Food Studies WEEK: Interview 5 – Writer / Cookbook Author

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Last spring, I was going through a bout of particularly persistent anxiety with a tinge of depression that left me constantly panicked, but lacking the motivation to do anything about it. It felt like I was going down the wrong paths in many aspects of my life. My therapist recommended more physical activity, so I started walking the 40 minutes to and from work. And I started listening to podcasts, my favorite being Radio Cherry Bombe on the Heritage Radio Network. I listened to dozens of conversations with inspiring women in food entrepreneurship, journalism, and social justice. Radio Cherry Bombe opened my eyes to all the career possibilities out there for women interested in food, and is probably a large part of why I started in the NYU Food Studies program.

On the other side of those conversations was Julia Turshen, host of Radio Cherry Bombe. Her kindness and intellect always shone through in her interviews, and you could tell she really loved each individual story and treasured her guests. I was enamored with her passion and looking for guidance, so I reached out on social media, and Julia graciously agreed to chat with me about my career path. While I’m still figuring it out, I’m definitely a step closer than I was back then, and I certainly owe her a debt of gratitude.

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In addition to her podcast work, Julia is most well known for being a home cook and writer, and one of her early claims to fame was coauthoring a cookbook with Gwyneth Paltrow. Since then, she has written her own cookbooks, including Small Victories, which was named one of the best books of 2016 by The New York Times and NPR. I have my own personal copy which she signed at an event last year, and its one of my most prized possessions.

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This year, Julia has been an active voice for social justice, particularly with her new cookbook Feed the Resistance, named the best cookbook of 2017 by Eater. I haven’t purchased my copy yet because I suspect it is being gifted to me this holiday season, but if I make it through December and remain book-less, it will be my first purchase of 2018. Also, she’s donating all proceeds from the book to the ACLU.

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I think that’s enough fangirling for now. I only asked Julia a few questions since I know she’s a busy lady, so without further ado…


Q: How long have you been in the food industry?
A: 10 years formally, but really my whole life.

Q: How did you end up here?
A: For me it wasn’t so much that I ended up in this field. I honestly never considered anything else and can’t imagine not doing what I do. I have loved food and cooking since before I can remember. I studied writing in college with the intention of writing about food and working on cookbooks.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in your work?
A: For me personally, it’s challenging not always knowing what’s next and managing irregular income. I think the largest problem the cookbook industry faces is a severe lack of diversity at every level from authors to agents, editors, photographers, and publishers.

Q: What do you like most about what you do?
A: Getting to tell stories.

Q: Any advice for budding writers?
A: It’s always important to remember that writers, even those of us who don’t employ anyone, are small business owners and we need to set ourselves up as such. Get an accountant, start an LLC, etc.

Q: If there was one thing you could change about your industry, what would that be?
A: I would change the range of perspectives and backgrounds of the folks in the rooms where the decisions happen.

Food Studies WEEK: Interview 4 – Chef

foodstudiesWEEKI am beyond thrilled to introduce today’s interviewee, Jeremy Salamon, executive chef of The Eddy in NYC. Jeremy is the little brother of my little brother’s childhood best friend. That’s tough to visualize, but I’ve essentially been watching Jeremy control the kitchen since he was a wee thing, whipping up dishes well beyond the comprehension of all the adults in the room. He’s worked in some of your favorite NYC kitchens like Buvette, Locanda Verde, and Prune, he hosted his own Hungarian-themed pop-up dinners, and he was even a guest judge on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race! Also, he’s only 23, so there goes your self-esteem.

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If you’re in NYC and want to have a really special meal in an intimate, cozy setting, do yourself a favor and go get the tasting menu at The Eddy. Jeremy is the kind of conscientious, hard-working chef you want to support, and I can’t wait to see what he cooks up next.

This interview covers some tougher concepts like mental health, so I opted out of adding my normal silly GIFs so Jeremy’s honest and thoughtful words can shine.


Q: How long have you worked at The Eddy?
A: About three years now. I started as a line cook, was then promoted to sous chef, and then I left to work on my own project. Soon after, I was asked to come back as executive chef.

Q: How did you end up working in restaurants?
A: No one in my family is in the industry, which is the more common way people come to food. I told my mother when I was 9 that I wanted to do this, but I don’t really know why. I think it has something to do with the fact that I knew my cooking brought my family together. Even when my father lost his business, and my brother was going through stuff, and my parents’ relationship was on the rocks, we all sat down together to eat. So I just associated food with good moments. I thought maybe if I could learn how to cook, I could help heal what was going on with my family.

Q: Wow, that’s so… honest and beautiful and vulnerable. Thank you for sharing that with me.
A: I guess that’s the honest answer, because otherwise I really don’t know. I think about it sometimes, when I’m like, “Why the fuck am I in this industry?” Because it’s kind of terrible.

Q: Speaking of being terrible, what are a few of the major challenges in your work?
A: Definitely communication. Being able to communicate is such a priority and required skill, and if you can believe it or not, there are so many people who lack communication skills. Whether it’s a cook, general manager, waiter, or vendor, if just one small detail is missing, it could really screw up your entire day.

Being able to manage stress, which is something I am learning how to do, and how to be positive for everyone else in the kitchen is also challenging. One negative person can really bring down the entire house. And more so in this industry, people take their work home with them. Some people only have a few hours of sleep and then they get up and do breakfast service at 5AM and don’t get out until 8PM – people take the drama and stress home with them. That’s why industry suicides have really gone up in the last couple of years, and chefs are just starting to be more conscious of mental health. Being sober and anti-drugs is such a big thing now. But now that people don’t have alcohol and drugs to turn to, they don’t quite know what to do with all the stress and where to put it.

Q: I’m glad to hear mental health awareness in the kitchen is on the rise, even if there’s a ways to go. So there must be something about your work that you like if you stick with it. What do you like most about being a chef and working in a restaurant? 
A: First and foremost for me, really honestly, is being able to feed people. Genuine people. I think there are many types of diners in a restaurant, as there are many types of people in the world. When you get a really genuine family, or a pair on a date, or an older couple that’s celebrating their anniversary, it’s so rewarding when they’re into the food and the experience. I love getting a chance to be a part of that celebration, just like I got to be a part of when my brother graduated high school or when my parents had an anniversary. It brought me pleasure to be able to make a cake for my parents or cook a dinner for my brother. So I feel like I’m being somewhat welcomed into their life just a little bit, and for me, that’s a pleasure.

I also love that I’ve gotten to meet so many people through restaurants. I’ve met authors who were writing books and have gone on to publish them. I’ve met famous actors. I’ve met other cooks who are now also executive chefs. Just being able to talk and spend time with people and learn from them is a pleasure for me.

Q: For people like me who have never actually worked in a kitchen, what is the structure and what does executive chef mean? What are some of the other roles in the kitchen?
A: An executive chef is the president of the kitchen. They oversee all the departments, have the final say, and can veto dishes and ideas. Right underneath them is the sous chef which is like the vice president. So when I’m not there, the sous chef steps into my role. The sous chef manages more of the cooks and helps out with the ordering. Below sous chef, there would be almost 100 positions in a classic French kitchen including junior sous chef, lead line cook, grill cook, saute cook, and a garde manger (which is the person who preps all of the cold items).

Q: How does a general day work?
A: The Eddy is only open for dinner service, but we open up at about 9AM, which is when a porter or dishwasher arrives. They start breaking down boxes, cleaning up windows, mopping – all that fun stuff. But the porter also receives all the deliveries that have been ordered from the night before. Those can come in anywhere from 9AM to 3PM. By 12PM, I come in with my sous chef and we’ll start getting the kitchen prepped and set up.

Around 2PM, the other cooks start to come in. We have a team meeting and then we’ll talk about the day, what happened yesterday, what’s on the agenda for today and tomorrow, and what we need to grab from the farmer’s market. Then we’ll do prep and create family meal, which the entire staff eats around 4:30PM. We always have a pre-service meeting, so that includes the general manager, owner, and the waitstaff. We talk about new dishes, new beverages, wine, and service etiquette. Then we open our doors at 5:30PM until about 11PM. I’m there expediting on the line.

Q: What’s expediting?
A: Expediting means I’m calling out the tickets, what’s fired, and what’s ready to walk out the door, where I finish the plates. Since The Eddy’s a pretty small kitchen, I cook and I expedite. Normally I’m working the meat station where I’m in charge of all the entrees and proteins. But at the same time, I have to call out orders, and I have to approve every plate that walks out of the kitchen. I do a lot of multitasking.

Around 11PM or midnight depending on how busy it is, we start to break down. Then we clean up the kitchen and write a list for the next day. Me and my sous chef will place the orders to our different vendors. The last people to leave are usually the dishwasher and the bartender.

Q: You mentioned family meal. I’m just always entranced by this concept of family meal. What is the typical family meal?
A: It always changes depending on the cooks. I really like it when we have a different cook every day that gets to create their own family meal for the staff. I feel like they can express themselves and try out new dishes, or maybe they want to make something that they actually make for their family.

An example of family meal is if we have some leftover chicken, we’ll roast it with this sausage I get from Local Bushel, one of our produce vendors from upstate NY. Sometimes I’ll make fresh cheese and cut some bread up and make a big salad. We normally keep it simple, but I had one cook make this really amazing curry with ginger. It was really luxurious and he made his own naan, so people can get pretty fancy. And other times it’s pretty casual, like taco Tuesday.

Q: If there was one thing you could change, what would it be?
A: That is a loaded finale question! I wish that – and I’m saying this as if there was a genie in front of me that is asking – I wish everyone had the same day off, so the restaurant was closed for a day or two. We’d have to really consider the finances and the practicality of that, but I do really wish it was possible. That way, nobody has to deal with work pestering them, because we spend so many hours there. That’s my wish, Genie.

 

Food Studies WEEK: Interview 3 – Culinary producer

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My initial intention when starting this series was to post one interview each week for the final weeks of class. Well, class is over for the semester, and guess what didn’t happen?

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Me to me.

Which brings me to important Grad School Lesson 1 – going to school at night and working full time is hard. No matter how much I love food studies and genuinely want to do all the readings in their entirety, I’m not invincible – far from it. Sometimes I just need to watch 7 episodes of 90 Day Fiancé. And that’s okay. Learning to appreciate learning for what it is, rather than worrying about grades and papers and projects, has been the most important lesson from my inaugural semester.

But now that the semester is over, my final interview project needs to be turned in. So I’m going to pack these pieces into one content-blasted week, and I really can’t wait to share them with you. I am so incredibly grateful for the collection of food industry rockstars that agreed to speak with me for this project. Next up, meet Melissa Schwimmer, culinary producer for BSTV Entertainment.

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In addition to being one of the coolest cucumbers (look at her rocking those overalls like a champ), Melissa currently works on the set of Food Network’s The Kitchen, an hour long show where culinary personalities cook seasonal recipes, provide meal tips, and playfully schmooze in front of a live studio audience. Another important fact about Melissa is that she has a very tiny dog named Moose, which is hilarious, because he’s actually a dog and not a moose.
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Q: Hey there! You have such a cool job. How did you end up in this field?
A: So I started out as a cheesemonger.  Through that job, I met a freelance food stylist and learned a lot from her. I fell into my previous job at MacGuffin Films as a food stylist, shopper, and assistant, and I worked there for a year. I was also freelance styling during that time, and I worked with Chobani, I did cookbooks, I did a whole bunch of other brands, and I loved food styling. But the freelance hours were a BETCH.

So I had drinks with a woman in the industry who was also a food stylist because I wanted to get her take on things. It was just a random meeting and then she actually happened to post about a job on Facebook, so I gave her my resume, interviewed the next day, got the job on a Monday, started on a Tuesday.

Q: What exactly is food styling? 
A: It’s basically making food look pretty for consumers. I worked for all the big brands – Burger King, Taco Bell, Red Lobster – you name it, I’ve done it. So any time you see a burger on TV, it’s been styled. So I’m making the seeds look perfect on the bun, I’m melting the cheese to perfection, making the burgers look unctuous and meaty and steamy and delicious.

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mmmm unctuous.

Q: So how do you know that you were going to be good at this job? How does one get into the world of food styling?
A: It’s just having an eye for what looks pretty and what would make other people hungry. A lot of it is just trial and error. There’s no school for it. It’s learning through others, and through experience, and gaining confidence with it. But I didn’t know I’d be good at it other than I like making food and making food look good for other people. So I tried it, and I loved it, and I was pretty good at it!

Q: Let’s say you’re a reader and you’re interested in getting into the world of food styling. Do you need to have a portfolio?
A: Most jobs require portfolios but it’s mostly just word of mouth. Everyone knows everyone in the realm and once you get in, you get more experience. So you start out as a PA (production assistant), and then you are given more responsibility and tasks. You see how the stylists work and then you’re given your own jobs.

Q: So it seems like to get into the world, you need to know someone first that’s going to give you a chance.
A: Yup.

Q: As you said there’s no school…
A: I mean you can go to culinary school or take classes at any school for food. Somebody might say, “Oh I like that background, that work ethic.” But for the most part, it’s a lot of word of mouth and who you know.
Q: So once you’re in, what are a few of the major challenges in your industry?

A: Freelancing is really hard. Some people love freelancing – they love that they can make their own hours. I just find it stressful because you never know when you’re going to get another job. You could work for weeks straight but then there’s a dead period and you don’t know what your doing with your life. You’re home on a random Tuesday sitting in your apartment calling your friends saying, “Hey guys, you wanna go out?”And everyone’s like, “We have work” and you’re just like, “oh. right.”
But in my job currently, one of the biggest challenges is communication. There are so many people working on one thing that if one person’s off, everything turns to chaos. It’s important to talk to everybody and make sure everybody’s on the same page, especially with a large team.

Q: What is the hardest thing to food style?
A: Anything time sensitive. Like cheese – it will dry out really quickly. Eggs are really hard. And anything that needs to be hot.
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Pursuit of the perfect yolk

Q: Is the ice cream in commercials really mashed potatoes?
A: No. It used to be. We use a lot of fillers in styling, but by law, you have to use a company’s product in commercials, especially for big companies.

Q: Oh! So there are laws that regulate this industry?
A: Oh yeah, now there are.

Q: I didn’t know that! So Burger King can’t be using a Shake Shack burger in their ads.
A: Exactly. We just have to make it look really pretty. We can use things to enhance it but we have to use their product. So when I did a shoot for a big ice cream company for example, I had to stand in a 20 degree room for 12 hours. We were all huddling for warmth.

Q: That sounds… rough. Do you at least get to eat the food you style?
A: When I was just styling for commercials and shoots, I ate none of it because there was a lot of bad chemical stuff in it most of the time. In my current job, I eat everything because we have chefs in the back that are preparing the food that goes on set. It’s a struggle during shoot weeks because we have all of the food from every single show, and then we also get catered lunch, and we also just have all this food around all the time and I have no self control. I’ll eat a double cheeseburger for breakfast and then have cake for lunch.

Q: Where does the food come from when it gets to set?
A: We source from every supermarket.

Q: So are there people that go out to the supermarket and get it? Is that a job on the show?
A: Yes, we have shoppers.

Q: Oh my god, I want that job.
A: Actually, it’s not great. I did it in the city, and carrying 75 pounds of groceries through the streets of Manhattan is one of the worst things that you can ever do. You’re carrying 80 oranges, 5 melons… I was rolling them down the street at one point. Shoppers are hard workers and basically their goal is to get the prettiest stuff for television. But even though it’s a super hard job, it’s definitely a foot in the door and can get you lots of other job opportunities.
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Q: I’ve been thinking a lot about ugly produce…
A: In my personal life, I buy ugly things when I shop. My views on food can be pretty different from what we put on the show. Our demographic is people who are looking for easy recipes and inexpensive ingredients. I like creative cooking and sustainability, which are often at odds with the content on the show. It kills me a lot of the time which is a huge challenge but at least I can go home and eat an heirloom apple and know that I’m supporting a local farmer.

Q: So once you’ve got the food on set, what happens to it?
A: We have a prep day before where all the stylists are figuring out their recipes that we, the culinary producers, give them. The next day, we start at 7:00AM. We have carts that we set up for each of the six acts of the show. During a shoot, it’s an endless cycle of food going in, food coming out.
I am very conscious of how much we buy, so after the shoot, I take stock of what we bought and what we have left over, and try to make it better for the next shoot. We keep everything in the office that we didn’t use that isn’t perishable, and also donate everything else afterwards. We donate to a women’s shelter and I go every run.

Q: That’s amazing. Do you think all shows are doing that?
A: I think more people are doing it now than ever because there’s more consciousness of food waste. And I think a lot of production companies are starting to do more. Mostly everybody is trying to do their part and either compost or recycle. That’s a big thing too – not just the food but recycling of packaging.

Q: If given the chance, would you want to be a food stylist for Guy Fieri?
A: If that were to happen, literally my intestines would fall out of my butt with excitement.

Q: You have to promise me that if you meet Guy Fieri, you’ll keep your intestines inside your body.
A: Okay, fine. My intestines will stay put.
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Food Studies Fridays: Interview 2 – Food Entrepreneur

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So this is a little bit late because I was out last night tearing up Flavortown looking like this:

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Moving on…

This week’s interview is with Chris Beisswenger, Director of Insights and Analytics at Banza. Banza is a pasta made from chickpeas that is high fiber, high protein, and low carb. I’d tell you to go buy some, but it looks like they’re completely sold out on their site, so they must be doing something right. You can use their store locater here.

What I really love about Banza is that they were part of Chobani Food Incubator, a unique program run by executives from super successful company Chobani to help bring the latest mission-driven small food businesses to market. Other products that have taken shape in the incubator program include responsibly sourced chocolate snacks and juice made from ugly fruit. Banza’s mission is to become the Greek yogurt of the pasta category, i.e. the healthier, more nutritious version, and after being named one of Time Magazine’s Top 25 Inventions in 2015, they are well on their way.

 Q: How did you get to doing what you are doing now?

A: It was all pretty lucky. I was working in finance out of college, but I knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be for the long term. I saved up some money to travel and left for a year long trip heading east around the world. I was about ten months in when I got an email from an old colleague of mine saying that his friend from college was starting a company making pasta out of chickpeas and needed some help.

My interest in food deepened dramatically as I was traveling. Across cultures, I saw delicious and healthy food fueling astonishing human pursuits and bringing people together around the table to build lasting bonds. Banza in particular appealed to me as the hearty base to such a wide variety of tasty, creative, and convenient meals.

I did my interviewing in various internet cafes around Southeast Asia. I loved the concept and the three impressive people at the company, so I tentatively accepted having never tried the pasta. As soon as I got back I tried a box of penne and was very pleased with the taste and texture. I joined the team in April 2015.

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Q: What are some of the major challenges in your work?
A: While Grocery is modernizing rapidly, it is still an old-fashioned business. We often hear, “that’s just the way things work,” which is a frustrating response when you are trying to take a new approach that you truly believe is in the best interest of consumers. Luckily, we have found a number of progressive partners in the business who are willing to take risks and lead constructive change with us. We double-down on these relationships when we find them.

Educating the consumer and inducing trial are really tough. People have deeply-ingrained preferences and eating habits, so it’s tough to tell them the benefits of a healthier pasta and even tougher to actually find a way to have them try a bite. You can’t tell someone a food tastes good. They have to try it to know.

Production is a challenge for food brands regardless of size. Producing at scale, matching manufacturing quantities to sales, ensuring consistent quality, and maintaining an edge in product innovation are where a lot of great food brands get lost and discouraged.

Q: What are some of the major pleasures of your job?
A: Being the reason people gather around a dinner table and share special moments is important for us. We believe food is family, and we aim to bring about more joyful meals in a time when so many people are snacking and eating on the go.

I love that we are changing peoples’ perceptions of health food. Rather than accepting healthy food as unappetizing, time-consuming, serious, or expensive, we believe it should be accessible. To this end, we are always thinking about how to make Banza more delicious, convenient, fun, and affordable.

From what I have seen, helping people to eat more nutritious food often leads a ripple effect that brings fulfillment in other aspects of their lives. I love that we can set this chain reaction in motion by giving them a simple swap to improve their diets and livelihoods.

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Q: What’s the process like to make Banza pasta and get it to the consumer?
A: First, Sourcing Raw Materials – This could be going as far as the farm level or purchasing from other ingredient suppliers whose capabilities match your requirements.

Manufacturing – Either you own your own facility, or you look for a third-party manufacturer who agrees to make your product for you.

Warehousing & Fulfillment – Logistical requirements for retailers and distributors can be complex. Again, you either build these systems yourself or you find a third-party logistics (3PL) company to handle it.

Distributors – Many retailers prefer to pull their product from a distributor, which is an intermediary that provides convenience for retailers (and in some cases brands/manufacturers). They add cost in the chain but can streamline if set up correctly, especially with smaller retailers.

Grocery Retailers – Getting on shelves is only the beginning in your relationship with a grocery retailer. Promotions, ads, displays, and other collaborative programs are key to understand. Often these relationships are managed jointly by a brand’s sales team and a “Broker”, which is an outsourced sales force specializing in certain retailers. Often a presence is required at the store level to assist with relationships with in-store decision makers.

Marketing – This is usually quite broad and diverse for many food brands. It includes areas such as field (often doing sampling of the product), digital, social, PR, customer experience, etc.

Q: If there was one thing you could change in this industry … what would that be?
A: Better technology across in the industry could help eliminate inefficiencies and bring innovative products to more people at improved prices.

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Thank you to Chris for Interview #2 and thanks to everyone for bearing with all the pasta gifs.

 

Food Studies Fridays: Interview 1 – Food Network Exec

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Welcome to the inaugural post of Food Studies Fridays! Every Friday for the next 10 weeks, I’ll be posting an interview with someone who works in the food industry as part of a final class project. (Yes, I’m in school, in case you missed that announcement. More info on that here.)

We’re going to kick it off this week with a very special guest from Food Network. Food media is a large part of my graduate program as many students go on to work at media outlets like Food and Wine Magazine, Food52, and Heritage Radio Network.

Without further ado, meet Madeline Langlieb, Programming and Development Executive at Food Network!

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So I’m cheating a little bit because Madeline is one of my best friends. I’ve had the privilege of tagging along with her to many awesome food events. Here I am mooching off her in the VIP section of the Big Apple BBQ this summer:

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In addition to keeping me well fed, Madeline is the Executive in Charge of Production for Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which was nominated for an Emmy this summer. Go Mads!

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Q: How long have you worked at Food Network?
A: 5.5 years.

Q: How did you end up there?
A: My first job at a talent agency led me to my current company. I previously worked with talent and production companies that star in and create shows for Food Network. I was previously on the selling side, and now I get pitched shows and work towards getting them on TV.

Q: What are a few of the major challenges in your industry?
A: There are so many ways to get content, especially food based content. Be it on linear tv, on Instagram, blogs, Snapchat, Facebook, there seems to be more and more options for food focused content. Keeping up with trends and staying relevant is always top of mind. We try to create compelling shows that will entertain and inform our viewers.

Q: What are a few of the major pleasures in your work or industry?
A: A lot of people say I have the best job in the world, and I wouldn’t say that they are wrong. I get to work for a beloved network, and make entertainment for a living. I also get to eat and drink some pretty bomb stuff.

Q: What’s the most bomb thing you’ve eaten recently?
A: Milk ice cream with honey over freeze dried honeycomb from The NoMad!

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Actual footage of me right now.

Q: What skills do you use to be successful at work?
A: It all boils down to having great relationships, creativity, and being able to execute ideas.

Q: If there was one thing you could change about your work, what would that be?
A: I wish there were more hours in the day, both to produce new shows and to eat more food!

Thanks Madeline for being Interview #1! Tune in next week where I talk to a food entrepreneur who is disrupting pasta.

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