Some application questions for a Food Writer position at Buzzfeed. Did not get the job.
Q: Tell us about your food x quarantine experience: What was the best thing you cooked, ate, and/or watched? How did your cooking or eating habits change (or not change)?
A: I was a chef before the pandemic hit. I was cooking 8 hours or more every day but I wasn’t enjoying it at all. When I was laid off (for the first time) in March of 2020, I actually didn’t panic. The pay wasn’t great, the hours sucked and my lifelong love of cooking was starting to fade. The opportunity to get out of high-end professional kitchens gave me the energy and metaphorical space to really dive into some of the experiments and ideas I wasn’t able to at work. Along with making 3 meals for my girlfriend and I every day, I tested out a variety of new ideas and ended up with a handful of pandemic recipes born out of my own boredom including a squash pie, a ale-onion tart, several varieties of muffins, and a near-perfect replica of the dominoes medium 2-topping pan pizza. However, my favorite culinary accomplishment of the quarantine was my Butternut Squash Butter.
The idea was simple—When you have too many apples, you make apple butter (right?). If you have too much butternut squash…— so I peeled enough squash to fill my slow cooker, dumped in a bunch of sugar and some water and let it ride. When the squash broke down I blended it into a purée and put it back in the pot. Eventually, it started to caramelize around the edges. I would nearly let it blacken before scraping it off the sides and mixing it back in. After about 36 hours, I wound up with a deep, burnt red colored paste with the consistency of homemade ketchup—perfect! The resulting “butter” tasted just like its color, if that makes sense—robust, dark, and warm. It first was used as a glaze for a grilled pork tenderloin before it ended up in breads and sauces, on ice creams and even as a “syrup” in a remarkably good iced latte.
The quarantine changed my cooking and eating habits in the way that suddenly, everything was up to me. I may have indulged too much, as many have, but I also managed to get some of my creative energy back and adda few more staples to my recipe book.
Q: What are the 3 best cooking tips you’d give to a beginner? How about a seasoned home cook? What’s the smartest or most underrated kitchen hack you know?
A: Firstly, I would give a beginner the same #1 tip that pro cooks get in pro kitchens—taste your food! Set it and forget it can be nice, but the only way to make sure it’s just the way you like it is to eat some. Secondly, season every layer of the dish. This goes hand in hand with the first tip, but it’s easy to forget. Even “seasoned” home cooks forget to salt their pasta/blanching water. Lastly, I would tell them to start out cooking the things that they like. Dinner doesn’t have to be fancy to be good. If you know what good chicken fingers and fries tastes like, try to make some good chicken fingers and fries. Your mistakes will be far more edible!
For a seasoned home cook, the first advice I would give is to invest in nicer equipment. Not all at once, but overtime it’s good to accumulate an assortment of reliable appliances (and knives) that allow you to make anything that pops into your head. Second, I always recommend keeping a fully stocked spice cabinet and all of your basic baking essentials (butter/oil, sugar, flour, eggs, milk) on hand. It’s always helpful to have the building blocks for most dishes at arms reach. Thirdly, practice plating! Your friends say they would pay for your food at a restaurant, make it look like it actually came from one. It can be challenging, but all it takes is some practice really impress your guests.
Q: Tell us about a few food-related things you’re obsessed with. (Could be: Under-the-radar IG or TikTok accounts; TV shows, podcasts, or newsletters; secret menu items; small businesses, etc)
- Morning Light Bakery—Winooski, VT
– This is a great Hong Kong style bakery that was opened by an immigrant family in town a couple of years ago. They have awesome baked and steamed buns, homemade mochi and bubble teas.
2) Instagram: mattymatheson
– Matty Matheson is always doing wild stuff, but his obsession over and public exhibition of the under-appreciated Buffalo-style pizza the last few years has been wonderful to witness.
3) Instagram: rwmckinlay
– I have a number of Canadian friends and out of respect, I try to keep up with the general CanCon of the day. My current favorite chef up there is Rob McKinlay. He does an awesome job of showcasing Canadian ingredients and mind-bendingly cool techniques of butchery, classic and modern.