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Ali grew up in a home where cooking from scratch was the norm. After college, she enrolled in a cooking school and subsequently worked at various catering companies and restaurants. Ali’s two years in the Fork restaurant kitchen in Philadelphia where she became sous chef, was the experience that shaped what and how she cooks today. Apart from her blog, Ali writes a column, A Bushel and a Peck for Food 52, and contributes to the Baking Steel blog.
I am so psyched to have Alexandra Stafford of Alexandra’s Kitchen joining me here today.
(*All photos below are Alexandra’s.)
On Growing Up in a Home Where Cooking and Food was Valued:
I didn’t think anything of it growing up because it’s just what always was around. I think I did start thinking about it in high school a little bit because I went to a boarding school. I was a day student and my mom, my dad, my stepdad actually all taught at the boarding school. So I still came home at night but I often ate many of the meals in the dining hall, lunch of course but dinner too. It was just kind of the social thing to do when all of my friends were boarders. The breakdown was like 70% boarding, 30% day students. So I would eat a lot of the meals. I played sports, so after sports we’d go to the dining hall, have dinner and then every so often I would invite my friends over for dinner at my house. And they were always blown away, they were like, “What is this bread? You made this? What do you mean you made this? Like from a bread machine?” They just didn’t understand that, and this is just a bread that my mom would whip up all the time, it was just no big deal.
And just everything, I mean, it was just such a treat for them. And it was still a treat for me, I appreciated it but I had it all the time anyway, toast for breakfast, I had the meals on the weekends, and then I think I probably really started appreciating it when I was in college.
My senior year, I lived off campus with a roommate and so we were cooking a lot and that’s when I was calling my mom more for, “How did you make that chicken that I love?” And, “Why is this chicken so much better?” It was because my mom always used chicken thighs and not chicken breasts, and I would hear her say the thighs are more flavorful, but until I really cooked breasts and was like, “These aren’t good, there’s a difference.” Then I had all these questions for my mom and that’s when I really started recording the recipes and gathering the recipes that I loved.
On Her Interest in Cooking:
I was interested in what my mom was doing. I would say the extent of my help in the kitchen growing up was, she taught me how to make the salad dressing. So I would make the salad dressing, and I would assemble.
I remember always assembling up the Greek salad. She is 100% Greek, not from Greece but we’d make the Greek salad with Aunt Phylis’ salad dressing or this other dressing from the Chez Panisse Vegetables cookbook. I would chop up the shallots and macerate them in the vinegar, I would do that, I would set the table.
I loved baking so I would help make bread, and she had this other, in addition to this peasant bread that she would make all the time, she had this Bakery Lane Soup Bowl cookbook. And that was the sort of book that she always made these honey whole wheat loaves, or these oatmeal, brown sugar, and so I would make bread. That was it though until I was in college.
On Working in Catering Versus Restaurants:
I would say the catering company, there were two aspects when I was in the catering kitchen. We were doing prep all day, just prepping and prepping and I remember realizing, “Gosh this can be really tedious”. Because we would have to assemble over 100 Asian noodle nests, it’s just a lot of the same thing over and over again. I still learned a lot from the repetition and learning how to use like industrial saran wrap, you know wrapping trays to make sure nothing would spill in transport.
And even on the jobs, I would say there were still periods of intensity where you had to work quickly and get things out, and things that were tricky. I remember one job they were serving tuna and the chef had made whatever the contraption was that holds up the trays, he had turned it into sort of a warmer, and the tuna got totally overcooked. When he went to slice it every single piece of tuna was (overcooked) and this was supposed to be a raw seared tuna. It was just a disaster and so then there are the stresses that came along with that.
When I switched, I was working in the restaurant, I just realized it felt much more intense. Like when lunch service hit it was just an hour of just orders coming in, and then obviously the same thing at dinner and Sunday brunch too. I worked the omelet station for a year.
I just remember the omelet orders coming in, and then some of them being egg white and then just trying to get the timing right on all the six or eight pans in front, trying to get it right. Fork also had sort of a private room in the back, so then every so often at the same time as Sunday brunch you’d be doing omelets for the party. I remember never feeling so overwhelmed or so focused, but also stressed and just trying to manage so many things at the same time. That I felt was sort of the biggest difference.
On prep days at the restaurant in the morning, they’re still the same. We would make soup in these enormous pots and so there is cutting carrots, and onions, and so over and over and over again so the similar kind of repetition but it was in a different kind of way.
On How Working in a Restaurant Influenced the Way She Cooks:
I think first of all, the owner of the restaurant, Ellen, she was one of the first restaurants to open in an old city. And it was years before I got there but from the beginning her saying was, “Buy fresh, buy local,” so she for me was sort of the introduction. She introduced me to that kind of concept and Philadelphia has an incredible farm-to-table movement. I hate to use that word because it just sort of seems overused now but at the time I remember it was really new for me. I thought, “Oh, I didn’t know that people would really care about where these tomatoes came from. All over the menu every tomato was labeled from whatever farm it came from, and so that was really new to me.”
And I would see the farmers. I mean we would of course get deliveries from big wholesale companies, but the farmers would come and they would bring their goods and that was really, really cool to me to see. So that would be the first thing, and then I would say the Chef Thien, any chance he could, we would ride our bikes to Chinatown and we would eat lunch. There were three Vietnamese restaurants that he liked all in Philadelphia, and he would order different things at different, so I kind of learned what to order where. He opened my eyes to a whole world of food.
He loved Italian food, he loved French food and we would go to really nice restaurants. We would go to holes in the wall. He introduced me kind of to just the restaurants here in Philadelphia and what people were cooking but also, just watching him cook was such an incredible experience. Watching him breakdown three whole salmon – he would filet it and take out the bones, and then portion them into perfect six ounce pieces. Then to just see how he made all of his soups and how he would always talk about how soups were the money makers of the restaurant because it was just with all these ingredients that cost us nothing, and they would save everything, every single scrap of meat and vegetable would go into this big pot for meat stock.
And then just some of the foods he made, he made chicken curry that was so amazing. He would buy these fresh rice noodles in Chinatown at this one store called Ding Ho and he would just cut them up, and he would make this sauce with fish sauce and lime and just toss it with tons of herbs, and it was like I had never eaten that kind of food, that’s so fresh and just so fast. It was the most delicious thing in the world.
On Her Blog:
Blogs were totally new in fact I remember when a friend told me, I think I was maybe still working in restaurants, and I remember she said that she was going to start a blog and I thought, “That is the strangest thing I’ve ever heard. Who cares what you have to say? What are you going to write about?” And then, when I left the restaurant I said, “Okay, I would love to write about food and write about the things I’m discovering.”
There was a small newspaper in Philadelphia and I just walked into their office one day and said, “Do you have a food department?” And they didn’t, but they wanted one, so I just started writing for them.
I was discovering so much in Philadelphia or thinking back on the kind of experiences I had had for the past four years in the restaurants and catering companies and I was like, “I want to start recording this.” And the paper was so small I was discovering more things than I was able to put in the paper every week, and maybe some things were not appropriate to put in the paper, or just not inappropriate, but there wasn’t the right space, so that was sort of how I started. I thought, “Okay, well, I’ll start a blog so I can at least document what I’m doing in Philadelphia and finding and we’ll see how it goes.” I really didn’t care about it at all in the beginning. I would write an entry and hit post and publish it or whatever and then I would go off.
I didn’t care about posting anything to Facebook or Twitter or trying to drive traffic in the beginning. It was just a journal, and then we moved cross country so I kind of documented our cross country travels.
We’ve been in California for three years and then back to Virginia and I had two kids, and I was at home more, and I posted a couple of recipes and I remember just getting a really good response. Some of the comments were like, “You know I love your recipes,” or “This is the most delicious,” and I think one of them was this buttermilk blueberry breakfast cake and it was my mum’s recipe.
I love sharing family recipes. I love making people happy with food. This is really important to me. So I thought now I want to spend more time on my blog making the recipes really thoughtful, not necessarily foolproof but mostly tested before I publish them, and being there to respond to comments.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
We cancelled cable a few years ago though we have Netflix. I watched recently, which I really loved, Chef’s Table, it’s a Netflix original series and it’s six episodes. I loved the one on Francis Mallmann he’s just such a character and it’s incredible food he cooks in this episode on this remote island in Patagonia, its amazing. And then the other one was on Dan Barber and it’s inspired me to read his book, The Third Plate.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
I think everybody knows about Food52’s Genius Recipes column but I look forward to Kristen’s column, it’s so good every week, I don’t know how she does it.
One that I just discovered recently, there’s this cookbook called, Make The Bread buy the Butter and its by Jennifer Reese. Her blog is called Tipsy Baker and I just discovered it and I just love her writing style. She’s just funny. It’s a new discovery for me, I’ve been telling everybody I know.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook or Snapchat that make you happy?
Okay, Snapchat somebody needs to explain to me, I think it’s a sign that I’m way too old. I have no idea how to use it.
I have to be honest I feel like I hardly pay attention to Facebook anymore, I’m terrible. I don’t check Facebook.
Pinterest, I love Pinterest, I think I follow a lot of people but I don’t actually go and look at my feed.
I was very late to the Instagram game. It’s so simple and I don’t know why it took me so long but I like it because it’s simple. I really love the format. I follow a lot of people. There’s a photographer his name is Eric Wolfinger and I love his stuff, I always have. The books that he photographs I find myself always going back to.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
One was a wedding gift, it’s a wooden baguette shaper, it’s really long, it extends the full length of my arm span, and it was a wedding gift, my Godmother, she got it in France and I have no use for it because I could never make baguettes that long but the wood is beautiful. It has a nice finish so that’s hanging up. And then my aunt gave me this also enormous pizza peel that wouldn’t even fit in my oven, you’d have to have a wood burning oven, and I have that hanging up also.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
It may be fish sauce, I hope that’s not too obvious, but I remember the first time I was in Philadelphia in our little apartment and I remember a recipe called for fish sauce. I opened the bottle and I said, “This smells like dirty socks. I don’t understand how I can actually put this on my food, this is crazy.” And then, I did it because I thought, “I’m going to try it,” and I was like, “Wow, this is amazing!”
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
Chez Panisse Vegetables is probably one of the first cookbooks that my mum gave to me I think maybe when I graduated from college. It’s just something for every season. Part of it is because I do that column for Food 52 but part of it is just because I’m always getting a CSA, but that is a book I turn to over and over and over again. How to Be a Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson’s. I remember a friend gave it to me in college. There’s so much in that book, so much good content and she is such a good writer, and I love her voice and her stories.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
This is going to be also so random too. I don’t know why, maybe because Philadelphia was when I really started cooking a lot but I would listen to Buena Vista Social Club over and over again. So if I hear that music I associate with being in the kitchen and that would make me want to cook.
On Keeping Posted with Alexandra:
I post and do all the things I’m supposed to do, I do a post and I post it to Facebook, I tweet, post it to Instagram, but I find social media exhausting and hard to keep up with. I prefer to just follow people by subscribing directly to their websites. I guess I’m kind of old school. I like getting an email when they post.