SPP: I guess first I just wanted to ask you what it is that you’re doing now and how you got to where you are. A little bit about your background. Just a vague background of Lauren Shockey.
Lauren: Sure. Well I was actually always interested in food writing from about the time I was in high school. I had a teacher who sort of introduced me to the works of like Mitch Richel and Jackie Steingarten and Elizabeth David and around that time I was just like wow, I didn’t realize people could make their career studying and writing about food. So from that point on I was just really interested in learning as much as I could about all things culinary. And I was really advocate home cooked. I grew up in a family where we had dinner every night together. It wasn’t necessarily gourmet food but it was just something that was very important to us.
So from then I went to college and I studied French literature, which wasn’t exactly related to food but something that I was just passionate about. And then when I graduated I’d done a little bit of food writing. I wrote the food column for the school paper. And I ended up working at my first job in food PR, which was an interesting job but I sort of realized I liked telling the story and not so much selling the story. And then sort of around that point and time I was like wow I really love cooking why don’t I go to cooking school?
So I enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in New York, which I’ve learned the background for French food. And when I graduated I decided I wanted to go work in a restaurant and really have that French restaurant experience. And I knew I wanted to work at WD-50, which is a sort of molecular gastronomy or modernist cooking restaurant here in New York City, Wiley Dufresne is the chef. And it’s a place that really focuses on sort of using innovative techniques and sort of manipulating food in a way that sort of you might not have seen before.
I started working there as a culinary apprentice and it was a really great first restaurant job. I’d never really been in an professional kitchen like that before and I started out really slow and sort of nervous. And ultimately as I sort of went through this day-to-day process I found that it a really interesting experience and I thought that others might be interested in that experience as well. I pitched it as a book idea and ultimately I was able to work in other restaurants around the world. So then I ended up going to Vietnam and to Tel Aviv and to Paris sort of working as a culinary apprentice in each place. Then I ended up writing “Four Kitchens”, which just came out. Then the end of the book was that while I really enjoyed my time in the professional kitchen what I really loved about cooking was home cooking and not so much professional cooking. So as I was thinking about what I wanted to do next and then I actually saw a job posted on Craigslist to be a food critic at the Village Voice. So I applied for it and I ended up getting that job, so that’s where I am now.
SPP: That’s a great little explanation as to how it all came to be. I do want to dive into your new book “Four Kitchens”. It’s really interesting and I want to get more information about that experience. But before we do that there’s some things that I noticed just looking at your Web site and looking through your book and everything that I wanted to talk to you about.
SPP: First is we’ve kind of highlighted on this podcast a lot about following your passions, how you decide to go after what you want versus what society tells you. It’s something that really strikes a chord with Jon and I. And I loved at the beginning of your book the kind of dialogue you had with your parents about you just got done with school and they wanted you to get an office job, so you took it and your best friend was the copy machine.
SPP: Basically something that everybody in entry level corporate America has been through. So I wanted to ask you how you decided to just get out of that world, follow your passion for cooking, even though there’s no real guarantee behind it.
Lauren: I mean there’s no real guarantee behind any job and you can really only look at the photocopier for so many days before your eyes start to go blurry. And then I was really just thinking that life is short and what I want to be doing is cooking. I don’t necessarily want to be in an office job where I do sort of these tasks that aren’t really contributing to things that are making me happy.
Like my mom actually she had worked in corporate America and then sort of later in life she decided teaching was her real passion. And she ended up teaching English as a second language and following her dreams. I just feel that’s something that’s very important in this day and age to think about what it is that you like and then just to take the plunge for it. Ultimately you’re probably going to be a lot happier that you took that risk. And even if it doesn’t pan out in the end you can’t regret having not taken it.
SPP: I wanted to touch base real quick with you being a food critic now. I’m sure you always hear that oh my gosh you have the best job ever.
SPP: That’s so amazing. But I’m sure it’s a ton of work. You do a lot of writing, a lot of research you’ve got to go back to restaurants multiple times. Since you have to look at food through the critic’s eyes, does that ever take away or lessen the enjoyment of food for you.
Lauren: To some degree. I would say sort of I do go out to eat about five nights a week or so, because each restaurant that I visit I visit three times. Sort of even when I’m off and eating for pleasure I’m still maybe going to a restaurant that I think maybe down the road I’d want to review. Sometimes it’s hard to go out to eat for pleasure now because I’m always sort of looking at things with a critical eye. It’s sort of like any job once you do it for work it’s harder to enjoy so much for pleasure. But I still love eating and I still love cooking and it is a great job to have, but it is still a job too.
SPP: Do you have a love in writing as well? I mean as a critic I’m sure you’ve got your own writing style. Where did you find your style or your voice?
Lauren: I’m not sure actually. I mean I never went to journalism school. I had some teachers early on who gave me really good advice to write as clearly as you can and succinctly as you can. And I think that’s really good advice for any type of writing. You don’t need to cloud y our writing with sort of a flowery pros or putting too much detail and making it sound pretty. I think ultimately people just want well written stuff that is as clear as possible. And so that’s sort of how my style is. Working for the Village Voice I would say we’re sort of a bit of an underground or alternative paper. So there’s always that snarky tone that comes through, so there’s definitely some of that.
SPP: And just to, I guess it’s kind of a related question, but there’s so many of these Web sites and apps out now where you have people, just everyday normal people, writing reviews as well with Yelp and Chow Hound and those types of things. Do you think that people are starting to rely more on those or are they still looking towards the professional food critics?
Lauren: Well I think in this day and age because there’s so much more access people try and gather as much information as they can from multiple sources. I think maybe with the exception of the New York Times people aren’t just going to look at one review. I think sites like Yelp and Money Pages those are really good in sort of giving a populous opinion on a restaurant. At the same time though what’s good about restaurant critics is that it’s a single consistent person. And over time you can judge sort of their taste and their like. And if it’s something that might mirror your own taste and likes then that becomes a barometer. Whereas on Yelp if you leave positive or negative reviews you don’t necessarily know who they are and sort of what their sort of overall personality and view our restaurant. Whereas with mine if you read every week you at least have some semblance of what I like and what I don’t like and how that fits into your culinary conception.
SPP: No that makes actually a lot of sense. And I know that you’ve worked on cookbooks and you’ve been a recipe developer and things like that in the past. And I wouldn’t consider myself a good host if I didn’t ask a chef that we had on this show what your favorite dish is, what your kind of favorite taste are. Just exactly what you were talking about how when you write there’s a style that comes through.
Lauren: Sure. Gosh there’s so many foods. I do love Asian food in general, which was a big part of the reason actually why I chose Vietnam and Four Kitchens that basically anything from Southeast Asia I’m a big fan of. But then I also really like simple things. One of my favorite dishes is spaghetti with tomato sauce if it’s done really well that that purity of flavor. And if a chef can execute something like that really well he does have a gift I feel.
Yeah and then just you know anything that’s fried I love because how can you go wrong with fried food. But yeah those are some of my favorites but it really varies. And what’s great about living in New York City is that there is some of the different types of cuisines and foods and doing different things all the time, which is great.
SPP: I have to follow-up with your love of fried foods. I actually just saw for the first time fried avocado slices.
Lauren: Oh yes I’ve heard of that.
SPP: And at first it sounds really weird, but then I started thinking about it and I’m definitely going to have to run out and grab some avocados and stuff and actually try to this, because just the texture of that fried with the creamy inside sounds amazing.
Lauren: Right break into it and have that crunch and then kind of ease out. SPP: Right.
Lauren: Yeah. Kind of like a mozzarella stick almost but vegetable.
SPP: But healthier maybe.
Lauren: Definitely healthier.
SPP: Maybe a little healthier yep. I know that you are of the belief that a lot of the produce we get in our supermarkets is kind of substandard. I know you recently wrote about that.
Lauren: I did recently write about that.
SPP: Can you kind of explain it?
Lauren: Sure. One of the problems with our country’s big supermarket chains is that there’s a lot of time that goes on between the time that a fruit is picked and the time it gets to the shelf. So a lot of fruits and vegetables that come to market have been picked way before their ripe. And then they’re stored. They might get ethylene gas to help them ripen on time. But really when you don’t have a place like farmer’s market where our produce comes in every day straight from the farm there’s a lot of sort of delay in the cold chain. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that fruits and vegetables are going to be great because they’ve been picked not at their ideal time. But things are changing.
SPP: Do you have any kind of advice or would it just be go to a farmers market?
Lauren: Yeah I mean I think that’s really the best thing t hat you can do if there’s one in your area. Obviously it is a luxury to have farmers markets or that kind of thing nearby. But I would say also just eat as seasonally as you can. Right now it’s a really great season for nectarine and peaches. You aren’t going to want to eat those in December because they’ve probably been flown in and just aren’t going to taste the same way.
SPP: Right. That makes sense. Now what’s your take on organic food and do you notice I’m sure you’ve cooked with both, do you notice a big flavor difference?
Lauren: I mean I think it depends on what type of things. There’s some fruits, like say like a banana, where organics might not matter as much because you’re taking that peel off. So the pesticides that might have been used wouldn’t really get into the fruit. Whereas something like a strawberry because it’s so delicate and precious that might be something where you would definitely want to go organic. So there’s sort of that layer of different sort of like a peel or something to that extent that would be a good barometer.
SPP: Right. Okay this question is probably the one I was most excited for in doing my research. I saw that you recently learned how to make moonshine.
Lauren: I did yes. I have a story in the Village Voice coming out soon.
SPP: Pretty please can you jump the gun on the Village Voice and tell me how to do that? Can you tell us how to make moonshine? Lauren: Sure.
Lauren: So this is illegal so don’t do it in your unlicensed still at home first of all.
Lauren: Yeah. You will be committing a felony so this is just theoretical advice. SPP: Exactly.
Lauren: Yeah so basically you would want to take cracked corn, which you can get from sort of any store that has their supplies or just any place that sells cracked bread corn. And then you would mix that with water and some yeast and that creates a mash. And you let the mash sit for a couple of days and then the yeast sort of converts the sugar into alcohol. So from there you would run the mash through a still and the still would sort of heat up the liquid and it would evaporate. Because the alcohol evaporates at a faster rate than water does it would turn into steam, but then you capture it through like a copper coil or something to that extent which cools it. So then that would turn into alcohol it would; pretty easy actually.
SPP: I was going to say it sounds kind of difficult to an outsider. I mean, theoretically of course, would this be possible to just rig up in a few days?
Lauren: Yes. Actually I mean most people who are professionals or hobby moonshiners will use a real still, and that definitely is an easier way to do it. But the moonshine that I actually saw being made was they used like a regular pot with a cocktop lid. And then that lid was sealed shut with a paste made from flour and water because you don’t want any of the steam to evaporate because then you’re losing your moonshine.
Lauren: So then the cocktop pot is sort of fitted with a rubber basket and then there’s a copper coil coming through that. And then the coil’s held in place by a water bottle filled with ice, and then it gets into a Pyrex measuring cup.
SPP: It’s very MacGyverish. I like it.
Lauren: Yeah and the people who I saw making it I mean they were just sort of hobbyist and they really believed in making spirits themselves because there’s been [14:55] product and not really having the need to buy commercial moonshine. And so moonshine itself has had such a storied history that it’s not necessarily a product that you would want to go buy in the store.
Lauren: I’ll be something that was made by a single person through a recipe that he’s used for so long in a single place.
SPP: Well that’s what I like about it.
Lauren: Yeah but that’s not interesting, like we are seeing much more moonshine coming to market. And someone mentioned actually being made in urban environments, which is definitely a shift.
SPP: Now I guess I do want to get into as we alluded to, you have a new book that just came out today “Four Kitchens” and it’s incredible. I love the story behind it just because as I mentioned earlier you kind of just went for it. And not only did you go for it you went huge because you went to four different places all across the globe.
Lauren: Yeah go big or go home.
SPP: Exactly. And that is my motto. I love that. So I guess I wanted to just get a little background on the book and kind of tell us. It’s tough with such a grand idea, but I guess give us the basics and then we’ll kind of dive in, so like where you went and things like that.
Lauren: Okay sure. So I spent a year working as a stagiaire which is culinary speak for apprentice and I worked in four different restaurants around the world. The first one’s WD-50 in New York City. And as I mentioned that’s sort of high concept molecular gastronomy restaurant and from there I went from Hanoi in Vietnam, and worked at Live 80 Kyle, which is an upscale Vietnamese restaurant with a couple of French influences here and there.
And then from there I went to Tel Aviv in Israel and worked at Carmelo Bistro, which was sort of a laidback Mediterranean Bistro. And then finally I went to Sundance, which was a restaurant in Paris and that was sort of a food gastronomy to Michelin Stars, sort of very traditional French restaurant. And yeah I spent a year serving in each place. Each apprenticeship for about two to three months. And it was really about sort of what life is like when you first start out in the restaurant. So I guess a lot of books have talked about chefs that serve their peak, but this is really that first year when you go in and you don’t really know what you’re doing and all the noises and sort of fast pace is overwhelming at first. But then sort of how you grow as a cook and sort of how you understand how restaurant life works.
SPP: And without spoiling anything from the book, is there a favorite experience that you had in either one of these cities or all of these cities?
Lauren: Yeah. I mean I think each city presented a different experience. I would say WD-50 was great because it was my first restaurant job and they really taught me the proper way to work in a restaurant. So it’s very dedicated very passionate. Whereas when I went to Vietnam sort of culinary techniques and knife skills weren’t as important. It was much more about flavor and just sort of experiencing life and culture in Vietnam, which was really great.
I remember when the chef that I was working for said to me “If you’re working here as stagiaire don’t just stay in the kitchen, go out and explore the markets, go to the shops, eat the street food, because that’s also important to Vietnamese cooking.” And then Carmelo Bistro was really interesting for me because I was actually running the appetizers station there, which had been a big fit from WD-50 where I was really sort of at the prep cook level. Whereas now I would serve in charge of the station, which was really great.
And then I think something else was also interesting in that I had a similar experience there to WD-50 because I was doing a lot of sort of prep work. But you sort of realize that all this prep work is needed to run a restaurant like that. So I’d say probably Hanoi as a city was the one that I ended up being most attracted to just because it was such an intense environment and so different to New York City. So there’s an energy and sort of vivaciousness that’s everywhere in that city.
SPP: What did you find is kind of the biggest difference or differences in terms of what people like? I assume in New York it has to look good, and it’s probably really expensive all that stuff, as opposed to the other places you’ve been. What do people look for?
Lauren: Yeah I mean I think New York and also in Paris it’s a city where the shock of the news is very important. So restaurant culture is very important to folks. What’s new? What’s opening? Who’s the hot chef? Where in Hanoi and Edgefield those weren’t necessarily the same concerns. And I think restaurant culture there in general is a little bit more laidback. It wasn’t sort of like who’s the hot chef in town was. I think there was definitely something that in New York City and Paris.
SPP: So when you were a brand new chef, you know new to the scene, is there like a hazing process almost that happens in terms of fraternities or athletic teams where the new people have to do certain things out of the ordinary?
Lauren: Yeah. Well I think sort of anytime you go into a restaurant you’re assessed on your skills. So your ability to follow directions I think that’s definitely the most important thing is being able to listen and take directions. And so at WD-50 some of the my first jobs were picking parsley and I would pick parsley for about an hour. And you would think well anyone can pick parsley, but really there are good ways to pick parsley and there are bad ways to pick parsley. The good way would be to do it to pluck each leaf off individually, whereas the bad way which one other staigiere here did was to take a knife and to sort of hack the leaves off. But in that respect you get stems and ultimately if you can’t do that correctly you’re not going to progress to the next skill or path career you have.
So things like that. It’s not so much that you’re going to be beaten up or hit with knifes or wooden spoons, at least not where I worked. I would hope that wouldn’t happen anywhere. But they’re doing those repetitive sort of one might say mindless but they’re not mindless because they’re needed tasks. And just sort of focusing on can you separate a 100 eggs and do it efficiently and properly and cleanly. And if that’s yes then great and you’ll be given something that’s a little bit more challenging next time. If you can’t you’ll be stuck doing that for the next month.
SPP: I was going to say I can just picture a chef telling you that they need a certain ingredients that maybe doesn’t really exist, so you’re running all over the place like trying to find something, like those type of things.
Lauren: Yeah I would say that happened to some degree where they would say like “I need you to mix the salad” and two minutes like it’s a pound of salad. And you’re like “Well I don’t think that’s going to happen.” But I would say actually there wasn’t as much hazing in restaurants as I sort of had thought there might be.
Lauren: But I don’t know if that was also a product of me being a woman and most of the other chefs being men. There’s a dynamic that occurs when sort of men and women are put in a situation. And I would say it’s a lot easier if it’s another man get somewhat dicer for a man to haze a woman.
SPP: Well actually I was going to ask you about that. Did you have to put up with resistance? Like having a woman cooking goes back for years and centuries, but in the professional arena I think it might be a little more difficult or different, especially in foreign places. Did you have to deal with some of that?
Lauren: Yeah. I would say Paris was actually the place where that sort of came into question the most. One of the chefs would sort of jokingly say to me “Oh Lauren after you show the crab”, which I used with a black light because it helped to laminate the shell. “He said “Why don’t we get naked and sunbath under the backlight together?” So that would constitute probably as sexual harassment here in America.
SPP: Probably yeah.
Lauren: But it just might be he’s French. Look at Dominique Strauss Kahn you know, the French they have their own ways maybe that’s just what French people do. But in the other countries I think it was more I just went away with more of a sense of wanting another woman in the kitchen. It wasn’t so much that women couldn’t really do the jobs, they were harassed, it was just that there weren’t a lot of us there.
SPP: I wanted to see like what you picked or learned like specific skills in each one of the restaurants. I mean I’m sure you had people that you looked up to or that mentored you in each place. What were the certain skills that you learned at each one of these cities and restaurants that you went through?
Lauren: Well definitely learning how to hold my knife properly at WD-50 was probably the greatest skill that I learned. And I was actually shocked that I’d gone through culinary school and hadn’t picked up the technique of how to hold my knife properly. Because you definitely want to grip up on the knife on the handle. You want your index finger actually to be flushed with the blade so that really helps you get control. Yeah you don’t want to grip it like the way you might like a tennis racket where your whole hand is on the handle, you definitely want part of your finger up against the blade. And that was like a great skill and I was sort of like while how had I never known this before I feel so stupid.
And then going to Hanoi really taught me about how to use flavor and how to use fresh herbs to really add vibrancy and pop to your food. Like you don’t necessarily need a lot of seasonings or even a lot of ingredients that you have like beautifully flavored herbs like basil or mint or perilla or some of the herbs that are specific to the Vietnamese cuisine, how that can really just help enliven your food. And that sometimes simple food is just great because it uses only a couple of ingredients.
And then I guess Carmelo Bistro taught me – well my experience in Israel is really about learning what I loved about cooking with home cooking. Cooking with friends that you don’t need to do restaurant cooking to impress people. It wasn’t so much the technique but it was a takeaway from that experience. And I think that sort of shaped my view through the rest of the book.
And then finally at Sundance as I was mentioning before, my main job was shelling crab all day. So I definitely learned how to shell crabs properly. Because I spent about six hours a day shelling crab sometimes. So you definitely want to take your big sort of mallet and after you brush your crabs off you want to break them in half, and then you want to cut the halves in half the other way, and then use a little peck and you go through.
And then using a black light was actually amazing. You would turn off all the lights and you put the crab on the table and then you just sort of filter through it with your fingers. And the black light will eliminate any bits of shell and you can just pick through it and you’ll have shell less crabmeat.
Lauren: So if you were looking for something to do with your black light not sitting in the basement we can just make a lot of crab.
SPP: The reason I like that I grew up in southern Maryland and I mean since I was probably six I knew how to, because we would just go all you can eat crabs and I would get yelled at when I left any crabmeat in. But even that obviously get into that detail.
Lauren: Yeah. Well it may be hard to take to the restaurant.
SPP: Yeah it might be a little weird. Well kind of along those lines I was hoping you could tell us how we replicate some of the finer dining into our own kitchens and kind of advice you have for, as I mentioned, the amateur chef such as myself.
Lauren: Sure. Well I will say the biggest differences between home cooking and restaurant cooking is the amount of salt used. Basically look at the amount of salt that you’re adding to your food at home and then add another tablespoon. And then that’s sort of approximately what the amount of salt that restaurants are using.
SPP: That’s what I do. I just take every spice, seriously and pour it in, and it always comes out better. I don’t know it’s just me.
Lauren: Yeah. No I mean it’s kind of astounding how much salt is used in the restaurant. And you’re kind of grossed out at first, but then you’re like oh no it needs the salt. The same thing with butter you might be using one tablespoon at home, go ahead and use half the stick, it will be better. And then also just using really high heat. Like I always use on my stove the highest setting possible, even if I’m just sautéing something. And I think that’s a big difference because in restaurants you have professional stoves and you’re just using a really high heat. So to get that nice fear, especially if you’re doing a steak, you definitely want to do it on the highest setting as possible so you can get that night char.
SPP: I was going to ask too because I live in an apartment in the Washington D.C. area and my range and oven and all that stuff is electric. Lauren: Okay.
SPP: So cooking…
Lauren: That might be a little bit trickier.
SPP: I was going to ask are there any tricks to cooking food well on an electric range?
Lauren: You know I really haven’t cooked that much on an electric range so I don’t necessarily know what the tricks would be. SPP: Because that’s so JV.
Lauren: No, no.
SPP: I was going to say I can’t have a grill or anything like that. I mean I can have I guess one of those griddle things but. Lauren: Yeah.
SPP: You have a George Foreman.
Lauren: Yeah. I mean yeah I think if that’s like a concern so maybe you can’t get flavor from sort of high heat, but you can definitely get flavor through like seasonings and spices and herbs, and that’s sort of a way to give more flavor to your food I would say. Yeah and then I guess there’s some other tricks.
One really good trick that I learned while I was in WD-50 was putting plastic wrap down on your workspace. So that if you’re doing something like making cake or something that that sort of involves a lot of pans or pots that might get messy this layer of plastic wrap on the work surface and then when you’re done you can just peel it off and then you have no mess.
SPP: Oh that’s such a good idea.
Lauren: That’s a timesaver.
SPP: That’s such a good idea because Jon and I used to live together and there were three other dudes that lived there. And we all cooked, which was impressive, but if you’re the last guy to get home to cook there is literally not a clean thing in the kitchen. So that’s a good little trick.
Lauren: Yeah. No it’s great. And then I used that when I had to separate all the egg yokes. So you know you got the whites and they kind of drip everywhere and it’ll really be a mess by the time you’ve done like a 150 eggs. So that was really great you just sort of peel it up and then you’re done.
SPP: Well I want to remind everybody that Lauren’s book “Four Kitchens” recently came out and is available at bookstores such as Amazon and other I guess online places. Lauren we wanted to thank you so much for being on the show today.
Lauren: Yeah thank you for having me.
SPP: I just wanted to see if you had a Web site that you wanted to push our listeners towards so that they can find out more about you, your book, things that you’re doing.
Lauren: Yeah I’ve a personal Web site it’s www.laurenshockey.com. And yeah it has my articles and I’ve a little bit of a blog and there’s information about the book. So you guys should all check it out.
SPP: Awesome. Well thank you very much we really appreciate you being on today.