My guest this week on Special Sauce is chef and cookbook author Joseph "JJ" Johnson. When I say he gravitated to kitchen work at an early age, I mean really early. He started cooking with his grandmother when he was four: "I didn't really watch cartoons...I'd step on like a milk crate. She would give me a peeler, which was probably like a phony play peeler, like Fisher-Price, and I would peel vegetables or I would scoop things out." Five years later, when he was nine, he saw an ad on television that sealed the deal: "So I saw a commercial back then for [The] Culinary Institute of America, when they used to run commercials, and I just said one day...I'm going to go to that school." Now that's what I call a really, really early decision application.
After graduating from the CIA and doing a few stints in serious New York kitchens, JJ appeared on an episode of Rocco's Dinner Party, which led to an unlikely introduction to Alexander Smalls, the seminal African-American chef/restaurateur and Tony Award-winning opera singer (that's quite a combo, isn't it?). Smalls invited JJ on a trip to Ghana, and gave him an education on the food of the African diaspora, which was both foreign and familiar: "It also was a lightbulb moment for me because I grew up in the diaspora...So there was these things that would happen and I would say, I remember that flavor or I remember that scent. It really helped me develop who I was."
JJ would go on to open The Cecil with Smalls, and although it is now, sadly, closed, it was named America's best new restaurant by Esquire Magazine in 2014. Since then, J. J. and Smalls have co-authored the cookbook Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day, and he's done a whole lot more, including cooking for Beyoncé. To find out just what those things are, you'll have to check out both this week's and next week's episodes of Special Sauce.
Here's how the delightful and brave Jenny Allen describes the food at her family table in Part 2 of her Special Sauce interview: "Such bad food...and so little of it."
As that quote can attest, you can be sure there's no shortage of pithy insights or jokes as Jenny and I talk about everything from the food at gallery openings ("Please, don't invite me to an art opening with the only food being peanuts....I resent that. Terrible. How hard is it to get a little cheese and crackers there?") and our shared love of Mounds bars to the topic of eating alone as a woman, which she writes about in her new book Would Everybody Please Stop: Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas: "A lot of women are shy about going out to eat alone. They think they look needy or sad, or they just feel unprotected or something. I don't feel that way."
We also managed to talk about subjects other than food, such as the way Jenny has watched in amazement as her actor-playright-television writer daughter Halley Feiffer has fearlessly blazed her own creative path with no hesitation. For those unfamiliar with her work, by the time Halley turned 21 she had already starred in The Squid and the Whale and won the National Young Playwrights' Contest. Since then, Halley has had her plays produced in leading theaters all over the country, has starred on Broadway, and has written for Mozart in the Jungle. Jenny wants someone to write a book about mothers and daughters in terms of the work they do in large part because she thinks that the fearlessness she sees in her daughter is echoed among her peers. "I feel like, among my friends, more than several of our daughters are doing the things that we do, only sooner, better, braver," Jenny says. "It's just wonderful to watch."
Just as it is wonderful to listen to Jenny Allen talk about anything at all–it's a treat that Serious Eaters won't want to miss.
Jenny Allen, the humorist and author of the guffaw-inducing new book <em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Would-Everybody-Please-Stop-Reflections/dp/0374118329/?tag=serieats-20">Would Everybody Please Stop: Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas</a></em>, derives as much pleasure from eating as anyone I know. Consider this anecdote she shared with me about her food-loving stepmother: "One day she said, 'I made you something. I thought you'd like it.' It was an entire mixing bowl full of chocolate mousse...It was a huge bowl, and I just took it up to my room and just read and ate it all afternoon. I'm sure I felt sick afterwards, but it was...oh, my God, the best present ever."
The <em>New Yorker</em>'s Andy Borowitz, who is no slouch in the humor department has called Jenny one of the funniest writers alive, and so I had to ask her for the one piece of advice she would give to aspiring humor writers: "Something I say sometimes, which is I think even true for me is, when you think the piece is so eccentric or so idiosyncratic or so neurotic or so weird and so personally your own peccadilloes and anxieties, just when I think, boy, I'm gonna send this in, and my editor's gonna think, this woman is really nuts. That's when it's ready to send. And not before that."
Jenny also happens to be one of the bravest souls I've ever met; her hilarious and moving one-woman play <em>I Got Sick Then I Got Better</em>, which describes her experience as a cancer survivor, is a testament to that. And I think anyone who listens to her in Part 1 of her Special Sauce interview will come away with more than a little inkling of her humor and her wonderful character, and will be left wanting more.
(But that's what Part 2 is for.)
When Resy's Ben Leventhal, who has been involved in at least five food-related start-ups, speaks about entrepreneurship, I am all ears. Here are just a couple of the pearls of wisdom that came out of our in-depth conversation:
"What I do try to say to people that haven't been through a couple of cycles is you got to understand how hard this is about to be. People say, 'Oh, I want to start a company. I want to do that. I want to go out on my own.' I say, 'That's great, but it's really fucking hard.'"
"It's gruesome. Every day of a startup is gruesome. If it's not gruesome, something is wrong. Something is off...Every day is a battle."
And here's Ben on putting together a team: "Well, look, I mean, you got to understand that you have to have the long view. You're building something from scratch. The people that you're lucky enough to have working with you, the people that take a risk with you, the first ten employees, they're taking almost as big a risk as you are, and in some cases, they're taking a bigger risk because they got to trust [you]...That's really important, and you have to make sure that those people feel almost minute to minute like they made the right choice."
Ben talks about how he's applied these hard-earned lessons to Resy, a two year-old start-up that so far seems to have successfully taken on OpenTable, the granddaddy of online reservation systems. How exactly did he and his partners do that? You're just going to have to listen to find out.
The members list of the non-existent Digital Food Entrepreneur's Club would be quite small, but it would have to include Ben Leventhal, who is both this and next week's guest on Special Sauce. Ben cofounded Eater in 2005 and is now one of the cofounders of Resy, the popular restaurant reservations app. On this week's episode, he and I reminisce about the good and bad and definitely crazy old days of both Eater and Serious Eats. And even though we really weren't direct competitors then (or even now), it was fun to talk about the battle scars we both suffered in the early days of what was called the Web 2.0 era.
I love what Ben has to say about risk: "I think risk tolerance has got to be one of the three most important things you need as an entrepreneur. I think you have to be willing to take risks. You have to have a real understanding of what you're good at and you should take risks on the basis of what you're good at, and you need enough self-awareness to know what's not going to work. And, as Ben and I discuss, you have to have a real optimistic streak. As he puts it, "You've got to have a strategy to get through those days where it looks like it's the last day."
If you love to go to restaurants (and who doesn't?) or you've ever thought about taking the entrepreneurial leap into a food-related digital business, this episode of Special Sauce is made especially for you.
As we came to the end of the first part of our conversation, Andrew Rea had just started producing and hosting Binging with Babish, which I think is the most exciting, engaging, and just plain fun short-form cooking video series out there. Andrew still had his day job, and his obsessive, perfectionist nature meant that sleep was at a premium. (How obsessive is Andrew? He irons his apron at least three times for each episode.)
On today's episode of Special Sauce, we find out just how Binging with Babish became a true viral sensation, and how it became both his meal ticket and his vehicle for realizing all his creative dreams. In addition to Binging with Babish, Andrew now hosts a more interactive show called Basics with Babish (which, thanks to Switcher, allows viewers to cook along with Andrew in real time and even comment) and he's published his first book Eat What You Watch: A Cookbook for Movie Lovers. The way Andrew tells it, it involved a lot of hard work, luck, vision, and more than a little craft.
As to his what he thinks his special sauce is, Andrew says, "I try to do everything I can do to push myself out of my comfort zone. It's rewarded me the whole way. There have been stumbles of course but...The point of the story is that, yes, it's scary, but sometimes you've got to see if you can swim. You've got to jump in the deep end."
So if you've ever been tempted to jump into the deep end with a creative project, or if you just want to hear a unique digital media success story, you'll want to dive into the second part of my conversation with Andrew Rea.
I have to say that most YouTube cooking shows leave me cold. There's a little too much shaky cam footage and a few too many unfunny asides, and not enough serious, engaged cooking for my taste. So when Kenji told me about Binging with Babish, I watched one episode and got hooked. And I'm not alone: More than two million people now subscribe to the show.
I got so hooked that I had to have its creator, Andrew Rea, on Special Sauce. And I'm glad I managed to track him down: During our chat, Andrew revealed himself to be as smart and interesting and focused and idiosyncratic as the show itself. Which makes sense if you listen to how he puts the show together: "Every episode takes a bare minimum of 30 hours, sometimes up to 60 or 70 because I'm a one man band. I shoot it myself, I edit it myself, I color correct, I do the voiceover, all in my apartment, just me."
Here's the kicker: Up until a few months ago he also had a demanding full-time job, forcing him to work on Binging with Babish in the spare time he didn't really have. So if you've ever wondered what it takes to both produce a YouTube cooking series worth watching and develop a huge audience for it, check out this week's Special Sauce, which is just part one of my chat with Andrew (or should I say Mr. Babish?). When you do, I'm sure you will check out Binging with Babish yourself, and maybe his new series, Basics with Babish, too.
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.
This week's guest on Special Sauce is Bill Yosses, who was the White House pastry chef from 2007 to 2014 and is the author of the just-published The Sweet Spot: Dialing Back Sugar and Amping Up Flavor.
Bill isn't your (White House) garden variety pastry chef: He's a James Beard Foundation Who's Who inductee, and he's given lectures on science and cooking at Harvard. He's also the founder of the Kitchen Garden Laboratory, which uses science to teach children about healthy cooking.
Even though Bill is extremely discreet, I did get him to spill the beans about former President Barack Obama reprimanding him for making such delicious pie. "The first thing that President Obama ever said to me... We had all gone to meet him in the East Room, and so we were all circled around the outside of the room. He's going around, shaking hands with everybody. We had already served some desserts, so I was sort of standing there, ready for his accolades. He comes around and says, 'Oh, the pastry chef. You make the pies.' 'Yes, sir.' 'Stop making so damn many pies.' "
Bill's a born Serious Eater and a worthy guest on Special Sauce, and I'm sure you all will agree. Be sure to catch him in a couple of weeks, too, in part two of our conversation.
One of the many reasons I love doing Special Sauce is I get to talk to many people I have long admired from afar and never met. This week's guest is one of those people: David Tanis, one of the best and most thoughtful chefs and cookbook writers working today. I first heard his name when he was the chef at Chez Panisse. He wrote his first book, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, while working there, and for the past seven years he's been the City Kitchen columnist for the New York Times.
Now he's just published his fourth cookbook, David Tanis Market Cooking: Recipes and Revelations, Ingredient by Ingredient. David explains that, for him, shopping for food at open-air markets is about much more than gathering the freshest possible ingredients. It's therapy. "I live not very far from Chinatown [in Manhattan] and when I'm sort of feeling a little blue, I go down to Chinatown, it takes me ten minutes to walk there and walk around the market stands, and oh, I feel better in a minute. Seriously." That's my kind of therapy.
David also takes his ingredients seriously. How seriously? This is how much he loves his garlic soup recipe: "There are some great dishes [in the book], for instance, the garlic soup, which is made with just garlic and water and sage leaves. People need to know about that. I don't mind putting that in every book. It takes 15 minutes to make."
And here's what's happening on David Tanis Day all over the world: "Everyone is eating beans."
When you listen to this episode of Special Sauce, you'll realize that David Tanis is full of beans and so much more.
Serious Eaters who are as curious about all things chocolate as I am are going to love the second part of my Special Sauce interview with Jacques Torres, a.k.a. Mr. Chocolate.
Jacques gives a simple, succinct, and comprehensive explanation of the bean-to-bar chocolate process, and explains how his chocolate obsession has led him to buy 5,000 trees on a coffee plantation in Central America. He also clearly articulates the difference between dark, milk, white, and pink chocolate, which is relatively new. Which type of chocolate does Jacques prefer? All I can tell you is that he told me that good "dark chocolate is magical." I couldn't agree more.
As for the attendees to Jacques's last supper? Leonardo da Vinci is the first person he named without hesitation. His next choice was a shocker, and it's someone whose chocolate products are consumed by the ton every day around the world. To find out his name you're just going to have to listen to this chocolate-coated episode of Special Sauce.
As the holiday season approaches, we're planning a brand-new episode of Ask Special Sauce, starring our team of superstar recipe developers and all of your most pressing holiday-cooking questions! Need tips on Thanksgiving menu planning? Make-ahead dishes you can throw in the backseat for the drive to Aunt Becky's house? Guidance on safely deep-frying a turkey? E-mail us the whole story at email@example.com, and your cooking conundrum just might get featured on Special Sauce.
My guest on this week's Special Sauce is Chris Bianco, the man who makes my favorite pizza in the world. The pies he puts out at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, AZ, would definitely be on the table at my last supper. And while Chris is also the author of the new book Bianco: Pizza, Pasta, and Other Food I Like, which every aspiring pizzaiolo should pick up, I invited Chris onto the podcast because he's the poet laureate of pizza, someone who truly connects the dots of food and life in unique fashion.
The centrality of food and cooking to his identity is evident in everything he talks about, from the lesson he learned as a child at the Bianco family table ("Food was really as important as your breath, basically.") to the reason why he thinks he has gravitated toward cooking: "I think that I've been very insecure just in my existence, like where I fit in. I wanted to make you happy...I wanted you to like me, whoever you were."
And while he's passionate about food, he still has a sense of humor. Consider his description of the way he got started making money cooking in Phoenix: "I was making pasta and mozzarella in my apartment, and I was selling to a couple Italian restaurants at the time. They paid me cash. And I was like, if I got busted, how much time can you do for mozzarella?"
Chris also has some sage advice for young chefs: "What I challenge them to do is take everything out of their apartment, their spiritual apartment, and put it on their front lawn, and to see what they have they want to bring back in, and redecorate their life with or their inspirations with." And as for his poetic bent, Chris once told me, "I'm on a mission. I have a responsibility to do something with integrity and dignity. My menu might be small, but to me, it's the biggest thing in the world. Pizza inspires me, fascinates me, and gives me hope."
To hear more of Chris's wise words you're just going to have to listen to both this and next week's episodes of Special Sauce.
In part two of my illuminating interview with French-American super chef Daniel Boulud, he and I talk about—believe it or not—airline food. Daniel has designed some business class meals for Air France, and the airline flew me over to Paris to experience his food in the air. While the food was tasty, it wasn't perfect. (Having worked on airline food as a consultant, believe me when I say that "tasty but not perfect" is about as good airline food is going to get.) I asked Daniel how it felt to work within the constraints of airline food preparation, particularly as a self-confessed obsessive perfectionist. "I enjoy the challenge," he replied. "And I hope people appreciate the fact that I'm just trying to elevate the offering."
Daniel also talks about a remarkable older book of his, Letters to a Young Chef, which he has updated and is being reissued in October. I asked him about the qualities a young cook has to possess to become a successful chef-restaurateur. "You have to have the passion for hospitality, the passion for making people happy," he said, adding that that passion has to come through in a "respectful, intelligent way."
Daniel has a whole lot more to say about his career and his success in the restaurant business, and he also lets me in on how he'd like the world to celebrate a hypothetical Daniel Boulud Day, and on which band he'd like to perform at his last supper. You'll just have to listen to the episode to find out.
My guest on this week's Special Sauce is Daniel Boulud, whom I have known for more than 25 years. We first met when Alex Lee, his longtime chef de cuisine and my regular squash partner, asked me to take Daniel on a New York Eats food adventure (Alex now works for über restaurateur Stephen Starr). Over the course of that afternoon, Daniel tasted everything from Nova Scotia smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel at Russ & Daughters to superb Polish ham made by Kurowycky and Sons in the East Village (which, sadly, is no longer with us). I found myself in awe of Daniel's insatiable intellectual curiosity about everything and everybody in the food culture, his devotion to his craft, and his passion for deliciousness. And I think you'll immediately notice all those characteristics on full display in this week's episode.
How devoted is Daniel to his craft? He started cooking professionally at the tender age of fourteen—at a Michelin three-star restaurant, no less. A month later he was plucking pheasants and other game birds in a restaurant basement for 14 or 15 hours at a stretch. Did it phase him? Nah, he'd already been doing similar work at his family's farm outside Lyon for many years.
If you listen to him rhapsodize about learning to make a dish like ecrevisses à la nage (crayfish in a vegetable broth), I promise it will make you hungry. You'll also hear how well his curiosity served him when he ate a breakfast of tête de veau (calf's head) washed down with Beaujolais, with many of France's leading chefs, at the big market at Lyon. That's quite a breakfast, but, then again, Daniel's quite a chef.
I hope all you Serious Eaters will listen to, learn from, and enjoy this week's Special Sauce episode, which is entirely devoted to the culinary education of one of the greatest chefs in the world.
On this week's episode of the Special Sauce podcast, host Ed Levine talks to David Rockwell, the architect and designer behind every Nobu around the globe, as well as multiple airline terminals and the theater in which the Academy Awards are held.