NYU Steinhardt News

NYU Stories After Hours: An Interview with Kelila Jaffe, PhD candidate & food program coordinator

...WITH KELILA JAFFE

Understatement alert: NYU is a big, big place. Think of the dozens of people you might nod hello to on a typical day—in the dining hall, at the library, between buildings, or behind a particular desk. How many do you know by name? What do you know about their lives?

By day they are office administrators or landscapers, technology specialists or event managers; by night they’re parents and poets, activists and athletes—and so much more. They’re the dedicated staffers who keep this place running, and in this series NYU Storieswill go behind-the-scenes at their day jobs—and also reveal how they let off steam after work. (We’re coming for you, dude in the Bon Jovi cover band!) Look for a new and often surprising interview every other week or so. You might just see a familiar face.

Name: Kelila Jaffe
Title: Food program coordinator, Steinhardt department of nutrition, food studies, and public health
At NYU since: 2008 for a PhD; 2011 in her current full-time administrative position

What do you do all day?
I work on developing curriculum, and I teach at least one class a semester, but I also handle day-to day-operations—all of the ordering, stocking, and cleaning of the teaching kitchen. In addition to that I do some administrative work in the department—things like class scheduling, scholarships, and event planning. And I cater our in-house events—and wash all the dishes and pots and pans when they’re done!

In a teaching kitchen, you must see your share of culinary catastrophes. 
Yeah, it can be a very chaotic space. We’ve dealt with our fair share of cuts and bruises. I had a student pass out in the kitchen, and that was an interesting experience. Flareups are always exciting, but they’re not a big deal, even though the students immediately go, “Oh my god! Something’s on fire!” Floods, on the other hand, are definitely problematic.

What’s a safe dish for a beginner cook to try?
One of the things we do with the students is have them practice basic knife skills on root vegetables. We teach them the difference between a dice and a julienne and then hand over a parsnip, a sweet potato, a piece of rutabaga, and a turnip. Once you have everything diced, it’s so simple to turn this into a meal—toss it in a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, crank your oven to as high as it goes, and roast until all the pieces are tender. You end up with something you could serve with a piece of chicken—or if you’re not up to chicken just yet, top with a couple of eggs.

What brought you to NYU?
It was actually the food! I grew up in California, went to college in Philadelphia, did my master’s degree in archaeology in New Zealand, and then got a job in Hawaii. It was three years before I decided it was time to do a PhD. My mom's a chef: I grew up in restaurants, and have always worked in restaurants on and off for extra money. And my research is on the archaeology of food. So when I heard about NYU’s food studies program I thought it was interesting because it was interdisciplinary—I could still pursue archaeology and the ancient diet, but the degree would also leave me with some flexibility to work in the culinary world.

Was living in Hawaii as amazing as it sounds?
Yes! The weather, the lifestyle, the beach, the water... One of the big perks is there’s no disconnect from the outdoor environment—a lot of people use the outdoors as part of their living space. I miss working outside—that's one big difference between working in a kitchen and doing the archaeology gig.

With two cooks in the family, who prepares your holiday meals?
I can count the number of Thanksgivings and Christmases and Passovers and things that I’ve spent with my mom on one hand, because ever since I was small she’s worked in restaurants at luxury hotels where you just can’t close for the holidays. And if I do go home, I just end up working in her restaurant! So my husband and I normally do our own thing. This year I had 10 people for Christmas Eve in our New York apartment—so people were sitting on the floor, but it was fun. This time I made prime rib but I often make tamales—a traditional Christmas food in Mexico. Every once in a while, if we are at my mom's in California, my husband and I will get it together to dig a pit and cook the tamales in the ground. It gives them a great earthy flavor that they don’t get any other way.

What’re some of your favorite NYC restaurants?
Oh, I’m a highly suggestible eater with a broad range of cravings, so it’s hard for me to narrow it down! But I love living in Queens, which is amazing for great food from all over the world. SriPraPhai in Woodside has probably the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten. I also like that I can get in from the airport at 1 a.m. and get Pakistani food in Jackson Heights. And then there’s a Korean place out at the far end of Flushing where we go for Seolleongtang, a beef noodle soup that is just perfect for when it's cold and horrible out. As for around NYU, I love Ippudo—I really do think they have one of the best ramens in the city, really great broth.

What do you do to unwind after a busy work day?
Read! Science fiction, fantasy—my husband teases that I’ll read anything that has a dragon in it. And cook, though now that I’m cooking so much at work there are days when I get home and all I can manage is a grilled cheese sandwich. What else do I do? Oh, archery—Olympic-style target archery.

Archery? In the city?! 
Yes! There’s a great range out in Ozone Park, in Queens, owned by four guys—two of them are world-ranked archers. I shoot in a league, like a bowling league. Once a week in teams we might shoot against each other for a small cash prize. My mom jokes that the range is like my bar—the four guys who own it are like the bartenders and the rest of us are the barflies, just hanging out.

What attracted you to the sport? 
It was really random. When I was living in Hawaii I just woke up one morning thinking about it. Then I found a pro shop and started taking lessons. Some people do yoga to relax. I do archery. It’s one of those sports where you just have to take a deep breath and let everything go, because if you’re ramped up or twitching and your posture isn’t right, you’re not going to make your shot. I find that the sound of the bow releasing and the thump of the arrow hitting the target are not only extremely gratifying but extremely relaxing.

Have you seen more newbies at the range since The Hunger Games became popular? 
Oh yeah. It gets super crowded every time a new archery movie comes out. It’s especially gratifying to see teenage girls getting into the sport, because I’ve definitely had days where I walk into the range and it’s all dudes—I’m the only chick on the line.

What brings you peace? 
The beach. The ocean. There are few things that make me happier than being in the water. Queens is technically an island, of course, but water isn’t so much a part of my life here. I miss that. I miss the Pacific. For me it’s home and it’s wonderful. I try to go and recharge my batteries in the middle of winter when plane tickets are cheap. When I’ve been away too long, I feel the pull.

Read more After Hours interviews here.