We continue our series of interviews with the judging panel for our Cookbook Contest with Jess Kapadia, Recipes Editor at Food Republic, a fast-growing food, drink, and lifestyle website for men. Jess’s love of food began before she could express it, but today she’s anything but lost for words. She’s made a career out of cooking, eating, and writing eloquently about it all!
Jess was kind enough to answer some questions about herself, as well as present some killer tips for the contest that you won’t want to miss!
Maddie: Tell us a little about yourself and your work with food.
Jess: I’ve been a food writer since college. When I started writing about food, I realized that recipe creation and sourcing was one of my favorite parts of the job, started a cooking blog and began focusing on finding great recipes wherever I went. I grew up in the kitchen with my mom, who’s a chef and caterer, and started using the stove without permission when I was 8. When you love eating that much, being surrounded by food all the time just seems like the most logical path. Since then I’ve written a daily column for Food Republic on what to eat for lunch, and forayed into professional recipe testing and food styling, which I find insanely fun.
Maddie: What is your favorite food? What do you love about it?
Jess: I like anything that can be described as a “sea oddity.” Sea urchin, monkfish liver, sea cucumber and the non-meat parts of lobster (green stuff, red stuff, stuff in the head) are all awesome. You get taste of the ocean without the distracting fish flavor or excessive saltiness, it’s really breathtaking.
Maddie: What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten? Did you like it?
Jess: Camel brain kebabs in Marrakech, Morocco. I absolutely loved them, but did end up in the hospital towards the end of the following day with a fever of 105. The nurses said I spoke very good French. I’ve also dabbled in human placenta, but it wasn’t my idea (and the placenta’s previous home was inside a board-certified doctor who told her sister and me to “go for it”). I just don’t say no to eating things that are technically or historically edible.
Maddie: You’re a food tourist with an unlimited budget. What’s your first travel destination?
Jess: Brittany. I want to eat a whole shellfish tower by myself while one of my picky eater friends watches, helpless, preferably bound to a chair while “Hungry Like The Wolf” plays in the background.
Maddie: On to contest advice. What key elements do you look for in a good recipe?
Jess: Order of operations is the first thing I tackle, pretty standard. To make it easy for the home cook and maximize the success of the recipe, it’s crucial that the ingredients be listed in the order they’re used. This way you can prepare your mise-en-place without worrying that something will burn while you’re still mincing garlic. I also like to see phrases like “when the sauce has reduced by half” or “fry for 5-7 minutes, or until crisp.” That helps teach the home cook to pay close attention to the tendencies of the ingredient or technique and watch attentively for the defining moment between “not finished cooking,” “perfectly deep-golden brown and crispy” and “definitely slightly burned.” Recipes are more suggestions than concrete blueprints — everyone’s oven is different, pots and pans have different thicknesses and don’t get me started on electric or induction burners versus gas. Wiggle room in the instructions is very important.
Maddie: How do you think photos and videos can be best used to enhance a good recipe?
Jess: My experience with food photography is that it’s smart to highlight the best attribute of a finished dish, whether it’s a roast chicken’s crispy, shiny skin or the gooey stretch of a slice of pizza being lifted away from the pie. In the case of pizza, where the melty, stretchy cheese is the ultimate goal, an action shot can definitely set a dish apart and make it look especially appealing.
Maddie: In food writing, there’s a fine balance between being information and anecdotes. What are your tips for including personal touches without overwhelming the content?
Jess: If you have an anecdote that’s short and 100% relevant, definitely add it in. Grandma shout-outs are always fair game, they’re the best cooks. The cookbooks with the most effective recipes, in my opinion, are the ones that let the reader know why the cook chose it, a tip “from experience” on a step that may prove trickier than it appears, and the cook’s favorite way to serve it — on a platter, over crushed ice, with a sprinkling of sesame seeds, down by the river. What makes me skip straight to the ingredient list is a long-winded story, like a foraging “adventure.” I’ve been in the woods picking fiddleheads too. It mostly involved picking fiddleheads and dropping them in a basket.
Maddie: What are you most looking forward to in this contest?
Jess: I’d like to see if anyone can make me laugh without cracking an actual formulated joke.