Amanda Cook Doubles Down with Food Science and the Culinary Arts
"I think creating and making people happy is the most gratifying part of the job."
Amanda Cook was so not expecting a James Beard nomination in 2010 that when a friend texted, "Congratulations on your JB nomination," she assumed it was a local Washington DC award and texted back, "What's that?"
But her desserts at CityZen were catching the attention of many people in the food world, and she's done the same at New York's Cookshop, where her menu runs the gamut from morning muffins to Apple Pie Nachos. And despite degrees in both the culinary arts and food sciences, she somehow remains a gal still transfixed on simple things like chocolate chip cookie dough and sundaes.
What did you hope to learn with a food technology degree? I was really interested in nutrition, originally, but I wasn't interested in the job of a clinical nutritionist working in hospitals; I'm terrified of hospitals. I intended to go into the field a food technologist, and when I was looking at jobs after college, most were on the sweet/bakery side or wheat processing or poultry processing plants, which really didn't interest me. So basically I went to Krispy Kreme over a poultry processing plant!
How do you apply a food technology degree to Krispy Kreme? I worked in their lab in the mix plant in North Carolina doing the dry mixes for all the stores. My job was to test the raw incoming ingredients to make sure they were up to company standards. In particular the flours; we would check them for protein moisture and ash and make sure they were within the spectrums of what we were looking for. I made sure the ingredients tested within our specs and the mixes were consistent going out to the shops. I learned a lot about different flours and how they perform in a yeast or cake dough—really the importance of ingredients and the interaction of them on the final product.
You externed at a restaurant when you went back to culinary school, never returning to a lab. What was it about hospitality you realized you love? The excitement, the non-stop action, and the zen of kind of coming into your own and understanding and grasping that you can do service and production; the whole gamut.
With your degrees, why not go more specifically into a modernist kitchen? I am fascinated with the chemical reaction, but I've actually never worked in a restaurant that had a lean into modernist cuisine. I'm fascinated by the science behind food and making a starter and knowing the chemistry behind it; I'm not so interested in making a foam that tastes like bread, or a gel. It's just a personal preference.
What's particularly exciting for you? I really like cookie dough. I eat it raw—it's the best perk of my job. I love making cookies, and I think that's probably why I leaned more towards pastry. I used to bake all the time as a kid, and give things to my father to take down to the office. That's the best feeling to me—to bake something and give it as a gift. You don't say, "Here's a really tasty meatloaf! Take it to your office to share!" But nice, warm, cinnamon rolls in the break room? I think creating and making people happy is the most gratifying part of the job.
Has school or Krispy Kreme transferred directly into what you do now? I draw on my degree to kind of tweak a recipe; to swap out ingredients or adjust them accordingly to get the final product that I want from understanding basic ingredients. Food science is more prevalent and more popular of a degree, and culinary schools are just starting to offer culinary science as part of their optional curriculum, so I think it's good to have an understanding of the scientific background. People always say that baking is more scientific than cooking, but there's a lot of science in braising and sautéing; there are a lot of chemical reactions that might not be as obvious in cooking, but it's all there.
With all you've got behind you now, how do you focus your desserts for Cookshop? I think it's very important to know your audience, and know what they're looking for. I wouldn't put something on the menu that's so far out there and be like, "Well I like it and think it's good, so everyone should order it." I try to be really mindful of the thoughtful savory menu that they've put together, and match it that so there's a continuous flow with the meal. I kind of took on this process of more of homey and rustic, and I think everyone can find something they like—classic and comfort foods, things of those natures.
Is there anything on the menu now that you couldn't have done, say, a year ago, something that's 100% a representation of what you and Cookshop are? I'm about to put on the menu this week a chocolate charcuterie board I'm calling "choc-cuterie", and each item really is a skill or technique from where I've been. It exemplifies a fun, playful nature of me. I have a "chocolate sausage" that tastes like a Tootsie roll; some chocolate and vanilla crepes that I kind of swirled to make look marbled like prosciutto, and then they're piled on the plate to look like it, filled with a milk chocolate ganache; a chocolate pudding topped with a thin layer of white chocolate to look like the fat cap on top; a piece of chocolate pancetta, which is a chocolate and vanilla puff pastry swirled together, and then a chocolate torchon and brioche to be served with that; a "mustard" that's a lemon poppy seed curd; and a pickled dried cherries... it's extensive. My staff is dreading all the work.
I've taken little things and parts of something I've done someplace else and here and put them together, and it's fun an playful and it's great to be shared. Cookshop is such a gathering spot—it's a good place to come on a date, a good place to come for families, for star sightings. I hope it will be a winner. New York has been a great learning experience for me—less politicians and more movie stars.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks a lot of stuff. Read full versions of past interviews and more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet her out at @WordsFoodArt.