Food Studies WEEK: Interview 3 – Culinary producer

foodstudiesWEEK 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?

giphy (6).gif

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.

16107116_10158126800130434_1493726972014457499_o
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.
Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 6.48.19 PM.png

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.

giphy (8)

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.

17248973665_4fae275bf9_o-e1436304648230

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.
source

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.
giphy (9).gif

 

Food Studies Fridays: Interview 2 – Food Entrepreneur

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

ganeles fieri.png

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.

pasta5

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.

pasta4

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.

pasta3

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

FOODSTUDIESFRIDAYS 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!

13558762_10206897210484220_5244125032292649837_o

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:

FREEMEAT

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!

giphy (2)

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!

giphy (3).gif

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.

giphy (4)

Urban Agriculture From Seed to Tart - Growing Basil Indoors at Square Roots

In two weeks, I start my first classes in NYU's Masters of Food Studies program (true). I've got my backpack (true - I already own this), notebook (someone buy this for me), and pens (can I have this too?). I've done my summer reading (true) and I've sourced the most sustainable, artisanal, local, and organic apples to bring to my teachers (false - I'm not THAT big of a nerd). Today I visited Square Roots, an urban agriculture incubator in Brooklyn founded in part by Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk's brother. Square Roots has an office in the old Pfizer building at 630 Flushing Ave in Bushwick, home to many of your favorite artisan NYC food brands like McClure's Pickles, People's Pops, Cinnamon Snail, Joe's Pizza, and the list goes on...

img_1676.jpg

IMG_0902

The bulk of Square Roots' operation takes place in the parking lot inside large shipping containers that house indoor vertical hydroponic farms. Myself and another volunteer met up with Josh Aliber, one of the 10 entrepreneurs currently in an intense year-long entrepreneurship program with Square Roots. We helped him harvest, package, and plant new basil crops.

Fun facts about indoor vertical farming:

  • You can control everything about the climate of an indoor farm including temperature, humidity, and lighting, so the produce is extremely high quality and farmers aren't at the will of the weather gods for earning their livelihood.
  • This method of farming uses a lot less water, but still uses a lot of electricity. Since it's a relatively young technology, there's a lot of room to grow in efficiency and automation. We harvested the basil plants, removed the leaves from the stems, packaged, and seeded new plants by hand.
  • It takes about 7 weeks from seed to harvest for a basil plant grown this way, which is less time than a traditional outdoor farm.
  • A lot of the advancements in hydroponic farming thus far have come from one of the early adopters of the technology: the marijuana industry. Thanks dude bros!

So what do you do with all this super high quality basil? Josh sells it direct to local grocery stores and restaurants. What did I do? I made the most beautiful fucking tart and sprinkled fresh basil all over it like a dog on their favorite fire hydrant:

IMG_1687

This tart was made with heirloom tomatoes and cipollini onions from the farmers market, fresh mozzarella from BKLYN Larder, and genovese sweet basil from Josh's 8/23 harvest. I HAVE REACHED PEAK BROOKLYN. (Recipe adapted from Taming of the Spoon.)

Learn more about Square Roots here: Kimbal Musk — Elon's brother — just opened a shipping container farm compound in New York City

So, what the hell is a Masters of Food Studies?

giphy2 Last week, I was accepted into NYU's Masters of Food Studies program, starting Fall 2017. I'll be going part time (not quitting my job) and it will take me anywhere from two to three years to complete. Ever since I shared the news, many people are confused about what the hell I'll be doing, so I wanted to help answer some of the most common questions I've received below:

Q: Will you be bringing me soufflés? A: No. This is not a culinary degree. Cooking is not part of the curriculum, although I'm sure I'll be cooking more on my own due to being a poor grad student.

souffle

Q: So if you're not bringing me soufflés, what will you be doing? A: According to NYU, studying "the ways in which individuals, communities, and societies produce, distribute, and consume food".

Q: Okay, that's pretty vague. Can you be more specific? A: Gladly. The program has three suggested tracks: Media & Cultural Analysis, Policy & Advocacy, and Business & Social Entrepreneurship. I'm most interested in the latter, but I plan to take classes across all areas.

Q: What kind of classes? A: Some core courses include Food & Culture, Food Policy & Politics, and Nutrition in Food Studies. Within the Business & Social Entrepreneurship track, I'll take things like Economics of Food: Consumer Behaviors and Food Entrepreneurship. I'll also be taking some of my courses at the NYU Stern School of Business like Financial Accounting and Foundations of Social Entrepreneurship.

giphy

Q: But it's not an MBA? Or a JD? Or an MD? Wait, what's the point of this? What does someone do after they get this degree? A: Nope, it's not one of the more common graduate degrees that many of my friends and colleagues have gone on to obtain. Kudos to them, but if you've been reading this blog or know me at all, you know that food is my passion and this is where I belong.

People who graduate from the program go into a lot of different fields like food writing, food marketing, supply chain management, operations, nonprofit work, advocacy, and entrepreneurial food ventures.

Q: What do YOU want to do after you get this degree? A: Great question. Right now, I'm really interested in reducing food waste, urban farming, and food policy. There's a hell of a lot of problems in the US food system, and I know I've only scratched the surface of what's out there. I'm sure my interests will change 100 times as I learn more about the issues and what I can do to help solve them.

Q: Cool. Thanks for the clarifications. A: giphy1

 

A Love Letter to Cooking Your Own Damn Food

November 9th, 2016 was a day few Americans will ever forget. And now we're all looking for ways to feel less helpless, less at the whim of a government that doesn't seem to share any of the values of the majority of its constituents. We can and should protest, write letters, make phone calls, run for office, and donate to the charities that need us to keep fighting. But sometimes it feels overwhelming. Every day spent not doing something to resist the new administration feels wasted. And you get deeper and deeper into a shame spiral about your inaction, which makes you do less, and then you feel guilty again, and YADA YADA you get the picture. So here's a radical idea if you're feeling like you're not in control of your destiny:

COOK YOUR OWN DAMN FOOD BECAUSE IT'S FUCKING EMPOWERING.

giphy

Make choices. Go to a farmer's market and speak to the growers about their work. Take home some ugly produce because you're not shallow - you care about what's ON THE INSIDE. Buy organic meat at the supermarket. Yes, it's more expensive, but you vote with your dollars. Organic, local farmers are going to need our help when agriculture gets even more deregulated and garbage meat filled with hormones and poison floods the market. Get a beautiful cookbook, a real one, in print, written by a person that cares about their work and their environment. (Might I suggest Small Victories by Julia Turshen who is a true boss?)

img_0219

Spend a day figuring out an ambitious recipe. Roast a whole fucking chicken. Make something slowly with ingredients you've never used, like this Slow Cooker Coconut Lemongrass Chicken (pictured below). Prove to yourself that you are an effective human, and even if the whole world goes up in flames, you have the control to create something beautiful and nourishing for you and your loved ones.

EFBCDF87-B7DF-4697-BE30-02DC1F6FF9A8.jpg

This is what I've done so far. But I know my knowledge of the food issues affecting our country - food waste, industrialized agriculture, the cost of healthy food, food deserts, unfair wages, and many more - is limited. So I've applied to the Masters of Food Studies program at NYU, and G-d willing, I'll be starting part-time in the fall.

Moving forward, this blog will have a bit more substance. It'll still be snarky and weird and sometimes crude, but there's a time and place for lists of the 22 Best New Cantaloupe Dishes of January 2017 (maybe?), and this isn't it.

The universe might keep throwing 🍆 at us, but let's not be afraid to make a damn good 🍆 parm.

518b01dd-ee73-4b2e-aed3-e8e9aefd2c88