We're pleased to introduce you to another amazing member of the food52 team: Stephanie Bourgeois has been testing recipes for the contests at food52 every weekend for nearly a year, all while working a day job (or two, or three). We don't know what superhuman powers enable her to do it all, we just know how lucky we are to have her around.
- Stephanie readies mise en place in the James Beard Foundation kitchen; a Hawaiian Hearts of Palm Pad Thai she made, styled & shot for their blog
Q&A with Stephanie Bourgeois
What do you do for a living?
I work at The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) as part of the marketing team doing PR and social media. I get to write fun posts about demos and classes going on at the school for their blog, DICED. They often joke that I am the school's "social butterfly." (Side note: My boss wants to put that as my job title on my business cards.)
I also do recipe testing for the James Beard Foundation. Chefs coming to cook at the James Beard House submit recipes from their event menus to me and I adapt and edit them for home cooks. The foundation then publishes the recipes on their blog Delights & Prejudices and in their newsletters.
For food52, I take a selection of recipes after a contest has closed, cook them over the weekend and come back with my notes on Sunday evening so that we can pick which recipes will be finalists and EPs.
Where do you live and shop for all the groceries for recipe testing?
I live in a studio on the Upper East Side. Getting all the groceries is never as simple as going into one store and picking up everything I need. Often it is like a treasure hunt to find everything. I've gotten pretty good at knowing what stores near me carry and what their prices are like. I get most things from Citarella or Grace's Marketplace.
The butchers and fishmongers at Citarella are pretty used to me coming in and asking for strange things. They don't even bat an eye when I ask for three pounds of ground sirloin, a rabbit and a quail. There are lots of times I have to visit speciality stores like Schaller & Weber or head down to Chinatown to get something.
Describe an early food experience that has influenced the way you think about food and/or cooking.
When I was in kindergarten, Santa brought me a Klutz cookbook, Kids Cooking, that came with a set of multicolored measuring spoons (which I still use). I must have cooked every recipe in that book twice during the holiday break. That was pretty typical in my house. I'm not sure most parents would have given their five-year-old a cookbook and stood back as they took over the kitchen whenever they wanted. The only rule in our kitchen was you had to clean up after yourself -- other than that we were always free to experiment and try cooking whatever we wanted.
I can remember my little sister breaking our rice cooker because she was too little to carry it from the pantry and onto the counter but she was determined to make rice by herself. My mom just shrugged it off and let Brigitte pick out the new, smaller rice cooker so she could make rice whenever she wanted. Our mom definitely encouraged us to be independent and fearless in the kitchen.
- Stephanie cooking at 18 months; her kitchen on the Upper East Side
You grew up in Canada -- what foods do you miss most from there?
Most Canadian foods are pretty easy to replicate here. I can make a tourtière (a French-Canadian double-crust pie filled with meat, usually pork and beef, and bread crumbs or mashed potatoes, flavored with a bit of spice) or Nanaimo bars (three layer bars made of a chocolate-coconut-graham cracker bottom, a yellowy icing middle and a fudgey chocolate top) without really even realizing that I'm making a Canadian dish.
One thing I miss from living in Alberta is Ukrainian food. In Calgary and Edmonton there are entire sections in the grocery store dedicated to pierogies and cabbage rolls. But what I really miss are the junk foods. I can't get chocolate bars like Coffee Crisp, Crispy Crunch, Smarties (not the pastel Halloween candy, those are Rockets. Canadian Smarties are like M&Ms.) or Wunderbar here. I'd be a pretty lousy Canadian if I didn't mention Tim Hortons, but we have that in New York now anyways.
You went to culinary school -- do you recommend it?
Definitely. I learned lots of interesting techniques and gave me confidence in the kitchen. It also just gives you the vocabulary and understanding to talk about food. It is a huge asset in recipe testing when you are able to understand what is going on in every step of the recipe and some of the science of what is happening in the pot.
You do a lot of recipe testing, for food52 & elsewhere. What do you enjoy about it?
I love learning all the interesting flavor combinations and techniques I never would have thought of on my own. I am sometimes skeptical about certain recipes, but I am glad to be proven wrong when they work out. I love when recipes I am testing really push me to try new things. And above all, I love having lots of different foods to taste. During chocolate cake week, I made six chocolate cakes. I had a slice of each for breakfast.
What have been some of your favorite techniques discovered through testing other people's recipes?
My absolute favorite was roasting white chocolate. I don't even really like white chocolate, but this was totally different. Bill Corbett, pastry chef at Coi in San Francisco served it at this year's James Beard Awards. It was tough because the recipe the chef sent in called for roasted white chocolate without saying how to do it. I had to do a bit of research and figure it out. The technique I used was placing the chocolate in a roasting dish in the oven at a low temperature for a long time, stirring the chocolate every ten minutes or so. It turns out beautifully caramelized and complex. It has a strange crumbly texture when it sets so I wouldn't serve it by itself. But once it was melted back down, it made a wonderful butterscotch-like white chocolate mousse.
For a food52 recipe, there have been so many good ones. TasteFood's Whole Baked Fish in Sea Salt with Parsley Gremolata was a technique I loved -- so simple and easy. Helenthenanny's Feta Frozen Yogurt with Blood Orange and Mint Granita was another easy and truly delicious recipe. I still can't get over thirschfeld's Three Onion Chowder. I loved just throwing the potatoes in the pot, covering, turning off the heat and walking away. The potatoes turn out perfectly tender and the flavors in the soup meld beautifully. Monkeymom's Wishbone Roast Chicken with Herb Butter was a wonderful chicken and I never would have thought of using a tube pan as a stand-up roaster. Plus, my wish (for Canada to win gold in hockey that weekend) came true!
Are there any food52 recipes you've tested and found yourself making again and again?
I wish I could say yes, there are so many I loved and crave now. But really I am always moving on to the next week and the newest recipes. I don't have time to come back to my favorites. I did recently make a variation on notlazy.rustic.'s Chocolate Swirl Cinnamon Marshmallows for a friend's birthday. We made s'mores out of them.
What's the craziest recipe you've ever had to test?
I've done all kinds of crazy things: icewine marshmallows, horchata gelee, savory madelines, you name it. But the craziest was probably Pork Butter. It was a braised pork shoulder that was then mashed to a paste in a stand mixer and mixed with softened butter. It was delicious, but basically meat paste.
The most esoteric ingredient you've had to source?
Oddly enough the hardest thing I ever had to find was Twinkies for Planked Twinkies. No grocery stores had them and it took me over a dozen bodegas before I found them on the Upper East Side. I've had to skip some recipes for James Beard because I couldn't find all the ingredients.
Nose-to-tail week at food52 was tough. We really had to find stores that had the cuts in stock because there wasn't time to order them between the contest closing and when we needed to test the recipes. It took a lot of calling butchers and exploring stores to find beef cheeks. I did eventually find Wagyu beek cheeks at Ottomanelli's.
What's your favorite cooking tool?
I have a rubber spatula that I love. It has a little bump on the handle so you can set it down without laying the head of the spatula on the counter. It has a little lip so you can run it around the edge of a bowl and get every last bit of food.
What is your idea of comfort food?
I take comfort in simple, uncomplicated foods. If I needed cheering up, I'd probably make mashed potatoes. I love simple, creamy and fluffy mashed potatoes. There is something so nice about the simplicity of a bowl of mashed potatoes with a ton of butter or gravy.
What do you cook when you're home alone?
My former roommates can attest to how often my sweet tooth gets the better of me. I'm a little ashamed to admit how often I come home and decide that it's okay to make cookies for dinner. Sorry, Mom.
- An Apple Galette Stephanie baked and shot for the James Beard Foundation's blog; Stephanie sporting a milk mustache, probably after eating cookies for dinner
What's your least favorite food?
Bananas. I cannot stand a plain banana. I like them incorporated into baked goods, or mashed on toast with peanut butter. I try not to rule out any food. There are too many foods I wasted time not liking as a kid. For instance, I used to hate ice cream cones. I hate to think of all the ice cream cones I missed out on because I didn't give them a fair chance.
Describe your most spectacular kitchen disaster.
It's not a disaster on my part, but when I was about seven I was making cupcakes to take to school for my birthday. I had made about two dozen cupcakes to share with my class. My mom and I left them to cool while we made a run to the grocery store to get powdered sugar for the icing. During the time we were gone, my dad arrived home to find cupcakes sitting on the counter. He has a weakness for un-iced warm chocolate cake. I kid you not, he ate every single one. I came home to find probably two cupcakes left. I was pretty upset that he ate all my birthday cupcakes.
What's your desert island meal?
Pierogies. Preferably drowning in sour cream. I know they don't really scream tropical island but I just love them.
So what's this we hear about synchronized swimming?
I was a synchronized swimmer all through elementary school and junior high. I competed nationally for a really long time. Then I was a coach for new swimmers in high school. And then when I went to university at McGill I got back into synchro. I was even rookie of the year and won an award for highest GPA on the synchro team two years in a row. I'm just that cool. I own more glittery swim suits than anyone ever needs.
And it actually has helped me out in the kitchen quite a bit. Synchronized swimmers hold their hair back with unflavored gelatin in competition, which taught me how to make a smooth, lump-free gelatin equipped with nothing but a plastic fork, a paper cup, and hot tap water.