Ten Years of The Cook’s Cook
The Cook’s Cook
I had been the primary recipe tester for The New York Times food section for almost twenty-five years, a job I had unexpectedly fallen into after a seven-year career as an archeologist. Most of the recipes I tested had been developed by professional chefs, and I was the conduit between the commercial cook with a supporting team and the home cook working, most often, alone.
My husband called me “The Cook’s Cook,” and it was literally true. A restaurant kitchen is known as BOH (“Back of House”), and the dining room FOH (“Front of House”). The terms describe the separate but unified operations of the business. A restaurant kitchen is very different from a home kitchen – everything on a larger scale, and hotter or colder, stored in a particular way, and designed for use by a team. A recipe developed to make 40 servings can’t be simply divided by 10 to serve four people. A recipe tester is often a translator, not just of numbers but of ingredients and equipment and technique. Writing and editing are, maybe surprisingly, essential skills. The tester has to understand the desired result of a recipe and adjust, or even re-build, each recipe as needed.
While most of the recipes I was hired to test came from commercial chefs, many came from non-professionals. Great “peasant” food comes from grandmas, and grandpas too. Home cooks understand their needs and desires, but are often perplexed about why they have a hard time making restaurant-quality meals. Chefs often dream about writing cookbooks, but many have forgotten what it is like to cook without a backup team.
I could see that home cooks and professional chefs could learn a lot from one another.
An Idea for Something Different
On a hot summer day in August 2013, I spread a large sheet of blank newsprint across a picnic table in the shade, and I began to draw. I’d been thinking about creating a community that would bring together professional chefs and home cooks, so they could learn from one another. With a pencil and a ruler, I drew a diagram of what the organization would look like. A digital magazine, with columns covering all subjects of interest to cooks — memoir, recipes, instruction, food writing, cooking techniques, equipment, even cooking for pets. In all, my diagrams covered about six sheets, and I saved them all. What astonishes me is that the magazine that resulted was almost identical to the first drafts, and it officially launched on February 3rd, 2014.
First the Why, Then the How
I hired a local designer to create logos and design what was then called a “virtual magazine.” It was intended to be viewed on a computer desktop and the pages could be turned by clicking on an arrow or on the upper right corner of the page. It allowed us to create covers and layouts like traditional magazines. There were no hard copies except a single one of each issue I had printed and bound for my records.
I had no budget for content, so I asked colleagues to contribute to the first issue. I was startled at a few immediate nasty replies, but kind responses – even from a few who regretfully declined – were generous and encouraging. Paula Sullivan, who now owns a spice store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, agreed to interview Chef Ben Hasty, whose family has farmed in Maine for 200 years. Acclaimed author/artist Mollie Katzen contributed an article and drawings about cooking with kids, and literary agent Lisa Ekus wrote about how to search for a book agent.
The most touching response to my enquiring email was from Joyce Maynard, an author whom I did not know but whose work I admired. An outstanding writer of fiction and memoir, she is also famous for her expertise in making pies. While we spoke on the phone, she checked her calendar. She wanted to contribute, she said, but had to be sure she had time, “because I wouldn’t want to give you anything but my best work.” I treasured the respect implied in her words. Her article is My Mother’s Pie: A Meditation.
Change and a Birthday Wish
After three years, The Cook’s Cook transitioned from a replica magazine to a website. Our social media presence grew rapidly. Culinary brands began to notice us and sponsor articles and contests. We have made a commitment to integrity. We don’t carry affiliate links or pop-up ads, and we write about brands and products that we have tested and can honestly endorse. Our mantra is “Teach, Don’t Sell.”
Our website, newsletter, and social media now have over 2 million followers. The Cook’s Cook is free – it has no fees or paywall, we don’t do crowdfunding or Patreon or ask for “coffee money.” We are firmly committed to the privacy of our community members. We never share or sell email addresses. For our birthday this year, we hope you will join the celebration by registering on the website. A free registration has a few “get-to-know-you” questions. It also offers the option of signing up for our free weekly newsletter.