Inside Books: Pots & Plumes, an Interview with Cookbook Author Anne McBride

Anne McBride is a doctoral candidate in the food studies program in Steinhardt’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. She is the co-author of Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food with Advice from Top Culinary Professionals (Clarkson Potter, 2010), Chocolate Epiphany: Exceptional Cookies, Cakes and Confections (Clarkson Potter, 2008), and Bite Size: Elegant Recipes for Entertaining (William Morrow, 2006). She recently conducted a forum on ‘food porn’ for the February2010 issue of Gastronomica.

What is food porn and does it exists?

I don’t believe that there is such a thing as food porn in the way the term is typically used — that is, food presented in the media as something unattainable that we admire from afar, disconnected from the cooking process. As most of the panelists pointed out in the Gastronomica forum, the more food and cooking are present in our lives, the more we will pay attention to it, even if we use our fancy ovens only to reheat store-bought dishes. That said, is glamorous food imagery omnipresent? Absolutely. But that does not mean it’s pornographic and that people don’t cook because they are too busy watching Iron Chef. Beautiful food has always been used to attract people to certain products even if standards of beauty have evolved. For example, what was considered attractive in a 1980s photo is most likely no longer attractive today.

How did you become interested in food studies?

Both sides of my family love to cook and eat well. My mother has always experimented a lot with recipes and involved my sister and me in the process. My maternal grandfather was a farmer, and my first job consisted of picking grapes in his vineyard at harvest time. But — perhaps because it was such a big part of my life — I never thought of food in a conscious way until I began looking for a job after college. While job hunting I spent a lot of time watching food programs on TV, so I decided to apply to publishing companies that specialized in food and travel books. I found a job as an editorial assistant working on both types of books.

In your book, Culinary Careers, you surveyed top culinary professionals for advice, what insights did you come away from? What advice do you have for those who want to break into the field?

Several points came up throughout the interviews (about 110 in total, and 90 in the finished book). One thing we discussed is that new professionals should not be in a rush to get to the top of the field– a culinary school graduate is not going to be a chef in a year. They should instead focus on enjoying the learning process and the various influences and experiences they’ll get along the way. Another insight—which won’t be surprising to anyone who has worked in this field—is that people in the food industry love what they do, without question, despite how hard the work. Conducting th ese interviews I felt constant p ositive energy because I got to spend my days talking to people who genuinely love their jobs.

As for a recommendation for someone starting out in the food industry, I would advise being humble and working hard. Show passion for what you do, absorb everything, ask questions, and put your head down to do whatever is required of you. The food industry is vast, but ultimately it’s a small world and people will talk. So having a good attitude and reputation will go a long way when you look at changing jobs and moving up the ladder.

What do you like to cook?

I love cooking and baking just about anything. More so than a specific dish, I like the process of cooking, being in the kitchen by myself, letting my thoughts drift away as I get completely absorbed by what I’m doing. I spend most of my days glued to my computer, so cooking allows me to do something very concrete and physical.

How is a cookbook compiled — who writes the recipies?

For the type of books that I do, which is chef cookbooks, the recipes come from the chefs themselves. The chef will pick a recipe to include based on the concept of the book, the chapters we’ve decided on, and the amount of recipes specified in the contract. Some recipes come from their repertoire in the restaurant; some are developed just for the book. Because chefs’ recipes are for use in restaurant kitchens, they have a very different language and format than the recipes in actual cookbooks. Chefs write for people who know how to cook and only need brief instructions with lots of shorthand. A recipe for a home cook has to be much more precise and include a lot more steps. So my role is to take those recipes and write them up in a way that will be home cook-friendly without compromising the vision or the voice of the chef. Essentially, I work as a translator. I also think of simpler techniques where necessary and substitute ingredients that might be more readily available in a supermarket. I test the recipes in my home kitchen, which allows me to verify that they work outside of a professional kitchen. In addition to writing head notes, ingredient information, and chapter introductions, I also interview the chef, do additional research, and work with him to shape the content and revise the manuscript.

That reminds me of the movie, Julie and Julia, where Julia Powell, the blog writer, decides to spend a year cooking through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Did you like Julie an Julia?

I very much enjoyed Julie and Julia. The food factor alone would have been enough to make it a terrific movie, but the acting and the way the two stories meshed was also wonderful.

Generally, I am greatly enthused by the interest in cooking and better food practices that such programs spark. The more people see good food being made, the more they’ll be inspired to cook and eat better – at least I hope so! A movie like Julie and Julia or a show like ‘Top Chef,’ transcends the foodie audience, and, in a sense, contributes to food not being perceived as simply calories, but something to be enjoyed, learned, and practiced.

What’s the next big project?

My dissertation! My research focuses on the relationship between nation, profession, and cuisine. I use new American cuisine as a case study to explore the role that chefs play in creating and shaping cuisine as an expression of a national idea.

I am also working on articles, conference presentat ions, and events for the various organizations I work with, including Menus in the Media , where the food porn discussion started. Menus and Media is a working group funded by the Institute for Public Knowledge, and led by Krishnendu Ray, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food studies, and Public Health.

What recipes do you recommend from the Bite Sized: Elegant Recipes for Entertaining?

You can’t ever go wrong with the Gougères (cheese puffs), which you can make ahead and even freeze, and pop in the oven, and a cold soup like Chilled Asparagus Soup. I also like more elaborate dishes like Cauliflower Panna Cotta and Salmon Roe, Lime Salmon on Potato Crisps, and Lamb and Tomato Chutney on Cumin Wafers. Many of the recipes in Bite Size can be prepared in advance, which is really key when you are entertaining. There are also suggestions for store-bought items if you don’t want to make everything from scratch. You want to be able to enjoy your party.

And your favorite desert in your Chocolate Epiphany book?

I am partial to the Ganache-Caramel Nougatine Tartlets. Both the caramel and the ganache contain fleur de sel, and the combination of gooey caramel, bitter chocolate, crispy nougatine, and salt is irresistible. And they make my dinner seem fancy when I serve them because each guest gets his or her own tarlet. Another recipe I make over and over again are the Triple Chocolate Financiers—mini cakes made with almond flour, which gives the cake a very tender texture.

Visit Anne McBride’s web site Pots & Plumes.