A Conversation with Andrew Janjigian

Talking to the baker behind the Wordloaf newsletter about grain accessibility, leaving America’s Test Kitchen to launch his own newsletter, and more.

  
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I burst into the Zoom with Andrew Janjigian—a writer and the baker behind the newsletter Wordloaf—as though he were an old friend, telling him about my drama with the dentist that was happening that day and explaining precisely how much I was already sweating despite the early hour of our interview. There are some people whose energy, even virtually, I just like and how I express this like is, frankly, by extravagantly complaining in the hopes of amusing the other person. This is all to say: Andrew is very smart and cool, and I was excited to talk to him.

He has done so many things in his life, and it is all wildly impressive. He’s worked as an organic chemist, got a master’s in biology with a focus on fungi, and then ended up at America’s Test Kitchen, where he was the resident bread expert. That led, eventually, to Wordloaf, where he makes sourdough approachable. We discussed it all. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Andrew, how are you?

Andrew: I am very well. How are you?

Alicia: I'm good. Thank you so much for being here.

Andrew: Sure. It's great to be here.

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

Andrew: Sure. Ok. 

So, I grew up in a Boston suburb. And I live in Cambridge now, so basically in Boston. And what I ate was—I come from a big Armenian family, and Armenians are pretty serious about their food and their cooking. A gathering of any two or more Armenians is basically an excuse for a feast. And holidays and parties are sort of studies in excess. 

So there was a lot of food and a lot of cooking and recipes between my mother and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles. And so, I was exposed to kind of people who love to cook pretty early on. 

And beyond the Armenian stuff, my mother is a very good cook. And she was pretty adventurous, sort of, as interested in experimentation and research as anyone, and I think that's where I started having the same sort of tendencies. I grew up in the era where it was sort of where cooking shows were all on PBS, and Julia Child, if you didn't know how to cook and all those sorts of things. It was a time when food culture was just starting to become mainstream. And my mother was a part of that. 

I think that kind of sums it up. Boston was not particularly interesting in terms of food at the time. It's definitely improved since then.

Alicia: [Laughs.] How has it improved? What's changed in Boston?

Andrew: Well, I think it's mostly that the culture has grown to support the presence of just more interesting restaurants. I mean, I'm sure there were plenty of restaurants in, within cultural enclaves. But when I was growing up, you didn't know about them. There probably were fewer then, simply because there wasn't the support. 

But I think Boston is kind of a provincial place, or has been. And I think people are finally waking up to the, sort of the importance of foods from other cultures. And so, those restaurants are finally getting the due that they deserve. And so, it's definitely better. I mean, I lived in New York for a long time. And so I still kind of gripe about how much better it could be. [Laughter.]

Alicia: Well, you've explained your career trajectory to me before when I've interviewed you. But can you explain how you ended up in food?

Andrew: Sure. Yeah. 

I mean, I started out in it, and then came back to it. But the whole trajectory is really kind of convoluted. And I'm sort of somebody who has always had a lot of interests, and I kind of never do anything halfway. And so that sort of leads me to follow paths far away from one thing and come back to them. 

So I started out working in restaurants during—a little bit in high school, but in college in New York City as a way to have pocket money to pay the bills. And then in summers, where I was paying my own rent and things like that. 

I was a waiter working front of the house in a couple places. There was a chef at one particular restaurant who sort of took a liking to me and understood my interest in cooking. And he said, ‘Would you be interested in working in the kitchen?’ And he let me, kind of, with no—without real proof that I could do anything, to work garde manger. It was a small restaurant, and so I immediately just jumped in, do it. And then, never went back to waiting tables after that, because it was really much more my thing. 

And I did that for a few years and eventually worked my way up. For the longest time, I worked at a place in the West Village called the Universal Grill, which was a great place to work. It was a really tiny little restaurant. It was very unique in every way. It prided itself on, or at least thinking itself, as the gayest restaurant in New York City. Or the gayest restaurant in the world, I forget what their tagline was. But it was very a kind of a hub of a lot of gay cultural activity. 

And it was just a fun place to work, especially since the—while the food, it was important that the food be of a certain caliber, the owners didn't really want to have anything to do with that. So they left the few of us in the kitchen to our own devices to kind of come up with recipes and be creative. And it was small enough that if I was cooking, I was the only person—eventually I worked my way up to sous chef. And if I was there, I was in charge of the menu for the night. And so, it gave me a lot of creativity. That was kind of where I forged my skills. 

And then, I stayed in restaurants for a little bit longer after that. I moved back to Boston. But I kind of found sort of other interests pushing in against that one. And I eventually decided I want to go back to school. I had studied literature and film in college, and—but was, sort of caught the science bug. And so, I decided that I was going to be—I wanted to be a doctor. It seems kind of crazy now, I thought that. 

So I go back to school, do pre-med courses. I hadn’t particularly done any of those kinds of classes in college. And I started out in chemistry and found that I had this kind of acuity for it. I found it really interesting. 

And while I was doing some of these courses, I kind of talked my way into an internship at a pharmaceutical company here in Cambridge. And that internship ended up getting renewed several times. And eventually, it just became a full-time job. And I sort of dropped the pre-med idea in favor of just kind of becoming an organic chemist. Organic chemistry is basically cooking, at least in the practical aspects of it. It's just like cooking. You have a recipe, put a bunch of stuff in a container, you heat it up, and it transforms into something else. And I'd always been good at recipes and good cooking. So it's sort of like it was an easy shift for me.

And I did that for 12 years, ’cause it was—working for a corporation, it paid well. And I enjoyed it most of the time. And then while I was there, I caught another bug and this was in the study of mycology and mushrooms. And one of the benefits of working there was that they paid for higher education. And so I was able to get a master's degree—or most of it, I didn't finish it until after I left there. But in biology, it was a study of fungi and in, called mushroom cultivation and foraging and things like that. 

That's where I was when, just by coincidence. I met somebody, a friend of a partner of my brother-in-law who worked at America's Test Kitchen and shared my crazy resume, my story of how I—what I'd done all these years. And they go, ‘You'd be the perfect candidate for a job at America's Test Kitchen.’ They love people with all those kinds of backgrounds, and also the sort of skill set was perfect for it. So I applied and I took a massive pay cut. And the rest is history. And I was there for about the same, about 11 years, up until last year.

Alicia: When did bread become the focus?

Andrew: So it's funny because I was thinking about this in—I worked in two bakeries in high school, and it didn't register as a thing that I was at all interested in. And during college, I went—I spent a semester in Paris. I'm sure I ate lots of good bread. But somehow, the idea that I was surrounded by all these amazing bakeries just never, never even occurred to me to think about it. While I was there, I was kind of more interested in spending time in movie theaters and art museums. 

And so, I didn't come to bread until very late in the game. And the thing that kind of sparked that was probably—this is probably true for many people—was the no-knead bread. I think I made it right after the article came out in ’09. It both kind of sparked the idea that good bread can be had at home, and that actually, maybe, at home, homemade bread is better than you can get, at least from bakeries at the time. Or just the fact that you're pulling it hot from the oven yourself means you're getting it at the peak of its freshness. 

I quickly was like, ‘Oh, I think I need to dig into this more deeply.’ The fundamentals, the foundation had been there all along. Because the thing that I, that brought me to cooking in the first place when I was a kid, before I started working in restaurants, was pizza; I was obsessed with pizza. I think the first cookbook and kitchen tool I ever personally owned was a pizza pan and a book that my mother gave me as a birthday present. And so, that had been something that all throughout my life since that moment, I've been tinkering with my own recipes. 

And Cook's Illustrated started in ’93. So that was as I was—during college. I think I subscribed to it from the beginning at that point. And so, I understood that iterative testing process for recipe development. And I did a lot of that with my pizza recipe over the years. 

And so, I sort of laid the groundwork for where I ended up. After no-knead bread, I started digging into recipes and taking classes. And that was really where I kind of fell hard for it. 

But yeah, that—Sorry, go on.

Alicia: No, no.

But yeah, how did you come to your kind of current approach to it? 

Andrew: Well, so there's a lot of aspects to it. I think that no-knead bread itself is something I came to realize is just, I don't know. It's weird to find something so basic that you didn't realize you could be in love with when you ate it all the time. And maybe it's just because I never had good bread, but I'm sure I did. But there's so many things about it that I love about it it's hard to even narrow it down. 

I think one of them is simply that bread bakers are kind of, they're really great people. The people who work in the industry and the teachers I've had, they're just really—they're really generous and they're fun to be around. And so when I was a student of it, at the beginning of my time, I just was like, ‘Oh, these are my people’ in a way. And their passion for it kind of quickly became my own. 

But in terms of the bread itself, and what—one of the many things I love about it, one of them is just like that it's, unlike any other kind of cooking, it's a relationship. It's a dynamic thing that is never complete. You never perfect a technique. Sometimes it works amazingly, and sometimes it doesn't. And you have to kind of constantly bring yourself back to the-

I mean, it's a living organism. And if you're not paying close attention to it, if you're not kind of adjusting to it, then it kind of resists being what you want it to be. And so, you need to kind of bring yourself down to its level—up to its level, I should say.

I do a lot of overnight recipes, in the fridge overnight or on the counter. Every time I come downstairs from my bedroom and see what's happening in the kitchen, it's a little mini Christmas morning. I'm so excited to see what I, what it's managed to do for me in the interim. So there's just a lot of little joys in it. Yeah.

Alicia: And you left your longtime post at America's Test Kitchen to focus on your newsletter as well as freelance. And you recently wrote about competing recipe style guides, which I thought was really interesting, because—for myriad reasons. One, that I develop recipes. Two, that I was a copy editor.

How has that transition been for you into working for so many different places plus yourself? Because I know that it is very difficult. [Laughs.]

Andrew: Yeah, that's been one of the many challenges of doing this, all solo. As I said, I came to America’s Test Kitchen as a cook and a science person, and not as a journalist. I had no training in journalism. And so, the style guide wasn't even something—I mean, I'm sure I had MLA or whatever in college, but I didn't know that it was a thing. 

And so when I learned how America's Test Kitchen did their thing, I didn't think, ‘Oh, that's their style guide.’ I just thought that's how everybody does it. And I absorbed that over time. But then after leaving, I realized, ‘Oh, this isn't how everybody is doing it. It’s just one idiosyncratic approach to it. And other places do it differently.’ 

And that makes sense. Every place has a different kind of needs and a different audience to cater to. But it's maddening to have to—it’s like having to speak a different language every time you do, pick up the phone to speak to somebody else. And it's really hard to adjust. But it is what it is. I wish we could have like an International Congress of Recipe’s style guides and just kind of come up with one thing. Yeah. 

Alicia: No, it's funny, because I wrote about salt today and how I'm going to try and not use Diamond Crystal anymore. It was so funny.

Andrew: The Cargill thing?

Alicia: The Cargill thing [laughs], where I found out that it's owned by Cargill since 1997. I had like literally no idea. That's never the point of anything anyone's talking about when they're talking about salt and which one to use. It's always about what's accessible and the volume, and  it's never—

I also want this standard recipe conference, because I want the salt issue to be resolved. Because The L.A. Times is like, ‘Ok, we're only going to use Diamond Crystal.’ And then The Washington Post is like, ‘We're only going to use fine sea salt.’ But how many salts do you expect a regular person to have in their kitchen? I don't know, and I think it needs to be resolved. I'm just really horrified that people have always been like, ‘Diamond Crystal is the best’ and no one's ever said that they're owned by Cargill.

Andrew: Yeah, that was news to me until I think you probably retweeted somebody a couple of days ago, and it never occurred to me. I mean, somebody down to make a bespoke salt that had the exact same weight to volume ratio and is as, just as good in terms of the way it sprinkles or whatever? And then we can stop using it. 

I was a kosher salt, Diamond kosher salt person until maybe that also sort of swayed me in the other direction. But I do think that it's annoying as hell that kosher salt comes in these two different volume to weight ratios. And I think I'm now in the sea salt’s better camp because sea salt is sea salt is sea salt.  

Alicia: Exactly. 

Yeah, no, apparently there's a Norwegian kosher salt that is the same as Diamond Crystal. You're not getting a 10-pound, 5-pound box of it. So that's the issue here, is how much—yeah, how much you're getting, how much bang for your buck, which I guess is why Diamond Crystal really owned the game for so long. [Laughs.] And continues to! I don't think I'm going to change the way chefs act. But at least I can let people, more people know that Cargill owns this and to make their own choices now. 

Andrew: Yeah.

Well, the other thing is that's kind of a very niche question, but like the bigger question’s metric versus imperial and weight to volume and baking recipes and that stuff is just maddening. 

So you asked about my own style and what that was like. I feel like a style guide should always be logical and clear. It should also teach people something. To give people options is to not encourage them to pick one over the other. And so I decided I'm getting rid of volume measurements, because I think it forces people to do something that eventually they'll come to see is easier.

Alicia: Right. 

No, and I agree. I hate volume recipes. I mean, the only thing for me is that, to keep batteries in my scale. [Laughs.] It's remembering whether it's double A or triple A when I go to the store. That's my struggle. 

But I wanted to ask how you're maintaining creativity and balance between the work you're doing for other people and for your newsletter, because people ask me all the time. And for me, I think it's kind of obvious, most of the time, what's for the newsletter and what isn't. Speaking, again, of the salt piece, I know how I could expand the salt piece and make it really a lot better and 3000 words and a lot more effecting, but I'm not going to do that for my weekly blog. 

But, yeah, so basically, how do you balance those things that you're doing?

Andrew: Well, I think I'm sort of in a similar camp with that. It took me a while to figure out that that was what it was, but I use it as a sort of a scratch pad for whatever's on my mind. And I don't necessarily feel like things need to be kind of resolved when I write about them there. 

And I think maybe from the outside—I hope this isn't the case—but maybe from the outside, it sort of seems very disjointed. One week, I'll be giving a recipe and the next week, I'll be talking about style guides. And so I hope that when you see the overall arc of things, you can see that I keep circling back to certain themes. 

But I find it very useful as a kind of idea-generating place. And I'm kind of grateful that people are willing to kind of follow along there. People pay to subscribe, and that seems like an amazing thing that people want to kind of hear me just think out loud.

Alicia: Right.

Yeah. And I like that aspect of newsletters. I think a lot of people don't really get that. Maybe because they don't do it; they don't understand the value of having to be consistently creative. And that it's not necessarily an ends in itself, but it's just a way of thinking. It's just a practice that you can have. That people will go along with it is really interesting. 

And have you found a real connection with your audience there?

Andrew: For sure. I've found that the fact of their presence in—I mean, I guess one nice thing about having a paid option is that if people are paying, they don't have to comment to show their appreciation for what you're doing.

I feel like the one thing that I've wanted to—Well, it's not the only thing, but one of the things I want to develop more of a sense of community. I feel it's probably on me to figure out a way to foster that more. Because there is some of it, but not as much as there perhaps could be, where people are not only commenting and interacting with me but also communicating with one another more. And maybe that's the question of starting open threads or encouraging questions where people get to weigh in. 

The hardest part, or a hard part, of doing the newsletter and being a full-time freelancer is just finding the time to implement all these different ideas I have for making it better. It's very slow.

Alicia: It's really slow. It's very hard. I want to open up to new, have other people contribute. But I have to make sure I'm fully available to do the best editing work and everything like that. 

I don't know. It's funny how Substack is, say, it’s all like, ‘Independent newsletters are the future, blah, blah, blah.’ It is, in a way, but at the same time, it's not sustainable at all to do without support. It's impossible to grow into the way that you might have a vision for without the support of a team. 

Andrew: Yeah, definitely. 

I can see so many places where it could be more than it is, and maybe it will be someday. But part of it's just a question of time. If I didn't have the freelance work, then I might be able to double the amount of stuff I do there. The problem is that I actually enjoy most of the, or nearly all of the freelance work I'm doing are things I'm interested in. So I'm happy to have it. Maybe there just needs to be more days in the week, although working more is not a good idea.

Alicia: No, no. 

Yeah, it's a hard balance. For me, the struggle right now is finishing my book, and then—and also doing a newsletter.

Andrew: Yeah, that I couldn't imagine. Although I have a book project that I need to get going on. So, I don’t want to talk about it much. But the idea of trying to juggle that seems impossible.

Alicia: It's hard. It's really hard. The newsletter, in a great way, it became my—the bulk of my income. But I didn't know that that was going to happen. Thank God it happened. And then I have to keep it up to write the book, because the advance was so shitty. [Laughs.] And I sold the book before my—literally weeks before my newsletter kind of popped off, I guess, last year? I don't know. So, it's constantly maintaining this balance in this kind of work where you're weighing the pros and cons of literally every small decision. 

But I remember when I quoted you about flour in a past newsletter, and you talked about ingredient sourcing and flour sourcing, it caused a little bit of controversy in the artisanal flower community. I talked to Roxana Jullapat about this recently while talking about Mother Grains-

Andrew: Which I loved.

Alicia: Yeah, yeah.

And we're all constantly trying to find this balance—or we're all, I think, people who try to care both about accessibility and taste and ecology, and trying to juggle all of these ideas at once. You have to think about what's good for your local ecosystem, and what's also realistic. 

And so, what are your thoughts on flour and accessibility right now?

Andrew: So, yeah, I got kind of yelled at by somebody, for use—[laughs] for using the term ‘fancy flour’ to refer to sort of fresh milled local, regional, flours, which I love and use all the time and, I think are important to—it's an important aspect to the industry to promote.

But it's only a piece of the story. There's so many issues with making that kind of thing accessible to everyone. It's very expensive. It's not accessible in terms of, most supermarkets don't carry anything like that. And mail order is definitely possible, but not only does that add to the cost but it adds to the carbon footprint of the thing. 

I try in the newsletter and elsewhere to encourage people to seek out those kinds of things if they're in their local economy, and to—I think a great deal of my audiences likely can't afford to spend as much as possible on flour, and maybe-

So I think the person that wasn't happy with that term was coming from that perspective is—and like, ‘You need to kind of almost force people who can afford to use better products and more sustainable, whatever.’ And so, I think that's a good thing. But I think it's important not to forget that there are people who can't afford that, and some of those people might not be part of my audience, but they—maybe I'm not attracting them, because if I'm kind of limiting myself to boutique ingredients. I kind of want to come at it from both sides. 

There's another aspect which is kind of related to that, which is that you—the thing about flours, flours that are kind of boutiques, is that each one needs to be—the recipe needs to be developed specifically for that flour. Whereas if you called for a commodity, or sort of a well-known flour, they're consistent across the—people can get King Arthur flour from one side of the country to the other, and it's going to behave the same way no matter where you get it. And so then, all of a sudden, the recipe becomes accessible to more people. 

And so, it's a challenge, because if you want to encourage those kinds of things, you need to teach people how to use them and how to how to adapt to them, in a way, like to say, ‘I don't know what your flour is going to be like, but here's what to look for and how to adjust if that's the case.’ 

But still, I mean, it's really important, because I think maybe flour’s one—I think Roxana said this, or maybe she was talking about sugar, but I think they're similar in that it's one of those unexamined monoliths in our food culture that we don't—we just think flour is just the thing you get. You buy some flour. Whatever, it doesn't matter. As opposed to thinking about how huge the industry is and how difficult it would be to dismantle that sort of thing and replace it with something that is more sustainable and equitable. 

I think we have to start somewhere. And talking about flous that are made from grains that are grown locally—I'm lucky to live in New England, which before it was the heartland, was the breadbasket of America. And so, good grain can be grown here, and more and more is being grown. And so, I have access to really great local flour, but not everyone does. 

Although I think there's probably opportunities to grow flours that can be adapted for whatever

environment you live in. I mean, there's some cool flours that grow in the desert, wheats that grow in the desert that are being built into flour. 

And actually, we might need more of them, because I haven't really delved too deep into it. But they're saying, this year has been really bad for droughts in the Midwest and Canada. I don't know if it's the end, or if it's just a blip and the kinds of things that we're gonna see more and more of over time. So it's a little scary to think, because if we can't grow—I mean, me being able to have, make my bread is important to me. But beyond that, access to something like flour going away is hard to fathom how damaging that would be to our economies and our lives.

Alicia: Yeah.

No, I think about that a lot, especially because living in Puerto Rico, I can get King Arthur, but I have to go to the special store and I have to pay way more than I would have paid in New York for it. And then it's funny, because I think if I tried to learn how to cook here, every recipe would be a nightmare because of the humidity and the—and so, because I already know how to cook, I'm—I know how to compensate for things. 

But I just want to see more recipes, I think, written—and I guess I should start doing this—for the gluten-free flours that are more locally produced like the cassava flour and the breadfruit flour and everything, and plantain flour even. Because, as we keep saying here, it's like, ‘Well, soon everyone will know what this is to live in the tropics.’ New York is subtropical now. 

And so yeah, it's just really interesting to think about and to kind of try to reframe—yeah, I use the local grain thing to question or whatever to think about, yeah, how we might make things in the future that are recognizable to us. 

Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. 

I mean, it's just hard to imagine a world, or it's hard to imagine living in a world where something as fundamental as wheat or, were to go away. It's scary. And I love alternative flours, but you can't get a baguette out of cassava flour.

Alicia: Yeah, exactly. Thinking about life without a baguette is kind of depressing. [Laughs.] Yeah. That's what I'm gonna have for breakfast. I have some. Anyway. [Laughs.] Let me enjoy it while I have it. I’m not thinking about that. 

But through your newsletter, you're also kind of—you're teaching classes on Zoom. And we talked about the different styles of writing recipes. But just to write recipes down in a methodical manner is so difficult for me personally. What is your process for doing that? What tools have maybe helped you do that? How have you found your teaching voice, basically?

Andrew: So it's really interesting, because I'm deeply introverted. And so teaching is the farthest—especially in person—but in front of people, Zoom, or in a room full of them. But I actually have come to love it. And I never would have guessed that would be the case. 

I started teaching baking and cooking because I saw it as an opportunity to get to kind of hang out in spaces that I was just a consumer of where I wanted to—I wanted to be able to go to places like King Arthur and, on their dime instead of mine. And so I was like, ‘Ok, I'm just gonna see if they’ll let me teach something.’ But I quickly realized that actually, I really liked doing it. And so, I do it for its own sake now. 

It's challenging, but also it's a great tool for figuring out and kind of codifying what I know and what I don't know. If I have to develop it, I often will propose classes for things that I haven't quite finished figuring out but knowing that it'd be an opportunity to get it done. And so, there's something fun about jumping without a net into something like that. 

And so, in terms of a newsletter and the recipes, I think I've figured out how to teach, or learning how to teach. And in classes, I think I have converted some of that into how to write about it. But I'm still developing that a little bit more early on in the process. I feel I've been cycling through saying things and figuring out the best way to say something. I often talk about the same kinds of the same topics, how to work with a sourdough starter, or how to do techniques like folding and what not. And I'm never quite sure how to pass that along to somebody who, for whom it—they're naive to those concepts. But I've spent a lot of time thinking about that. 

And I feel like the thing that I think about most in sort of an abstract way is, how do you teach people to think like a baker does? It's not straightforward. I don't know if it's true for every skill, or, but I spend a lot of time thinking about, like, ‘What is it gonna flip the switch in somebody's head when they're doing a technique?’ It's not just straightforward, do this and get that result. It's more like, ‘Think like this, and you'll be able to figure out how to get that result.’ It's one step removed from the process. But I'm still trying to, still trying to get my head around that.

Alicia: Well, for you, is cooking a political act?

Andrew: Yes, it is. I feel like it's important to keep that in your mind when you're doing it. I think it's such an easy thing to forget that food and cooking have—it's such a fundamental thing. Is breathing a political act? It's almost the same, but—air is important, too. 

Food is so fundamental that it's just easy to forget that it has so much, so many implications in terms of—the flipside to eating is hunger, and maybe you're satisfying your own hunger but other people don't even have the option to satisfy it. Or equity in terms of who's making our food or who's growing, picking our fruits, and then all the impacts on climate and resources. And so, I feel I try to deliberately keep that in mind. I mean, it's not always there, but I just feel it's important not, never to forget that. It's part of a system that is not great and needs a lot of work. And I think that, especially if you're in the world of food and cooking, you can have an impact, a positive impact in that if you keep it in mind. 

Alicia: Right. 

Thank you so much for being here.

Andrew: Oh, it was my pleasure. I'm so happy to be here.