Profiles & Interviews – The Inquisitive Eater New School Food Mon, 21 Aug 2017 21:00:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Reuben Riffel on Becoming a Top Chef in Post-Apartheid South Africa Wed, 15 Feb 2017 17:30:47 +0000 Via Lee Malan, Rooi Rose

Via Lee Malan, Rooi Rose


Chef Reuben Riffel on South African food and culture after Apartheid…

In his early restaurant jobs, Reuben Riffel worked as a waiter, a barman, and a kitchen hand in his hometown of Franschhoek, South Africa. Eventually he became a sous-chef, helping to run the kitchen at Chamonix Restaurant. One afternoon the executive chef called in sick. “I had the opportunity to cook the food that day,” he recalls. “We had quite a few guests who came into the kitchen to congratulate me. That’s when it dawned on me that I’m going to become a chef.” He opened his own restaurant in Franschhoek in 2004 and received South Africa’s Chef of the Year award six months later.

 Today Riffel owns four restaurants in the Western Cape, has four published cookbooks, and can say he taught Martha Stewart how to pickle fish. From a hotel in Johannesburg, where a food festival was just getting started, Riffel spoke to Smithsonian Journeys about the challenges of defining South African cuisine, how the food culture there is changing, and why he feels lucky to be at the center of it all.


TIE Profile of the Month: Nicole Coulter of More Salt Please Wed, 25 Jan 2017 17:30:32 +0000 moresaltplease1

In September when I began dabbling in veganism and in YouTube, I came across Nicole Coulter, a vegan chef with colorful, tasty, and inventive recipes. I knew instantly that I’d want to cover her in The Inquisitive Eater’s Profile of the Month series. She has a vast amount of knowledge, creativity, and a knack for making all food look delicious. Here’s Nicole in her own words about her channel, her journey as a vegan chef, and the joys of a plant-based lifestyle.

HR: What was it about veganism that initially drew you in? Why did you choose to become vegan?

NC: I was initially drawn towards veganism for the health aspect of it. I went down a deep hole of research and was inspired to start looking into the vegan lifestyle to discredit it, but all the research I did actually did the opposite. A few days later I went vegan overnight. I had seen and read too much for me to continue to eat meat, dairy and eggs. I also found out about the environmental impact animal agriculture has on our planet and how much it depletes our water, land, and pollutes the air we all breathe. Then I started to wonder why we were raised to view some animals as edible and some as lovable. It felt hypocritical to stop and pet every dog I passed on the street, and then go home and cook chicken for dinner, and buy clothes and shoes made from cow’s skin. It just didn’t make sense. I actively choose not to support one of the most corrupt industries in the world. I have never felt better, and I’m never going back.

Video reference: My Vegan Story


HR: How does vegan cooking exercise your creativity as a chef?

NC: It has made me SO much more creative in the kitchen! It’s allows me to think about food and flavors on a completely different level. You realize that spices and aromatics like garlic, onion and herbs are what actually give meat all it’s flavor. Which means you can apply that to anything: tofu, lentils, legumes, mushrooms etc. The techniques for cooking meat and dairy have already been discovered and perfected in every way possible in the culinary world. Vegan cooking is a whole other ball game. New methods are constantly being discovered. Especially within the mock meat and cheese companies like Gardien, Field Roast and Beyond Meat. It’s amazing what is being done without harming or involving animals at all.

Video reference: Vegan Scallops with Mushroom Risotto

HR: How has veganism changed your cooking practice?

NC: Being vegan has really simplified my cooking. That might shock some people, because if you aren’t familiar with the lifestyle, it’s very common to think of vegan cooking as being full of exotic and hard to find ingredients, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you want to feel your best on a vegan diet, sticking to whole plant foods is vital. Focusing on simplifying your palate and honing in on nutrient-dense foods that satiate you is the key to long term health. I eat a lot of potatoes, rice, legumes, leafy greens, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and tofu every once in awhile. I’ve learned to appreciate the flavor of foods in their natural form. At home I eat pretty simply, and when I’m cooking for the YouTube channel I tend to make things more exciting.

Video reference: What I Eat in a Day


HR: What are the positives of the vegan YouTube community? What are the draw backs, if any?

NC: The positives are having a sense of belonging. Being vegan in your daily life can be challenging because we only make up about 1% of the entire population, so it’s very easy to feel alone. YouTube gives vegans an outlet to share their vegan journey and lifestyle with the world and it can be a great place to share struggles as well. It’s an amazing platform to introduce veganism to the world. I think most people going vegan today are people who watch YouTube or watch documentaries suggested by vegan YouTubers. It’s also a great place to make friends with other vegans in the community. You are able to connect and chat with people you normally wouldn’t meet in real life. With that being said, it can also be a very toxic environment as well. Militant vegans usually have the loudest voices and the biggest platforms, so people watch their videos and think they speak for vegans everywhere. These are the people who fulfill the classic “angry vegan” stereotype that leaves non-vegans with a bad taste in their mouth. Vegans tend to have varying degrees of crazy, and unfortunately the craziest ones get most of the attention and publicity. More often than not, the militant ones are shooting themselves in the foot, so to speak, because they don’t make their lifestyle seem very appealing. It anything they are the ones who make people afraid of the word “vegan”..

Video reference: What I Miss the Most After Going Vegan 

HR: What made you decide to share your vegan journey and talents as a chef online? What has been the best part of creating your channel?

NC: I started my channel before I went vegan back in 2015 because I was living in a city I hated, and I was bored out of my mind and needed a creative outlet. It gave me a sense of purpose and excitement that I hadn’t felt in quite some time. I wanted to show people how rewarding and delicious cooking can be. After going vegan, that purpose shifted slightly. I want to normalize veganism and make it more accessible. My goal is to make the word “vegan” less scary. And even if people don’t want to, or aren’t ready to make the jump, I want them to have a judgement-free place to go and find encouragement. The best part of creating my channel has definitely been connecting with my subscribers! Even though it’s corny and cliche to say…they are what keep me going. It’s nice to find people who just get you. I am so comfortable showing them my weirdness. Maybe a little too comfortable…

HR: Have you discovered a favourite recipe? What recipes do you make most often?

NC: My favorite recipe changes every few weeks. It all depends on what I’m craving at the moment. Usually it’s some sort of potato, Mexican or Asian dish. I make a lot of sushi with steamed broccoli or braised bok choy, nachos with fat-free cheese sauce and some sort of bean concoction, and fries. Always fries.

Video reference: My Top 5 go-to Vegan Meals

HR: Where are your favourite places to grocery shop? 

NC: When the weather is nice I love shopping at local farmer’s markets. When the winter rolls around my go-to stores are ALDIs and Wegmans. ALDI has a great selection of organic, high quality produce and everything is insanely inexpensive. Wegmans is like a religion to people living in the North East. They’re are obsessed. It’s kind of like our version of Whole Foods.

Video reference: ALDIs Grocery Haul 

HR: If you had any advice for new vegans, or those contemplating going vegan, what would it be?

NC: There are just as many ways to eat vegan as they are to eat non vegan. Not all vegan diets are the same, and not all of them will work for you and your lifestyle. Do what works for you and what makes you feel the best. Don’t turn to self proclaimed “health gurus” of instagram or YouTube for health advice. Don’t turn to me for health advice. Do your own research and seek advice and counsel from credible vegan doctors and nutritionists like Dr Gregor, Esselstyn, McDougal, T. Colin Campbell and Dr Barnard. And watch documentaries like Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy and Earthlings. Also don’t expect a vegan diet to magically fix everything in your life. It will probably make your life better in some way, but don’t turn to it to solve all of your problems. It’s just food. Real change and progress starts in your mind.

Video reference: Vegan “Health” Community Online 

Find Nicole on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.

Nicole Coulter is a personal chef and aspiring food photographer based in Rochester, NY. She is the creator of More Salt Please, a vegan cooking and lifestyle YouTube channel, where she shares creative vegan recipes and tips on how to live a practical and delicious vegan life. Her main goal with More Salt, is to change people’s negative connotation of the word vegan and to encourage rather than shame others into the lifestyle. And change the misconception of vegan food being flavorless and boring.

featured image via Nicole Coulter.

TIE Profile of the Month: The RocknRoll HighFives Mon, 31 Oct 2016 18:00:28 +0000 As October draws to a close, I am celebrating the time I got to spend talking to the subject of this month’s profile: the RocknRoll HiFives. Perhaps the most enthusiastic and talented family I’ve ever met, Joe, Gloree, Eilee, and Evren taught me a lot this month about the importance of the breakfast sandwich and having fun with your family, wherever you are. Listen to their song El Sueño and read about their incredible journey with music and food.

HR: Did you think about the food in preparation for touring? Was food part of your plans or considerations in this lifestyle of being on-the-go?

RRHF: Part of our planning for tour is around food. We make lists for gear, clothes, toiletries and food. We have traveled in the RV a few times now and have figured out what that best/easiest food options are for us while on the road. In our RV there is less room in the kitchen area (including storage) than at home. Space constraints definitely dictate menu options, and we’ve learned what basics we need for good meals on the go.

We eat breakfast in the RV 100% of the time, as we are slow going in the morning and enjoy breakfast foods, sipping coffee and looking back at yesterday’s adventures. We usually make egg sandwiches or pancakes. Sadly, bacon is not on the menu because we try to keep the type of waste going into the sink light (due to the RV ‘system’). Occasionally the kids may have cereal, but it’s usually a hot breakfast.

We often have lunch on board the RV too. Sandwiches are easy (we can literally make them on the go) and we get some veggies on them too (lettuce, tomato, avocado). Soups, macaroni and cheese and simple pasta dishes are good go-to options. They are quick and easy prep and clean-up.

We usually eat out for dinner, as dinner is scheduled around our show times and most places we play serve food. If we have a night off we try and grill some chicken or we may opt for a frozen pizza (the RV has an oven!) and a salad.

The RocknRoll HiFives enjoying an RV breakfast together.

The RocknRoll HiFives enjoying an RV breakfast together.


HR: Has your relationship with food and feeding your family changed?

RRHF: No, we don’t think it has. On the road, our meals may not be as well-balanced as they are at home, however, we do get bored while in transit which usually leads to snacking. So we opt for nuts, granola bars, trail mix and your usual crutch (including chocolate treats!). Fruit (fresh and dried) are great for traveling too. Also when preparing meals we make some fun videos to help change the mood a bit since we are traveling IN the kitchen, so to speak. We try to change the environment instead of changing the relationship with the food. That’s how we change the relationship, by having fun with food. Once at home, we go back to balanced meals – and even on the road, as opportunities present themselves, we find balance.


HR: Are you able to have a “family meal” in a traditional sit-down sense, or have you found that the “sit-down” part of it doesn’t matter, so long as you’re together?

RRHF: At home or on the road, we have sit-down meals as often as possible. In all honesty, the only meal we don’t share is Mon-Fri lunch, as the kids are in school and we are working. On the road, our meals are 90% sit down, even the 10% that are had as the wheels are turning (and Joe is at the helm) are had ‘together’ – meaning we don’t digress to our devices or remove ourselves from the group. We still talk and partake in the meal as if we were at the table all together.


HR: Do you have to improvise when cooking, and if yes, how?

RRHF: Yes, we do improvise when cooking in the RV. Joe is the master of improvising. He opens the refrigerator, the cabinets and finds things to put together to keep it interesting. Not sure if you have seen them, but sometimes we post “Cooking in the RV with Joe” videos during our travels. It keeps things light in the RV and gives our friends a glimpse of our RV fun times. Joe pretends to be a chef with his own cooking show. His character is an RV food expert which opens up his imagination, allowing him to come up with good combinations. Mostly though, he makes us laugh and the food always taste better when we are all smiling.


HR: How often do you eat “out”? Have you eaten or discovered any noteworthy food in your travels?

RRHF: We eat out for most of our dinners. We would say about 70-80%. We have come across lots of great food on the road. Some of our fun comes from local people’s suggestions for ‘down home road eats’. We particularly loved our BBQ stops in Tennessee during our last tour (we even had leftovers that we added to our frozen pizza…improvisation yum!) and we visited a southern cafeteria style place called Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Nashville where our son stated he had the best fried chicken of his life! Our favorite spot in Chapel Hill, NC is Merritt’s for their famous BLTs. Sometimes we’ll go twice in one trip!

We love when we play a venue and they feed us dinner or give us a major discount. There is nothing more satisfying than playing music for your food!


HR: What have you learned from being on tour that you didn’t expect?

RRHF: We learned to take our time and enjoy food a lot more. Also to be more conscientious of what we eat. We can’t afford to have any stomach issues on the road. First, we have to perform! Second, even though we are in ‘a house on wheels’ it is never fun to feel yucky when you are not home.


HR: Is there something you all eat together while on tour that recreates a sense of being at home?

RRHF: Definitely breakfast. It’s the start of our day and we’re all starting it together. Sometimes a late night snack will have that feeling as well. We’re all beat from a long day and rocking hard. We may chow down a late night snack and use the down time to reminisce about the day before getting ready for bed, brushing teeth, etc.

rnrh5s_ziggyrv Comprised of parents Joe and Gloree Centeno and their progeny Eilee, aged fourteen, and Evren, aged twelve, the RocknRoll HiFives are the newest family rockers to break onto the scene. And while hardly a brand new act, the HiFives just released their third EP titled “the Beat the Sound the Dragon’s Roar” on Little Dickman Records. The RocknRoll HiFives are influenced by a mixed bag of rock n roll, indie rock, noise, punk and super heroes. Music from the Beatles to Superchunk, Guided by Voices as well as the Ramones, AC/DC, Foo Fighters and the Jam with the awesomeness of Evel Knievel and Spiderman. The RocknRoll HiFives enjoy sharing their love for music and proving that you’re never too old (or too young) to rock out.

TIE Profile of the Month: Liz Weidhorn of Project Pastry Love Wed, 12 Oct 2016 17:45:48 +0000 In early September, we had the pleasure of interviewing Liz from Project Pastry Love, a food blogger that documents her pastry-learning journey through bright photos, yummy recipes, and a dash of humor.

HR: Could you tell us the story of how your blog came to be?

LW: I felt regret in my life, always felt like I never followed things through. I went for acting in the city and I gave up too soon, which was probably a good thing, but there was regret there. So, I started to fall in love with baking. Because I couldn’t take classes at the time as I had just had my second baby, I said to myself: “I’m just going to teach myself and really follow it through.” I got this huge baking textbook about two years ago and started reading it and then finding different recipes all over the place. Then I was like: “Oh! I’ll blog about it!” So, yes, it was definitely born out of regret.


HR: Has your baking practice affected your cooking practice? I’ve always considered cooking really easy and baking really hard because baking seems to be a science for the most part!

LW: I still have a lot to learn, but I bake a couple of times a week and I love the science behind it. Now, I’m getting good at it, but now I notice that if someone asks me something about bread rising, I want to get a cup of coffee, sit down, and discuss it. Shoot, I’m really passionate about it!


HR: Do you ever do an “oops” or a practice run?

LW: Yeah, sometimes I’ll try it first. At times, even if it was a complete failure, I’ve decided to put it up. But not very often. I’m glad when I do fail the first time because I learn so much more. When I do it again and blog, I can really tell my readers why this works because I failed that first time. I find that pie pastry is totally terrifying. When you do it over and over again, you begin to realize that it’s in your fingers and that’s such a hard thing to write down. It’s knowing that line and you can only learn by failing.


HR: Has having a food blog affected your writing?

LW: Yes, because I didn’t think about the writing. I wanted to be quick and I didn’t want to bore anybody, but then a couple posts in I started to think that I wanted my kids to see this … sort of like a diary. There was one particular post I did where I got personal and was being funny and a lot of friends and family responded to it. That was exciting. I like to do a paragraph first about what is happening in my life, but I don’t force it. If there’s really nothing, I go right to it. Then, I also find that there is story-telling in the post of how I did it. So then I take a picture and think in the back of my head: “Okay, how am I going to tell it?”


HR: I would imagine what you’re feeling at that moment might dictate what you want to create. Maybe one moment you want something hearty or maybe you’re feeling the summer time so you want something light.

LW: Yes. I find that with bread and any type of pastry. I find that when I need quiet, or want to meditate without realizing I want to meditate, I choose bread because it’s rhythmic in the kneading.


HR: Have positive things come out of this that you couldn’t have expected?

I’m friends with food bloggers and bloggers around the world. It’s a community that is very supportive of each other and I guess I didn’t expect that, at all. I didn’t expect the writing, and my love for telling a story. And the photography. When I go to a restaurant I look at my plate and think about how perfect the lighting is. I didn’t expect to think along those lines at all.


HR: What is the biggest challenge?

LW: The biggest challenge is promoting myself. That just sucks. [laughs] It’s a challenge that I’m also doing it all myself. I don’t have anybody taking pictures. That’s all me.


HR: How do you promote yourself?

LW: Social media. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Bloggers also have these “parties” where you can link up your post. So it gets it out in the blogging sphere. It’s kind of how we help promote each other. If we see something we like we’ll then put it on Twitter.


HR: Are there other food blogs you love to read?

LW: I wish I had my list here because there are a lot. Of course, there’s the Smitten Kitchen. Joy the Baker is amazing. The Wicked Good Kitchen is amazing; she’s an amazing baker and she goes into the science of it and there’s something very cool about it. I could just read her stuff all day.

Liz Weidhorn lives in northern New Jersey with her husband Aron, and two
young boys, Cameron and Wesley. As a stay-at-home mom she spends her day cleaning the house, playing make-believe, staring at the large laundry
pile in the corner, and feeding her boys all before hitting the wall at
4PM. She believes that a homemade pie is the perfect dessert, and a that
good vodka martini can solve any problem.

featured image via Project Pastry Love.

Reaching Beyond the Plate:  Surfer Foodie Jax Austin On Cuisine, Connection, and Growth Thu, 30 Apr 2015 17:30:31 +0000 jax-austin

Food is a gateway for Jax Austin.  This wasn’t always true of the Twitter sensation and Travel Channel hopeful – at one time food was both precious and fraught. Now Jax uses the plate as an inroad to the soul, transcending cuisine to document the personal stories of the people he encounters. His star is rising and networks are noticing, due in part to his vocal 120,000 + Twitter followers. Jax recently returned from a self-funded production in Mexico for his YouTube channel, and made time to discuss food, drink, and ethos with James English for Inquisitive Eater.


JE: So can you tell us about your project in Mexico?

Jax: I went there to shoot food, but wanted to look deeper than what this dish was, or how that dish was prepared.  I wanted the person behind the food, and was able to find these amazing people who sacrificed everything to work in the US washing dishes and mowing lawns, but who returned to Mexico to open businesses and live the American dream on the other side of the border. It’s really inspiring, and that’s what made consider the question “Who’s the person making the food?  What’s their story?”  Food is a gateway to people’s lives.

JE: And you found some pretty compelling stuff

Jax: Yeah, one guy crossed the border when he was 7 years old to be reunited with his family, who were picking watermelons on a farm. He trapped gophers for the farmer for 25 cents per tail, and he had 400 traps that he turned around twice a day. He made his first $200 in 1967 and his dad told him to give the money back to the farmer as a token of appreciation for reuniting his family. This guy went on to own a landscaping company and some other businesses, returned to Mexico, bought some property, and now owns a gigantic winery.  The wine is great, and we talk about the wine, but the backstory of how he got to the winery, that’s what interests me with this project.



JE: How did you get started with all of this?

Jax: I took a life-changing trip in 2006 backpacking for 3 months and wound up in Guatemala studying Spanish, bartending, and waiting tables. When I came back to the States, I started working in real estate and tried to think of ways I could get paid to travel. One day this guy came by the office and asked what my dream job was, and I said “A travel show host, duh!”  As if there’s any other answer for this question.   Then he asked me what I was doing in an office.

JE: And that was a wake up call for you.

Jax: After that I went out and started shooting things on my own. I had a chance meeting with someone at Animal Planet who recommended a workshop, but after taking classes with people who have an interest in you coming back for more classes, I realized I just had to actually go and do it. So I’m hiring myself until someone hires me! (laughs)

JE:  It’s working. You’re getting noticed.

Jax: Yes.  I booked an online series officially this week [editors note: 4/23/15] that will air on Huffington Post, Yahoo, and AOL’s site.  And I’m juggling a few other projects right now.

Once more in Mexico

Once more in Mexico

JEWere you always an inquisitive eater?

Jax: When I was young, I wouldn’t try anything new.  Then one night we went to a Chinese restaurant with my uncle, and I got the same thing I always got, which was sweet and sour chicken.  He told me to try something else, and if I didn’t like it I could order something new. I grew up poor and on food stamps, so the idea of being able to waste food flipped my world upside down. That opened the floodgates.  After that I’d order anything just to try stuff. Not in a wasteful way of course.

JE: Including pizzle (bull penis).  I saw your pizzle video and no one looked like they were having fun.

Jax: Oh yeah. That was my second pizzle.  I got to tell you, penis is a hard thing to swallow (laughs).  It has the texture of a rubber ball.  The first time I tried it, I put in in the garbage disposal, and it broke the disposal!

JE: And yet you gave it another shot! Are there any dishes so far that you just couldn’t stomach?

Jax: I recently stopped by a Kim Chee store in Korea Town here in LA and came across North Korean fermented fish.  It’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever eaten.  When you bite into the fish it’s tangy like it’s still bubbling with fermentation. This was a hard thing to eat. But even more difficult was fried stinky tofu.  I gagged.

JE: Please tell me you taped yourself eating that.

Jax:  No (laughs).  You know, how you put yourself out there is how people see you, and that’s why I wanted to do these longer format projects rather than these silly goofy “I’m eating something weird” kind of videos.

JE: And that speaks to your ethic and the importance of capturing the personal stories behind the glasses and plates.  What’s been your favorite experience so far?

Jax: I’d say personal growth.  I used to be extremely camera shy when I was younger.  But it’s the coolest feeling in the world to be able to show up somewhere and talk to someone who tells you how they got to where they are through the common experiences of food and drink.

JE: What’s the one thing you want people to think about when they think about you?

Jax: I would say “have an open mind and open heart. If you open your mind, your heart will follow.” And I’m grateful to have such incredible supporters. I feel like they’ve got my back.

You can follow Jax Austin and his projects on Twitter @JaxAustin and on Facebook.


james-englishJames H. English is an MFA candidate at The New School, adventure traveler and maritime professional.  He currently resides in North New Jersey. He is constantly cutting adverbs from his classmates’ work and injuring himself while running marathons. He’s working on a novel.

Luis Jaramillo in Conversation with Heather Abel, author of Gut Instincts Fri, 10 Apr 2015 20:00:25 +0000 gut-instincts-cover

Co-Editor-in-Chief and Creative Writing Director Luis Jaramillo, MFA ‘01, talks with Heather Abel, MFA ‘01, about her recent Kindle Single, Gut Instincts: Dispatches From the Wide-Open Space Between Sickness and Health. Jaramillo and Abel discuss celiac disease, capitalism and the medical industry, and what it’s like to write about your mother.


Along with being a personal story about celiac disease, this is also a story about how the medical community began to recognize and diagnose celiac disease again in the United States. This contributed to the rise of the gluten-free diet and industry, so much so that as you write, “nearly a third of Americans avoid gluten.” This is pretty shocking. What else surprised you in your research?

For forty years, the American medical establishment basically ignored celiac disease, even while European doctors continued researching and diagnosing it. This continues to shock me even though I know that medical research in this country is linked to pharmaceutical money and that diseases without a pharmaceutical cure, such as celiac, get ignored. The myth of American superiority is so pervasive here. We like to believe that we have the newest and best of everything. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that if I’d been born in Italy, I never would have gotten as sick as I did. I wouldn’t have lingering symptoms. The entire trajectory of my body would be different.

You tie together so many threads in this piece. How did you decide which to emphasize when?

Well, I had a lot, perhaps too much, that I wanted to cram into this essay, and even though I didn’t want to write a traditional illness narrative (I got sick; nobody understood; then they did; I got better or not), I decided to rely on chronology to organize the sections. It begins with my diagnosis in 2000 and ends in 2014. This way, I could show the metamorphoses of two relationships that changed for the better over time — my relationship with my mom and my relationship with uncertainty.

One story line I especially liked was how you got sucked into the world of blogs about celiac disease. Your interest in and evolves quite a bit. Can you say a bit about that?

I’m a pretty voyeuristic person. I like eavesdropping. I like talking walks at night and looking into people’s houses. Back when people wrote things on paper, I loved finding a crumpled up sheet of notebook paper on the ground. So when blogs first appeared, I was a natural audience. Here were all these people exposing such intimate but mundane details as what they ate for dinner. And I wanted to know what everyone ate for dinner. My love of blogs soon soured, though, because of the imposed perkiness, the forced optimism. Some of this is the perfomative nature of the internet, the self we’re all projecting onto the screen. But some of this is because so many bloggers decided to monetize their intimate mundanities, and to do that, they had to alter their narratives to please advertisers. Now I pretty much avoid all gluten-free bloggers, unless I have a particular question or recipe I need to find. I’m sure I miss out on a lot of helpful information — and I definitely missed out on a powerful potential for publicity for my essay by critiquing these blogs — but I actually feel calmer with less info, fewer perky stories.

This is also a story about how insidious capitalism is, everywhere you turn as a patient and reporter. Do you have any further thoughts about this?

Revolution! But short of overthrowing capitalism, I think exposing its reach is really important. It’s crucial to point out over and over how all of our medical information, the way it’s researched and the way it’s presented, is influenced — even skewed — by the scramble for corporate money. I hope I contributed to that exposition, and I also want to say how grateful I am to the doctors and practitioners and bloggers who are slogging through the information and trying to make sense of it for the rest of it — even if they themselves are skewed by the forces of capitalism.

What did you learn about the food industry?

I don’t think I learned much about it, other than that I have a lot to learn about it. I did learn a lot about food fads and the forces that bring certain fads to the forefront of our culture.

So much of our experience of feeling taken care of is tied to certain foods. You write about your relationship to your mother in this piece. What was that experience like?

I recently was told about an essay about celiac by a young woman who complained that her mother was so controlling. She hated how her mother micromanaged every bite she took. When I learned this, I wrote an email to my mom saying, “Motherhood: damned if you do; damned if you don’t.” Which is certainly something I can relate to vis a vis my own kids. In my essay, I wanted to write about my anger at my mom for not diagnosing me, not because I think I was right to be so angry, but because I think that anger is often part of the experience of a chronic disease. As long as I was committed to the idea of certainty in illness, I was going to be angry. My mom, however, hated reading about my anger, probably as much as she hated experiencing it. She didn’t see the larger context — how I let go of this anger and felt really grateful to her — on the first read. So we talked a lot about those years, which was a good thing for us to do. But even through her initial disappointment, she’s been supportive of this essay in a lovely way.

You write about the advice you were getting on celiac: “It was beginning to feel a little absurd, how little anyone knew and how adamantly everyone insisted.” This seems to be a recurring theme, the fundamental unknowability of pretty much everything. Was it always your intention to write about this?

When I set out to write this essay, it was because I felt strongly that I had one thing to say that wasn’t being discussed in any of the discourse on celiac I was reading. And that was the unknowability, the uncertainty of such an illness. Blogs, for all the capitalist reasons we talked about earlier, are often ridiculously sure-footed and certain. As are doctors and alternative practitioners. Everyone’s contradicting each other. Everyone’s claiming certainty. And nobody was pointing out how strange it felt to be a patient in this echo chamber.

You’ve written this piece and an essay on celiac for Slate. Would you want to write a book about the subject?

I’m not sure I have more than the 14,000 words I already wrote about celiac, but I recently wrote about feeding arsenic-laced rice to my kids and it made me interested in writing a collection of essays about uncertainty, especially the ways we live with uncertainty in this age of rising seas and rising auto-immune diseases and tidal waves of information that is both contradictory and mesmerizing.

How did you come to publish this piece as an Amazon Single? What was the process like?

I wrote the essay at 14,000 words and asked friends where I could possibly publish something at that length. Someone suggested Kindle Singles and I approached them. The process was great. I worked with astute editors and a talented cover artist. It’s been interesting to have a piece that can only be read on certain newish technology or with a specific app. There’s a wide swath of the public that regularly reads Kindle Singles and have downloaded my piece, but I’ve had to explain how to find it to some of my family — and I wouldn’t have understood how to do this myself before I published a Kindle Single.

What have the responses to your pieces been?

I’ve heard from people with celiac, people with gluten sensitivity, people with undiagnosed disorders, people with mothers. The response that I keep thinking about is from a woman who wrote to tell me how much the piece resonated. She said that her son was diagnosed with celiac at 10 and for years before his diagnosis he would tell her, “I just don’t fit in anywhere in the world.” I know that feeling so well from life pre-diagnosis. It’s remarkable how an undiagnosed autoimmune illness — a systemic bodily assault — can cause a person to feel not only sickly but other, floating a bit outside of the healthy, chattering world. I’m really glad he’s diagnosed.

Sungold … Mexican Midget … Tomatoes! Wed, 07 May 2014 11:28:45 +0000 Susan Marque, MFA ’14, talks to Miriam Rubin about her recent book, Tomatoes: A Savor the South Cookbook (University of North Carolina Press). Watch the video where they discuss everything tomato related, including the historical shunning of this deadly nightshade fruit.


Bread and Butter: An Interview with Michelle Wildgen Tue, 25 Mar 2014 12:13:08 +0000 Michelle Wildgen is a writer of impeccable tastes. As culinary and literary mentor, she took me for my first scoop of pear and blue cheese ice cream and gave me my first copy of MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me. As an editor at Tin House, she’s brought food writing to the table from the likes of Francine Prose, Steve Almond and Ann Hood. Now, in her third novel, Bread and Butter, Wildgen follows three brothers running two very different restaurants: Leo and Britt’s smartly-polished Winesap, and younger brother Harry’s envelope-pushing startup, Stray. It’s a novel filled not only with the intricate stuff of cooking of the highest order, but of sibling rivalry and affections, as temperamental as any soufflé. It was my pleasure to speak with Wildgen about the world’s best waiter, editing a dish versus an essay, and the supreme goodness of the French fry.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: For me, a chief pleasure of Bread and Butter lies in not just vicariously tasting all the food being served and eaten by the brothers, but in savoring the sensory details of its preparation as you describe it. The slicing of fish has never sounded sexier than when you write about it here, for example. I wonder, what kind of research did you do for writing so intimately about the making of the food in the book? Did you cook the dishes that we get to read about?

Michelle Wildgen: I’m a home cook and not a professional, but I have enough familiarity with it to feel comfortable describing some of the process and problems of cooking, whether it’s resting your meat or not lowering the temp of your frying oil by over-crowding it. For the most part, I just relied on a lifetime of eating and cooking, which could have been described as “greed” until now, but which we will now commence calling “research” instead. The lamb’s neck dish, for instance, was something I tasted a version of at San Francisco’s Incanto, and Alinea in Chicago was doing a whole chocolate menthol geode thing when I was there a few years back. I’ve cooked many a noodle dish, though, right down to stepping on my plastic-bagged udon noodle dough to knead it (yes, this is a thing). Other dishes, I tried to make but failed to source the ingredients for—it turns out that when you get a yen to make ramen broth on a Sunday afternoon, pig femurs can be a bit thin on the ground. And some dishes I made up, like Hector’s sugared kaffir lime dust, or read about: Harry’s self-saucing duck breast is based on a self-saucing chicken dish by chef Michael Symon, as described by writer Michael Ruhlman in his series on professional cooking.

EKH: I have to confess, I was thinking particularly of that spectacular dessert of Hector’s when I asked that question. I’ve been hoping that it’s real since I read about it; I’m pretty sure I had a dream about that emerald green dust. It makes me think a little about the difference between food rendered on the page, where there’s total authorial control over the brown on a roast or the shimmer of an aspic, versus food in real life. Is it possible that food is sometimes even better in writing than on our plate?

MW: I think if I tried to make Hector’s dessert I’d end up with Leo’s sad paste. (I may have to ask a pastry chef how one could make this.) In some ways it’s hard to beat fictional food, which gets to do and be whatever the author can persuade the reader it is and does. If I am really on my game, I can persuade you that eggplant mousse with chocolate shards is everything you ever needed (okay, if I am a sorcerer). And even aside from the ease of the writer’s ability to fix burned edges and unrisen dough on the page, fictional food may always have an edge on real food because we get to savor it differently, allowing so many other associations and emotions to thread through the experience. That happens in real life, too, but I’m generally too busy eating to stop and think about what a plate of chicken really means—my thought process is less “Why, this unexpected morsel makes me think of Twelfth Night” than “Yay, food!” It’s in the reflecting on what I ate and where it came from that the other layers open up for me.

Then again, to contradict myself entirely, can even the most delicious food on the page compete with a perfect French fry?

EKH: What’s your own trajectory through the world of the restaurant business been like? You work as a writer, teacher, and editor now, but I know that in an earlier life you spent time in the industry—could you ever imagine renouncing the literary life for, say, your own restaurant on an island someplace in Lake Michigan?

MW: Oh god, no. I like to have good restaurants and great movies playing nearby—a smaller city like Madison, where I live now, is as isolated as I can ever see myself getting. My career trajectory has been a mix of food and writing all along. After college, I went to work at 2 jobs: at a trade newspaper for the dairy industry, and a part-time backwaiter at a high-end restaurant. The newspaper showed me how to craft a story and call up strangers and ask them questions, and facilitated my cheese-eating too. I was tireless in covering the artisanal cheesemaking scene, purely out of professional obligation, of course. The restaurant, on the other hand, taught me almost everything about the culinary life. Or rather it laid a foundation, and gave me the basis to know what I didn’t know, whereas before that I was casting about for knowledge, ignorant but enthusiastic. Eventually I quit the newspaper job and went full-time into the restaurant until I left for an MFA program. One of the reasons I was so happy to start working at Tin House is that we publish literary food writing, which can take just about any form at all, so I keep an editorial hand in food. And in fiction I do too—there is something about the hands-on, tactile feeling of food production that I never tire of writing about. So far I haven’t been a food writer who’s all over the world covering trends and testing recipes. I’ve been more the type to ponder the poetic qualities of the egg. I maintain that this has practical applications too.

EKH: As someone who would like to think she can appreciate an exceptional meal but who has never served behind the lines at restaurant, one of the things that struck me most in reading Bread and Butter is just how much thought and finesse goes into not only the nuances of the food, but the totality of the experience. What for you are the details that make a service extraordinary? And how many of your own restaurant pet peeves and best practice beliefs show up in the predilections of the three brothers?

MW: After seeing the lengths to which a good restaurant will go—and going to said lengths myself—I have zero patience with half-assed service, so Britt’s and Leo’s pet peeves are all mine too. I think servers auctioning dishes (“Who has the frog legs?” etc.) is a hack move through and through. I cannot stand it when I ask a server for her opinion on a couple of dishes and get the reply, “It depends on what you want.” The servers know the menu, or they ought to, and they should have something to say about the dishes that clarifies what the menu cannot, or the willingness to say, “Listen, the pig knuckle is good but the handmade pasta tonight is amazing.” The kitchen discussions about kids dining in high-end places are pretty realistic, too: people bitch about kids in restaurants only when they behave badly. We loved it when children ate real food and just enjoyed the experience.

As for what makes a meal extraordinary, I love smart servers and a challenging menu. I’m not into going out for comfort food I can make for myself; I want to try something I haven’t had before. The small things add up, and the details are everything. They show a restaurant knows how to manage the experience, from the amuse to fill the gap between drinks and apps to a basket of tampons in the ladies’ bathroom. It’s about how you handle the imperfections, too. I once was at a restaurant that accidentally served me a house-made raviolo still cold in the center, and I swear the server appeared at the table the second she saw my posture change. I was so impressed with her I barely recall the cold pasta. Now that’s a professional.

EKH: It’s funny, I feel like you as author are in so many ways like this best-ever server—you tell so much of this story through extraordinary observation of nuance, not only in interactions between diner and server, but between brother and brother, or between the smitten and the crushed-upon. You have this incredible ability to convey the way we say so much through our smallest gesture or subtlest inflection in tone. There’s a little gem of a scene, for example, when at a staff dinner at Winesap, Thea observes the very small thing of a staff member stiffen in reaction to a story another one of the staff is telling; from that, she parses from that the bigger issue of this guy’s treatment of women in the kitchen. It’s something we’re sometimes warned against in writing classes—asking body language to tell the story—but your writing is proof plenty that this advice is garbage. I was captivated your ability to show us who these people are and what they think of each other in the same way we come to know each other in life—by observing a waver in someone’s gaze, the sly exposure of the underside of a wrist.

MW: Thank you! That’s about as perfect a compliment as I could ever hope for. I love fiction that pays attention to those little things, and obviously I try to produce it, because really we all take note of everything at an incredibly minute level. We don’t always stop to delineate each clue that gives us an overall impression, but we perceive and respond to this sort of thing constantly—think of how you knew a date wasn’t interested, or that you’d just said the wrong thing among strangers. People rarely say, “I shall never call you,” or “That offended me.” They communicate it through a dozen tiny gestures, glances, sounds, and refusals, and we know so well what to expect from social exchanges that we also know instantly when it deviates somehow. The trick for the writer is how to convey it in a way that conveys the sum and not just a catalogue of weird facial tics.

EKH: In thinking about how carefully a chef and a restaurant staff curate a dinner experience, I also started thinking about the potentially similar kind of work you do as an editor in cultivating a piece of writing. Does that parallel ring true to you? And is running a restaurant to editing what cooking is to writing?

MW: I think cooking has more in common with editing and writing than restaurant-running does, simply because the latter seems so much bigger and more demanding of so many more skills than sitting down to write or edit. You have to thrive on craziness and stress to succeed in restaurants, whereas a writer has to thrive on solitude and weekly bouts of self-hatred. Creating a dish as described in the book, however, certainly has its parallels with writing and editing. Just like a book, you might start with a little idea that is not enough on its own and then build the dish around it. You can edit a dish as you do an essay, taking out the distracting stuff and rejiggering the ratios. Who hasn’t been served a dish with a whole pile of stuff on it that makes you forget what the central taste was intended to be? The same thing happens in a story with too many characters.

EKH: Finally, who are the food writers we should be reading that we’re not?

MW: There are plenty, but a lot of my favorites are well known already. Part of the fun for me of writers like Calvin Trillin or Jeffrey Steingarten is the persona they create for themselves on the page, as well as the glorious food and culinary expertise. Nigel Slater has been a favorite of mine for years and years, for books that look so gorgeous and frankly could teach you not just how to make a recipe but how to cook. I loved the Robicelli’s cookbook (authors of the same name), too, which is from a couple of former restaurant cooks who opened a bakery in Bay Ridge. They don’t stint on the obscenities or the Golden Girls references, and they have zero patience for supercilious bitching about the cupcake craze. Lastly, I will never get over my love of Laurie Colwin’s food essays or food-heavy fiction, so don’t try and make me.


Michelle Wildgen is a writer, editor, and teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to being an executive editor at the literary journal Tin House, Michelle is the author of the novels Bread and Butter: A Novel, But Not for Long and You’re Not You: A Novel, and the editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. You’re Not You has been adapted for film, starring Hilary Swank and Emmy Rossum.


Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is assistant editor at Tin House. Her writing has appeared in Bookforum, Web Conjunctions, The Story Collider, and Hunger Mountain.

The Way We Ate: An Interview with Noah Fecks Mon, 03 Feb 2014 12:25:17 +0000 In his forward, David Kamp calls Noah Fecks and Paul Wagtouicz “immersion experts.” The Way We Ate (Touchstone Books) started as a photographic blog and developed into more than your typical cookbook where over 100 chefs and food personalities translated their version of an historical event into a dish or cocktail.

Susan Marque talks to Fecks about how a simple idea flowered into something spectacular.

Click here for the interview.


Susan Marque is a second year M.F.A. student at The New School, she has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, Gotham Magazine, Fit Parent and Yogi Times.  She is currently working on her memoir Freshman at 44.

Bread, The Modest Superpower Wed, 29 Jan 2014 13:36:45 +0000 An interview with Matthew J. Tilden, owner of SCRATCHbread.

by Jessica Sennett

Matthew J. Tilden lets his cooking speak for itself. SCRATCHbread, his grassroots style company located in Brooklyn, has developed an intense following serving what Tilden calls “jaw dropping deliciousness” out of a window on the corner of Bedford and Lexington Avenue. Customers stumble upon a continually evolving menu that he describes as “messy and fun,” one where he fuses eclectic handmade bread with tactile, bold dishes. The “Hot Meatball Sandwich,”which is served on a wheat butter roll encrusted with a Parmesan bottom, is bursting with ground meat, spices, and tomato gravy. His “VegFlat” showcases flatbread topped with colorful house made sauces, pickles, and seasonal organic produce. SCRATCH is a place for casual social gathering. Customers nosh on food at the outdoor standing counter or plop down on two rustic benches. The food is made to be eaten by hand in a moment of carnal glory.

After working for approximately 12 hours, I met Tilden at the kitchen door and on that balmy June Sunday, we wandered to a local bar for coffee and cocktails. Tilden has shied away from public attention, which, he insists, is part of his business philosophy. His food is about the relationship between “the cook” and “the customer”.  In the past, he has refused to have his portrait taken in interviews, only featuring his hands and under forearm tattoo, where he branded himself with the company name as a permanent reminder of his ambitions.

Recently, however, Tilden has emerged into the public eye.  The photographer Randy Duchaine, captured him in a series of photos exhibited at The Brooklyn Public Library called, Created in Brooklyn.  Holding two loaves of Bourbon Wheat bread up to his face as shields, Tilden stares back at the viewer with one clear brown eye, revealing his brown beard and black cloth cap and tee. This is no ordinary baker feeding the surrounding Bed-Stuy community. This guy is pure ninja.

Tilden describes his business model as “anti-bottom line.”  His initial inspiration for starting SCRATCH, he says, came from “working for assholes.”  Frustrated by the lack of power the employees had been given in his previous high-end culinary jobs made him want to create a different style of food production.  He highlighted his priorities on two stout fingers, “customer appreciation and control in the hands of the employees.”

The large “food workshop” kitchen space keeps the energy of the company focused on the vision of creating affordable, multi-dimensional, and nutrient packed feasts. “It’s all about the food, that’s the only thing that matters,” he expressed passionately.

Despite the fact that in the past, Tilden found baking too precise for his style of cooking, he was able to recognize bread and pastry as the perfect medium for his own fledgling company. Tilden brings an intuitive, handcrafted approach to the food he produces, starting – but not ending­ – with bread. He describes bread as “the world’s most modest superpower.”  Any type of flour combined with salt, water, and yeast is the cheapest access point to the food revolution, a perfect platform for a businessman with no starting capital and loads of creative vision.

Tilden’s culinary perspective is deeply connected to his larger appreciation for artistic expression.  As a former musician who discovered an empowered sense of self through singing and engaging with his audience, he views food as the most universal source of nourishment that ignites all of the senses.  His goal is to blow the mind of the eater. “I see how people eat,” he says, “and working backwards, I concentrate on your reaction before I make the product.”  From the beginning to end of the meal, Tilden views the culinary process as a deepening awareness. Through taste and texture, our expectation and perception interacts with our senses creating a passionate, visceral reality.

“Fuck the rules,” he advises intensely, staring me directly in the eye.  This piece of advice beats at the heart of his satiating alchemical processes.  For Tilden, it has been his intuitive gut and pure drive that has made his dream a reality.


Jessica Sennett is a freelance cheese educator and food project builder. She is using The New School to create a program combining food writing, the arts, and community development.  To learn more about her cheese making ventures, you can visit:


Photo by Randy Duchaine.

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