The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen Crew Has Answers
Nine pro chefs and YouTube personalities tackle our burning food Qs
By Jessi Cape and Lina Fisher, Fri., March 20, 2020
Throughout the YouTube zeitgeist, only one channel has given us Brad Leone and Matty Matheson noodling for catfish. Only one channel has reverse-engineered gourmet meals from taste alone. Only one has given us pro chefs taste-testing bologna and Velveeta. And that is why the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen team has become an object of national adoration, even obsession.
In advance of their now-canceled appearance at South by Southwest Conference, the Chronicle did a special group interview with the whole gang via email. Find out whose kitchen station is dubbed "the Party Staysh," whose childhood meals included frog legs, the scoop on Molly and Claire's new cookbooks, and finally solve the mystery of why Chris hates peanut butter.
Meet the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen Team
Andy Baraghani, senior food editor
Molly Baz, senior food editor
Christina Chaey, associate editor
Alex Delany, drinks editor
Brad Leone, Test Kitchen video host, It's Alive!
Rick Martinez, contributing food editor
Chris Morocco, food director
Carla Lalli Music, food editor at large
Claire Saffitz, contributing food editor, Gourmet Makes
On Bon Appétit's Move to YouTube ... and Celebrity Status
Austin Chronicle: How has the move to video affected your careers, and do you miss the magazine-only days? Does the extra exposure (and lessened anonymity) have any drawbacks?
Claire Saffitz: I miss the magazine-only days of BA just because it was a time of so much learning and growth for me – I have been working at Bon Appétit since 2013, and it was my first media job. In my early days it was so exciting to learn from all the talented, smart, and funny editors around me – and I had a lot to learn! I am grateful that over the course of many years, it's still my job to learn and experiment. Certainly, with the popularity of the videos, my day-to-day looks different now and I am no longer developing recipes full time in the kitchen. But I love the crew who works on Gourmet Makes and I have grown comfortable with my time in front of the camera. The exposure has given me the gift of more opportunities, and with more opportunities come more demands on my time, so that is a struggle. But I am overwhelmingly grateful for all that I have gained through the videos.
Alex Delany: It's strange that people recognize me for video stuff. In reality, that's only like 10% of my job. I'm mostly writing and editing for the magazine and the site. And the whole fan thing is flattering but definitely bizarre. Especially at the spots where I'm a regular and eat/drink frequently. It's made my experiences there ... well, let's say ... different. The video success in general doesn't make things better or worse. It's just a different thing, another part of the brand and the job.
Molly Baz: I am so grateful for the platform that I have. My number one prerogative is to teach people how to cook, and YouTube has made that really easy for us. It's incredible to see the reach of our videos and be able to track our readers/viewers all the way into their kitchens. Whenever we launch a new recipe video on YouTube, we start getting tagged on Instagram by people who are cooking that same recipe within minutes. It's totally full circle and totally incredible to witness. And of course, the move to video has come with a sort of BA Test Kitchen fandom that follows us out into our personal lives. That's been a very interesting element of this whole thing, and something that has taken a little getting used to. It's still weird to be approached on the street by strangers who profess their love for your recipes and videos!! It will never not amaze me. For the most part it is totally flattering, and I welcome the love. Occasionally, I'll get approached at an inopportune time (read: on the street, in my sloppiest ever ragtag sweats, 10 minutes after waking up, trying to get [my dog] Tuna to poo), but in the grand scheme of things, even that isn't so bad.
Brad Leone: It's been great. I have nothing negative to say ... it sure as hell beats a lot of the jobs I've had in the past.
Carla Lalli Music: The only downside to being recognized these days is that sometimes people will try to talk to me while I'm half naked in the gym locker room. Other than that, I love how much feedback I get from doing videos, which completely eclipses the attention I ever get from anything I write or contribute to BA. It's definitely validating to know that people make the foods we demo, but I've also had viewers tell me that the videos have gotten them through hard patches in their personal lives, which is the most meaningful part of all this. Sometimes I look back on the magazine-only days and try to figure out what we were all so stressed out about all the time! We had one-third of the workload that we have now.
Chris Morocco: Nobody expected our test kitchen to become a video studio five days a week. It has brought incredible opportunities, but challenges, too. Bon Appétit used to be synonymous with a magazine, but these days it is our websites, videos, podcast, events ... I think our brand would suffer if we weren't continually investing in creating awesome content across all our platforms. The upshot of our success in video is that we constantly need to be making more and more of them! It is safe to say we will be spending more and more time growing our video presence as a brand, and we are going to have to figure out as individuals and as a staff how we are going to accommodate that.
Christina Chaey: One thing I've always loved about working at BA is that everyone here is supportive of good ideas and new projects. If you can make the case for why you should be pursuing something and make the time for it, people here want to see you succeed. The only drawback of extra exposure that I can think of so far is that there are fewer moments in my life where I feel I can leave the house in pajamas.
AC: Do you consider yourself a celebrity?
Chris: Having young kids who barely eat any of the food I make keeps me very humble. I actually am a pretty shy person but the joy I feel when I hear how much people appreciate our work, whether they watch for entertainment or to become better cooks, is huge. It outweighs my disinclination for being in the spotlight.
Rick: I think the most incredibly powerful part of my life right now is being able to be me without any hesitation or fear and knowing that a lot of Mexicans, Latinas/os, and LBGTQ [folks] find strength in my presence in food media.
On Their (Now-Canceled) Trip to Austin for SXSW ... and Pizza
AC: What are you most looking forward to in Austin?
Claire: I am looking forward to getting outside of the test kitchen and connecting to BA viewers where they live. One of the wonderful benefits of the success of BA videos has been to engage with our audience more, something I hardly got to do when only working on the magazine.
Alex: A pitcher of Lone Star at Deep Eddy's Cabaret. And everything else, of course.
Carla: Being on stage with the close friends that I work with. It's insane to think that our cooking videos have gotten us here.
Christina: Staying at the Carpenter Hotel, which was dreamt up by a group of people including my old co-worker Andrew Knowlton [a former BA editor]. And eating everything I can possibly cram into less than 48 hours in Austin, of course. It's been seven years since I've visited the city.
AC: For those who have been to Austin: What's your favorite restaurant/bar?
Brad: That's a dangerous question. I'd like to speak to my lawyer.
Carla: It's only my second time here, I'm still in research mode, and I'll be doing research all day long while I'm here.
Rick: Suerte. I love Fermín [Núñez, executive chef,] and what he is doing right now with Mexican food. I love that he nixtamalizes his own corn and is making amazing tortillas and tostadas.
Christina: It's not my first time in Austin, but it's been so long it feels like it is. Kemuri Tatsu-ya and Valentina's are high on my list!
AC: What's one food/beverage spot you're anxious to try?
Molly: I still haven't been to Suerte!!! Definitely going to try to knock that off my list.
AC: When you think of Texas food, most people think barbecue and tacos, but we've got a whole lot more going on here. What do you picture?
Claire: I don't know much about the Austin scene, but I know enough to recognize that it's vibrant and diverse!
Brad: Great sushi (looking at you, Yoshi [Okai of Otoko]!) and ramen, it's really a big mix and I love it.
AC: What's your ultimate taco, from filling to tortilla-type to best time of day to eat said taco?
Brad: Whatever Fermín gives me!
Carla: Right this minute, I'm craving a migas breakfast taco in a flour tortilla, but late-night I want al pastor in a fresh corn tortilla.
Rick: I have recently been on a chicharrón binge, haha. Chicharrones en salsa verde, uff! Corn tortillas, hecho a mano. Anytime is the right time for that taco!
AC: Go-to pizza toppings? And style (deep dish, Neapolitan, etc.)? Any Austin pizza joints you're dying to try?
Claire: It's very hard to beat a classic N.Y. cheese slice gussied up with garlic, parm, and red pepper flakes. I love the pizza at Scarr's in New York. I also thoroughly enjoy a Sicilian-style tomato pie. I haven't had much time to plan my eating itinerary in Austin, and may not get much of a chance. Any recommendations?
Alex: New York-style. All day. Every day. I like a mushroom slice with white onions or a classic pepperoni. As far as Austin pizza goes, I don't have anything on the list for this trip. I eat too much pizza in New York and Philly to come to Austin and eat more.
Brad: ½ mushroom, ½ black olive. I love a good Sicilian.
Carla: I love black olives (the canned ones, thanks, not some fancy oil-cured business!) on a standard New York-style slice. I also love pepperoni, but I never combine the two. Gotta have garlic powder and crushed red chili flakes on the side. There's pizza in Austin??? Frankly, I'm more interested in Tex-Mex!
Chris: Garlic. Anchovies. Calabrian chiles. Mortadella. Maitake mushrooms. Just not all together!
Rick: I am an Austin boy and there is a Conan's Pizza on Stassney and Manchaca across the street from my old high school, Crockett. I was there almost every day for a deep dish slice and a Coke. My fave is the deep dish Savage with extra jalapeños with a whole-wheat crust.
Christina: The plethora of pizza options in New York makes it very easy to become a slice snob, but I truly love all my pizza children. Puffy Neapolitan pies, lacy-edged Detroit pies, so-bad-they're-good late-night slice joints – I love them all. I will say if I'm going out for pizza in New York, you'll find me at the bar at Scarr's.
AC: You've already tried most of the most famous tacos in Austin. [See the "26 Austin Breakfast Tacos in 10 Hours" episode of Alex Eats It All.] But are there any that you missed or have heard about since the making of that video that you plan to try?
Alex: Nixta Taqueria is definitely on my list. All my Austin friends refuse to shut up about it. But to be quite honest, the spicy migas tacos at Tamale House East have been weighing heavily on my mind since the last time I was in Austin. I'm gonna need a couple of those.
AC: Here in the Tex-Mex mecca, we're always fascinated by the national obsession with Taco Bell – is the Crunchwrap Supreme a possibility for the show? Any sneak peeks into what you're going to Gourmet-ify next?
Claire: Lately on Gourmet Makes we have slightly expanded the realm of subjects beyond classic candy and snack foods (episodes like [the one on] Ben & Jerry's ice cream come to mind). We haven't talked about anything off the menu at Taco Bell specifically, but I suppose the Crunchwrap Supreme is a possibility! (What is in a Crunchwrap Supreme, anyway?)
AC: In your opinion, who is the best chef in Austin currently?
Chris: This will be my first time in Austin! I have been wanting to go to Kemuri Tatsu-ya ever since it made our Hot 10 list, and I have heard a lot about Suerte as well. Rick Martinez brought me a stack of chef Fermín Núñez's tortillas last year and they were awesome!
AC: Matty Matheson will be here for everybody's favorite backyard party, Hot Luck Festival, in May – any chance you two have a Central Texas adventure up your sleeves?
Brad: Lots of cool things coming in the future hopefully with Matty. I love Matty. No Texas adventures, but I wish I was going to Hot Luck ... maybe next year!
On Childhood Meals, Weed, Upcoming Cookbooks ... and Peanut Butter
AC: Most nostalgic childhood meal (Anton Ego in Ratatouille-style)?
Claire: Linguini and clams made by my dad.
Alex: Pasta with red sauce, Italian sausage, and meatballs. Simple Italian chopped salad. Garlic bread, fresh mozzarella, and roasted peppers. I will go on record saying there is no better meal.
Brad: Frog legs, jambalaya, and Mom's Sunday gravy.
Chris: My dad's ragù al[la] Bolognese, adapted from Marcella Hazan. He would start making it early on Sunday afternoons and by late in the day, the smell would have wafted up to my room three floors away. Hits me like a lighting bolt every time.
Rick: My parents' breakfast tacos. My mom's homemade flour tortillas and chorizo and my dad's refried beans.
Christina: Galbi jjim, or Korean soy-braised short ribs with too-soft vegetables. My grandma still makes these for me once a year on my birthday.
AC: What sets each of your stations apart in the test kitchen (how do you know whose is whose)? Any favorite oddball utensils/tools?
Molly: We refer to my station as "Party Staysh" aka the fun one. It's the first station you encounter when you enter the Test Kitchen, which means it's the first place people stop to hang out. I'm a very social person, so I am very happy to have my friends (I guess technically they're co-workers) come post up, eat lunch, and chit chat with me. These days you're likely to find Rapo [Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapoport] at the Party Staysh around 1pm, zhoozh-ing up his lunch and sitting down for a chat.
Brad: I don't have a kitchen station anymore ... just a counter where I keep my science experiments. I love an eye loupe.
Chris: Andy's is the one with 3 mortars and pestles on it. Sohla's is the clean one with everything at perfect 90 degree angles. Mine looks more like an office desk most days, with papers and notes all over it. Molly's looks like a smoothie stand ...
AC: What single ingredient leveled up your cooking?
Claire: For baking, using high-quality vanilla beans makes every recipe taste amazing. For cooking, using fancy olive oil, fancy dried pasta, and fancy canned tomatoes makes a huge difference.
Molly: Gosh that's a hard one. I think I go through phases with ingredients. A few years ago I was obsessed with harissa, but now my palate has kind of tired of it. I use a lot of different chili oils, hot sauces, chili crisps, etc.
Brad: Not so much a single ingredient but more getting the best of everything you can.
Carla: I regret how many years I wasted not putting MSG into things.
Chris: Miso. I honestly have a hard time NOT using it. Even a small, barely perceptible amount creates such incredible depth of flavor. I just put it in the squash au vin recipe in the March issue, I put it in a vegan creamy mushroom soup that is forthcoming on Healthyish ... I have put it in cookies ... cake.
AC: Most overrated food trends?
Molly: Healthy snacks. I feel like we've gone too far in that department. And at the end of the day, is a chickpea flour crisp any healthier for you than a tortilla chip? It's all optics, and no one's fooling me.
Carla: Cupcakes. Even the best cupcake in the world is just – fine.
AC: Anyone have any upcoming plans on cooking with cannabis videos?
Brad: I don't really love cooking with it, but I love cooking on it.
Carla: Well, recreational marijuana is still illegal in N.Y., and security at World Trade Center is about as tight as it gets, so I don't see this happening in the test kitchen any time soon!
AC: For some, cooking all day professionally translates into a lot of take-out at home. Anybody feel this way, or do you still love cooking meals at home during the workweek? And please tell us all about your upcoming cookbooks.
Claire: I am making a conscious effort to order in less at home (although my boyfriend and I make an occasional exception and order from an extremely delicious Vietnamese restaurant in our neighborhood). My boyfriend is a chef and cooks more than I do at home. We eat a lot of seasonal vegetables, fish, and pasta. I haven't cooked much in the last year because I have spent so much time developing recipes for my upcoming baking cookbook [Dessert Person: Recipes and Guidance for Baking With Confidence], which comes out in the fall [October 2020 via Random House]. Now that the cookbook project is wrapping up, I can't wait to cook more for pleasure at home.
Christina: I order takeout a handful of times a year, and only when I really need it, like in the middle of a nonstop workweek or after a long night out. But most days I'm making breakfast, lunch, and dinner for myself. My desires and whims for what I want to eat change so frequently that it's nice to be able to make myself exactly what I want, when I want.
Molly: It's a cookbook that is very geared toward motivating people my age (dare we say, millennials?!) to get in the kitchen and start cooking. It's a very technique-driven fundamentals cookbook that offers amateur, eager home cooks an education in the how's and why's of cooking. My hope is to create a book that is so fun to cook from that you don't even realize you're learning! There will be 100 recipes and lots of additional supporting text to help flesh out the learning experience. The book will publish in March of 2021 [Clarkson Potter].
AC: Is food media too crowded – or is it more a lack of diversity (we love that BA showcases so many different humans!)?
Molly: I'm a "more is more" kind of gal! I'm not a competitive person when it comes to sharing the food media space, and frankly, I feel so blessed to be in the company of so many legends both at BA and beyond. I'm only competitive when it comes to cream-whipping contests or other Test Kitchen shenanigans. You know, the things that actually matter.
AC: What's next for Tuna's career?
Molly: Tuna is well on her way toward a rich modeling career. Her growth is slightly stunted by the fact that we refuse to give her her own IG account (too much social media isn't good for her ego). But I think she'll still be a star.
AC: Not only is Gourmet Makes a blast to watch, it seems to be highlighting the chemical shitstorm that many modern packaged foods include in the ingredient list. Are there any ingredients that still shock you?
Claire: The show has definitely sensitized me to some of the more unsavory ingredients in common snack and convenience foods, especially the preservative TBHQ and mechanically separated meat. I wasn't eating too many of these foods before, but now I am more conscious about avoiding lots of additives.
AC: Could you expound upon your hatred for peanut butter a little bit more?
Chris: Peanuts are OK. Turn them into a paste and they become a cloying, pasty mass of monolithic unbalanced flavor. I don't mind peanut butter when it is balanced by salt, sweet, and heat, but on its own? The WORST.
AC: And how many spoons is the perfect amount to have?
Chris: Why, how many do you have? I'll always take more.
AC: When did you find out you were a supertaster, and how?
Chris: "Supertaster" is a weird word. I think people who are actual supertasters can be put off by a lot of foods with pronounced sour or bitter flavors. I am not really sensitive to foods in that way, but I have been cooking and tasting food for long enough to have a pretty good set of taste-memories to rely on, as well as a deep enough knowledge of cooking techniques to know how to achieve certain flavors. I see myself more as a food detective, but supertaster is of course what stuck.
AC: You've spoken out against the belief that every professional chef needs to attend culinary school. (We agree with you.) Aside from line cook positions, what are other ways that people – especially women – can transform their passion for food into culinary career fields?
Molly: I believe that working in a kitchen is an invaluable experience for anyone who wants to work in the food [industry] or even any food-adjacent industry. A deep knowledge of cooking is core to so many of the different career paths you can take, from food writing and journalism to food styling, prop styling, art direction, recipe development, etc.
AC: Perfect combinations of flavor?
Rick: Sweet, salty, spicy, sour. Mangoes with chamoy and Tajín! Thai food, especially Thai salads. Or ceviches and aguachiles with a hint of sweet from fresh seafood.
AC: What's the best way to cook/serve tofu?
Carla: I love soft or silken tofu in a Haemul sundubu jjigae – spicy seafood stew. Extra-firm tofu is great pressed then pan-roasted so it gets super crisp.
Chris: Firm tofu pretty much begs to be fried. Silken tofu I prefer with a super chile-forward broth like in Korean sundubu.
AC: Alex, we greatly enjoyed your guide on Twitter to NYC juice types. If you were to make a signature cocktail with any of the juices (Building Juice, Human Juice, Trash Juice) which would it be and what would you pair it with?
Alex: Ha! Damn. A little Air Conditioner Juice and pét-nat spritz with a slice of pizza would be the move. But please ... don't do this. Gross NYC juices are not meant for human consumption.
AC: Also, you are passionate about a subject close to our hearts: restaurant playlists. How do you craft the perfect one?
Alex: Oh hell yeah. A meal can never be truly great if the music isn't right. But the land of restaurant playlists is like the Wild West: There are no rules. If you're following rules, you're probably not making a good restaurant playlist. Genre, artist, and era don't matter at all. The best playlists put Ethiopian jazz next to new-school funk, French electro, and classic Americana. The only thing that really matters is that the through line of the playlist (the vibe, if you will) makes the people listening to it enjoy their experience even more. OK, maybe one actual rule: no heavy bass.
AC: Christina, we enjoyed your article on gochujang – seasoning of the moment – and how to use it. Would it be sacrilegious to make a gochujang-forward taco, and how would you do it?
Christina: Not sacrilegious at all! Some of the best tacos I've ever had were made with kimchi, which shares a similar flavor profile to gochujang. I'd probably opt for a riff on an al pastor with a gochujang sauce, just because pork and gochujang go together incredibly well.
AC: Carla, you're a big fan of the pressure cooker, so how do you feel about the massive popularity of the Instant Pot, which serves as part pressure cooker, part 10 billion other functions?
Carla: I'm just in it for the pressure, myself, so I use a stove top model, but if you've got the counter space for it, the Instant Pot delivers, and you can just set it and forget it, which is a huge advantage for the uninitiated.
AC: Rick, when you come up with your famous (infinitely Instagrammable) cookie recipes, do you think about look or flavor first?
Rick: You kind of have to do both at the [same] time. I start with what I want to eat, what flavors and textures are going to get me excited, and then how am I going to make this pop, what colors, how many layers, etc. I always have two goals in my mind when I start: how I want it to look and how I want it to taste. The tRick [sic] is making the two come together. I definitely [think] the cookies do that really well.
AC: Andy, we loved your essay on identity and finding peace through cooking, and we recently ran a feature on a local Iranian American chef and how his heritage continues to shape his career. Talk to us about the growing popularity of Persian food in restaurants across America.
Andy: I think a large part of [why it] took so long for Persian food to be embraced is that it doesn't necessarily lend itself to be[ing] served at restaurants so easily due to how long it takes to prep and cook many of the dishes. It's often said that the best Persian food is made in homes, but [I] think you're seeing a rise in Persian restaurants, as well as home cooks that I want to bring those flavors to their [own] kitchens.
AC: Hey Brad, can you talk about fermentation experiments that have gone wrong? We understand there's a Lambrusco story ...
Brad: Always. ... It kinda comes with the territory of experimenting. ... It's how you learn.
AC: Also, since you weren't in the recent video "Pro Chefs Cook and Eat Food They Don't Like," is there a food that you hate/won't eat?
Brad: I don't love natto but maybe I haven't had the good stuff ... maybe.