Buzzfeed Food Writer Q’s

Some application questions for a Food Writer position at Buzzfeed. Did not get the job.

06/15/2021

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)

A:

  1. 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.

USP’s

Black Flannel Brewing Company – Black Flannel Brewing Co. serves superior beer and liquor paired with farm to table cuisine, all crafted in-house, for folks who notice the little things. Come enjoy our huge storefront in Essex and watch your food and drink be prepared before your eyes.

Taglines:

“We pair well with people.”

“Best Burger and Beer in a Burger and Beer State”

Willard Street Inn – The Willard Street Inn is a grand Victorian style mansion situated the heart of Burlington, Vermont, which hosts up to 34 guests in classic luxury. Guests may take in the history of the building, have a walk around the beautiful grounds or eat their breakfast in the vegetable garden outside, all before they even leave for the morning.

Taglines:

“Everything Exactly How It Should Be”

“Burlington’s Best Bed and Breakfast. Emphasis on the Breakfast.”

SGETI TRUCK – The city’s ONLY spaghetti-based food truck run by a REAL Italian. He’s got the attitude, he’s got the accent, and you KNOW he’s got the sauce.

Taglines:

“SGETI. Five Dollars.”

“You want it or not?”

“Red sauce by the Boss”

just a few deep thoughts i got going on (trademarked)

  1. What about a stockbroker that’s blind and he has to do the stocks in braille lol

2. Jesus “Jack” Christ

3. What about like a guy that’s a cowboy but he has an italian accent

4. What about Italian Luchadors and instead of taking off their masks its a mustache instead

5. What about fried cured pig cheek (guanciale) and some herbs and a nice olive of melon

6. Cant think of anyone who has a problem with Maine

The Anti-Cookbook

I’ve never really been into cookbooks. I peek at a recipe now and again for guidance, or on occasions where I’m making something totally new, but I cook mostly using techniques, not recipes. I learned by looking, tasting and doing, not by reading. And when I do need a recipe for reference, hundreds of options are available on my phone within seconds. Moreover, these recipes are almost all free to access and rated by popular consensus. It’s really convenient, but it comes with the caveat that you have to scroll through a poorly formatted ten-page blog post littered with ads to actually get to the recipe. Cookbooks can be the same way–pedantic, long winded, personal–though more care is taken with the writing. Hardcover cookbooks often give a glimpse into the life and philosophy of a well-known chef or personality that drives people to purchase them; the best ones are as much “book” as they are “cook”. But that still hasn’t been enough to get me to buy one for myself, let alone read one I’ve gotten as a gift cover to cover. Why read and look at pictures when I could listen and watch famous chefs cook with mown eyes? I don’t have a great answer to that question–I just haven’t found it.

What I do have though is a disheveled mental archive of the recipes and techniques that I’ve learned or created over the course of my life. Writing a proper cookbook would be an exercise in regulating my creative process to a standard that normal, non-chef types can work with. I can deal with that, but I’d rather not. I’d also rather not try to sell my recipes on a gimmick–like using AAVE to sell mediocre food to white people–or from behind a wall of shitty blogging about how much I love Parker House Rolls. People enjoy the things I cook (they said so). They also ask me for cooking advice, which I enjoy giving; I learned to cook the exact same way. I don’t know everything, but it can be hard to relate to someone who knows everything.

My idea is this: an ongoing, casual, recipe first (on the page) online cookbook. I like to eat foods that make my brain feel good and don’t cost half of your paycheck to eat. I also don’t like being told what to do or adhering to strict rules. I know there are other people out there who feel the same way stuck in a habit of eating frozen tendies and take out. My goal, if you could call it that, is to remove some of the hesitation or mental blockage preventing people from cooking for themselves. Included are the people who want to cook, but just think they don’t know how. I want to show people that as long as they like when food tastes good, they can make food taste good for themselves too. If you need another reason, knowing how to cook also makes you more attractive to everyone I think.

There’s a time for frozen tendies and a time for Chinese takeout. There’s also time to make a pot of rice and make your own sesame chicken. Why would you not want to spend fifteen dollars and fifteen minutes of your time to save money on a week’s worth of pulled pork sandwiches? Doesn’t really make sense to me. I want people to be able to get as much out of the food that they eat as I do. Not nutrients, but the good brain chemicals–the drugs ones. Just buy a meat thermometer if you undercook your chicken, get out a spoon for tasting and don’t get too scared of burning stuff because sometimes burnt stuff tastes good.

Bonus Paragraph: I’ll update posts with pictures as much as I’m able. Also–if you have any questions or troubles or even want to request that I do a post about a specific food you like you can literally just text me or email me, send a pigeon, etc.

Plague Raves

To the dismay of many, events now colloquially known as plague raves are happening all over the world—even with the threat of an ever-worsening global pandemic looming overhead. Countries like China or Vietnam that effectively neutralized their COVID problem are having actual disease-free raves which Westerners witness on social media. Countries like America or Italy have not faired as well in disease prevention and for the most part look on in jealousy as club-goers across the world get their kicks. 

The response of most folks—at least the Americans I know—has been to virtually attend raves via their computer. After nearly a year in the throes of COVID, there are plenty of online dance parties and music festivals to attend. Dirtybird—a popular house and techno label out of San Francisco— has a weekly lineup of rotating DJ’s and regular shows going most of the evening. Movement Festival in Detroit puts on occasional weekend long “festivals” that you can attend for free in the comfort of your living room. Sure, this simulacrum of the rave experience isn’t what we all want, but obligations to our fellow man make it the best option we have.

I want to avoid inflecting a total moral polarity on the decision whether or not to attend an in-person event during the pandemic, but that is hard to do. To me, plague ravers seem at best ignorant—or uneducated—of the situation at hand. Worse, some of them don’t even care. However, at the very bottom of the “ethical pyramid” are the people who organize these events and promote them by exploiting everyone’s deep desire to go get nasty in a club or muddy field somewhere. It seems reasonable that a particularly social person would break quarantine or safety restrictions to attend a party. After all, they’re not the one throwing it—it’s going to happen anyway—but to overlook the real human lives at risk when you let a whole lot of them breathe on each other for 6 hours is more than neglectful, it’s manslaughter.

DJ’s aren’t off-the-hook either. I’m not talking about local, small-time DJs who barely make enough money DJing as it is. I’m talking about the rich, plane-hopping assholes who play the plague raves to cut another check. In America, our first glance at the plague rave came early on in the summer when The Chainsmokers threw a party in the Hamptons. Understandably, people were upset. The practice of pandemic partying, however, has really taken hold across the Atlantic as well as in Mexico.

The Twitter page Business Techno has put together the best chronicle of the 2020 COVID raves and the DJ’s who play them. Amelie, Nina, Marcel, Loco Dice.—some of the biggest names in the business are publicly promoting and playing these parties, seemingly without shame. They use excuses like “all proper protocol was followed” or “people just need to party” and become defensive when confronted about it. These people are all doing something they feel that they need to do, but the truth is they don’t need to do it at all.

I’m not trying to say that everyone should just be cool with never going to a rave again, but that’s not going to happen. What I am saying, though, is that people—especially famous DJ’s—can endure a relatively brief period of not being able to go out dancing to reduce the infection rate of a deadly disease. It may feel like it sometimes, but going out to the the club or to a music festival isn’t actually the thing keeping you alive. Doing drugs, drinking and wearing glitter on your face certainly isn’t helping either, and the fact is the most important part of the experience, the music, is still there. 

A virtual music festival is not the same as a real one and it never will be, but that’s OK, because virtual music festivals are not forever. Consider the death toll of the pandemic already and ask yourself if you really can’t wait any longer—because most of the world has to. Flying somewhere where restrictions and guidelines aren’t followed cannot be justification enough to do so. In fact, it’s a privilege! Maybe it’s not the buzzword you wanted to hear, but the privilege of plague raving is apparent. Many people have lost family members, jobs and their savings. Many people wouldn’t even consider going out to a rave in a time like this. However, many people also don’t seem to mind exacerbating these problems.

It’s on the promoters not to organize them, it’s on the DJ’s not to play them, but it’s also on you to not attend plague raves. You just don’t need to go out the same way that some people need to not have a disease that destroys their respiratory system. Don’t wait until a nurse is shoving a tube down into your lungs to have second thoughts, it’s definitely not worth it. Just buy a strobe light get some loud speakers and do some [redacted] in your living room.