Apr 2, 2021 • 34M

A Conversation with Emily Stephenson

Talking with the cookbook author about the complications of not wanting to be a public figure.

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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I met Emily Stephenson one day years ago at a café right by our then-apartments in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She had emailed me because I was an editor at Edible Brooklyn at the time and wanted to discuss my work. I was jealous of her work, though, because she developed recipes for cookbooks. Eventually, we collaborated on the Food Writers’ Workshop, along with Layla Schlack, attempting to demystify food media for a bigger group of writers through a ticket price of $13.50.

Emily has since written two brilliant cookbooks with her own name on them: Pantry to Plate and The Friendsgiving Handbook. We talked at the end of last year, when Pantry to Plate was coming out, and I wanted to hear about her decision to leave social media that has become such a big part of being a writer and cookbook author. (This was the second to last of my interviews done with poor internet, so please excuse any audio glitches.) Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Emily. Thanks so much for coming on to chat. 

Emily: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here. 

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

Emily: Sure, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago.

We grew up eating—we had a lot of takeout and fast food, for sure. We also—I've been thinking a lot about this, like, service that no one I've talked to has ever used, but kind of like saved my family since both my parents worked full time. It was called Market Day, but basically, kind of like a Costco, Sam's Club thing where you order in bulk, but then pick it up and buy it at the school. And so like, once a month, we would go and just pick up a bunch of boxes of frozen entrees and stuff that then would help with quick meals during the week.

Neither of my parents are super into cooking. And were just, you know, stressed with having two kids and time jobs.

But my mom is also super into gardening. And so like in the summer, you know, she would grow green beans and tomatoes and stuff. So we would have that for a couple months a year. There was a really great farmers’ market in the town where I grew up, but because it's the Midwest and the climate doesn't really allow for like an abundant farmers’ market, you know, for more than maybe like three or four months a year, that was kind of like just limited to the summer.

Alicia: Right, right. And so how did you get into food? Because I know you went to culinary school, you worked in restaurants—what was your path—

Emily: No, I didn’t go to culinary school

Alicia: You didn’t go to culinary school!

Emily: It started as just like an interest. I think from just watching a lot of Food Network in like junior high school I got, like, into cooking as a hobby.

But, you know, I don't know, just like, as a high school kid didn't occur to me that I could be like cooking our dinners every night and also was, you know, like, busy with schoolwork and extracurriculars. And then when I went away to college, the way that it worked at the school, I was you lived in a dorm for the first year, and then most people moved to apartments.

And so I just kind of was forced to learn how to cook when I was 19. There weren't any good restaurants in town. And you know, I was on a budget anyway. So that's when I got really into it and more into cookbooks and just doing a lot of research. 

The first year I was cooking, I wasn't a vegetarian, but I kind of didn't do a great job staying healthy as I learned to cook and felt kind of terrible after that first year, so decided to become a vegetarian. And so that also required a lot of education and research and just trying to stay inspired and like what to eat, that would be exciting and kind of healthy.

And I kind of had journalism dreams. They were very vague and not formed when I graduated, but was hoping to get a magazine or newspaper job or something and kind of keep food more as just like a hobby.

But I graduated in 2008. And, you know, it was just not a good time to pursue that work. I remember having like this, like, you know, a few steps removed connection. He was like an editor for a news wire or something. I talked to him a few months after I graduated. And I was like, yeah, I'm like, I would love to work for like a newspaper or magazine. You know, like, do you have any advice and he was like, just find another industry. Do not attempt to get a job doing this. And I, I don't know, I think I was just a little bit overwhelmed and really took that to heart and so kind of went another direction. 

I had gotten an internship at Slow Food USA. It combined my interest in food and politics. I was working on, they were sort of taking a turn towards more actual advocacy. And so I was working on a campaign about the Farm Bill and the school lunch portion of that. And so I worked in food nonprofits for a few years and it just wasn't quite satisfying. It still didn't have the writing component that I wanted, and had always just continued to just be interested in, reading about and learning about food and buying cookbooks and cooking for people all the time. I ran a supper club for a couple of years and just cooked for big groups in my apartment.

And I this moment after my second job where I just I realized that development in programs and nonprofits just was not what I wanted to do. And my current job was comfortable enough where I had the space to sort of figure out what it is I did want. 

I went on a vacation and I bought a book while I was there. It was one of the few souvenirs and it was Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food. And I was flipping through it on the plane on the way back and I was like, I want to do this somehow. Claudia Roden has turned it into a job. And I just imagine she's sitting in her beautiful  London home and she's just writing cookbook after cookbook.

I was like, I want to figure out a way to do this. Like, I want to write. I love cookbooks. I love cooking. I think that maybe I could do this.

Which was very ambitious for someone who had made very safe career choices until then. But I

had talked to a few people who are kind of in the food media world. Everyone had told me that like culinary school was a waste of money. And if you just got restaurant experience, that would be enough. 

So I had made a plan to work in restaurants for a couple of years. And then after that would try to figure out how I could get into media and publishing. And just by coincidence, or chance, I saw that Food52 was looking for an intern to work on their first cookbook. They had signed a multi-book deal with Ten Speed. And I don't know, I just think because it was exactly what I wanted to do, my cover letter just stood out.

I got the internship, which was great. So I think I was like, 27 at the time, it was like a little bit of a career change. Thankfully, it was weekends only. And so you know, since it was an unpaid gig, I was able to work. And also get that really great experience.

That was Genius Recipes, Kristen Miglore. And it was mostly just doing recipe testing, research, kind of some like admin and project management stuff as the book went on. And it was great. I loved it. I was like, Oh my god, this is like exactly what I want to be doing. And when that ended, I went to work in restaurants for a little while, just ’cause I didn't have anything lined up. So I worked as a line cook. Sorry, this is like very detailed. 

Alicia: Oh, it's great. It's great. To be detailed. 

Emily: Um, it was like kind of a windy path. But once I got started, I felt like things kind of fell into place. So I was in restaurants for a little over a year. And thenI guess at some point, yeah, maybe like a year and a half later, one of Mark Bittman's longtime employees was going to grad school and so he was looking for someone to come join his team. And he got my name from Food52. And I remember being—I was working at the restaurant, and I checked my phone after service one night and I had this email that was just like, from Mark Bittman. Subject, Hello.

I thought It was a weird promotional email from the New York Times or something.

But yeah, he said he'd gotten my name. He was looking for stuff, was I interested. And so yeah, I applied for that. I did an edit test. I wrote, I think, like an outline for a cookbook chapter, went through a few rounds of that, and got hired. And so that was not too many steps away from deciding that I wanted to write cookbooks, to getting a job that was pretty much full time and writing, you know, working on his books, and I knew, kind of from the outset, I think, because I had started researching and also just loved cookbooks and was really familiar with them that I had started to see a lot of names pop up, in multiple books, and especially working on Genius Recipes, since that is a collection of like other people's recipes. Like you look through a lot of books and you look at the credits. And, you know, I would start to see Melissa Clark's name appearing in places that I had never seen or, even, you know, like Peter Meehan co-authored a few books, and I was like, oh, like, this is a job like I could find a way to like, pay my bills, writing other people's books.

And that was really appealing to me at the time because also it's like, you know, you get to work with someone who's really knowledgeable. Get to do the thing that you love, and then I get to learn and make a great product. So that was always kind of the goal.

And I've been trying to get into restaurant co-authoring for quite a while. I have yet to make that work, but in the meantime, I was able to also write to have my own small cookbook, and that kind of came about because I had been working kind of in publishing with Food52, with Mark Bittman, and was just like really hustling and emailing any editor, agent, whoever who would respond to me, meet with me, let them know what I was looking for and if they needed someone kind of behind the scenes, whether it was like ghostwriting, co-authoring, recipe editing

At that point, I knew because I didn't have like a following of my own, that was probably more the work that was going to come my way than writing my own big cookbooks.

I think you know within the last however many years it's become fairly clear that you need to have quite a following of your own to for a publishing company to take a risk on you 

Alicia: I mean, do you want to have a following of your own? I mean, I think you don't, right?

Emily: Something that i've just come to accept is like Ii have such a fraught relationship with that part of me who would love to be a public figure, and Ithink fame is always—famous is perhaps a strong word, but at least being well known in a smaller professional community, but there's also something really unappealing about it to me and I just—I  don't have the desire to do what it takes to build that and I feel like if it's kind of, for a while everyone was like, ‘Oh, you should have a blog. That's the secret to success now,’ and I was like, ‘I know, but it's a lot of work. It's just not quite what I want to be doing and if I am doing it just because I have to and i resent it, what's the point? It's not going to be engaging. It's not going to be original.’

I don't know, and I am at this kind of crossroads now where it's like i don't want the Instagram following and so like do I need to rethink what I want to do because it has become again in the last like however many years a big part of being a writer and being in publishing? I don't know. I think there's maybe like a ceiling for people who don't have that kind of following and maybe I’ve reached it.

I also just like have such a fraught relationship with social media. Ii've been taking a break from Instagram and Twitter for like the last maybe two months or something and it's been pretty great. I don't want to go back.

Alicia: I can understand this completely because even though I like enjoy social media and always have and, you know, since I was a preteen, have been on LiveJournal and just on the internet and have you been like—I love, I love, I love posting.

I think because for me, I have a lot of social anxiety about actual human interaction, so for me it's always been very nice to have the medium of the internet, and that's always been that way. I’ve been able to express myself kind of more honestly as a person, but now that like my newsletter has been quote unquote successful and I have more followers on Instagram and Twitter, it's so annoying and so toxic for my mental health and I've had to, because, you know—

Before I was pretty much in control of stuff. I didn't have tons of random people in my DMs or tweeting at me and so I just didn't have a fraught relationship with it, but now I’ve had to really control who can respond to me and that sort of thing because it's just so taxing.

Having to try to have boundaries and like, for me, I feel like i don't know is it rude if someone DMs me asking—like, someone I've never talked to before and I post like an Instagram story of a necklace that I'm wearing and they're like where did you get that—I just get a request for like did you get that and like I’m then I'm like is it rude if I just delete this because I don't want to interact with this person and I don't know this person, like the knowledge of where my necklace is from. 

I know so many people in our world, in the food world, who have assistants who deal with that stuff now because it becomes too overwhelming and that sort of thing and I'm like—I don't think i'll ever get to that level to actually pay someone to do that, but at the same time,now I completely understand like why someone has an assistant who filters through their email, because yes, people are really overwhelming.

Emily: Iit's like this tool that started out as something personal and then became professional and none of us really had a say or a choice in that. Maybe I'm sabotaging my whole career by feeling this way, but it's not like outlook or like Slack, even, a work tool that I can turn off at the end of the day. Especially the thing about the algorithm, you know, that it's designed toget you kind of like riled up. I feel like the algorithm, especially on Twitter recently, has really perfected itself that it just like—it was just taking over my life and I just don't want to feel like I have to do it, and that feels important to me enough that I might need to reconsider some some career choices based on that.

But I don't know, it just feels like a necessary boundary at this point.

Alicia: It's totally necessary and it's interesting to watch people who've tried to kind of like balance that. Like I know Korsha Wilson doesn't really go on in on social media unless she has something to say. I respect that so much and I wish I had that boundary for myself and I probably should try to cultivate it.

But it is really interesting to think about how these these platforms can affect one's career when one works in media and what a real effect it has, more than one's talent, frankly, on on what they're able to do.

It’s bad, but your latest cookbook, Pantry to Plate—it which ended up being way more timely than i'm sure you expected. How did that come about? Was that your idea, was that the publisher’s idea? What was the market—what were the forces that made this book come to fruition?

Emily: So both of my books, both published by Chronicle, were kind of a continuation of sort of what I talked about earlier where I, again, because I am not a public figure, kind of coming to writing a little bit more of a different way, and so because I had experience with Mark Bittman and some other projects I had worked on kind of being like a jack-of-all-trades, it was like you know, ‘here's the idea, go with it. Make something good.’ 

So that was sort of my skill and so Chronicle, for some of these smaller books, I think it's more identifying a need in the market, something that is timely and will sell well, and a lot of the ideas come from like editorial meetings and then it's a matter of finding a writer. The first one worked out perfectly because I had been hosting Friendsgiving since I went away to college at 18, so I had a lot to say on that one. This one, kind of similar—they were like we want to write a pantry book and the idea, the thing that will make this one stand out from all of the many, many other pantry books is that the ingredient list is going to be really small and tight and so it'll really be a book that stands alone. Then after some back and forth about what my ideas were and how I would make that work, then we can go to writing. So they came to me with the idea both of them but it was always just the prompt. First one was Friendsgiving; this was pantry book only 50 ingredients, go.

I liked that it was that collaboration, and I do feel like I've been really. I was able to have the connections and they thought of me for these books and also, I don't know, sometimes the market’s really saturated. There's a lot of books sometimes, it's hard to identify what is different and what will sell. I think it's like, publishing companies—it's their job to identify those things, so it was nice they were like, ‘all right, pantry book, we know we're gonna sign it, we know it will sell well, take the idea and run with it.’

Alicia: How did you kind of approach doing this? Is it a reflection of how you cook or was it kind of a more foreign sort of approach?

Emily: I think it was a little bit of a combination. I started because I knew it was a limited number of recipes and only 50 ingredients, so I made this giant spreadsheet of both the pantry ingredients that I like to use and also, because everyone's pantry looks different, but doing some research for a lot of the general servicey kind of stuff out there—all the pantry ingredients you need, you know, stuff that that gets mentioned over and over. It's definitely a very, you know, entry level cookbook, and so I wanted it to be ingredients that hopefully a wide swath of people will like to use and cook with. So anyway, making a spreadsheet with that and trying to figure out which ingredients will go the furthest and in that process, having to cut some stuff that I use all the time and depend very heavily on but wouldn't be able to use in as wide an amount of recipes. For instance, I love vinegar. I cook with vinegar all the time, but trying to get a variety of flavor profiles and dishes and ways of cooking, it seemed like citrus was going to be more versatile, so the acid in the book is citrus not vinegar. That kind of thing.

Once i landed on the list, I only made a few tweaks in the writing process, but once I got to that part, I think it is how I cook once I was able to start working mostly full-time writing cookbooks. I found that I had stopped using recipes when I was looking at them all day. It was kind of the last thing I wanted to do and so pretty much where I've at now and how i'm still cooking is just like, looking at what I've got and figuring out something from that

It was a great way to write because I would just reference this list of 50 ingredients and I was like, okay, I want to make a chickpea soup or something. Here's what I'm working with, what sounds interesting? So that was actually kind of a fun process, and again mostly how I cook in my day to day life.

Alicia: So what do you think makes a cookbook stand out in a very, very crowded market? And also I wanted to ask you like what, for you, what have been the formative cookbooks? Because you've talked about this but I don't think you've named yet what was super important to you.

Emily: Definitely How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman. That one. I think I had been a vegetarian and cooking for maybe like three or four years at that point, but it's so helpful and it's so flexible, and I think it really does a good job of teaching you how to be nimble in the kitchen while also just having so many ideas. It’s a really great book to go to and you're like, alright like, you know, I bought this green at the store and I don't know what to do with it—what are some ideas? I have these greens from the farmers’ market that are about to go bad, what can I do with them? And so that's probably like the book that i've used the most

It’s funny. I've always loved cookbooks as items to collect and I think that maybe recently it's become more about the collecting than the using, especially as I am looking at cookbooks and recipes all day. I cook less with them and I'm trying to think if there's any in the last couple years that I really enjoyed or read, and I was just like reading them cover to cover. I think the storytelling and the philosophy and just the way that a person packages their cooking life is very fascinating to me. 

There's a lot of ngreat restaurant cookbooks that I've loved to read but have never cooked from. I remember getting I think it was the Night and Market Cookbook—I just really loved reading that; I felt like I learned a lot. It was a great book to spend time with. My Name Is Ice Cream by Dana Cree— I just loved that book. She made ice cream seem so technical but also appealing, but then I worked on an ice cream book for a little while and I never wanted to make ice cream again, so again, it just sits there as a book that I enjoy and love to reference sometimes.

You're also asking me at a funny time because all of my cookbooks are in boxes right now. So it's not like I can look at them and be like, Oh, yeah, that one. I'm kind of theorizing, like who do I

I know. Unfortunately, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian really stands out as the one formative one that really changed how I cook.

I know I've picked up so much from books. I'm sorry. I'm blanking on any other ones. I'm sure there's more.

Alicia: We worked together with Layla Schlack to try to create an equitable food conference with the Food Writers’ Workshop, which I think was mostly your idea. But right now, it's like, kind of I know, you're sort of like, working tangentially to food media now. But, you know, do you think there's hope for food media to become more equitable, more kind of open? I mean, we talked about how social media platforms and audiences are probably far too important in terms of one success in this industry. So like, do you have hope for food media? Like, what do you want to see change?

Emily: I don't know. I mean, I feel like you're catching me at kind of a, like, pessimistic time. But I mean, I guess like the flip side, right, to social media is that people who are good at it, and who are willing to put in the time and effort, it's a way to create a career outside of the traditional pathways. For me, it's like, I was able to get to where I am. I mean, maybe I could have taken a different route. But all because, you know, I was able to do an unpaid internship at a New York media company. And, you know, I do want to be open to the fact that that is a path for some people. It's not one that I think will work for me, but, I don't know, it's, I feel—it's like how much change can really happen if it's like these giant companies that hold so much power, you know, it's like Conde Nast, and perhaps the New York Times, or maybe like listening to some of the feedback they've been getting, but it just feels like we put so much emphasis on these big institutions and give them so much power. 

And like, I guess one hopeful point is maybe crowdfunding, and I think that there have been like, specifically with my interests, and I like cookbooks, you know, people who have tried to shop around a cookbook. Editors don't bite for whatever reason. And so they just decided to crowdfund it. And I think, you know, the problem with that is that it is just a lot more like time and effort on the writer’s part, but I think, you know, if someone believes that they have a good idea, and you know, and hundreds of other people do, too, that maybe some more kind of interesting, and different books can be put out, kind of like what we were talking about before, even with my book, there are a million pantry books and big companies kind of just often keep doing what works, but I think they do pay attention to crowdfunding as well. I feel I can think of one book off the top of my head, there's probably been more, the Eat Offbeat Cookbook. They're like a catering company in New York that employed refugees. It was like a work program through the

—I can't remember the organization—anyway, they had a super successful crowdfunding campaign. So much so that it got the attention of publishers, and they were able to finish the book.

I guess maybe it's a mind-set shift to  not needing the stamp of approval of a publishing company, either. You know, it's like you'd write, you write your book. And hopefully, if you can get the funding to support your time to get it out, and people will find it. And it's perhaps not the most satisfying answer, but I feel like it's like one bright spot in an industry. I'm otherwise feeling like, I don't know, I'm kind of like holding my breath and waiting to see what happens. 

Alicia: Yeah, no, it's true. And I do think that it's funny because when you ask people what are they optimistic about in food media, the answer usually is something like self-publishing. And that is a big shift, I think.

And I think it's a very interesting shift. And, I mean, it's also kind of a problematic shift. I mean, as a person who has a newsletter that I self-published, like people, there are people and there's been this backlash—I think it's over now—to the idea of newsletters and not having an editor, etc., etc. And it's like, well, this is what I do for a living and have done for a living, but I stopped being able to make a sufficient living at it, doing it in the, you know, traditional manner. And so what am I supposed to just like—what was I supposed to do? Especially independent, right? Especially if your backup plan is usually to just work in food, and cook people food, and then you're in a pandemic. This isn't the time to do that, you know, then it's like—this is kind of a way of getting through that. But yeah, I hope that the respect continues for self publishing. But I also think it's very, yeah, state of corporate food media that people have been like, we have to take this into our own hands, because there's no one who's doing this properly. 

Emily: As someone who has kind of invested in traditional publishing, and I don't know, though, it's—it's a tough time. I think, let's check  in like, a year and see if any of the stages of stocks that have been happening, I feel like that's kind of where I'm at at the moment. 

Alicia: And, you know, for you is cooking a political act?

Emily: I think I, you know, I, I feel like this is an answer that quite a lot of other people have given, but when I really do think about it, I feel perhaps not me at home cooking. I don't think of it as a political act. But I do think like, getting ingredients is and my only personal philosophy has been kind of all over the place on this. I feel like I started off, you know, working at Slow Food and a little bit, as they were trying to shift their mindset to is to how political exactly is cooking and eating, and then, you know, periods where, as a, you know, freelance writer, it's like, my budget was so low, I just felt like I didn't really have the ability to really think through where my ingredients are from, but—and I think it's one thing that I really appreciate that you speak so much about—but I do think that we have to put a lot of thought into where our food comes from, and how we get it, and to the best of all of our abilities in our situation, try to make choices that feel good.

It feels really overwhelming. I feel like there's so many different things to take into account. And it can be hard. But I think when you get on autopilot, and I don't know, just mindlessly buy things from the grocery store, I feel like the chain of effects is so much longer than any of us ever really think about. That is something that I definitely—I am trying, you know, to be much more mindful of. 

Alicia: I think that's so—that's interesting. And I'm excited to see how that manifests for you now that you're in L.A., as opposed to living in New York.

Emily: Everyone’slike, the farmers’ markets are so great. I'm excited to get back into that,that lifestyle. So yeah. 

Alicia: Well, thank you. 

Emily: And obviously there's more to it than that.

Alicia: Awesome.