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
In part two of my delightful conversation with Priya Krishna, she delves into her book Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family in so many unexpected and revealing ways.
"Indian-ish" is not just the name of the book; it also describes her mindset and worldview. "For my whole life I always felt Indian and American but not quite fitting into either of those molds," Krishna says. "It was like I was too American to be Indian and too Indian to be American. But I think that as time has gone by I have found ways to really feel proud of that tension. You know, in my book I talk about how we wear our kurtas with jeans and we listen to Bollywood music alongside our top 40 hits and...these are all equally important parts of what we do. I love Indian food, but I also love Italian food and I don't think that those things need to feel mutually exclusive."
Krishna admits that she is no expert on Indian food. "I don't want to pretend to be an authority on Indian food because I'm not," she says. "I didn't want this book to be like, 'This is your guide to Indian food.' This is a guide to the food that I grew up eating."
Krishna is very comfortable being a missionary for Indian food we can make every day: "I feel like food media just, there is still this mentality that American cooking encompasses Western cuisines and everything else is the other. I still think Indian food is treated as this sort of strange esoteric thing and I really want to change that. I admire people who are doing that for other cuisines. I absolutely adore Andrea Nguyen, who just authored Vietnamese Food Any Day. I hope to do what she's doing for Vietnamese food for Indian food."
As an example, one of the things Krishna hopes to educate people about is the importance of chhonk, which Priya rhapsodizes about in the book. As she describes it, chhonk is "this this really fundamental technique in South Asian cooking and basically the idea is that you're heating up some kind of fat, whether that's tahini or oil, tossing in spices and/or herbs and basically crisping them in the oil. You pour it on top of a dish and it adds this unbelievable texture and extra layer of richness and complexity."
Of course, I asked Krishna what she plans on doing next. "There will always be some kind of collaboration with my mom and me," she says. "I think that the best recipe developers are people who kind of just have this intuition about cooking and I don't think I have that intuition. I think my strengths lie elsewhere. I'd love to develop more recipes, with my mom. My mom the other day told me, 'I think I have enough recipes for three cookbooks.' And I was like, 'Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Mom.'"
There's so much more in my conversation with Krishna that will resonate with Serious Eaters everywhere. But don't take my word for it, listen to the whole episode. I guarantee you won't be disappointed- not even a little bit disappointed-ish.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/06/special-sauce-priya-krishna-2-2.html
I knew that Priya Krishna, author of Indian-ish: Recipes and Antics From a Modern American Family (I am predisposed to like any book with the word antics in the title), was smart and funny and focused, since I'd read her book. But I still wasn't prepared for the delightful, incisive, and revealing chat we had on this week's Special Sauce.
Perhaps the most obvious question to ask was what "Indian-ish" means. Krishna explains that the concept was inspired by her mother and the book's coauthor, Ritu Krishna, whose cooking Krishna describes as "rooted in Indian flavors, but [it] kind of pulls inspiration from all the foods she was encountering from her travels as a businessperson, to what she watched on PBS cooking shows, to just going out to restaurants."
The result was a balance between the practical and the creative. Krishna says her mother "had limitless ideas for how flavors went together. She had this amazing intuition, but she also didn't have time, so her recipes are this perfect marriage of 'I have all of these amazing ideas, but I've got 20 minutes to put dinner on the table, so what do I do?'" It was another editor, and not Krishna herself, who first recognized the potential for a cookbook on that theme- one that would, Krishna says, "dispel this notion that a lot of people have that Indian flavors and Indian food, that making that at home is hard or complicated."
Before she began her writing career, Krishna grew up the daughter of immigrants in Texas, who were intent on her having a classically "American" adolescence. "I feel like it's many immigrant parents' desire, by raising kids in the US, that they will lead different and hopefully better lives than they did. That's the reason why so many immigrants settle down in a new country. I think that my parents, even though they had these stringent rules, they fundamentally believed that and understood that, and they wanted us to go to prom and go to college, and to have a college experience. They turned a blind eye but knew that my sister and I went to parties, and they were okay with that because they were like, 'This is part of being an American kid.'"
We saved most of our discussion of Indian-ish for the second half of our interview, but to hear why Krishna calls the Richard Gere/Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shall We Dance? one of the most important movies of our time, and learn how she turned Cracklin' Oat Bran and baked sweet potato into dessert for a column she wrote on dining-hall hacks while at Dartmouth, you'll have to check out this week's- there's no other word for it- delightful episode of Special Sauce.
In part two of my far-ranging interview with Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan, we talked about his career in journalism and the ever-evolving world of food media.
Joe told me about his winding path to food journalism. After years of reporting local news, he eventually made his way to the Boston Globe. There, he became travel editor, but found himself yearning to write about food, instead. How did he manage to acquire one of the few coveted roles as staff food writer? He told his editor, “I’m going to leave… if anyone's listening and you're able to do this, make yourself indispensable and then threaten to leave."
At a certain point, it felt like his career at the Globe was stalling. So when the Washington Post came calling in 2006, Yonan listened. “I just said, ‘I really want to do it.’ I mean, it also was more resources, bigger staff. I thought naively at the time that the Post was in so much better shape than the Globe was.”
Little did he know, Joe was about to take on the monumental task of shepherding the Food section into the digital age, transferring thousands of recipes from the papers archive to the Post's online database. Since that was shortly after I launched Serious Eats, Joe and I would have long conversations about where food media was going. "You know, Ed,” he said, “I remember your advice having something to do with my mindset back then… I knew what you were up to with Serious Eats… I remember you told me about Twitter. I mean, you didn't tell me about it, but... I remember asking you. I was like, "You know, I don't know. Should I bother with this? Should I bother?" And you said, "You absolutely should bother."
Finally, we got around to talking about Serious Eater, which Joe had just finished reading on the train up from DC. "It's so much more dramatic than I had expected. I think for me what resonated was the passion and the drive to make something work in the face of all of these obstacles. I mean, just one obstacle after another. And just the commitment to keep going and making it work no matter what happened." After all, it’s not a story so dissimilar from his own.
I had a blast talking to Joe, and I think you’ll equally enjoy listening to this episode of Special Sauce.
It's always fun to have a longtime friend on Special Sauce because I always learn so much about the person sitting across from me, no matter how long I've known them. And that's just what happened when I sat down with Washington Post Food Editor Joe Yonan.
Yonan spent the first ten years of his career writing, reporting, and editing for suburban newspapers in the Boston area, during which time he learned a lot of valuable lessons about telling stories. "You know one of the things that reporting does," Yonan notes, "especially if you start out in a small place, is that you have to learn how to make a water-and-sewer board meeting interesting and relevant to people who have no interest in it."
Eventually, he got tired of hard news coverage, and so he did what many other people at the time did: He read What Color is Your Parachute?, the enormously popular self-help book. "You're supposed to sit in a quiet place and have a pen and a pad down and you're supposed to close your eyes and imagine yourself both working and happy, believe it or not," Yonan says, recalling one of the exercises in the book designed to help you find your calling. "And I got all set up to do it, I had the pen and paper and I closed my eyes and in five seconds I was like, 'Oh, it's food.' Food makes me happy, food has always made me happy."
I met Yonan when I went to Boston to promote my pizza book in 2005, and I took him on a Boston tour de pizza for the Globe's food section, and during our conversation he reminded me of a sage bit of wisdom I gave him way back then, which I'd completely forgotten. "I don't know how many places we went to," Yonan says, "I mean, it was ridiculous. I remember at one point we're on place eight or nine or something, and I am suffering physically...Do you remember what you said to me? I've repeated it hundreds of times since then. You said to me, 'Joe, the good ones learn to eat through the pain.'"
For anyone interested in writing about food, becoming any kind of journalist, or just coming to terms with who you really are, or even about learning how to eat twelve slices of pizza in a three-hour period, this episode of Special Sauce with Joe Yonan is required listening.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/05/special-sauce-joe-yonan-1-1.html
In part two of my conversation with Xi'an Famous Foods cofounder Jason Wang, he and I talked mostly about the struggles and challenges involved in first getting the business off the ground, and then expanding.
The restaurant's original location, in a subterranean food court in Flushing, Queens, had a napkin problem. Money there was so tight, Wang said, "We had to cut back on things.... Back in the days, I'll be honest with you, we didn't give out napkins. We didn't have a napkin dispenser.... People were like,'Oh, you guys are so cheap, you don't give napkins out.' Fights started out because of napkins in Flushing."
Wang knew it was important that both Chinese and non-Chinese customers enjoy the food. "It's important for our food to continue to appeal to Chinese eaters that are in the US directly from China....They know what the food is supposed to taste like. If we have their, sort of, following, that speaks to the authenticity of the food. If we have other folks that are in New York City, we're lucky to have a lot of guests who are more adventurous. They're willing to try different things, try something new every night."
The keys to the restaurant's success? "Our food is very approachable. It's very reasonably priced. People can try without feeling like it's a big risk. It looks, smells good, people talk about it, so they'll come. Now, when they do come, there's a positive feedback effect that goes on. The Chinese people will see the American eaters, and the American users will see the Chinese people there. They'll look at each other, and the Chinese people will be like, wow, Americans like this stuff? That must mean it's high-quality, it's well packaged, because that's what the perception, the stereotype of Western products is.... Then the Americans will see the Chinese people, they'll be like, there's, like, a Chinese grandma that's just sitting there eating. She doesn't speak any English.... Yeah, it's legit."
As Jason and his dad, who cofounded Xi'an Famous Foods with him, began to expand the company—which now has 15 locations across New York City—they took seriously the challenge of preserving the qualities that had made it successful in the first place. "For our part, as we expanded—there's always the whole stereotype of that C-word, 'chain.' When you become a chain, it becomes very washed down, you start losing the soul of the food. My day-to-day job is, these days, really is to maintain that soul.... It's something I'm obsessed about. I think that's what we do on our part. My father's equally obsessive."
But Wang isn't all business, and he brings lots of smile-inducing surprises to this episode—including where he was headed to lunch when we finished talking, and which outspoken rapper/singer he wants at his last-supper table. You'll learn all that and more when you tune in.
One of the many reasons I love doing Special Sauce is I get to interview people who shed light on various parts of the food culture I know very little about. People like Jason Wang. Wang and his father, David Shi, are the co-propietors of Xi'an Famous Foods, the fast-casual Chinese food concept that introduced New Yorkers to dishes like as lamb burgers, liang pi "cold skin" noodles, and the legendary lamb face salad that's unfortunately no longer on the menu.
Wang emigrated with his family from the city of Xi'an, China, when he was eight, and life was not easy for the Wang family. "My father's work life in the U.S. is kind of what you would imagine it to be [for] someone who is a middle-aged immigrant from China who doesn't speak any English," Wang says. "There's only a few things that he could really do in this country, and one of those would be working in a restaurant."
Wang's father would be away for weeks or even months at a time working at restaurants all along the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, the family lived in Queens, NY, in the basement of someone else's home. His dad "would take a bus somewhere, and someone would pick him up from the restaurant [he was employed by], and he would basically live in the boss's house with the other workers," Wang says. "So in middle school and high school, I wouldn't see him for at least one or two weeks [at a time]."
Wang's family really wanted him to get a college education, and his mom and dad ended up saving up enough, when combined with some scholarship money, to send him to Washington University in St. Louis. While he was away at school, his father finally was able to leave his itinerant restaurant work behind. Shi had saved up enough money to open a bubble tea franchise in one of the subterranean food courts that dot the Chinese-American enclave of Flushing, Queens. And that's where X'ian Famous Foods was born in 2005.
Besides selling bubble tea, Wang says his father also "sold some food on the side from our hometown, namely our cold skin noodles, our liangpi, the burgers, and a little bit of the noodles. It was just a side thing." And, after a brief stint at Target after graduation, Wang joined his father.
During our conversation, Wang offers up a concise description fo the defining elements of the food he and his father make and sell. "Traditionally," Wang says, "every region of China has a few words to sum up their food. Like, Sichuan is 'mala,' so it's spicy and tingly. That's their profile. Our profile is xiāng là and suān. So 'suān' means sour. 'Xiāng là' means fragrantly spicy. So that's kind of how our food is. If you've had our food before, you see a lot of use of the black vinegar, a lot of use of, of course, the red chilies."
Wang's story, his father's story, and the story of Xi'an Famous Food's beginnings, had me riveted. When you listen, I think you'll be mesmerized as well.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/05/special-sauce-jason-wang-on-the-origins-of-xian-famous-foods.html
When we last left chef and memoirist Kwame Onwuachi, he had dived back into his catering business in New York City. Business was decent, but he’d begun to see holes in his game. "The food tasted good, but was it completely hot when it hit the table? I would roast the meat perfectly, but by the time I got to the table it'd be a little overcooked. The sauce that I thought would be really good, when I reduced it down, it was a little bitter. It was like these little things I didn't know what was going wrong, and I needed to get to the bottom of it. I needed to scratch that itch, and education was the next step for me."
Onwuachi went to the CIA to hone his craft and then went on to extern and work at fine dining institutions like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. But he ultimately found his own cooking identity through the now-defunct pop-up dinner company, Dinner Lab. "I cooked a dinner for it. It was a culmination of my life story. It was labeled Candy Bars to Michelin Stars. I cooked everything from the cheesecake [his sister's recipe] that I made to…the Butterfingers I sold on the subway (we did those as mignardise)…It was an anecdotal tale through the food of my life."
Eventually, Onwuachi opened the high-end restaurant Shaw Bijou in Washington, DC. His inexperienced restaurateur partners told him money was no object; that, in fact, they didn't care about making money. Onwuachi naively believed them. "Yeah, it was like adding gas to a locomotive. I mean, we were adding coal. It was just like, keep going, keep going, we're powering the engine. I was so deep in it, there was so much going on. It was the first time dealing with a lot of press, and I was really, really young. I came from the South Bronx and I'm catapulted into the stratosphere of the dining culture across the country, and I was trying to just do anything to stay afloat really."
The restaurant failed after less than six months, its demise hastened by a less-than-stellar review in The Washington Post. "It was soul-crushing to read that," Onwuachi said. "I remember reading it in the back alley, and it was not a good review, but it also pushed me, you know? It pushed me to change some things up, switch some things around, get everybody excited again, and keep going. It wasn't like, ‘Okay, now we need to close.’ I was like, ‘Okay, we're gonna fix this. This is the first bite.’" But they couldn't fix it in time, because, as he put it, "We ran out of capital. That's why businesses close. That's the short answer."
The last chapter of Onwuachi’s book, Notes From a Young Black Chef, is called "The Lesson." Why? "The lesson that I learned (from Shaw Bijou) is to keep going," he told me. "Just keep going. Not to stop, no matter what obstacles get in your way. If you have your mindset and you have goals in place, stick with those goals, figure out how to adapt, how to pivot, and continue moving."
Kwame Onwuachi’s tale is as inspirational as it is cautionary. Catch it all in this week’s episode of Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/04/special-sauce-kwame-onwuachi-part-2.html
This week's Special Sauce guest, chef-restaurateur (Kith/Kin in Washington, DC) and memoirist (Notes From a Young Black Chef) Kwame Onwuachi, has led an interesting life, to say the least. How interesting? By the time he was 21, the now-29-year-old had already started a catering business and cooked on a ship cleaning up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico- all after discarding a previous life that included membership in a gang and selling "nutcrackers," or homemade alcoholic punch, on the streets in the Bronx.
Early on, Onwuachi discovered the satisfaction he could derive from cooking for other people, by helping his mom with her catering business: "Yes, serving food to actual paying customers...there's a certain high about it. You know, like being in the weeds, you know, prepping, putting stuff together, and then reaching that finish-line moment when you're serving it to the guests, and all is well. They're happy...and you can see the genuine joy that they get when eating the food. I love that moment, and I got addicted to it."
The entrepreneurial spirit he inherited from his mother had a way of colliding with some of his more destructive adolescent impulses. He would bounce back and forth between cooking gigs and less savory endeavors, including selling drugs, until he found himself at a crossroads around the time of Obama's first inauguration: "Obama is walking across the stage accepting his presidency. At that moment, for some reason, it clicked for me. Because...I went out and I voted for him, but I was like, 'There's no way we're gonna get a black president. There's no way this is gonna happen. No way.' And when he walked across the stage, I was like, 'What am I doing? This man defied the odds. Fifty-five years ago, we weren't even allowed to eat in restaurants; like, that was [when] the last restaurant was desegregated. Now this man is walking across the stage. That's huge. And I'm sitting here selling drugs?'"
After that realization, Onwuachi ended up starting a catering company called Coterie, for which he raised the start-up capital by selling candy in the subway- yes, you read that right. His most popular item: peanut M&Ms (take that, plain-M&M advocates).
All of this, of course, was before Onwuachi began his restaurant career-cooking at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, moving on to a seriously upscale restaurant in DC (which closed within three months), and, this year, being named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine for his current restaurant, Kith/Kin. But his pre-fine dining life was so eventful, we had to save all that for the second part of our interview. Rest assured, there's plenty here to chew on and listen to.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/04/special-sauce-kwame-onwuachi-part-1.html
When we last left the irreverent Robicellis in the first part of their Special Sauce interview, they had decided to leave Brooklyn, their beloved hometown. I wondered why Allison and Matt decided on on Baltimore. "It feels like the New York I grew up in," Allison says. "It is an inherently broken city. Everything is broken and if you're a creative type like me, there's nothing more electric than that. Because everything is a possibility. Everything about your life has stakes. Everything is fun, you know?"
The move to Baltimore actually made the Robicellis' podcast, the Robicelli Argument Clinic, possible. Allison says, "When I was in New York, we talked about doing a podcast for a while, and everything was like, 'Well you need to pay this person all this money, and we need to monetize, and who are our sponsors?'" But that changed after the move. "In Baltimore," Alison says, "you meet other people who are like, 'Let's just do this stuff because we want to.' The art scene there is incredible. Everybody has something to say. Everything influences you."
But moving was important for their personal lives, too. "It was really important for us to bring our kids to a city that had problems," Allison says. "Brooklyn was so messed up when I was a kid. I mean, we had, like, 21 hundred murders when I was in fifth grade. We had riots and all these things. And I'm like, 'If I teach my kids just to sit on Facebook and ignore these problems, or just have ideas about these problems while they're in a gated community, that's bullshit. I want my kids to be better than us.'"
Baltimore has been great for the kids for many reasons. "The way that they think, their empathy level, their ideas of how to be people and how to be solutions to problems and how to think big. The school that they go to, we've got kids there who...We raised money for a washer/dryer, so kids would have a place to do laundry for those who couldn't afford it. You know? And in Brooklyn, people would raise money for lacrosse uniforms. But my kids need to know that. My kids need to understand that they're such a part of something bigger, and the world isn't always perfect, but just by existing, by doing the right things every day and being motivated, we make huge differences."
To hear more of the Robicellis' brand of manic, madcap genius, you're going to have to listen to part two of their Special Sauce interview.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/04/special-sauce-allison-matt-robicelli-part-2-2.html
Sometimes our Special Sauce guests are just so idiosyncratic, so entertaining, so thoughtful, and so zany, I find myself alternately laughing and near tears for an hour and a half straight. That's what happened when I had Matt and Allison Robicelli on the podcast.
Allison is a longtime baker, cook, and James Beard- nominated food writer; Matt is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute who has cooked at City Bakery and Lutèce. Together, they opened the acclaimed bakery Robicelli's in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (which closed in 2015), and wrote a cookbook, Robicelli's: A Love Story, With Cupcakes. But before all of that- before they ever met, in fact- each of them faced life-changing events that indirectly led them to pursue their culinary interests professionally: Allison was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma, and Matt was a paramedic who suffered injuries while responding at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Neither had even reached their 21st birthday at the time, which helped them bond when they finally met. "I think one of the reasons we got along so well was because after I survived cancer, it's really hard to relate to somebody who's 22 and didn't go through that," Allison says.
Nowadays, Matt and Allison run a culinary consulting business, co-own a couple of New York food businesses, and host their own podcast, The Robicelli Argument Clinic, whose name is self-explanatory: "We just quibble a lot, and we argue," Allison says. "We've been together for 14 years, and somebody was like, that's entertaining. Cut to tape. That was it. So we decided to do a podcast of just- we have these ridiculous arguments, just any kind of food topic. We just want to have more fun."
I asked my standard question about what life was like at Matt and Allison's respective family tables when they were growing up. Allison dispelled the stereotype that everyone has warm and fuzzy memories of their childhood dinners: "I remember a lot of yelling [in my family], I remember putting a TV there because that would shut everybody up.... Food can bring up all the memories. It can bring up all of the feelings. It's complicated just like we are. I think that's the kind of beauty about it."
Family meals don't have to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, Allison contends: "There's all these beautiful stories on the internet about the family table, and not everybody had it. You know what? That's okay. If your family dinner was eating McDonald's in the car alone- that's fine." The table that the Robicellis share nowadays includes their two preteen boys, Toby and Atticus, and that makes mealtimes predictably challenging. "The pickiest eaters I've ever met," Allison calls them. "They drive me insane."
In keeping with their own podcast style, my conversation with the Robicellis turned out to be a series of wacky and wise, well, arguments, and you'll have to listen to this episode and the one that follows to enjoy them. Matt and Allison are two wonderfully human interviewees, and great company. My guess is that they'll make you laugh as hard as I laughed, and they might make you cry as well.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=443265
In part two of my wonderful conversation with Tommy Tomlinson, author of the impossible-to-put-down book The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, we talk about how he decided he was going to have to do more than just diet to successfully deal with his weight issues.
Tomlinson describes asking his friends and family about what they thought about his eating habits. "I learned a lot from them about how they would watch what I was eating. And they would be surprised that I would eat the same as them, but I was the one getting bigger. They didn't know that I would stop again at the drive through on the way home and get a second dinner or something. But I also learned about their concerns about me, and their worry that I was going to be gone too soon, those sorts of things. And then I had longer conversation on the record that I taped with my wife, Alix Felsing, and my mom, who are two people who've been with me for most of this journey."
Tomlinson credits his wife in a major way for helping him confront what he calls "the one big problem" in his life. "Alix has been this incredible kind of guide for me," he says. "Without ever nagging or hectoring or browbeating me about it, she has gently and lovingly nudged me to become a better and more healthy person."
Tomlinson writes in his book about something Alix once said to him, which I asked him to repeat on ai because I found it so moving. "She looked at me and said, 'You made my life.'" he remembers. "That was probably the best moment I will ever have as a human being, to know that I made her life. She has certainly made mine."
I hope that exchange, which brought at least one Serious Eater to tears, gets you to check out the rest of our conversation. This episode is as moving, as wise, and as human as a Special Sauce episode gets.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-tommy-tomlinson-2-2.html
It's pretty rare for a Special Sauce interview to speak so directly to me that it feels like I've been hit in the gut. But that's exactly what happened when I talked with Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Tommy Tomlinson, whose book The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America is a moving memoir about struggling with eating and weight issues.
As someone who has grappled with a weight problem my whole life, I identified with every word Tomlinson wrote and every bite he took, and I often felt during our conversation that he was speaking about my own experiences with food.
For example, here is Tomlinson on how food makes him feel: "I've never done hard drugs, but the feeling that I've heard people describe when they shoot heroin, for example that incredible rush and that warm feeling that goes over their body, is very similar to what I believe I feel when I have like a double cheeseburger from Wendy's. It's just this burst of pleasure and good feeling."
Tomlinson is similarly eloquent about how he started to make the connection between obesity and food: "I didn't really connect being overweight with eating because I was eating what everybody else in my family was eating. I just wasn't working the way they were working to burn off calories. And as I got older, I started to realize even more deeply that I had these two lives. I had this one life where I was successful and doing well, had good friends, had people who loved and cared about me. And had this second life where I had this addiction that I could not control. And...up until basically this book and me trying to figure it out, I never could reconcile those two things. And so, sure, I knew from early on that I had some fundamental issue, I just never could figure out what it was."
And here he is on the fraught relationship between food and love: "And then there's stuff that's very common in food which is it's about love and affection. Your family has made this gift for you often still to this day it's your mom or your grandmother or somebody like that has made this thing. And they've sacrificed and they've sweated over it. And they've worked on this recipe for years. And it's a family tradition. And they always have it. And so for you just to not indulge in it carries a whole lot of symbolic weight. It's like rejecting the people who love you."
This episode of Special Sauce made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think, and any podcast that can make you do all three of those things is worth listening to, whether you struggle with your weight or not.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-tommy-tomlinson-1-2.html
The superb young food and culture writer Osayi Endolyn is back again for this week's episode of Special Sauce. This time our far-reaching conversation includes a discussion of a brilliant piece on fried chicken Endolyn wrote for You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another, a fascinating anthology edited by former Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying and Noma's Rene Redzepi.
First, we talked about the fundamental premise of the book. "It's obviously not true that food always brings us together, and it's obviously not true that food necessitates a further reflection on a culture, right," Endolyn said. "A lot of us eat tacos or hummus without thinking anything more about where those dishes come from. But, if you took the premise that, we are more alike than we are different, and looked at food as the medium to do that, where could you go? And this book wanted to explore migration and immigration in ways that maybe we weren't always welcoming of having those conversations."
Endolyn picked fried chicken, one of my favorite foods on the planet, as her subject. She used the Australian Chef Morgan McGlone as a jumping off point: A classically trained chef, McGlone learned to make hot fried chicken while working for Southern uber-chef Sean Brock before returning to his native country to open Belles Hot Chicken, a mini-chain of hot fried chicken restaurants based in Melbourne. That cross-cultural recognition became the metaphor that shaped Endolyn's story. To quote briefly from her piece: "No matter where it’s cooked, American fried chicken carries the learning and effort and skill of a people who persevered against unfathomable odds. That Southern hue follows fried chicken all the way to Melbourne and Sydney, too. And therein lies an incredible opportunity. If everyone can agree to share fried chicken, then perhaps that’s a step toward sharing the weight of its complex legacy as well."
I asked Endolyn about fried chicken's legacy, and she said, "There's a lot of struggle, it doesn't always come from one direction, as I mentioned in the book. Because of so much of the hateful iconography, that was used to depict the African Americans stealing chicken and as kind of just gluttonous chicken eaters. During the post-enslavement period and into Jim Crow, you have a lot of people who still feel kind of unsure what it means to eat fried chicken. Whether or not to do so in public."
Where Endolyn nets out on fried chicken requires answering the two fundamental questions all of us must answer whenever we are eating something: "Is it delicious?" and "What does it mean?"
So if that's a question that interests you (and I hope it is) then you have to listen to what Osayi Endolyn has to say on this week's Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-osayi-endolyn-2-2.html
On this week's episode of Special Sauce, Ed speaks to Osayi Endolyn, a Florida-based food writer whose work regularly appears in major food publications across the country, and whose column in Gravy, the journal published by the Southern Foodways Alliance, earned a James Beard Award in 2018.
Ed and Endolyn's conversation starts off exactly where most Special Sauce conversations start off, namely with Endolyn talking about her family and the food they used to eat when she was growing up. But Ed wasn't prepared for just how fascinating Endolyn's family history is. For example, her grandmother, Ruth Harris Rushen, was something of a trailblazer, as she was the first woman and first African-American to sit on California's parole board.
Endolyn's family table had a mix of what she calls "California working mom cuisine" - tofu and noodles, roasted chicken and vegetables- and Nigerian dishes prepared by her father, who immigrated to the United States in his early 20s. Endolyn describes her father as somewhat mercurial, but a talented cook. "The food was glorious," she says. "Dinner was sometimes fraught and tense, but the food was really good." The quality of the food was somewhat surprising, particularly since her father, like many immigrants, had to figure out by himself how to prepare the familiar foods from home. And, of course, her father's cooking left its mark on her. "So," Endolyn says, "I think a lot about migration now and what people bring with them and what they leave behind."
Endolyn's current focus on the intersection of food and identity is something of a happy accident. She was living in Atlanta and looking into the roots of Southern cuisine, and saw parallels between food in the South and the food her father would make at home. The realization seemed to expose how writing about food could be about so much more than writing about what's on a plate. "Food can actually be this lens from which we can explore so many different things," Endolyn says. "Why certainly it can be something that I can use to talk about my experiences as a child of an immigrant, or as the descendant of someone who was in the Great Migration, or as a descendant of enslaved people or all of these other historic and personal experiences."
To hear more from Endolyn, tune into this both this week's and next week's episode. We guarantee it'll be well worth your time.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-osayi-endolyn-1-1.html
Welcome back to part 2 of Ed Levine's Special Sauce conversation about pizza in the wake of the revelation by pizza historian Peter Regas about the true origins of New York City pizza.
If you recall from last week, Regas has demonstrated that Lombardi's, which was long thought to have been the first pizzeria in New York, was in fact not the first. This week, Regas shares a little bit of what he's discovered about the origins of Chicago's iconic deep dish pizza. As is par for the course with any discussion about deep dish among pizza-heads, this bit of history is accompanied by a lot of talk about whether deep dish is or isn't a casserole. (It's a casserole, folks!)
Ed then gets Regas and Sasha to talk about their favorite pizza joints in Chicago and New York and beyond, which they do with only a little bit of reluctance. A few of the names you might recognize, as either a local or a pizza enthusiast: Coalfire, Spacca Napoli, Mama's Too, Speedy Romeo's...did I hear someone say the Illuminati?
In the second half of the episode, Ed has on J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who needs no introduction, and they talk about Regas's revelations and the nature of history. Kenji also gives us a preview of some new menu items on the menu at Wursthall, his restaurant in San Mateo, Calif, where he's planning on doing flammkuchen, which is a kind of-not really German pizza, and he shares a little bit of why he enjoys making pizza and pizza-type things so much. "Because you're interacting with a live thing," Kenji says, "that certainly takes a lot more skill than working with something like sous vide...There's nothing precise at all in the pizza oven. So, when you get it right, it's pretty nice."
That's just a small taste of all the pizza talk packed in this episode, and we hope you give it a listen.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/03/special-sauce-peter-regas-pizza-origin-story-2-2.html
We rarely deal with breaking news on Special Sauce, but when said news concerns pizza's US origins, exceptions must be made. As soon as I learned that Peter Regas, a Chicago-based statistician by day and pizza obsessive by night, had discovered that there were pizzerias operating in Brooklyn and Manhattan years before Gennaro Lombardi opened what has long been thought to be the country's first pizzeria in 1905, I knew we had to have him on the podcast for an extended interview. I even brought in reinforcements: New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, and Serious Eats senior editor and veteran pizzaiolo, Sasha Marx.
Here's a taste of what Regas shared with us: “What we know there is a man named Filippo Milone who had probably come, it's not clear, but he'd probably come around 1892 to America from Italy...The first indication that we have hard evidence of him owning a business is at 47 Union Street, again in Red Hook…That would be then in the early part of 1898....Then what we have at Spring Street, 53 Spring Street [the site of Lombardi's original location], we have a permit that's applied for in the summer of 1898. That's for a bake oven. The man that appears in the next directory cycle, which would be the early part of 1899, is...Phil Malone, Filippo Milone, it's the same man.”
Pete Wells told Regas that when he heard the news, he tweeted that "it was like if we found out some other dude wrote The Federalist Papers and The Declaration of Independence and then, like, gave them to Madison and Jefferson and we never knew it. It was some guy named Tony all along.” Wells urged Regas to continue his research, telling him, “Follow the mozzarella, Peter.”
Pizza nerds (and even plain old pizza enthusiasts) will rejoice in the conversation that ensued. To get started on your own mozzarella journey, check out this week’s episode, and stay tuned for part two next week, when Regas expounds on his discovery and Kenji weighs in on all things pizza.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=441852
On this week's Special Sauce, Doug Crowell and Ryan Angulo talk a lot about a lot of things, including their cookbook, the aptly titled Kindness and Salt: The Care and Feeding of Your Friends and Neighbors.
I asked them to dissect the unusual title, starting with "kindness." Doug explained, "It's a big part of what we do...We try to be kind in everything we do, in our relationships as a staff and also with our customers. So that would have to be a part of our book. That's our philosophy."
But what about the salt? Doug said, "The salt is sort of shorthand for just cooking...cooking with flavor and cooking with common sense and cooking with salt, literally...and salt has a double meaning, because sometimes we all get a little salty."
When I asked about the subtitle, Ryan noted, "That was our working title for the book pretty much since the beginning." And Doug pointed out, "That nicely encapsulates what we do."
I wondered whether that philosophy of caring for friends and neighbors extended to their kitchens, where in restaurant culture in general there has long been a traditional of verbal abuse. Does Ryan scream? "No," Ryan said. "Not at all. Well, it depends, but, I mean, you have to really be doing something like that's just really idiotic and just not respectful of the food or the restaurant to really make me mad. But on a day-to-day basis, no, I don't walk around yelling, and I know a lot of chefs do. That's kind of one of the biggest things I learned from working in kitchens is what I didn't want to do when I became a chef, and that was pretty much one of them."
Ryan and Doug also talked about the importance of the person greeting customers at their restaurants. "The person at the door has this dual responsibility. One is just friendliness, but the other one is this sort of mad air traffic control situation where you're trying to shuffle everything around and make it work and promise people they're gonna sit down in 15 minutes and they really will or an hour and a half and they really will. I think of that person as being second only to the chef as far as making the whole thing go."
According to them, one of their door people is from the South, and she has a magic word, a contraction in fact, that has disarmed many a peeved customer, but you're just going to have to listen to find out what it is.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/02/special-sauce-doug-crowell-ryan-angulo-2-2.html
On this week's Special Sauce, Chef Anita Lo talks about her new cookbook, Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One. To Anita, cooking for yourself is a journey of self-discovery. "I think cooking can be self re-affirming," she says. "I mean if food is culture and you're cooking what you like to eat, it's about you. It's about who you are...Food is identity."
She also says cooking for yourself is therapeutic and thought-provoking. "I've had a lot of people say to me that this book made them think about how far they'd go to cook for themselves and why they wouldn't do that," she notes. "That's interesting to me. I mean it, we need to take care of ourselves. If you don't take care of yourself, there's no way you can take care of other people."
Anita also obliged me by outlining for me in detail what exactly would happen on Anita Lo Day all over the world, including a long list of activities that starts with with, "People are eating. People are eating with abandon."
In other words, they're eating seriously.
To find out what else they're doing, you're going to have to listen to the always thoughtful Anita Lo on this week's Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/02/special-sauce-anita-lo-2-2.html
This week on Special Sauce with the terrific chef and fine writer Anita Lo. Anita had Annisa, a great restaurant in Greenwich Village, for 16 years before closing it in 2017. She was part of the first wave of women chef-restaurateurs in New York. Anita was also the first woman who cooked a State dinner for the Obamas at the White House. Finally, she is the author of the recently published elegant and pithy cookbook, Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One This week's episode focuses on Anita's cooking experiences at other people's restaurants, sexism in the restaurant biz, and cooking at the White House.
With politics being front and center these days I had to ask Anita about cooking a state dinner for the Obamas and President Xi of China. I asked if she got to hang with the President and First Lady. "Yeah it was awesome. We got a picture with them. I shook their hands. It was sort of like a wedding line. The Obamas and the Xis were there, and then we all walked through and shook their hands and took a pictures and went out the other door."
Anita really cut her teeth in the restaurant biz in New York in the nineties in the kitchen of the first incarnation of Bouley, chef David Bouley's influential Tribeca restaurant. I asked Anita if she felt that she was a victim of the rampant sexism there that pervaded so many fine dining establishments at that time. She calmly replied, "Certainly, on some level, but at the same time, my mother had been a doctor and there were very, very few female doctors at the time when she became a doctor. I think she was the only female doctor in her hospital, or at least in her hospital wing. That was my role model, so I knew you just had to endure..."I did get some sort of nasty banter that was meant to make you not feel welcome...Yeah, we still have a long way to go, certainly (in that regard)."
I asked Anita if being a women chef-restaurateur makes it harder to find investors. She nodded her head and said, "I just think we're wired culturally to support men and to see men as leaders and see men as the money makers, and that leaves a lot of smart, talented women behind...Well, at least we're talking about it, and just because we've had a me too moment doesn't mean that bad things still aren't happening. Look what's happening in our government."
Anita has a unique perspective on these kinds of issues born of both sweet and bitter experiences. And that is what makes her Special sauce episodes required listening.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/01/special-sauce-anita-lo-1-2.html
On this week’s Special Sauce I continue my delightful conversation with The White Moustache founder Homa Dashtaki.
I asked her how she makes her sinfully rich yogurt. Homa said, "There's nothing I'm doing different than the way I would teach you how to do it at home. And you can make White Moustache yogurt at home, and it's a very magical process, but it's so, so simple. It's just a matter of boiling the milk, letting the milk cool to a certain temperature, and then very mildly letting it incubate. And we are now making yogurt in a vat, in a 79-gallon vat, and we just mimic that process."
She paused before continuing: "And in that vat is the only time that machinery is ever used. It is entirely handled by human hands after that. We take it out of the vat in five-gallon batches, and then it goes into 2 1/2-gallon batches, and then it gets put into an eight-ounce jar, where we put the fruit in on the bottom by hand. And our seasonal flavors of like summer peaches and quince are so much fun to make, and we try to make them as authentically as possible. And this is where my dad and I are screaming at each other, 'Yeah, peel the peaches!' 'No, don't peel the peaches! Leave the skin on.'"
Homa and her father often argue about whether to automate their production, which led her to talk about what her ultimate goal was, which I found surprising. "White Moustache was such a miracle to begin with," Homa says. "Maybe we hold onto that, maybe we're not a food business, maybe we're an advocacy business. Maybe we kind of set an example for how you don't have to get really big and sell to PepsiCo. Maybe you can stay small and flourish."
Who or what determines what’s going to happen to White Moustache? Homa suggests it's not up to her or her dad. But for the full answer to that question, you’re going to have to listen.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/01/special-sauce-homa-dashtaki-2-2.html
I have a confession: Until Daniel Gritzer told me about The White Moustache a couple of months ago, I 'd never heard of it, much less its founder, Homa Dashtaki. Now, after interviewing Homa and trying her yogurt, I can tell you that Daniel was right when he said it would change my life. First of all, the yogurt is so tasty, so thick and creamy, that I can't think of a reason not to eat some every day (which I've done ever since first trying it). Secondly, Homa is a force of nature, someone whose point of view and story might be better than her ridiculously good yogurt, as you'll find out in her two episodes of Special Sauce.
Homa even arrived on this earth in dramatic fashion. "I was born the day of the Iranian Revolution," she tells me. "So the day that the Ayatollah arrived in Iran I was born, and my mom had to go to the hospital in a police escort because there was a curfew, and that's probably why I'm so wired to like chaos all around me."
After emigrating as a child to Orange County, she ended up going to law school and, yes, practicing corporate law for a while. Why? "Oh, I loved the whole idea of it. You would tell me what you wanted, you'd put down on paper, everything would be clear," she recalls. "And I remember when I first found out about prenups, I remember everyone was very negative about them. I'm like, 'How wonderful! When you're getting into this really intense relationship that everyone would just be above board, you either know how great it's gonna be, or how fucked you're gonna be. It's all laid out.'"
Her legal career was cut short after she was laid off from her firm. And, after a period of self-described drifting, she found herself drawn to one of the foods that was a staple of her childhood. "We picked making yogurt because to me it was easy, I was being lazy about it," she says. "I'm like, 'There's only one ingredient, milk, right? Now how hard can this be?'"
It turned out that Homa fell in love with making yogurt. "I don't know if you've ever made yogurt at home, but it's a very magical process," she observes. "It's almost like you step into a time portal, and you have to slow down time. In order for your yogurt to take, it has to be coddled. You have to boil the milk, and you have to get it to the right temperature. That's actually no easy task. You have to pay attention to the milk, you can't just set it and forget it."
She and her father started out making small batches- eight gallons to be exact- of yogurt overnight at a nearby Egyptian restaurant and selling it at a farmers market in Orange County. She was in heaven, until the state of California shut her down. "I had finally found something that was truly my own, and it felt so- I know it sounds cliché and it sounds cheesy- but it was so authentic, and I was so lost, that to have this thing ripped away from me felt so incredibly unfair," she recalls. "And I just fought back after weeping for days. I mean, it was like somebody had ripped something away from me."
To find out how she got her yogurt groove back, you're just going to have to listen to Homa tell the story herself on Special Sauce. It's definitely a story you won't want to miss.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/01/special-sauce-homa-dashtaki-1.html
In this week's Special Sauce interview with René Redzepi, he describes his journey from being a 15-year-old novice cook to culinary visionary, which started when he was an apprentice at Pierre André, a Michelin-starred, classic French restaurant in Copenhagen. "I spent four years with [chef-owner Philippe Houdet], and it was an incredible time," Redzepi says. "I mean, I basically went from being a child to being an adult like overnight. Just like that you're working 85 hour weeks and with responsibilities."
Those four years were incredibly important to Redzepi. "I still think of him so much, when I think back to these moments that make you, and that give you the courage and the power to believe in yourself further on."
But what really blew Redzepi's mind as a young cook was a meal at El Bulli. "I was with a friend and Ferran [Adria] was there, we ate and it was just mind blowing to me at the time," he recalls. "So different to anything. I thought everything was French food and suddenly you see yourself in Spain and it's like, I cannot believe what's going on here. What is this? It broke everything for me. So I went up to Ferran immediately after the meal and said, "I want to work here. Can I come and work here?" And, after writing Adria a letter, he did.
Following a stint at the French Laundry Redzepi returned to Copenhagen and opened the original Noma in 2003. He believes that Noma's location has played an important role in its development. "One of the reasons why I think Noma's become what we are is we were lucky to be in a small town where nothing was really happening," he says. "We were the last stop on the subway, culinary wise, and suddenly all this attention started happening and everybody sort of chipped in...the community sort of embraced it."
Redzepi is candid about the fact that the restaurant's original success was not due to his leadership skills. "I spent years being an outrageously bad leader," he confesses. "I was a screamer for many years, I was. I just didn't know how to handle things. You become so thin-skinned that the smallest problems become disasters and then at a certain point you're like, 'What am I doing? You go into work and you're not even happy...You go to work and you're angry. What's the point?'"
Redzepi says that finding a way to become happier in his work played a crucial role in both his and Noma's development, but to find out just how he managed to do that, I'm afraid you're going to have to listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/01/special-sauce-rene-redzepi-part-2.html