Aug 28, 2020 • 23M

A Conversation with Aaron Hutcherson

Listen now | We talked about how he made that transition, what he thinks might change (or not) in food media, and more.

Alicia Kennedy
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Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.
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Aaron Hutcherson, a freelance writer and the recipe writer behind the long-running blog The Hungry Hutch, once made me care about brunch long after I thought I was done with this much-maligned weekend meal. He’ll even have me, a fiercely meatless eater, reading about neck bones, and I’m grateful for what he taught me about Lawry’s seasoning. His writing is conversational but rigorous—what you might expect from someone who left a finance career for culinary school: He knows how to get down to business and when to prioritize joy.

We talked about how he made that transition, what he thinks might change (or not) in food media, and more. Listen above—Substack fixed my podcast problem!—or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Aaron. Thanks so much for coming on.

Aaron: Hi, Alicia. Thanks for having me. I'm excited to chat.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Aaron: Sure. 

So I grew up in Chicago. So, being in the Midwest, that means there's lots of meat and potatoes. And also, a decent amount of Italian foods. So spaghetti was a regular occurrence. Lasagna, we had every so often sort of when my mother decided to go through the production of making lasagna. But then there's also meatloaf and pot roasts and roast chicken and things like that. 

But also, I am from an African American family. So we grew up with lots of soul food, like fried chicken and smothered pork chops and collard greens and macaroni and cheese, candied sweet potatoes. So those are also very regular occurrences.

Alicia: And what inspired you to get into food? Because I know it wasn't your first career.

Aaron: Yeah, so my first career was working in finance. And sort of shortly into that, like literally only four or five months after I started working, I decided that I needed a hobby. And I had always had an interest in food, because I love sort of the creativity. I love the way cooking could bring joy to those that I was able to feed. 

So I just started a blog as a hobby and something to do in my free time. This was back in 2009, so blogs were just sort of getting started. I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ Keep in mind I had no idea what I was doing. But then just the passion and the interest just sort of grew from there, to the point where I went to culinary school and then I graduated and quit my job in finance all in the same week. And I haven't looked back in the eight years since.

Aaron: Did you work in restaurants after culinary school?

Aaron: Yes. 

So after culinary school, I took an internship at Food Arts magazine, which was more of an industry-focused restaurant publication. And I did that Monday through Friday, nine to five. But it was unpaid. So partly because I wanted to make some money, but also partly because going into food media, people had said it would be good to get actual restaurant experience, I started working at a place called Northern Spy Food Company in the East Village in New York on the weekends. So I was working seven days a week for about four months. And then after unsuccessfully trying to get an editorial assistant job elsewhere that paid, I ended up just staying on at the restaurant full-time for about a year total.

Alicia: Wow. 

And do you think that working in a restaurant has given you a very different perspective as a restaurant—as a food writer then people who haven't worked in the service industry?

Aaron: Definitely. I think it's one of those cases of sure, anyone in theory can write about food and restaurants. But having that firsthand knowledge makes you that much more adept at asking questions and sort of getting to—some of the nuances for when you're interviewing chefs and managers and servers and things like that.

Alicia: Right. 

So you started your blog in 2009. You didn't really expect it to turn into your career, but it kind of has, right? And so how have you kind of grown and maintained it over the years?

Aaron: Yeah, I had no clue what I was doing, why I was doing it, where it would go. But it was just one of those things that I slowly and steadily just kept chugging along at. 

I feel like there are lots of sort of better, quote, unquote, bloggers out there in terms of—they're constantly putting out content constantly, growing page views and all that stuff, which is great for them. But all the way up until I guess the pandemic happened, I've always had a full-time job. And the blog was always just my hobby, which transformed to an actual part-time job that I spend lots of time on now. 

But yeah, it's been quite a journey over the past almost 11 years now. After a few years of seeing people turn it into their careers, they’ve sort of given me that drive and pushed me to just grow and learn more and do better with my own blog.

Alicia: Right. And I feel you have a very specific style. I think so many people focus on different types of cuisine, but yours is just very you. So, how do you approach deciding what you're going to create in terms of recipes, and then also what is your developing process for recipes?

Aaron: So, in terms of what I want to create, is—a lot of it's just what I want to eat, what I think will taste good. Sort of who I am was like, ‘I went to culinary school, so I have sort of classic French techniques. I grew up in the Midwest, eating soul food.’ So, comfort food is sort of the base of a lot of what I like to do and cook and eat.

But also, living in New York City. There's a global sort of array of cuisines at my fingertips that I like to explore and experiment with every once in a while, and sort of incorporate the occasional ingredient or flavor profile I haven't necessarily grown up with—but I've tried and I'm intrigued and I'm trying to find ways to sort of incorporate that with what I am used to doing. 

In terms of developing recipes, it's sort of like a variety of ways. It could be I come across an ingredient that I’m not familiar with, and I just have a natural curiosity. There's something I don't know, then I want to know about it and try to learn how to use it.

With one of my recent recipes, rye chocolate chip cookies, this was the beginning of the pandemic. I couldn't find regular flour. I saw some rye flour. So I was like, ‘Let's see what I can do with this.’ And that's how sort of that recipe was born. 

But also there are times when I think of other dishes, and I see people out there that have all this equipment, or all this space, or all these fancy ingredients. And I try to keep my recipes simple and the preparation—strip out things that aren’t necessary to the finished result, or don't have as huge of an impact. Just, simplify things. Make dishes full of flavor and hopefully not too difficult to prepare.

Alicia: You mention finding rye flour instead of all-purpose to do cookies. How has the pandemic changed your cooking, in—generally, if at all?

Aaron: I think one way that it's changed my cooking is that I used to go to the farmer’s market at least once or twice a week and sort of walk through and pick up things. Just whatever was abundant and looked beautiful that I wanted to take home and cook it. But since the pandemic started, I’m making just fewer trips to the grocery store. I hadn't gone to the Greenmarket since March until last week. So it's just what I am able to get has changed, and also just the fact of shopping for a week versus a couple of days that changes what I purchase.

Alicia: Right. What have been some changes that you've made to your own general cooking to accommodate that?

Aaron: I've tried to make better use of pantry ingredients, so beans and rice and pasta. And then I also try to force myself to just cook from what I already have on hand. ‘Cause there's always times when it's like, ‘Oh, it would be really nice to make X, Y, and Z. That's what I want. Wanna go out and make—buy those ingredients and make this.’ When in reality, I have tons of other things at home that I should eat that I may not have wanted to but of like, ‘Ok, I'm gonna try to make something with what I have here.’

Alicia: Right, I think everyone is still doing a version of Chopped at home. I've been doing that too. I make a big order of local produce, and then I'll be like, ‘I'm not making another order until we use all of this.’ And so it ends up being kind of unhealthy, because then I eat all the greens and then there's no greens left and then it's just like, ‘Well, whatever. We're surviving on eggplant and yucca for the next week as our only vegetables, and it doesn't matter.’ I don't know. It's very interesting, the accommodations that we've had to make for the situation. But the show must go on.

Aaron: Yeah, in the beginning I had bought some canned vegetables for the first time in years, because—I don't know, I sort of over-prepare. [Laughs.]

But, they were—ended up just sitting there for the longest time. And I didn't use one of those, them until a couple weeks ago when I was just sort of like, ‘Ok, I have these here. I need to sort of get through some of the stuff that I have just to—yeah, not waste anything.’

Alicia: No, for sure. I mean, I think people have been talking about canned vegetables again in a way that no one has in a while. 

I remember, I interviewed Joe Yonan about Cool Beans at the start of the year when it came out. And he was like, ‘We never talk about anything else in a can except beans, maybe tomatoes.’ And I think now everyone is just so—is open again to the idea of like, ‘Well, maybe canned corn isn't so bad.’ 

Maybe I should eat green beans from a can, which actually I had—my ex-boyfriend, when I was a teenager, his family was really into canned green beans, and they had this really interesting metallic taste that I'll never forget. [Laughs.] Yeah, I don't actually want to eat those again. But it's good to know they're there. 

So, there's also been all these changes in food media during the pandemic. You know, the Bon Appétit situation, the Peter Meehan situation—we'll just call them situations—in terms of people leaving their jobs which, those of us in the industry, we've kind of been twiddling our thumbs waiting for it to happen. And then, Tammie Teclemariam made it happen. 

But, what do these changes look like to you? And what's your perspective on how this actually might change food media? I know you had been working at the Michelin Guide kind of before the pandemic. And so, from your perspective, what is the actual possibility of this moment?

Aaron: I think the possibility is very great for the actual change that many people have wanted, and talked about wanting, and said they’ve wanted for a while. Just in terms of new leadership that's more diverse and inclusive and representative of a country that we live in, and people that occupied and work in the food spaces.

But I'm a little pessimistic in that I guess the people who are still making those decisions to hire these new leads for teams, and editors-in-chiefs, and senior editors and such, they—I don't know if they are willing to go as far as we should be going at this point. 

I'm sort of thinking right now about the Bon Appétit situation in terms of—they are bringing in Marcus Samuelsson to sort of guest at it for, I don’t know, a couple months. Which is like, ‘Ok, that's great, but what's gonna happen after that? Why not hire one of the numerous people of color, very senior and experienced food editors that were qualified for the job and have them actually implement real change?’

It just seems like smoke and mirrors.Like, ‘Ooo, look at this shiny thing, Marcus, that we brought in. Just don't think that we actually haven't brought anyone full-time to do this for the foreseeable future.’

Alicia: Right, no, it seems like Condé Nast specifically thinks that it can get away with some shiny guest editors for a little while and hopefully pay them a nice rate for doing the work, but it's not a long-term solution. I think they're waiting for everyone to stop paying attention. And hiring these guest editors to kind of be a stopgap while they wait for everyone to turn their gaze away from the poor work they've been doing, and the ways in which they have marginalized their labor force and continue to do so clearly. 

Yeah, it's really interesting to watch how predictable the actions are on behalf of Condé Nast. It's like, ‘Wow, you really had the whole world watching, and you just, that's what you did. You didn't pay anyone enough money and they all quit. And now, what are you going to do?’ It's really interesting.

Aaron: Yeah.

And I'm very curious to see—they keep talking about, ‘Oh, we have some new talent that we're bringing into the Test Kitchen.’ I'm extremely curious. Who exactly agreed to do that?

Alicia: Right. But at the same time it's like can we fault whoever they are because it's a paycheck, you know? And we're in an industry that's falling apart. I don't know.

Aaron: True. Good point. [Laughs.]

Alicia: I really respect everyone who's come out and said, ‘Bon Appétit asked me to come and do this, and I said no because of X, Y, and Z.’ But at the same time whatever young hungry people they probably got to do that are people who needed not just the exposure, but probably the money. And yeah, it's just—it's such a difficult, awful situation. And it's all created by these suits at Condé Nast. 

But it's interesting, and I hope we see some changes. I think people have been paying attention more to independent stuff. Has your blog been more popular of late, because you—people are looking for other sources for recipes?

Aaron: So my blog, I think traffic doubled at the start of the pandemic, just because people were looking for more recipe content. And then it continued to grow after that, once all the murders and movements and such sort of continued to happen and sort of resurfaced a lot of the discussion around supporting black creators and things like that. 

So, I've gotten a lot of attention and—all this within the past couple of months. Which is great on the one hand, but it's also like, ‘I've literally been doing this for over 10 years.’

Alicia: Yeah, no, I've had this conversation. Yeah, with Stephen Satterfield from Whetstone, of just—it's an, a double-edged sword in terms of the attention these days that people are getting. But-

Aaron: Yeah.

But overall I welcome the attention. It’s like, ‘Sure, give me more page views and followers and likes.’ ’Cause in the end, having my own platform, those metrics help me get more money and help me survive.

Alicia: Right.

Aaron: Bring on that.

Alicia: [Laughs.] No, and I think it's so important too. We're seeing how significant it is to have one's own platform, something that follows you no matter what you're doing. What your blog has been for so long for 11 years, where no matter where you were working or who you were writing for, you always had your own platform for yourself. And that's proven, at this difficult time in the industry, to be absolutely critical. Yeah. 

And for you, is cooking a political act?

Aaron: Oh, I've been thinking about this question since you asked me to be on the podcast.

So, my answer is—the short answer is yes, with an asterisk. And I say that because food, to me, is obviously political. And it always has been. It's evolved in spice trades, to sort of shaping whole economies and civilizations, to sort of its impact on enslaving people to sort of take their agricultural knowledge and use them to grow and harvest crops, to even today with government subsidies, which dictates the value of certain foods and things like that. So, food is political. So I think sort of, by way of food being what is needed for cooking, cooking is also political. 

But I believe there's times when it's overtly political, in terms of selling box lunches for—to fund the civil rights movement, or sort of the Black Panther’s free breakfast program for kids. Or even today, like the Bakers Against Racism sort of fundraiser, and like feeding resistance with feel the people and things like that. So, those are sort of the explicit choices that people have made to make cooking political.

But I think that there are tons of people who participate in the system, but don't have any sort of agency to have impact. So, they might be cooking—sort of like capitalism, you participate in it because you have no other choice to do it. So I think people cook, and it is political, but they don't have any power to make impact. Or, sometimes they're sort of unknowingly having an impact. Like, ‘Oh, I bought this X, Y, and Z. But I don't know necessarily where it was grown, or who grew it, or whether those people were paid equitably and things like that.’

So, it is political. But I think, for people, sometimes we can choose to make it political. And sometimes we participate in cooking without control over our impact on society. 

Alicia: Right. 

Well, thank you so much, Aaron, for being here.

Aaron: Thanks for having me.