To Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, food is more than simple sustenance—it’s a way of celebrating life with those that you love most. Their brainchild, Food52.com, bring fellow foodies together to share cooking tips and toast each other's culinary successes, as well as commiserate when they've realized that they've bitten off more than they can chew. The site even offers a help hotline for when things in the kitchen get too hot to handle. The end result: A one-of-a-kind cooking community boasting resources that newbies to veteran home chefs can use to make all 52 weeks of the year absolutely delicious.
We sat down with the Amanda and Merrill to talk about all matters of the kitchen, from budget-friendly renovations to the resurgence of vintage appliances to their favorite must-have items for any food enthusiast.
CULTIVATE: First things first: Food52 recently won the James Beard Foundation’s publication of the year award—the first digital publication to do so. Then there’s your readership that’s increasing like crazy. How does it feel?
MERRILL STUBBS: We’re having a ton of fun. Winning the James Beard award was a nice validation that we’re reaching people the way we hoped we would. It’s given us a big sense of accomplishment and we’re grateful for all of it, especially our community contributors. We couldn’t have done any of this without them
CULTIVATE: Ok, let's talk about the site. A big part of Food52 is the connection between cooks (either at-home or professionals) and their love affairs with their kitchens. What trends are becoming more popular in today's kitchens?
AMANDA HESSER: We’re really noticing a non-conformist movement where people are foregoing shiny, new gadgets for salvaged pieces they’re finding on their own. We’re also seeing a resurgence of natural woods, like old cutting boards and antique spoons, which give kitchens a sense of authenticity and character. More and more, people are looking to add touches that feel personal and meaningful.
CULTIVATE: So, what are the three essentials that you think every kitchen needs?
AMANDA: On my list would be a great chef’s knife, a cast-iron skillet and an enameled cast-iron dutch oven.
MERRILL: Every cook needs a good stockpot. It doesn’t have to be expensive, just big enough to hold a lot of liquid for boiling pasta or making a big batch of soup. A food processor may not be completely essential, but it's so versatile. You can use it in place of a blender for pureeing, to make dough and for those overwhelming chopping jobs.
CULTIVATE: Amanda, we’ve heard your newly-renovated kitchen doubles as home base for the Food52 staff to cook together, as well as do photo and video shoots. That’s a lot of activity for a New York city apartment. How did you create a space that accommodates so many cooks in one kitchen?
AMANDA: Food52 is a lifestyle company, and we need every detail of what we do to reflect our visual point of view—right down to my new kitchen. When I inherited this kitchen from the previous owners, it didn't represent my aesthetic or style, and the original cherry wood cabinets and recessed lights made the space hard on our photographers. Although my kitchen is still relatively small, the new layout features the most efficient triangle I’ve ever worked in. My favorite part is the butcher-block counter that’s lower than the other counters—it provides plenty of room for two people to prep side by side and the height allows for comfortable chopping. We planned the space so that there can be up to four of us in the kitchen at any given time, plus a photographer. It’s a lot, but we’ve all worked in restaurants or have gone to cooking school so we’re used to working efficiently and keeping to a small footprint. We’re constantly aware of who’s behind us. Plus, we’re all social cooks by nature so we thrive in this small-yet-efficient environment.
Amanda Hesser's newly-renovated New York City kitchen. Photo by: James Ransom
CULTIVATE: With a budget of just $12,000, how did you accomplish such a gorgeous space? What do you know that we don't?
AMANDA: Many people feel like a tight budget relegates you to shopping at mainstream box stores, but I found that if you're patient and persistent, you can find great, original objects, surfaces and hardware. Take your time. Be demanding of your aesthetic and be prepared to do a lot of legwork. Also remember that paint is powerful and can completely transform the feeling of a room.
The new efficient kitchen makes the most of every inch of unused space. Photo by: James Ransom
CULTIVATE: What other tricks have you learned along the way to make your small home kitchens live large?
AMANDA: When we renovated the kitchen, we pulled off some of the cabinet doors making it more like a workshop. Now all my bakeware is easily accessible and I get to enjoy the pretty shapes of the cake pans, tart pans and molds even when I’m not using them. The previous homeowners put in the butcher-block counter I mentioned before. Underneath is a pullout garbage can, which allows me to trim vegetables and then just scrape them into the trash, without moving from my spot.
MERRILL: I have a typical New York City galley-style kitchen, so I have to make the most of what little counter space I have. I try to keep them clear and rely on my drawers for storage. Deep drawers are great for keeping a small kitchen organized—each of mine is dedicated to a specific type of cooking so when I bake, for example, I know where to find the right tool. My drawers may not always be tidy, but everything I need is waiting inside.
CULTIVATE: Close your eyes. What did your childhood kitchens look like? Have you applied anything from them to your home kitchens today?
MERRILL: We moved a few times when I was growing up. It was my parent’s kitchen in Maine that stuck with me the most, both functionally and in terms of style. It had an old fashioned wood-burning stove, which I loved. Later, my parents had an Aga stove. I always thought that kitchen was very European feeling. In my current kitchen I have an old scale that’s more decorative than functional—it's all part of the same aesthetic.
AMANDA: I grew up in a classic 1970’s kitchen with dark wood cabinets, Formica and linoleum. It had no gas, which was frustrating to my mother. It wasn’t designed with cooking in mind, yet my mom cooked in it all the time. I have great memories of spending time in the kitchen, playing on the floor while she cooked. But I think of it as a place I liked being in, not a design I aspire to have in my own home.
CULTIVATE: Ok, now for the fun stuff. Merrill, if you could cook a meal for anyone, who would it be?
MERRILL: Christopher Walken. Apparently, he's a great cook. I’d love to cook a meal with him, and then sit down and just listen to him talk.
CULTIVATE: Amanda, you were featured as yourself in the movie “Julie & Julia." We have to ask, how was it making your acting debut?
AMANDA: I had never been on a movie set so the best part was getting to see how a movie is shot and all the dozens and dozens of people who work behind the scenes to make it come together. I had to audition for the part, and am just very glad that I got it because I'd hate to live knowing I didn't make the cut to play myself.