Spend any time with Kenzi, and you’ll quickly realize you’re in the presence of an old soul. She possesses the wisdom and poise of someone many years older—which is helpful given that she has at least 52 things on her plate at any given time (the podcast, the Piglet, keeping all of us editors in line and on track—just to name a few). And there’s no question Kenzi is a born leader: She’s focused, persistent, determined, and every other related adjective you can think of.
She inspires everyone around her to do their very best work with warmth, kindness, and the gentlest delivery of constructive criticism you’ve ever seen (she should seriously teach a class on it). She’s driven when she’s on the clock, but even when she has free time that drive still shines through: Kenzi’s always up for a little competitive fun, whether throwing a ball in the park or having a #treeoff competition on Instagram.
Since Kenzi wears multiple hats with ease and handles everything thrown her way with grace and aplomb, I feel compelled to reveal that there is at least one thing Kenzi admits to not having mastered (yet, anyway): cartwheels.
Her current role as Managing Editor keeps Kenzi mainly behind the scenes, but about once a month she lets us into her kitchen, tells us What to Cook Now, and reminds us that she’s a wordsmith, too. She shares a lot of comfort foods: stuff on toast, potato salads, not-too-fussy cakes. They’re the kind of dishes you don’t need to save for a special occasion; they’re the ones you’ll want to run straight to the kitchen to try and share with whoever is lucky enough to be around. And although she doesn’t always share recipes for soft foods best eaten with a spoon (only sometimes), she’s well known for loving them. If her predilection for mushy foods seems more befitting of an average nonagenarian than an early twenty-something and leaves you questioning exactly how old that soul is, well, you wouldn’t be alone. Read on to get the answer and learn what else Kenzi had to say about herself:
What’s one of your favorite early food memories?
I didn’t think of this fondly until much later in life, but it was the time my mother tried to serve me dolma as a 6-or-so-year-old. Here’s what she did, the spunky, adventurous mom she is: She went into our large, 50-acre backyard and harvested grape leaves. (From where I have no idea; we had nothing approaching a vineyard or the like.) Then she steamed them and stuffed them with rice, rolled them up, and presented them for dinner. My interpretation of this at the time was that my mother was serving me weeds filled with bland filler and I wasn’t having it, so I did what any sane 6-year-old would do: I threatened to call Department of Children and Families on my parents.
(As a postscript, I feel compelled to add that yes, I definitely eat—and love—dolma these days, no I didn’t actually call the authorities, but yes, I still have it in me to be this stubborn.)
Even if the cupboards are mostly bare, you always have what on hand?
Tortillas. Eggs. Hot sauce. Usually sour cream or yogurt. Have you met me?
Are there any cooking lessons your parents/grandparents/Aunt Matilda taught you that still stick in your head?
I ate extremely modestly growing up—I remember my grandmother making ham slices with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries, the ones the color of Rudolph’s nose, in the center. My mom might play around with some homegrown dolmas one day, but the next night might be hamburger helper or beef stew or taco night. But whatever it was, I always had to try it—anything you said no to, you were immediately given a “no thank you serving” of: I’ll be thankful for this for a very long time.
And when people were cranky, my grandmother would always say: “Everyone will feel better after they eat.” That stuck. I may not have learned a genius folding technique or the perfect way to cut biscuits, but my family taught me to be open-minded, calm, and practical about matters of food. It goes without saying that these realizations came after the D.C.F.-calling years, of course.
What's your desert island food? An endless supply of mushy foods absolutely doesn't count.
How does that not count?! Are you trying to make me starve?? If I’m not allowed to bring polenta and rice pudding and a giant bowl of panzanella with me (hi guys, I love mush), I suppose I’d take a bottle of gin (in this imaginary scenario, can it be perpetually chilled?) and a bow and arrows. I’m assuming there’d be citrus trees aplenty (it’s tropical, right?) for the gin; and I’m delusional enough to say that I’d hunt for the rest of my food. Like Bear Grylls. Or Rambo.
If you weren't in the food world doing this job, what would you be doing?
Radio. I took a class in college called The Art of Audio Narrative, and it was the single best class I’ve ever taken in my life. (Ken Cormier: Are you out there? I owe my love of radio to you.) We basically pretended to be This American Life contributors for a whole semester; I put together an audio piece on Craigslist personal ads, and was hooked ever since. Burnt Toast now feeds that fire, and I feel very lucky to be able to do it.
What's something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I hardly ever wash my herbs. I love sports. (Like, really love them.) I sometimes have mind-movies about being really great at piano, but I never had the discipline as a kid to stick with it. (I was always frustrated that I was the straight-laced note-reading kind of musician, rather than the wild and free, creative, off-the-cuff kind.) I played the tenor sax in my school’s jazz band, but only because the cooler kid alto sax already had a full section. I didn’t like caviar until last year; I still don’t love uni. Sometimes I steal my roommate’s peanut butter.
The benefits of having an old soul seem obvious, especially with your role as Managing Editor—are there any downsides?
Sure, there are downsides—like when I get all cranky on the crowded subway because I’m getting bumped into while knitting on my way to a brunch with 10 people I don’t want to go to because it will be loud and no one will know how to split the check correctly. (Kids these days!) I’m also kidding: I do not knit, and I’m all good with brunch.
I think the biggest downside is how forward-looking I was as a (younger) kid: I sped through high school and college and sometimes—just sometimes—I wish I’d have stayed long enough to do the things that other students did, like study abroad. Otherwise, I’m pretty sprightly for a 60-year-old soul. Pinky swear.
What habits give you away as a die-hard food lover?
Carrying a small tin of flaky salt on my person like a total jerk. I’m actually a little embarrassed about this: I never, ever mean to imply that I think I’ll need it for other people’s food. It’s just that one summer I found myself near a lot of tomato patches—a lot of tomato patches that seemed overflowing and like they needed just one, or two, okay, three tomatoes taken away from them—and it came in very handy. It is still in my bag from this.
What's your food-related bad habit? (For example: I'm horrible about following Amanda Hesser's "never apologize" rule—I always tell guests why the dish I just served them isn't quite right.)
I don’t talk about why something I serve isn’t right, but I definitely apologize way too much. I don’t know why! I’m feeding you! You should be thanking me! I also eat with my hands a lot, but I don’t necessarily find this to be a bad habit. Someone once told me that it is absolutely NOT a faux pas to eat with your hands in a restaurant, and now I feel a little liberated every time I do it. Like: We were born with utensils attached to our arms. Why not use them? And I’ve got people on my side: Del Posto serves you a salad you’re supposed to eat with your fingers, so there!
You live and work in the largest city in the U.S., but your Instagram feed often features trees and scenic vistas. Are you a city girl or a country girl at heart?
I love the city dearly—the bustle, the diversity, the way it motivates me—but I will always pick it last over trees and fields and water views. It’s just in my DNA. I grew up on a lot of land; I had a horse; I used to catch fish from the stream out back and name them. It will always be a part of who I am, and I hope to have a little cabin in a little swath of nature one day. It’s good to have goals, right?
Photos by James Ransom and @kenziwilbur unless otherwise noted.