In part two of my conversation with the extraordinary bakers Amy Scherber of Amy's Bread and Melissa Weller of High Street on Hudson, we take a deep dive into what makes a proper (and I would say perfect) bagel, keeping wholesale bread fresh and high-quality, as well as the balancing act required to make entrepreneurship, marriage, and parenthood work.
Both bakers have overcome extraordinary hurdles in the process of building their baking empires. Melissa recounts making bread in an outdoor wood-burning oven, without easy access to running water. Amy gets into the importance of crafting a unique product and opens up about the experience of juggling work, motherhood, and marriage- especially difficult when your husband is your VP of sales.
Also in today's episode, Kenji helps Serious Eater Nate the Greatest answer two egg-related queries. First, he wants to know whether boiling eggs in a flavored broth imparts any flavor, and second, whether marinating the cooked egg in that broth has any additional effect. Kenji, of course, has all the answers.
After Kenji schools us on eggs, we head into our test kitchen to catch up with Stella Parks, who takes us on a brownie-baking journey. "I've thought about brownies more than anyone else alive. I think about brownies every day, and I think about how fudgy they should be and how chewy they should be. I test batches side by side, over and over and over again. So join me on this journey as we make brownies from scratch." It’s hard to argue with that.
So, what makes a perfect bagel? How does a superstar baker manage her personal relationships and grueling hours? Plus, Kenji on eggs and Stella on brownies….Now that's what I call a perfect episode of Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/12/special-sauce-kenji-on-eggs-plus-wisdom-from-two-master-bakers.html
This week's Special Sauce episode unintentionally turned into a carb fest. Although I knew I was having on a couple of the finest bakers in the land- Amy Scherber, the founder of Amy's Bread, and Melissa Weller, a baker and partner at High Street on Hudson- I had not anticipated that the other segments of the show would have a similarly starchy focus.
But let's start with the bread-bakers: Scherber founded Amy's Bread way back in 1992, and it was one of the first artisanal bread-baking businesses in New York City, established long before "artisanal" became such a ubiquitous marketing term. Weller, who used to be the head baker at Per Se and has overseen a number of well-regarded baking operations around New York, is now turning out some of the finest bagels in the city (and that's saying something). The two of them gave me some much-needed insight into what it was like to earn their chef stripes in all-male kitchens and, more importantly, what it takes to finally say, "Screw it!" and start your own business.
In the advice portions of the episode, Kenji fields a question from Serious Eater Melissa Staricha about the food processor he uses for his New York-style pizza dough, which sends him on a Kenji-like riff about enzymes and autolysis and how to make good pizza. And, finally, just in time for the holidays, Daniel Gritzer offers some advice for how to make mashed potatoes way ahead of time and "still have them shit the table as good as new."
Kenji on pizza dough, Amy Scherber and Melissa Weller on their paths to bread-and-pastry entrepreneurship, and Gritzer on making mashed potatoes in advance to ease your holiday cooking stress. As someone on a low-carb diet at the moment, I have to say this episode of Special Sauce is an exquisite and yet thoroughly enjoyable form of torture.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=450340
I don't know about the rest of you Thanksgiving hosts out there, but my wife and I tend to become increasingly stressed as the holiday approaches each year. On more than one occasion, I've reached out to Kenji and Stella to help relieve my cooking-related anxiety. It was during one such conversation that I came up with the idea of having a call-in Thanksgiving episode of Special Sauce co-hosted by Stella and Kenji. We put out the call for your Thanksgiving-related cooking and baking questions and Serious Eaters from all over the country submitted their most pressing questions. As usual, Kenji and Stella had answers in spades.
We fielded inquiries about what foods travel well for a Thanksgiving feast, how to get pumpkin pie filling to set properly, and whether it's better to cook stuffing in or out of the bird. From Lani Houck’s question about whether turkey can receive the reverse sear treatment to Adrianna Lahti’s request for an improved take on her mother’s questionable pie crust, Kenji and Stella offered answers with their customary elan, grace, and humor. Their seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of all things cooking and baking will take out at least some of the stress associated with Thanksgiving, I promise.
Happy Thanksgiving, Serious Eaters.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/11/special-sauce-kenji-stella-thanksgiving-faqs.html
On this week's Special Sauce, we take a deep dive into The Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes from a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider, the new cookbook from Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying.
We pick up where we left off in last week's conversation, and Chris and Ivan talk about how this new project came about. They said that while their previous collaboration, Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint was received well, they decided they'd like to try writing a book that was more focused on cooking. And, as Chris tells me, as they tried to figure out what that book would look like, "I wanted to figure out specifically what it was that made a Japanese cookbook from Ivan and me worth buying or what the perspective was that made sense. We...pretty quickly arrived at this thing that Ivan's a gaijin. I'm a Chinese guy; I'm a gaijin. We can't hide that. There's no pretending otherwise."
After they figured out an approach, the rest was relatively simple: Ivan supplying the recipes and the anecdotes, and Chris figuring out how to cobble them together into an organized whole. And the result is a book filled with observations about Japan that are incredibly personal, accompanied by recipes and guides for how to enjoy them. For example, here's Ivan talking about Japanese New Year:
"So, New Year's food, it's a little like Shabbos. You cook all day on Friday and then you turn off the stove, you got your cholent on the stone thing and you just eat from that and you relax. Japanese New Year's, you cook all these things, a lot of the little treats have different meanings about long life and sweetness and bitterness and whatever...On New Year's Day, you wake up in the morning and...everybody in the country just sits down and watches TV and drinks and eats delicious food."
In addition to Chris and Ivan, Kenji and Stella pop up in the episode to dispense some advice. Kenji fields a question from Christian Hiller, who's looking for some advice about competing on the Swedish version of MasterChef. Stella, on the other hand, comes on to talk pie dough, just in time for Thanksgiving, the biggest pie day of all.
Chris and Ivan on Japanese food, Kenji on cooking competitions, and Stella on pie dough? It just might be a perfect Special Sauce episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/11/special-sauce-kenji-on-competitive-cooking-ivan-orkin-and-chris-ying-on-being-gaijin.html
Sometimes, my Special Sauce interviews are the best way to catch up with old friends and colleagues. I was reminded of that when Chris Ying and Ivan Orkin, co-authors of The Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes from a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider, walked into the studio.
The first thing you have to know about Ivan and Chris is that they are great company. The second is that, since they've worked together for long enough that they've established an easy rapport, one that comes through in every one of their exchanges. Consider this snippet of our conversation, when we on what role cleaning plays in becoming a chef or cook in a restaurant.
Ivan: I was a dishwasher.
Chris: As all good cooks should start.
Ivan: I agree. If you don't know how to clean, then you can't cook.
Chris: If you don't love cleaning...
Ivan: I have to say, that as I become a better cook I've learned to actually love cleaning. I mean, when I cook, man, you should see it. I mean it is sparkly...When I talk to a young cook it's always, "Look, I promise you, when you hit that point when you can have your station be clean, you'll know that you're a good cook, because what happens is if your station is messy you can't see what you're doing and you lose track." When I was leading the kitchen, I'd say, "Everybody stop. Nobody cooks. We clean now for five minutes. Everybody straightens, refills, get it all together. Everything gets wiped down. Wash your hands. Everything gets set.
It's in moments like this one where you can see why both Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint and Gaijin Cookbook are compelling reads, even as they are also wonderful cookbooks.
I want to note, too, that this episode also features advice from both J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who answers a pressing culinary question about what it means to marinate something "overnight," which was submitted to the digital mailbag by Camille Germany. And then, with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to check in with Daniel Gritzer about the art and science of gravy.
To hear how you can get your gravy right this year, how long you should really be marinating meat, and the first part of my conversation with Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying, you're going to have to give this episode a listen. It will be time well spent, I can promise you that.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/11/special-sauce-ivan-orkin-and-chris-ying-on-the-gaijin-cookbook.html
On Special Sauce this week, I had the pleasure of continuing my deep dive into the history of fast food with Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams. But before I tell you more about that conversation, we kicked off this episode, as we always do, with another round of "Ask Kenji."
Serious eater Nick Bastow asks Kenji why minced meat has to be cooked before it's added to a sauce, such as a Bolognese or chili. Kenji explains that it's not just about rendering excess fat but also about creating the right texture- which will be different if you're making, for example, his chili sauce for burgers and hot dogs rather than the other recipes named above: "In that recipe, what we actually do is, we take the meat, we don't brown it at all, we add our liquid to it, and we kind of break the meat up in the liquid. And the texture you get from that is completely, completely different.... Like a very chunky paste. So, rather than a chili texture, where you have big chunks of meat that are kind of bound in the sauce, you end up with a much looser- I don't know how to describe it without being completely unappetizing, but it's like a sludge." Though a delicious sludge, to be sure.
And, er, speaking of meat in unusual surroundings, Adam Chandler tells a great story about the real-life Colonel Harland Sanders, who sold fried chicken from a gas station in southeastern Kentucky for 20 years before "KFC" ever became a household name. Apparently, Sanders wasn't necessarily the courtly Southern gentleman the company portrays him as; according to Chandler, "He actually got into a feud over roadway traffic being diverted from a [gas] station and shot a guy." The story, which didn't make it into Chandler's book, just gets stranger from there.
Beyond telling the fascinating origin tales of Sanders and many other fast food chain founders, Chandler's terrific read also connects the evolution of fast food to the overall history of American culture in the 20th century, starting with the spread of motor vehicles and the increased mobility that that afforded some Americans. "[They wanted] food that was quick and easy, to go, which relates to the White Castle phenomenon in the '20s. This is 100 years ago. And wanting familiar experiences, wanting something that seemed safe. We didn't trust meat. We'd all read The Jungle and were afraid of ground beef. And so to have a restaurant, and eventually a chain, produce the exact same experiences over and over again, in stores that look the exact same, was comforting. And now, that could not be less comforting at all. We want personalized- it sounds dystopian to go into a place and say, 'I'm going to have the exact same experience wherever I go. It's going to look the same.' But a hundred years ago, that was a huge relief."
Finally, Stella Parks, the bravest Serious Eater among us, gives us step-by-step instructions for making one of her greatest discoveries, toasted sugar; a kind of dry caramel that's made simply by heating ordinary white sugar in a low oven for several hours. The result is a less sweet form of sugar that can be swapped out for regular white sugar in any dessert. "It's a great way to reduce sweetness and add complexity to your favorite recipes," Stella says.
How often do you get to listen to Kenji wax rhapsodic on browning meat, hear about the wild exploits of Colonel Sanders, and be schooled by BraveTart on the joys of toasted sugar, all in one terrific Special Sauce episode?
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/11/special-sauce-adam-chandler-part-2.html
This week's Special Sauce episode kicks off with Serious Eater Marc Lampert asking Kenji about the process of cooking with ingredients packed with umami. "Does umami cook out like an acid would?" Marc asked. Here's part of Kenji's response: "A general rule of thumb for cooking is if you can smell it that means that its concentration in the pot is going down...So if you are cooking a stew and it smells like there's this wonderful red wine aroma that means that the more you smell red wine in your house, the less is left in the stew. There's a finite bucket of it, and if it's in your house then it's not in your pot."
With Marc's question squared away, the episode moves on to my far-reaching conversation about fast food with former Atlantic staff writer Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom. He described to me the high school fast food ritual that started his journey: "On weekend nights, we would all pile into our cars and go to Whataburger. It was the last thing we did before we rushed across Houston to go home for our curfews. And that was our sacred ritual. I have the fondest memories of sitting down, and having breakfast with my friends right before we all went to bed...They have something called a breakfast taquito, which is eggs, a tortilla, hash browns, and American cheese...It's my deep-fried madeleine right there. It's just perfect."
I asked Adam why that taquito was perfect, and he said, "It was a comfort food for me. I think that was all I really considered it to be as something that even the adult menus at fast food restaurants kind of feel like a kid's menu. There's something about eating something with your hands, and taking it out of paper wrapping that feels kind of like a celebratory innocent thing...There was no formality required."
Adam and his wife even celebrate Valentine's Day with fast food. "We have a ritual for the last four years. We've gone to White Castle on Valentine's Day, so I have to do a special shout out for that because I don't know if you know this, at White Castle, they do table service every Valentine's Day. They have a red tablecloth."
Finally, the episode moves on to Daniel Gritzer, who talked about his favorite ways to cook a steak, which includes a technique that many cooks have been told is verboten. He said he does use a smoking hot pan, but then he busted a myth about flipping your steak just once while cooking.
To hear the rest of Kenji's explanation of how to use flavor agents, lots more fast food wisdom from Adam Chandler, and Daniel's steak-cooking tips, you'll just have to listen to the whole episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/10/special-sauce-kenji-on-cooking-with-fish-sauce-and-adam-chandler-on-fast-food.html
This week's episode of Special Sauce kicks off with our new culinary Q&A segment, "Ask Kenji." At the behest of listener Dave Shorr, Kenji lays down the law on the best way to freeze chicken. It’s a simple process that includes placing chicken pieces into a zipper-lock bag and pouring in a saltwater brine. Tune in to learn more about why- and be sure to read up on the benefits of freezing flat.
Next, Little Tong Noodle Shop owner Simone Tong explains how she came to open a restaurant serving mixian. These rice noodles, which are typically served in a brothy sauce with an array of toppings, hail from China’s Yunnan Province, and were largely unfamiliar to her customers. We both agreed that building a restaurant around a relatively unknown dish might not have been the wisest business decision, but she was undeterred. "I was naive and I was brave," she says. “I was like a New Yorker, confident."
Tong’s confidence and bravery were well rewarded. "Yeah, like you and many other food writers, supporters and foodies, they eat my food and they decided that they like it and they share the stories...and slowly, gradually people come. People come and I cook."
Finally, we listen to Serious Eats' very own pastry wizard Stella Parks as she tackles an at-home version of the famed (enormous) Levain chocolate chip cookie. “These cookies are no joke,” she says. “They came not to play, but to slay. You can kill a man with these cookies. Not that you should, but if you needed to, it would certainly get the job done.” You can watch the full video of her process and get the recipe for those cookies right here.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=448957
This week's Special Sauce kicks off with our new culinary Q&A segment, "Ask Kenji." This time around, Kenji schools us and serious eater Paul Anderson on the differences between cornstarch and flour when used as thickeners. Among them: Unlike flour, "cornstarch tends to break down when you hold it hot," Kenji says. "So you've been to a Chinese buffet, and they have the pot of hot and sour soup that's been sitting there all day, that's usually thickened with cornstarch, and as it sits in that steam table over the day, it'll actually get thinner and thinner.... [it] breaks down over time. So, a sauce that you made [that] was nice and thick and glossy the day before, when you microwave it and reheat it the next day, it might end up really thin and watery." Keep that in mind next time you're wondering why your takeout leftovers don't hold up so well- and when you're making big batches of your own saucy dishes that you hope will last the weekend.
After that, we meet Little Tong Noodle Shop chef and restaurateur Simone Tong, who has made her Yunnan-style mixian noodles required eating (and ensured their place on our list of best NYC eats under $15. Tong tells us about her initial experiments in cooking, as a high school student in Melbourne, Australia. In Australia, she first discovered the joys of Vietnamese pho, and cherries: "I had cases and cases of cherries. I have this microwave, so I'm like, I want to make fried rice in the microwave with egg. And so I ate that for a week, and then during exam time...I decided to mix salad with Caesar salad dressing and soy sauce." Despite her adventurous tastes, there's one very basic ingredient that Tong still can't personally get behind—of course, you'll have to listen to the episode to learn what that is.
Finally, we check in on what's been happening in the kitchen lately at Serious Eats HQ, where Senior Culinary Editor Sasha Marx describes his process for making homemade trapizzini, a terrific Italian street food invented by Roman pizzaiolo Stefano Callegari. "It combines Roman pizza al taglio, which is our equivalent of pizza by the slice, and the tramezzino, which is a type of sandwich served in Italy that's made on white bread cut into triangles," Sasha explains. The result is a thick, puffy, beautifully golden focaccia-like bread, ready to be split open and filled with whatever strikes your fancy, from meatballs to stracciatella cheese to marinated artichokes. You can get the recipe and/or watch Sasha making this elevated take on a Pizza Pocket here.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/10/simone-tong-starches-trapizzini.html
For the first segment of this episode of Special Sauce 2.0, Kenji takes a question from serious eater Phil on how to make naan in a Big Green Egg. It starts with our grilled naan recipe and ends with a 60- to 90-second bake on a pizza stone.
Next, ice cream Jedi Master Nicholas Morgenstern, of Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream, talks about how he comes up with his notoriously inventive flavors, like Burnt Sage, Black Pepper Molasses, or the Banana Kalamansi ice cream he had me taste on mike.
His ice creams are excellent on their own, but Morgenstern also has a sundae bar in his shop. Why? "The ice cream sundae has come to represent the egalitarian indulgence that ice cream can be in this country...everyone can have an ice cream sundae,” he told me. “Ice cream is already strictly an indulgence, and you're taking it to another level by adding the things that if you were a child and could have whatever you wanted, you would have on there. It turns out everyone wants to have that." To prove his point, he also came to the studio with a seriously delicious chocolate peanut butter sundae he's named the Rosenthal, named after friend-of-Special-Sauce Phil Rosenthal, the host of "Somebody Please Feed Phil" on Netflix.
The final segment of the episode captures low-key rock-star Chicago chef Rick Bayless teaching me the secrets of making the perfect fresh ginger sparkling margarita. Bayless is a master storyteller and explainer, and he does it all without a script or a teleprompter- pretty darn impressive.
With these three great guests, it's an episode you won't want to miss.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/10/nick-morgenstern-kenji-rick-bayless.html
This week Serious Eaters get to see the all-new Special Sauce format we've cooked up for the new season. Every episode of Special Sauce 2.0 will start off with "Ask Kenji," a brief section in which <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/editors/j-kenji-lopez-alt">J. Kenji Lopez-Alt</a> will answer a pressing question one of our readers has <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">sent in</a>. We're going to do one of these every week, so keep those questions coming. This week the question comes from Tucker Colvin, who asks Kenji which outdoor pizza oven Kenji recommends.
After "Ask Kenji," each week we'll have on a guest, and this week that guest is ice cream wizard Nicholas Morgenstern, whose eponymous ice cream shop in New York's Greenwich Village offers 88 flavors. As my friend Brian Koppelman said on his podcast, "The Moment," Morgenstern is Willy Wonka of ice cream. He also happens to be an extremely thoughtful person; for example, when I asked him why he chose to devote his life to ice cream, he replied, "The product itself is a terrific vehicle for expression for me...It's become more and more interesting to me to think about it as a cultural reference point, especially in America, and what it means to Americans, and why it's so important."
Finally, at the end of every episode, we'll check in with the test kitchen crew at Serious Eats World HQ. This week, <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/editors/daniel-gritzer">Daniel Gritzer</a> gives us his definitive take on the pros and cons of <a href="https://www.seriouseats.com/2014/09/why-you-should-refrigerate-tomatoes.html">refrigerating tomatoes</a>.
So do give Special Sauce 2.0 a listen. I hope you, like me, think it's snappy, informative, and surprising.
Part two of my at times emotionally overwhelming interview with Tom Roston, author of The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York, focused on the employees of Windows on the World who were in the North Tower's iconic restaurant on September 11, 2001, all of whom tragically died that day.
According to Roston, "there were immigrants from, I think it was over 25 nations.... People from Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico." For many of these employees, getting a job at the prestigious institution was a watershed moment in their lives. "It was like, basically, you made it. This is going to be your ticket to whatever it was, or maybe this is just the answer and you don't need to fight anymore, and then it was gone."
As Roston and I discussed, those employees who weren't in the restaurant that morning didn't escape completely unscathed, and each was profoundly impacted in their own way. These survivors ranged from servers to a sous chef to the executive chef, Michael Lomonaco, who happened to be in an appointment in the retail concourse of the building at the time of the attack and struggled with tremendous survivor's guilt afterward. Apart from those who lost their lives, Roston said, "think about all these restaurant workers who were so irrevocably affected by this event...and they walk amongst us. There was no victim compensation fund for these people. They live with it. They live with it every day, the fact that their best friend died and they didn't die."
In a way, the effect of 9/11 on the Windows staff was a microcosm of its effect on all of New York. "There are different layers of victim. The victim spectrum is very long and wide, and everyone felt it," Roston said. "I think it's interesting to think...about the city of New York, and how it was a victim."
Asked if a place with the spirit of Windows on the World could ever exist in New York again, Roston stressed the restaurant's connection to a different time in the city's history. "There was a romanticism back then, in the '70s, and there was a belief in certain things. Now, we're much more sporadic. It's about whether or not you can put it on Instagram, and attention spans are so fast and quick, but for me, I can see it all over the city, really. Not all of the city, but there are a lot of places where you can feel the spectacular spirit of the city."
Our conversation was both wrenching and edifying, just like Roston's book. This episode of Special Sauce is not an easy listen, but it is an essential one.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/09/special-sauce-tom-roston-part-2.html
No matter where you were when the two planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, you were profoundly affected by the events of that day. And if you, like me, were at all involved in the food culture at that moment, your thoughts quickly turned to Windows on the World, the glitzy restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower, where visitors could enjoy unparalleled views while sipping $5 drinks (at the adjoining Greatest Bar on Earth) or dropping serious coin for a celebratory dinner. One hundred seventy employees and patrons of the restaurant died that day.
Author Tom Roston, this week's Special Sauce guest, has written The Most Spectacular Restaurant in the World: The Twin Towers, Windows on the World, and the Rebirth of New York, a compelling and doggedly reported book that details the history of both Windows on the World and the Twin Towers, from their inception to their demise. As Roston says, "It's no coincidence that the book is coming out in September, right around 9/11, because it's when we are all forced to remember. Even though we are all thinking about it. I think so many of us always have it in the back of our minds.... I didn't lose anyone, but as a New Yorker, my city suffered. It just makes sense when you're...putting a book out, let's do it when this is part of the conversation. And I want the life of this restaurant to be a part of the conversation about 9/11, because it's not just about the tragedy."
Roston was particularly drawn to the poignant stories of the many immigrants from all over the world who worked at Windows on the World. "...There are these stories that have gone untold. We experienced 9/11, we think of this smoke, we think of these awful things, potentially. Or people go to the memorial, and they commemorate what happened. But it was interesting to me as a storyteller to say, 'Well, what about all these stories that haven't been told?' And it turned out they were these incredible stories, like from September 10th. This range of experience of life that happened in the restaurant that, of course, is heavy with meaning and profundity when you consider what happened the next day."
These next two Special Sauce episodes with Roston moved me to tears, and I imagine they will move many other serious eaters in the same way.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/09/special-sauce-tom-roston-part-1.html
In part two of my thought-provoking interview with San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho, we dove right into how she thinks about restaurant criticism.
Soleil explained, "I like to think of restaurants as texts in the same way that you read a book and then you extrapolate upon who wrote the book, when did they write it, why did they write it, what did the audience think at the time? What does it say about society at the time? What kind of snapshot is it? You're really reading it for meaning, and I think restaurants, you can take the same way."
When she took the Chronicle job, Soleil announced that she was banning certain words from her reviews, including a widely used adjective like “ethnic.” “When you say ethnic restaurants, I would beg you, not you Ed, but people who are listening, to think about what kinds of restaurants you're including under that umbrella. Are only some restaurants under that umbrella or all restaurants, because don't we all have ethnicity?"
Soleil takes her responsibilities seriously. Very seriously. She was recently quoted as asking, ”What if I screw up and no one ever hires a queer woman of color for a role like this again?"
I asked her to expand on that worry. "I get...a lot of messages from young people, younger than me, who are coming up or who are just reading my work and find me inspiring. And so I take that to heart as something that tells me to tread lightly, to be honest with who I am, but to also make sure that the door is open even wider for them.”
To find out what other words and phrases Soleil refuses to use in her reviews, and why she gave a lukewarm review to the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, you're just going to have to listen. It’ll be well worth your time to do so.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/08/special-sauce-soleil-ho-on-representation-in-food-media.html
Like a great deal of food media in America, the world of restaurant criticism has a long history of hiring white writers and closing its doors to people of color. So it was exciting to see the San Francisco Chronicle break the mold last year when it hired Vietnamese-American food writer and co-host of The Racist Sandwich podcast, Soleil Ho, to be its lead restaurant critic. If that wasn't cool enough, Soleil also happens to be a fellow graduate of Grinnell College, the small progressive liberal arts college in Iowa that I attended a mere 40 years before she did. For all those reasons and more, I had to have Soleil on Special Sauce.
At Grinnell, Soleil remembers "having to petition dining services to leave soy sauce out for breakfast, and they didn't understand why we needed it. And I had to make my case like, ‘No, soy sauce and eggs is a thing that people eat.’” Vocal as she was about food, though, she didn’t start out wanting to be a food writer. "When I entered college, I wanted to get into physics. I was really into quantum physics and was reading the History of Time and all of these other books,” she recalls. But cooking always had an undeniable allure. "Oh, I used to be so into Iron Chef when I was a kid. I loved the bravado of it, of peeling eels alive and all of that stuff. And that's what really attracted me to that.”
Learning to cook came later, initially from reading, watching TV, and dining out, and eventually from working in Portland as a line cook. It was during her line cook days that she started her groundbreaking podcast, The Racist Sandwich, with Zahir Janmohamed. "We wanted the show to be a reliable place within food media for people to find these stories that seems like they only ran on special occasions. You know, like you'd only read black stories in February during Black History Month, or you'd only read LGBTQ stories during June, Pride Month, those sorts of things. And we wanted to cover that stuff all the time and not feel like those stories were an exception or tokens or anything like that."
We covered so many interesting topics during the first half of our conversation we never even got to her San Francisco Chronicle gig. For that, you'll have to wait until next week. In the meantime, you can check out her bylines for the newspaper right here.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/08/special-sauce-soleil-ho-on-her-journey-from-quantum-physics-to-racist-sandwich.html
In part two of Ed Levine's conversation with Max Falkowitz and Matt Rodbard, the three discuss how Falkowitz and Rodbard got started in food media and how their careers evolved.
Falkowitz begins by underlining how intimidating it was when he first started working at Serious Eats. "I can't really describe the terror upon walking into the office," he says- though, he observes, that fear was tempered by the frenetic publication schedule, which was both liberating and educational. "It was a great trial by fire," Falkowitz says. "There was no time to second-guess yourself, and there was no time to dawdle with irrelevancies that weren't going to move the next story forward."
Rodbard notes that the early days of his food-media career, around 2006, were an incredibly exciting time to be working in the industry. "It was a great moment for me to cover New York at a time when celebrity chefs were starting to really become a thing," he recalls. "It was captivating to me to cover this burgeoning celebrity-chef world."
The two then describe how they eventually ended up where they are now: Rodbard is the editor-in-chief of Taste, an online magazine, and Falkowitz is a freelance writer, consultant, and host for Taste's podcast.
Ed asks the two of them to expound upon the current state of food media, and what they think has changed. "I think it's a more diverse world," Rodbard says, echoing a point Falkowitz made in part one of their interview. "I think editors and editorial directors and bosses are making a really clear and conscious effort to diversify their staff, diversify their freelancers."
The three of them discuss far more about the future of food media than can be captured in this brief blurb. To hear everything they have to say, you're just going to have to listen to the episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/08/special-sauce-ed-levine-matt-rodbard-max-falkowitz-2.html
In the next two episodes of Special Sauce, we take a deep dive into the challenges and triumphs of building a career in food media. I invited former Serious Eats editor/current contributor Max Falkowitz, and founding TASTE editor Matt Rodbard to share their perspectives. As two people who have co-written cookbooks with chefs, been on staff as editors and writers at food publications, and freelanced extensively, I thought they’d offer unique insights into what it takes to become food writer. And sure enough, they had no shortage of thoughts to share.
Max started us off with a hilarious tale about life at the Falkowitz family table: "So my dream story is to write one of those really tender, loving, emotional pieces about my dad's pasta sauce, which he spends all day making. He has these giant cauldrons that his aunt used to only used to boil gefilte fish in and they're probably 30 gallon cauldrons. He chops up all of his olives and he browns his ground beef and he gets special types of tomatoes and he spends all day making the sauce. He invites his old college buddies to have the sauce. It's a whole thing, and the sauce is terrible...It's so bad. It tastes like canned olive juice...which is effectively what it is. Both of my parents are wonderful cooks, and they were for the most part raising me as independent single parents and did a fantastic job and gave me a life long love of food, but they have their missteps and one of them is the sauce."
Matt's advice for aspiring food writers is quite simple: "Write all the time. It's like a muscle. It's like riding a bike. I mean, it's cliché, but it's true. You have to stay in shape. I think that's why I said the Yelp review was such a good thing to start with, because I was Yelping literally every meal I had and I think often with Twitter and with Social, people assume that's writing, but it's not writing. That isn't writing. That's something else."
Max added this bit of pointed counsel: “Give a fuck. There's so much writing that feels totally dispassionate and procedural. If you're not doing this because you love it, you're not going to get paid doing this."
Anyone who has contemplated pursuing this fulfilling but challenging career path should give these next two episodes a listen.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/08/special-sauce-matt-rodbard-and-max-falkowitz-on-becoming-food-writers.html
In part two of Ed Levine's conversation with Lazarus Lynch, who goes by more titles than any 25-year-old has any reasonable expectation to have (cookbook author, performer, singer...the list is incredible!), they delve into how Lynch decided he wanted to write his book, Son of a Southern Chef: Cook with Soul.
Lynch tells Ed that he came up with the title in his junior year in college, long before he even thought about what the book would contain, during a meeting in which a campus advisor asked him to think about his dream profession. "And I remember I kept bringing up my dad," Lynch says, "and I...went to my room that evening and woke up the next day with 'Son of a Southern Chef' sort of on the tip of my tongue."
And while Lynch adopted the phrase for his overall brand, producing a cookbook was just a natural extension of the many projects he'd already undertaken. But the process of writing the book was a bit mystifying, particularly since he didn't see any other book like it on the market- one written by someone who was in their early 20s and, as Lynch says, "who just came out of college, who's a part of the LGBTQ family, and who's talking about soul food." Add to that the skepticism he initially faced from publishers, many of whom rejected the book pitch out of hand. "We sent it out to about ten different publishers," Lynch says, "and...everyone was like, 'No, no, no.'"
Eventually, he found a publisher, and had to navigate the process of getting the book written and edited, but to hear more about what that was like, and how the book changed over the course of its writing, you're just going to have to tune in.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/08/special-sauce-lazarus-lynch-2-2.html
Singer, author (Son of a Southern Chef), and food personality Lazarus Lynch is not your typical cookbook writer or social media star. As an openly gay young Black man, Lynch is blazing his own trail in the food and media worlds, so I couldn't pass up the chance to talk to him for Special Sauce.
Lynch started his food TV career in college, where he enlisted friends to hold cameras and other equipment for his cooking show in exchange for free food. "We put it on YouTube. I didn't think anyone was going to watch it. And suddenly people on campus started to notice it, pay attention to it, and then [online food video network] Tastemade came calling." The next thing Lynch knew, Tastemade was flying him out regularly to LA to shoot his show.
Who inspired him to pursue a career in cooking on camera? "In the early days of watching Food Network, I would come home [from school] and turn on the Food Network- it was everyone. It was Bobby Flay, it was Emeril Lagasse, I mean, it was Ina Garten. It was all of the ones that we see, or that we know to be sort of the Food Network people. And that was my education, really.... I didn't know about the powerful women in soul food, like Edna Lewis or Leah Chase. I didn't know. I didn't know that they existed until much, much later."
Lynch came out to his parents in college. His father was immediately accepting, but his mother, a product of a strict Catholic upbringing, found his sexuality challenging. It took three conversations over the course of five years for her to come around. He told her, "I think that part of my purpose in your life is to help you evolve in accepting people of all different places, and whoever they are. That's part of what I'm here- to grace you in that process of learning and knowing. And you're here to support me in being my best full self. So, we had a very compassionate, loving conversation the last time we talked about it."
Despite the difficulty of those talks, the payoff for Lynch in increased self-confidence was huge. "It's been so freeing to be okay with who I am and where I am, and, you know, I think the best reward is not just living a happy life but also to know that there are other young people who are looking at me and who are being inspired, whether it's with their sexuality, or 'I need to change this.... My parents are forcing me to study something I really don't want to study,' which was very common when I was in school. Whatever that might be, but to follow your own heart and follow your truth."
I found Lynch's story and path fascinating and inspiring, and I think serious eaters everywhere will, too. And that's even before we get into a discussion of his cookbook and shows, which we'll do in next week's episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/07/special-sauce-lazarus-lynch-part-1.html
In part 2 of my extraordinary chat with chef-restaurateur-activist Alvin Cailan, we delved deeply into his socio-political motivations, but we still managed to fit in some laughs.
Cailan says he's always been motivated to confound the pessimism he frequently encountered growing up, akin to what former President George W. Bush described as "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
"I grew up in the early 1990s in the rebellious era of gangster rap and...the rise of the immigrant voice," Cailan tells me, and that spirit helped him push back against the people in his hometown of Pico Rivera in California, who would tell him his ambitions were fantasies. "Everyone tells you, 'Oh, you can't do that.' 'Don't even think about going to UCLA or USC.' My whole entire life I've always been fighting for,'I can do it, too.'"
That can-do attitude basically led to the creation of the popular web series he hosts on First We Feast, The Burger Show. After convincing the producers of the FOX cartoon Bob's Burgers to allow him to run a pop-up that offered burgers featured on the show ("I had seven days, seven chefs, seven pun burgers and we did out of my incubator in Las Angeles."), Cailan became known for his burgers. Or, as he puts it, "I became the burger dude. People started asking me to go on their shows, their podcast, whatever. Finally, [the producer] Justin Bolois...asked me if I can host this show he's working on." And he couldn't pass it up. "I love burgers," Cailan says. "I never really intended to be a TV or personality."
The Usual, one of Cailan's restaurants in New York City, has an unusual sandwich board sign in front: "American comfort food cooked by children of immigrants." I ask him what the story is about that. "I want people to know, when they're coming here, they're going to have food cooked by people of color and it's American comfort food, but influenced by our ethnicity and our culture...It's American food in 2019."
I also get Cailan to explain to me why you can't order one of his signature sandwiches at The Usual, but to find out what sandwich that is and why he can't give it to you, you're just going to have to listen to find out.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/07/special-sauce-alvin-cailan-2-2.html
Every now and then on Special Sauce, I just hit it off with a guest, feeling immediately as if I've known them all my life. That's what happened when I talked with Eggslut founder, chef-restaurateur, and ruckus-causer Alvin Cailan.
Cailan, who grew up in an LA suburb, got his first kitchen job while still in his teen years, washing dishes at a retreat house run by the Catholic Church. His very religious mother thought it would keep her wayward son out of trouble, and it worked- sort of. "[I was] in my car on my breaks...getting stoned, and the next thing you know, a nun would knock on your window and was like, 'Hey!' And I'm like, 'Oh, my God'.... And so I slowly started to change, because their way of fixing that was giving me more responsibility.... At first, I was hired as a dishwasher, and the next thing you know, I'm the janitor. Next thing you know, I'm the prep cook, and the next thing you know, I'm on the line cooking food."
After college, Cailan went into construction management, but his heart remained in cooking, big time. "It was very tough, because every day I would look up recipes, and then every Friday, when I'd get my check...I would go to the gourmet grocery store, I would go to Costco. I would break down whole tenderloins, and I would buy pork butts, and I would smoke them all weekend, and that was the thing I wanted to do. I was like, this is what I'm supposed to do. And one day, after wrapping up an invoice for $40,000 for a reconstruction of a bathroom, I think that was probably the line in the sand. I was like, I've got to do something different."
Cailan moved to Portland, Oregon, where he worked in fine-dining kitchens and learned how to make charcuterie at Olympia Provisions. But, impatient to start his own project, he saved up some money and started Eggslut in 2010, serving a variety of gourmet egg sandwiches from a food truck. "I was approaching 30 years old, and I was like, man, I really need to step up my culinary game.... I wasn't really getting the opportunity to get the big-salary positions in these [fine-dining] restaurants, and so I was like, you know what? I'm going to take it up into my own hands."
When Cailan first started Eggslut, he had enough money to keep it going for just six months- which meant he had six months to "cause some type of ruckus," as he puts it, and get his business noticed. "[My generation] is like the gangster rap/punk rock era of chefs, where, in 2010, 2011, there were so many celebrity chefs. I mean, there was—like, every single person was getting a show on the Food Network. They were either going on Cutthroat Kitchen, or they're going on Chopped, or Top Chef, and they were becoming these mega-superstars, but then these dudes that are, like, line cooks that are hard-working, who've been doing it for years, were not getting any visibility whatsoever."
Cailan then moved back to Los Angeles and started another Eggslut food truck. There, a food critic forever altered the course of his career after trying his signature dish- the "Slut," a coddled egg set on what Cailan calls "[Joël] Robuchon buttery potatoes." Which food critic was it? All I'll say is that it's not who you'd think. Just listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce to find out.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/07/special-sauce-alvin-cailan-part-1.html
Welcome back for the second part of Special Sauce with Ed Levine, featuring Ed Levine!
This week we pick up where we left off, with Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and Ed's longtime friend, serving as a special guest host, asking Ed about many of the events that are described in his memoir, Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, which has been named one of the best cooking, food, and wine books of 2019 so far by Amazon.
Meyer and Ed begin with talking about how Ed decided to start a food blog, in 2005. Ed had gone to business school, had published two books about the best food to eat in New York (New York Eats and New York Eats (More)), and was writing regularly for The New York Times and Gourmet but the idea to start up Serious Eats only occurred to him after a deal to set up a food channel with MTV fell through.
As part of research for the project, Ed discovered food blogs, and he became enamored by the freedom the medium offered. As he says about blogging to Meyer, "It was an emancipation proclamation. You, in one fell swoop, you got rid of every gatekeeper in your life." Ed had the freedom to pitch himself on any and every idea that he came up with, and he would of course, get immediate approval. And thus, Ed Levine Eats was born.
Ed confesses that he didn't have much of a plan beyond doing what he loved. He didn't have much of an editorial strategy- "I convinced myself that I could make a business out of it," Ed says, "by aggregating a bunch of other bloggers."- and he just assumed that he'd easily be able to raise money to fund what would become Serious Eats. "I just had no idea what I was doing," Ed tells Meyer. "I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I had no idea how difficult it was to raise money."
And that, really, is the untold story of Serious Eats: Ed struggling to make his dream job a reality. Ed established Serious Eats, bought up a couple other blogs (A Hamburger Today and Slice, both founded by Adam Kuban), and hired an extremely talented staff, including Kuban, Alaina Browne, and J. Kenji López-Alt, despite offering very little in the way of compensation, and started to rack up page views, and while the site seemed like it was riotously successful to readers, Ed was constantly- for almost a decade!- trying to round up enough money from investors to keep the whole thing afloat.
Meyer and Ed go over that harrowing history, but there are some other moments during their conversation that listeners should look out for. For example, Meyer describes the ethos of Serious Eats better than anyone, and in one succinct sentence, no less. Listeners will also discover exactly what an "Eddie dollar" is. And the whole conversation ends on a poignant note, with Ed describing how the site wouldn't have been possible without the most important person in his life.
To find out who that is, and to see what creating a successful food blog almost cost him, you're just going to have to listen. (Or, of course, you can buy a copy of Serious Eater for yourself!)
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/07/special-sauce-ed-levine-live-part-2.html
At the end of every week, Ed Levine- a.k.a. Serious Eats founder, a.k.a. Serious Eats overlord, a.k.a. "missionary of the delicious," a.k.a. Ed "The Good Ones Eat Through the Pain" Levine- hosts intimate conversations with food lovers of all kinds, diving deep into the ways in which eating and sharing meals has shaped his guests' lives.
For this and next week's episodes of Special Sauce, we turned the tables on Ed and had Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and Ed's longtime friend, grill Ed in front of a live audience at Rizzoli Bookstore in Manhattan. The event was held in part to celebrate the release of Ed's memoir, Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, named one of the best cooking, food, and wine books of 2019 so far by Amazon.
The evening started off with a bang, as Meyer admitted at the outset that he was going to be a combative interviewer. He noted that he'd been hankering for a chance to interrogate Ed about his business decisions, in much the same way Ed questioned the integrity of Meyer's business when he wondered, quite publicly, about Union Square Hospitality Group's inability to make good French fries. Or, as Ed so diplomatically put it at the time, "Why Do the French Fries at Blue Smoke Suck?"
Despite saying that he should "have his head examined" for helping Ed sell his book, Meyer did a fine job filling in for Ed, asking him all the questions that Special Sauce listeners have come to expect, such as "What was it like at the Levine family table?" Ed revealed that his grandmother's cooking was what sparked his intense love of food, and he identified the source of his missionary zeal as his parents, who originally met at a Communist Party meeting and bequeathed their passionate intensity, if not their politics, to all their children.
Part one of the conversation begins with Ed's childhood and ends with his college years, when he discovered a love for music that rivaled his love for food, even as he dabbled in a life of petty crime with an associate who will forever be known only as "Jerry Garcia."
To find out what that means, and to hear the origin story of the man who would go on to create Serious Eats, you're just going to have to listen to part one of this Special Sauce interview with Ed Levine. (Or, of course, you can buy a copy of Serious Eater for yourself!)
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/06/special-sauce-ed-levine-live-part-1.html
This week, in part two of my conversation with chef and food writer Nik Sharma, we dug into the science-based approach to cooking that informs his terrific new cookbook, Seasons: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food.
Given Nik’s background in medical research, it made sense to learn that he thinks of his kitchen as just another lab. All of us, he pointed out, experiment in one way or another in the kitchen, even if we’re just tweaking a family recipe. In his case, though, Nik explains that he “had that training to do that…one of the things I really like about recipes, [is that] the way they're written is exactly the way I would prepare my buffers in biochemistry or in genetics… We call them recipes, we pretty much use the terminology, everything is arranged by volume or when it has to go in.” He even admits to using lab notebooks when he’s developing a recipe. It’s that analytical approach that he says allows him to make each iteration of a recipe better.
That said, Nik shied away from making <em>Seasons</em> read overly scientific. Instead, “I kind of wanted to introduce myself to people,” he said. “At the same time, I wanted to be really approachable, so someone who is intimated by being too science-y kind of understands that the simplest things that they're doing in the kitchen actually have a scientific basis to them.” He talked about something as simple as bruising an herb like mint to extract essential oils and introduce them to a cocktail. “You know, you're breaking those cells to release those essential oils so then they get solubilized in whatever solvent they're in, so like water.”
The moral of Nik’s story? Even if science intimidates you, “what you're doing in the kitchen is a form of science,” and even when it goes awry, learning from your mistakes is half the fun. Nik believes, like Bob Dylan once sang, "There's no success like failure and failure's no success at all.” When it comes to cooking, he told me "I want people to understand that when you walk in to the kitchen, you don't have to be compelled to succeed the first time, I think that's something very cultural where there is this impetus to push people for success, but I think we forget sometimes that it's okay to fail because it's your failures that you remember, you'll never remember what you succeeded at or why, but it's when you fail you start to remember what was wrong, how can you fix it, and it makes you much wiser."
I loved hearing what everyone's eating on Nik Sharma Day, but if I told you what it is, you might not listen to the whole episode. And that, serious eaters, would be a big mistake.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=445672
Cookbook author (Seasons: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food), blogger (A Brown Table), and newspaper columnist (A Brown Kitchen) Nik Sharma made the perfect Special Sauce guest. Why? He has a great, dramatic story, and he isn't afraid to tell it like it is (or was).
Sharma grew up in India, and as a man who recognized that he was gay at a young age, he had a tough childhood. "At least back then, it wasn't talked about. I'm talking about in the late '80s, early '90s, when I kind of realized something was different about me. It was difficult, because I had nothing to compare anything to. The only stuff that I heard about in terms of gay life was about Indians who were either getting arrested, or bodily harm, or even being killed. So for me, that was quite terrifying. As a child, then you start- you think there's something wrong with you."
Sharma resolved to leave India, initially coming to the US to study to become a medical researcher. But his interest in food eventually drove him to the blogosphere. "I'm really passionate about flavor," he told me. "I’m really curious to see how people in different parts of the world approach the same ingredient or the same technique. I find it fascinating, because a lot of it is also a reflection of society, the socioeconomics of a country.... I find that fascinating, and I wanted to reflect that in my work. I started reading a lot, and also cooking and experimenting with flavor. That's what I started to do with the blog and bring that in."
Though Sharma's blog brought him enormous pleasure and a devoted following, it also brought him lots of uninvited blowback about his sexuality and the color of his skin. He found himself at a crossroads. "I think one of the things people forget [is] that when you write or you do something and you put it out there, you're making yourself vulnerable.... Fortunately, I took a step back, just to reevaluate my decisions in life at that point, whether I really wanted to do a blog. I said, ‘Well, you know, this is something that I'm actually enjoying more than I was before. I would be a fool to give it away just because of the opinions of a few. Let me stick to it, do it in my best way that I possibly could.’ So if they had to critique me, they could critique me on the quality of my work, but not on anything else."
When reading Sharma's book, I came across a passage that I found particularly beautiful, one that summed up both his relationship with food and what he's learned from his chosen career thus far. I loved it so much that I asked him to read it on the air, and he graciously obliged:
"Mine is the story of a gay immigrant told through food. It has been a journey of self-discovery I embarked on more than a decade ago. One that taught me to recognize the inherent tension between originality and tradition, and to opt for the former without rejecting the latter. It's been a journey of acclimatization, adaptation, and acceptance. During times of discomfort, food became my friend and teacher. It taught me to reinterpret conventional techniques and flavors, and apply these reinterpretations to my food that would become a part of my new life in America. Seasoning is more than just a way to achieve flavor in the food we eat. It represents our desire to connect with our past, present, and future. It tells our story."
To hear more from this eloquent writer, you're just going to have to listen to the whole episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/06/special-sauce-nik-sharma-part-1.html