062225855/?tag=serieats-20">Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll</a></em>, he and I take a really deep dive into the book. Here's Friedman talking about the origins of the American chef culture:

"If you were an American kid [in the 1970s]...it was all but unheard of to come from a "good home" and turn to your parents one day and say, 'Hey, you know what, guys? I think I might want to be a cook'...The reaction of their parents was concern, fear, anger, horror, they thought their kids were throwing their lives away, they thought they were basically entering basically a blue-collar profession, very often having paid for college, or in many cases law school, or something like that." One prominent chef told him, "Cooking was not respected. It was the first thing you did after the Army, and the last thing you did before you went to prison." In fact, Friedman pointed out that in the 1950s the US Labor Department still designated chefs as "domestic" or service workers.

Although the book names lots of famous names and it's full of revealing details about the many power struggles that went on between restaurateurs and chefs (chefs were supposed to be neither seen nor heard right up to the late '60s), there isn't much salacious gossip in the book. While sex in the walk-in is referred to as a commonplace occurrence, Friedman made a conscious effort not to overdo it with the details. "I didn't feel the need to be specific about who was having sex in the walk-in. Now if more people had offered that up, or answered my questions very directly, I would have put it in." He points out, "This book opens up with [seminal LA chef] Bruce Marder, who I never met in my life, telling me about dropping acid in this van in Morocco. I'm very grateful to Bruce. There's a lot of people who wouldn't have even told me that story."

Though Friedman conducted hundreds of interviews with fancy-pants chefs for the book, he admitted to me that even he can't resist the siren call of some of the not-so-finer things in life: "I mean I eat all kinds of garbage. There are nights when presented with the choice between a Big Mac, fries, and one of those disgusting sundaes at McDonald's, I would pick that over anything else on planet Earth."

For more revelations and trenchant observations about the chef culture in America, take a listen to this episode of Special Sauce.

 

https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/03/special-sauce-cookbook-collaborator-andrew-friedman-on-why-chefs-are-like-snowflakes-2.html

Mar 16, 2018

No writer has spent more time working and hanging out with great chefs than Andrew Friedman. So when I heard that his long-awaited book chronicling chef culture in the US—Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll—had finally been published, how could I not invite him on Special Sauce? 

Friedman has collaborated with outstanding chefs on more than two dozen cookbooks, and he's not even as old as me. What intrigues him about this world? "Chefs are like snowflakes. I mean, no two are alike. The way people come to this profession, the way they develop...their style, their palate, their knowledge base, their skill set; I like the sort of peripatetic nature of it. You kind of assemble your own curriculum as you go from job to job, and often that means going all over the country, or all over the world."
 
How does he decide whom to work with? "The most important thing for me... is a point of view. I tell people, I cannot manufacture a point of view... If somebody's just coming to me with a collection of recipes, I can't help them. I mean, I could write the book, but I don't want to write that book. I've done too many books. It'll seem phoned in. I need something that's gonna engage me."
 
If you're at all interested in chefs or the culture that's grown up around them, part one of my interview with Andrew Friedman will definitely engage you. Next week, he and I talk about Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, his new deep dive of a book. Great title, don't you think? 
 
You can find a full transcript of this episode over at Serious Eats.
Mar 9, 2018

It's been several days since the Oscars, and I'll admit it: I was keenly disappointed when Knife Skills didn't win for Best Documentary Short. But now that I've had a few days to reflect on the Oscars as a whole (go, Frances McDormand, go!), and now that I've listened to part two of my interview with Knife Skills filmmaker Tom Lennon and Cleveland chef-restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski, I've realized that it was a winner regardless of Sunday's outcome. 

Why? Because the film has succeeded in making more people aware of the multifaceted problems recently released convicts face in reentering the community. And that awareness has resulted in positive steps by the restaurant that stars in the film, Edwins, and the related Edwins Leadership Institute. As Brandon notes: "Since the time of the shooting, we built a campus, so there's housing for people; there's a fitness center, a library. There's graduate housing. Got another building, working on a butcher shop. We're [Edwins Leadership Institute] in 13 prisons now." 
 
What makes the film even more amazing is that, as you'll hear in this episode, Knife Skills was shot on a shoestring budget and was turned down by Netflix, HBO, and Hulu—which is why serious eaters can watch it for free on The New Yorker's website. 
 
That's why I think Knife Skills comes out on top, no matter how the Academy voted. The film represents a triumph of determination, artistic expression, and genuinely life-affirming extended-family values.  Watch it, listen to our conversation, and decide for yourself. 
 
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The transcript for this episode can be found here on Serious Eats.
Mar 1, 2018

We don't usually make a big deal about the Oscars on Special Sauce, but when I saw the brilliant Oscar-nominated documentary short Knife Skills, I knew I wanted to talk about it. The film shows what happens when Cleveland chef/restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski opens Edwins, a white-tablecloth French restaurant staffed almost entirely by recently released convicts who are reentering the workforce. As I previously wrote on Serious Eats, Knife Skills is funny, deeply moving, and brimming with humanity. So this week, in anticipation of this weekend's Oscars ceremony, I invited Brandon and the filmmaker behind the documentary, Tom Lennon, a longtime friend of mine, to come on Special Sauce to talk about their extraordinary collaboration.  

For Brandon, a hardscrabble childhood that nearly ended in incarceration was saved by a demanding chef and mentor he worked for in Detroit when he was 18. "I finally found a place that would push back on whatever energy level I would exert.... There was always something to do, and there were so many personalities. It just fit with the way my body and mind are wired." While working for the late, great Charlie Trotter in Chicago, he learned that "you can do anything with what you have, no matter what the situation or how deep or how tough." 
 
With Edwins, and the Leadership Institute he created alongside it, Brandon set a lofty goal: "changing the face of reentry, and that's going to take a couple of lifetimes, but I knew that the right lens could accelerate that." That lens turned out to be Tom Lennon's, and Knife Skills was the result. 
 
Was the making of Knife Skills a political statement? Tom says no: "I didn't have any agenda. I just stumbled into this, it sounded like a good story, and I just filmed what I found. I think that that was an advantage. I'm not sitting here preaching to you about a political assertion I'm already confident in. That's not what it is. I'm just having you encounter a bunch of people in a very, very dramatic and difficult situation at a very difficult stage in their lives...really anxious, vulnerable, complex people who are yearning to not screw up again.... Then you, the viewer, I'm asking you to think about what you saw."
 
Take Marley, who says in Knife Skills that, in the throes of her drug addiction, "I'd wake up and be so mad to be alive." Marley has her ups and downs in the film, but all Brandon can do is provide a path to forgiveness: "I can't tell someone to be ready for this opportunity. What I can do is always leave that door open." Thinking about the process, Brandon told me: "When you're demanding excellence, you understand that maybe someone's not going to be able to do that, but can they do that for a moment, and can we make that moment a little longer each day, so that they can do that for an entire shift?.... If you get the right heart in there, that has the right energy and affection, that will breed hospitality. We'll work on the finer points, but just give me someone who cares and is going to work hard."
 
When you listen to this moving episode of Special Sauce, you can't help but notice how honest Tom and Brandon are, much like the film itself. You can watch the film here. And after you do, I bet you'll join me in rooting for Knife Skills when you watch the Oscars. 
 
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The full transcript for this episode can be found on Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2018/03/special-sauce-the-team-behind-knife-skills-the-oscar-nominated-documentary.html
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