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.
The transcript for this episode of Special Sauce can be found over at Serious Eats.
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.
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.
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."
"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.
The full transcript for this week's podcast episode can be found at Serious Eats.
In part two of my terrific interview with Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman, we move from the creation of her blog into book writing (her second book Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites was just published in October 2017), and how social media has (or hasn't) changed what she does.
The first thing I learned was that writing books was never part of Deb's grand master plan: "From 2003, I had been hearing from agents and editors. No, I did not think I needed to write a book. I thought it was like...'Why would I need a book? The web is all I'll ever need.' And that was really very much my mindset. It's so ridiculous to say this, and it's so insulting to somebody who really wants to write a cookbook, that I was so flippant about it, but I had to be talked into it."
Deb admitted that she was more "terrified" than anything else when her first book was published, particularly about how it might be received: "It was actually going to ruin...take the blog down with it when the book was panned. These were live and real things that were in my head, until the first day that it maybe hit the bestseller list, and then I was like, "Okay, one week of not thinking this way. Let me see if I can make it to next week."
I guess it isn't surprising that it did so well, in light of the fact that 85% of the recipes were new and couldn't be found on her blog: "I wanted it to be of value. I was really concerned about long-term readers feeling like this was not a book for them. It had to be of value to them. I wasn't going to ask you to buy stuff I'd been giving you for free, like you didn't know how money worked, you know?"
Deb's concern for her readers getting the most out of the work she does also plays into the way she uses social media: "You have to know what you're selling, I guess. For me, it's the stories, it's the recipes. So, I always felt social media has to meet people where they are. If you want to find out about my site on Facebook, let me show up on Facebook and be there. If you want to get your news on Twitter, I will be in all those places. I will meet you there. But I'm still going to tell you what I'm doing, where I'm doing it, if that makes sense."
Perhaps what's so surprising about Deb's success, in the end, is that she has kept Smitten Kitchen a one-woman show. "It's not the smartest thing I've ever done...It's not making me feel younger. I do my own everything. And part of it is that I...You could say I'm a control freak, but it's more that who else...How are you going to answer email for me? How are you going to write for me? How are you going to edit photos? It's all my vision."
To hear more about that vision and what makes the person behind Smitten Kitchen tick, you're just going to have to tune into the show.
The full transcript for this week's podcast can be found over at Serious Eats.
A week after sitting down with Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes, I got to reminisce with another seminal food blogger: Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen. Deb started Smitten Kitchen in 2006, the same year that Serious Eats launched. Twelve years later, Smitten Kitchen has millions of readers who come to the site for both her fine recipes and her realistic portrayal of her insanely busy city life, testing recipes and posting on her blog with two young children underfoot. Somehow she's managed to also write two best-selling cookbooks, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and her recently published Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites.
When I posited that one of the reasons Smitten Kitchen resonated with so many people is Deb's ability to laugh at herself and readily admit to failure, she responded, "Yeah, I thought that was so strange, that we were supposed to pretend we were perfect. How hard would that be to maintain? I'd last maybe a day, like a week perhaps...That's not life."
What explains the success of Smitten Kitchen? Deb isn't sure, but she said, "I'm hoping that I'm speaking about things in real language. I hope that I'm not pretending to be something I'm not, pretending cooking is something that it's not. I just think, 'Okay, so this is super hard to try to cook this with like a kid underfoot.' Why would I lie about that? Because this is real and we're all dealing with this. I kind of do it [the blog] to share the burden a little bit, like, 'Why should I feel like I'm carrying all this myself when we're all dealing with this?'"
Perelman is ever hopeful, whether it comes to the latest recipe she's testing or the future of food blogs. "I really do like the fact that that you can have a long, crappy day, and make a recipe that's new and fun, and it can be the highlight of your day." As for food blogging, Deb said, "You know, it didn't begin and end with me, and...I know that blogs sound like a very dated thing, but I always feel like if you're trying to get yourself out there, put yourself out there. So what if you have ten people reading? When somebody wants a link to your clips, there it is."
For more pearls of wisdom from Deb Perelman, check out part 1 of her Special Sauce interview.
The full transcript for this week's episode can be found over at Serious Eats.
At the end of part 1 of my Special Sauce interview with Elise Bauer, she had just described starting Simply Recipes in 2004 after coming home to live with her parents in Sacramento to recover from a serious case of chronic fatigue syndrome, and in this week's episode we pick up where we left off. At the outset, Elise says she was making enough money to splurge on movie tickets, but then things started to change. "The more content I added...the more we got picked up in search and the more traffic we got." And back then, as I can personally attest, more traffic meant more revenue.
But then, just as Simply Recipes was starting to take off, Elise suffered a relapse. Was it because she attempted the swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco again? "I didn't go back to Alcatraz but...I actually think it was hot yoga that got me into trouble...I spent the entire summer of 2005 in bed." It would take her another five years to fully recover. "I didn't go on a date for seven years," Elise says.
In addition to talking about her getting Simply Recipes off the ground, Elise and I got into a very lively discussion about the evolution of digital food media, particularly about the impact social media has had on the industry. "It used to be that if you had a blog, a good quality blog, people would then come visit your blog. Now you're expected to have your content show up where those people are, not the other way around," Elise says. "Social media's become a lot more important in terms of having a presence in the marketplace. It used to be it was 80% content, 20% marketing. Now I think it's 20% content, 80% marketing and marketing from social media."
Elise also offers up three important pieces of advice for anyone embarking on a digital food media adventure. But to hear what one of food blogging's true pioneers has to say about that, you're just going to have to listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce.
The full transcript of this week's episode can be found over here at Serious Eats.
The full transcript for this week's episode can be found here at Serious Eats.
In part 2 of my Special Sauce interview with Sara Moulton, she plunges headfirst into the issues women face as chefs. "When I first moved to New York...I couldn't get a job. But not only that, about every five years there'd be an article in the New York Times saying, "Where are all the women chefs?" It pissed me off, because I'd be like, "I know where they are. Being kept down or going to California where it's far easier to get a job, because nobody will give them a job here."
Here she is on why she thinks she lost her long-running show on the Food Network: "The way I see it is, competition and cleavage took over. I had cleavage, but they didn't want to see mine. But that's all right. And that's not what I was there for. I'll be honest, I was devastated."
Sara also talks about checking in with women in the industry periodically: "I always talk to them and try to find out what's the deal, how we're doing, how are we moving forward? I mean, I'm no longer doing that. But, how are women chefs doing? What they say consistently is they're still not getting the same publicity, and they're still not getting the same real estate deals and backing for new restaurants. They're still being treated like second-class citizens."
As for what she would tell a young woman chef about how to proceed: "The advice I would give to them is pretty much the same as what I used to [say]: 'Head West, young lady. California is so much better a place.'"
As a mother of two children who has been married for a long time, I asked her what she tells women chefs about having it all: "That is still a really difficult question and answer. I have no idea. You either have to have a partner who is willing to stay home...I mean, Jody Adams, you know, from Rialto*, her husband stayed home...If you can set that up, yes, you can make it work. But...it's striking when you think that this is not an issue for a man to be working 80 hours a week and [have] a family. But it is for most women. That is where I always hit a wall. I have no answers except the one I just gave you. It's rare to find the person who's willing to just stay home."
*Editor's note: Rialto shuttered in 2016. Adams is now chef and owner of the restaurants Porto, Saloniki, and TRADE.
Sara Moulton is smart, savvy, talented and pulls no punches. Listen in and I'm sure you'll agree.
The transcript for this week's episode can be found over at Serious Eats.
This week's guest on Special Sauce is food television personality and pioneering chef Sara Moulton, who is as unpretentious as she is accomplished. And when I say accomplished I mean accomplished. Sara is currently the host of the PBS series Sara's Weeknight Meals and the co-host of Milk Street Radio. She previously was the host of the live television show Cooking Live on the Food Network for almost ten years. Suffice it to say, Sara should be familiar to anyone who has watched cooking shows on television.
Want an example of her lack of pretense? Here is her take on leftovers: "I'd rather open up a refrigerator filled with leftovers than start with a blank canvas. Leftovers talk to me." Or how about this detail from one of her many food-related jobs in college: "I was a waitress at an all-night diner where we had to wear a DayGlo orange uniform and white nurse's shoes." It may have been the uniform, and it may just have been the job itself, but whatever it was, Sara's mother was horrified by her situation, and tried to help her in a way that would only make sense to a parent: "My mother wrote to Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, did not ask me, and asked them what her daughter should do if she wanted to become a chef."
After her many years on television, I was surprised when I found out that Sara was a reluctant TV host. "I thought that was vulgar," she explains. "Being a good WASP, it's like, "Oh, then you're looking for attention." I also loved hearing the advice she'd give to guests on Cooking Live: "Smile constantly for no particular reason."
As for her pioneering days as a young woman chef, Sara has some harrowing stories, but for those you're just going to have to tune into part 1 of her Special Sauce interview.
*Ed note: For those of you wondering where part 2 of my Special Sauce interview with Matt Goulding is, we'll be publishing it in a couple of months.
The transcript for this episode can be found over at Serious Eats.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
Back in the day, we used to say that Serious Eats was a website focused on celebrating and sharing our enthusiasm for food with the online community. In Part 2 of my interview with fellow food enthusiast Phil Rosenthal, he reveals that Somebody Feed Phil, his new Netflix show, is really about the same thing, if you just added "travel" to food and substituted "family" for the online community.
Food, travel, and family are at the heart of the show; in each episode, we see Phil interacting with a family he's met in whatever city he's exploring. And, for good measure, Phil's elderly and utterly hilarious parents make appearances in each episode via Skype.
Phil tells me, "What I learned from [Everybody Loves Raymond] is that every show is about a family, and what I mean is, your news broadcast that you tune into every night, that's a family of people that you enjoy being with. Right? That's another reason why my parents are in the show...because that's what makes a television show."
Phil explains that one of the reasons he loves travel is that it forces him out of his comfort zone. Like the time he found himself in Thailand, sandwiched between two elephants as he was trying to leave their habitat. After a few tense moments he was able to leave unharmed, though not before one of the elephants swatted him with his tail. Phil explains, "Once you're through that moment, it's the best experience of your life. It's one of the highlights of your life that you will never forget, and you are so happy that you took that step outside your comfort zone. It's the only way we get anything in life. When you see the pretty girl across the room, will I ask her to dance? If you didn't, you wouldn't have the dance. Maybe you wouldn't have the girlfriend. Maybe you wouldn't have the wife. Maybe you wouldn't have the family...we all have to go outside our comfort zone sometimes."
Then there's the vicarious thrill viewers get when Phil makes a food discovery. Like the crab omelet made by Jay Fai he ate in Thailand. "This is somebody, she's been venerated as one of the best street food vendors in the whole world. She makes a crab omelet, there's a pound, pound and a half of fresh crab meat in this omelet, which she's cooking over a hot wok. It's just again, street food, on the side of the street. She has a few tables beside the stove, but [the] fire is going, real fire. The wok is on the fire. She pours the crab into the eggs that are in the wok, with butter, then as she starts turning it, and the omelet starts to form around the crab, she starts ladling fresh egg over it and turning that. So, it's tender, layers and layers of egg, until you have, really, a football filled with crab....This lady, right after we filmed...she got a Michelin star. For a shack...and just this week, she wants to give the star back. There's too many people now. She's 73 years old."
To hear Phil elaborate on the crab omelet lady, to hear more about the elephant walk and other hilarious situations in which Phil found himself way outside of his comfort zone, check out part 2 of his Special Sauce interview and the full transcript on Serious Eats.
My friend Phil Rosenthal, the creator and host of the new Netflix show Somebody Feed Phil is as much fun to talk to as he is to eat with. When I asked him how the show ended up on Netflix, he replied, "The way I sold the show...I said, 'I'm exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything....I mean, I'm the guy watching him, not really wanting to go to Borneo and have a tattoo pounded into my chest with nails.'"
When I sit down with Phil no subject is off limits. We revisited (admittedly at my behest) the moment in 2006 when I asked him to invest in Serious Eats. I just thought that the food-obsessed creator of Everybody Loves Raymond would leap at the opportunity to get in on the ground floor. "By the way," he said, laughing, "my business manager told me not to give you money then. I was ready. I was like, 'This sounds good.' But he said, 'No, no, no, no, don't, don't.'" That's four "nos" and two "don'ts" for those of you counting at home.
If you listen, you'll find that the Phil Rosenthal you hear on Special Sauce is the same guy you see on Somebody Feed Phil. He's funny–really funny–smart, and generously spirited (he always picks up the check, on the show and in real life). And, oh yeah, Phil's also a great storyteller who has somehow managed to maintain an optimistic but realistic outlook on life. Why? Because as his friend Ed. Weinberger, the legendary sitcom director and creator, told him when he was shooting the Everybody Loves Raymond pilot, "Phil, you might as well make the show you want to make because at the end, they're going to cancel you anyway." As Phil pointed out, "Isn't that a great philosophy of life? We all get cancelled one day. Live your life."
So enliven your life, Serious Eaters, by listening to Part 1 of the Special Sauce interview with Phil Rosenthal. You'll be laughing in the first minute. (And for those of you who prefer their interviews in written form, we've included an edited transcript of the conversation on our website.)
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.