When it comes to cooking, we’re taught to follow the recipe and measure twice. But sometimes the most creative recipes and ideas need the freedom to go off-book. Amanda Hesser, a former New York Times food editor and lover of all things edible, saw that the food world was expanding in new exciting ways, but cooking websites were still stuck in beta. So, Hesser and friend Merrill Stubbs got their hands dirty and threw out the original recipe, introducing FOOD52, a beautiful, innovative and extremely useful cooking and homewares website.
We caught up with Hesser at W New York before recording the What She Said podcast series, this episode featuring Hesser in an intimate conversation on health and wellness with rebel yogi Tara Stiles. From an easy dinner solution to tips on how to stay healthy while traveling to her favorite spin on a Negroni cocktail – Hesser is always rethinking the recipe.
How and why did you start the cooking website FOOD52?
Amanda Hesser: I started it with my friend Merrill Stubbs as a co-founder. We had worked together for 5 years on a book project and we would talk a lot about the food industry. We were struck by the fact that online felt very out of sync to what was happening in the food world offline. Oddly enough, online felt pretty dated and behind to what was happening offline, where people were opening all these craft food places, making their own cheese or chocolate, people quitting their jobs and starting breweries or distilleries. The food revolution had been gearing up for decades and we didn’t feel that we were being well served in the industry. There wasn’t a place that brought people together that shared a similar sensibility about food, had great content, had products relevant to us and gave an experience of the revolution happening around them. So we made that place with FOOD52, and it’s expanded to not just be a website but a kitchen and home website.
Who are some of your inspirations?
AH: I would say a good friend of mine, Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, is a big influence on me and we’ve know each other since early in our careers. He and his brother had dreamed of Stone Barns, a farm in upstate New York where they run a restaurant using all the produce from the area, and he got the money to make it happen. I was still in my corporate job when he did this and I really thought it was such a brave thing to do, really imaginative and gutsy. And seeing how the whole business blossomed, that it had a mission as well as being a business, it inspired me to think about how I was spending my time. I realized I really loved creating. I’m an ideas person, and I love being a doer. I think that is one of the primary reasons why I left journalism. I love it and am so glad I did it, but journalism is so much about observing and interpreting. I wanted to be more of a doer.
What’s your go-to cocktail?
AH: A Negroni Sbagliato. It’s a Negroni but they replace the gin with Prosecco. It’s fizzy but it’s also less boozy. While I love a Negroni, after one I’m pretty much under the table. So with a Sbagliato I can drink them and still speak English.
What’s your favorite food destination to travel to?
AH: I have many but I really like Los Angeles. It’s a very exciting food destination and has been for many years. I think there are chefs doing amazing work there but also it’s an amazing place to explore. It’s a big city so I don’t feel like I have to go to the best new place. There are so many hidden gems, such great bakeries or food shops, and it’s so diverse. It’s hard to get a sense of discovery these days and in L.A. I really think you can get that. And there are also these comforting go-tos, like In n’ Out Burger! I’m always happy to eat at In n’ Out, just like I love trying a new Korean place that’s in a strip mall.
What’s a really quick, easy dish you like to make at home?
AH: There’s a great easy pasta dish I make for my family. You grate raw yellow squash and salt it and let it sit on the side. In the meantime you cook pancetta and cut some corn off the cob while the pasta water is coming to a boil. Then cook your pasta and when it’s done take the squash and squeeze out the excess moisture and add to the pasta, put some fresh red chillies on there, some cheese and that’s it. There are many variations but it’s fast and it’s fresh and you don’t have to worry about portions or anything. You just make it.
What are three things you can’t travel without?
AH: I’m not a good unplugged traveler so I need my laptop. I can’t travel without it. And a wrap, like a cashmere or wool wrap – that’s a comfort, and you can roll it up and sleep on the plane or cover yourself no matter where you are. And sunglasses, I feel naked without them.
Any tips to maintain a healthy lifestyle while you’re not at home?
AH: When I’m traveling I’ve realized that you don’t have to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s ok to get up late – it’s really important to get your sleep when you’re traveling – and get up and just have brunch and then dinner later. I think there is pressure to eat three different places every day and eat everything, but I try not to get caught up in that. It’s really sleep and water that are the most constructive solutions. I was just in Europe and there was a lot of beer drinking, and long meals, and I found that drinking water constantly helped me get through. And it saves when you’re jet lagged. Water and sunlight.
What was a recent memorable meal while you were traveling?
AH: We had a great meal at Lyle’s in London. They change the menu every day and it’s a three courses but it’s simple. It’s a quasi-open kitchen, with a lot of light, and the food is great but the service is really what makes it memorable. They do everything well but casually and with personality. It really makes you feel that you are in a place and that it has a point of view. I think that’s as important as the food.