Sep 11, 2020 • 26M

A Conversation with Klancy Miller

Listen now | We talked about cannoli, why she went to Paris for culinary school, the political power of pastry (an ongoing theme!), and how this year has expanded her vision for the soon-to-launch mag

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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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Klancy Miller is cool as hell. She studied pastry in Paris, wrote a cookbook called Cooking Solo: The Fun of Cooking for Yourself, and is now working on the launch of For the Culture, a food and beverage magazine about and by Black women. She’s also nice as hell, and it’s a joy and a privilege to converse with someone so smart and compelling, who’s doing serious and significant work.

We talked about cannoli, why she went to Paris for culinary school, the political power of pastry (an ongoing theme!), and how this year has expanded her vision for the soon-to-launch magazine. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Klancy, thanks so much for coming on.

Klancy: Thank you for having me. I'm honored.

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

Klancy: So, I grew up in a few places. My dad is a minister in the Episcopal Church, and we moved around kind of a lot.

I was born in New Haven, Connecticut. Some of my first food memories are pizza like Pepe's pizza. And there is a great bakery called Libby's that had amazing cannoli. And, to this day, those — cannoli are my favorite dessert. I love cannoli.

Alicia: Me too. [Laughs.]

Klancy: Right, like so important. 

Yeah, so we moved from New Haven to Atlanta when I was 4. So, my food memories of New Haven are literally Pepe's pizza, cannoli, and Mississippi mud pie. My parents used to like to go to Chart House restaurant, and I think that was a recurring dessert there. So those are my 4-year-old memories. [Laughs.]  And my mom is an amazing cook. I just don't, from those years, remember what she cooked? 

We moved from New Haven to Atlanta. And I feel like Atlanta is where I spent the bulk of my childhood. And there I remember I was older and grew up there to a certain extent. So, I remember my mom's cooking a lot. She was really into The Silver Palate Cookbook. She also had this cookbook by Eileen Ford that had a really good chicken salad in it. My mom used to like to make some stuff by Julia Child, who was — when my parents got married, she really wanted to become a gourmet cook, and started taking cooking really seriously. But she's also a little bit of a health nut. So I remember a lot of vegetarian things, vegetarian lasagna. Yeah. 

And some Southern foods, too, because both of my parents are from the south. But my mom, growing up, I don't remember her cooking a lot of Southern things. But I remember enjoying it at my grandparents’ house, having greens or fried fish sandwiches or really good barbecue. 

What else? After dance class, we would always go to either Varsity's in Atlanta for my post dance class snack or Wendy’s, where I would get french fries and a chocolate shake. Or, where else would we go? There was this place in Buckhead that made these awesome beignets. And so, yeah, those were all post dance class treats I would get depending upon our moods. [Laughs.]

Alicia: [Laughs.] I'm always interested in how people who grew up with even a touch of that kind of vegetarian cuisine from the health-focused times how you relate to vegetarian food now, or how it manifests in your life.

Klancy: Let's see. So, I feel like I'm heavily influenced by my mom in that, like I said, she's always been a little bit of a health nut and literally at different times in my life has called me to say, ‘Have you eaten a cup of blueberries today? Are you eating enough green vegetables?’ [Laughs.]

She's always had a subscription to Prevention Magazine, and has always been into reading about health. And we're both hypochondriacs, and so I've always kind of been cool with eating heavily vegetarian stuff. And I also, for better or for worse, do kind of, in my head, link it to health sometimes. 

I think because of my mom, I feel very open to eating lots of vegetarian food. And because I'm kind of sometimes lazy in the kitchen I sometimes don't feel like cooking meat, even though I'm not — I don't consider myself a vegetarian. I just kind of prefer eating more vegetarian than not. But yeah, I don't even know if I'm answering the question.

Alicia: No, you are. Yeah. [Laughs.]

How did you decide to go into food and eventually go to Paris to study pastry at Le Cordon Bleu?

Klancy: When I graduated from college, I had no idea what I wanted to do, work-wise. And I decided to kind of make it into a little “choose your own adventure,” or trial-by-error adventure. 

I studied history. I studied French. I studied Arabic. I studied political science. I studied film. I wanted to figure out how to apply aspects of what I learned in some kind of job. I majored in history, so I was thinking — and I really was, and kind of am, still into languages. I was thinking, ‘Oh, ok, maybe international development could pull on things I had learned.’ I ended up working for a non-governmental organization, American Friends Service Committee, in Philadelphia. 

And I started taking classes on anything that interested me on the side. So I was taking film editing classes, I was taking dancing classes and acting classes. And I thought maybe I would become a documentary filmmaker. I hated editing film. 

I also took cooking classes. And the cooking classes were the most fun, because I felt like I saw the fruits of my labor immediately. So, it was like that immediate gratification thing. And I think I realized how much I enjoyed working with my hands. 

I ended up getting an apprenticeship at this restaurant in Philadelphia called Fork. I was actually trying to get a proper job there on the weekends. But the chef was like, ‘You have no restaurant experience at all.’ But she was kind enough to let me come in and do prep work on the weekends. 

And I really loved it. It was the first time I ever showed up on time for work. I felt fully engaged and completely stimulated and very present. And I loved that I was making things, and I loved that I was working with people and I got to see — even though I wasn't the person cooking, I was just chopping up five bins of onions, I kind of got a kick out of the fact that what I was preparing would be put to use to make a beautiful meal. 

And at the time, I also really wanted to go — I thought I wanted to go to grad school. I was all over the place. I was looking at business school. I was really, very materialistic. I wanted to become a millionaire by the age of 25. So I was like, ‘I’m gonna get an MBA, and that's how I'm gonna make millions of dollars!’ Which makes no sense. But I wasn't very logical. 

But I did definitely want to go to some kind of school. So I asked the chef I was reporting to about her opinion on going to culinary school and she was like, ‘You don't actually have to go to culinary school if you want to be a chef, but I would consider it if you want to go into pastry.’ And so that kind of was a lightbulb moment because I do have a major sweet tooth. I had some thoughts maybe of like, Julia Child. I had studied in Paris before when I was in college

for a semester, and frankly, I had a terrible time. And I wanted to go back and have a do over. 

And so basically I was like, ‘Ok, I can go to culinary school for pastries.’ So, I did research on pastry programs in this country, and they were all super expensive. And I already had student loans. So I was like, ‘I'm not trying to go into debt for culinary school.’ I did research on Le Cordon Bleu, and took a quick little — I think I took like — I was living with my parents at the time, so I was able to save money. I took a little research weekend trip to Paris and I was just like, ‘Ok, I could do this.’ And I got a second job, saved up money. This is, meanwhile, still working at the NGO.

And yeah, I was like, ‘Ok, Le Cordon Bleu, weirdly the more budget-friendly school.’ And also because I am a Francophile, it kind of checked that box. And it gave me the opportunity to have a Paris do over. And it all kind of seemed perfect. I was like, ‘Ooh, I'm going to learn how to make croissant in Pair-ee, and that's going to be amazing.’ 

I was there for a total of four years, but the pastry program was nine months. And the first nine months were a genuine fairy tale. It was a good choice for me.

Alicia: That's awesome. 

Were you fluent in French before you went?

Klancy: I was. Which was, I think, the thing that made it even more kind of magical. ‘Cause I was really able to connect in a way that made it feel like an actual home for me.

Alicia: And how did studying pastry in particular shape your approach to savory cooking?

Klancy: I'm not sure it really has, but maybe — I have a visual thing. ’Cause, at least at Le Cordon Bleu and in the pastry kitchens I worked in, you always wanna make it look soigné, you always wanna make it look nice. Especially in the French approach to desserts, there's such a visual emphasis. I care about how food looks. Even before Instagram, I cared about how food looked. 

And I think, I don't know, with pastry, it's kind of laborious. It's really precise. It's a little tedious. So, that is something that I don't really run away from with cooking. But that being said, I actually think because sometimes more difficult pastry is a little tedious, it makes me want to cook like savory food in the simplest way possible.

Alicia: And the political potential of baking has been a big theme this year. Do you view pastry as a tool for political and societal change?

Klancy: Totally. 

I wrote about Georgia Gilmore for the New York Times “Overlooked” section, either last year or the year before last. Time doesn't exist anymore. And I really, really loved researching her story and her work. And the fact that she, from her home, was baking and cooking and selling the food she made to help fund the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted I think 382 days or 381 days in Montgomery, Alabama. And the fact that she was not doing this by herself, she was organizing other women to do the same. And so she's the woman whose name we know best from that moment, and from that action of cooking and baking and organizing. But there were many women like her. And I think that is one of the most powerful examples of how food and baking and cooking can be used as tools for political organizing.

Alicia: To change gears from pastry, but your cookbook, Cooking Solo, is about making meals for one. And what was the inspiration for that? Because that really is a unique idea in cookbooks, which — where the portions are for four to six people all the time.

Klancy: Yeah, so for Cooking Solo, that book is definitely heavily influenced from my time living in Paris. 

So basically, when I got to Paris, it was my first time ever living on my own, having my own little studio apartment, and my first time cooking all of my meals for myself. And it was really a joy for me because I was basically getting to know my neighborhood. And one of the ways I got to know my neighborhood was by going to the little farmer’s markets, the marché, every — whatever days they were running. 

And so I would just buy random things and experiment with them. And I had this teeny-tiny refrigerator in my teeny-tiny apartment. And so I was never really making — it didn't make sense to have a lot of leftovers. It didn't even make sense to buy a lot of food. So, I was constantly making these small meals or kind of single-serving recipes. 

After that whole experience in Paris, I actually wanted to write a cookbook about my time there and to make it kind of a food memoir, with an emphasis on things I ate. And that got roundly rejected. Like, literally by 30 different publishers. But my mom was like, ‘You have recipes, you have a repertoire, you should — something's right under your nose that you could mine for another book project.’ I took that seriously.

And it was also at a time when — I don't remember the year, it was either 2012 or 2013. But the census had come out saying that for the first time in U.S. history, there were more single people than married people. And that was another lightbulb moment ‘cause I thought, ‘Oh, I am also single. And I also cook a lot. And even when I'm in a relationship, I cook a lot for myself. Or a romantic relationship.’ 

I basically was like, ‘There is an audience. The census just told me there's an audience for cookbooks for one.’ Even though I use leftovers, I don't really like having them. So I really thought like, ‘Ok, maybe there are other people like me who like to go to dinner parties and restaurants, but also like to cook for themselves and don't want to be bogged down with leftover food, and just want to enjoy a meal for one.’ So, that was the inspiration.

Alicia: Well, when did you decide you wanted to write? Was that always something you wanted to do?

Klancy: I've always written. I haven't always tried to be published —

After working in bakeries and restaurants in Paris, I kind of — I actually wanted to get a restaurant job, but the chef I was working for was like, ‘You're great, but you're too slow.’ And I was a little distraught, but I also was always tired from that job. I loved it. This is like the last pastry kitchen I worked in. And I was kind of like, ‘All right, I'm not necessarily — I think I have talent and skill, but I don't really have the chops to be working in a kitchen full time.’ 

And so at the same time as I was having that realization, Le Cordon Bleu had a job opening in the recipe development department. And so I was like, ‘This is great, I can make actual money and also learn something else in the food world or under the food umbrella, learn how to write recipes and stuff.’ And so that was helpful. 

And then I started kind of writing, basically writing for free, for a blog about Paris food, or  a blog about Paris but I wrote about food. And then I thought, ‘Well, I should try to be paid, try to actually sell articles.’ So, I ended up taking this class on food writing from Alan Richman who either still writes for GQ or used to write for GQ about food. 

And yeah, so I started a blog, Klancy's Potluck. And I did a series of informational interviews with magazine editors and chefs and journalists, basically asking them about their paths and how to get a foot in the door. And, yeah, I just very slowly started building, getting clips and writing stories. I actually got an agent through one of my informational interviews, and she immediately put me on a ghost writing project. So, that helped.

I think I got into writing about food, because I realized I wasn't going to be working in a kitchen but I still loved food and wine and very much wanted to be part of the food world, so to speak, and was trying to figure out, ‘How can I do that without being a professional chef?’ 

I also work as a writer for Columbia [University]. I never talk about it, but that is another hat I wear. I wear a lot of hats. And that's another major hat I wear that allows me to live.

Alicia: Right, right. It's always important — because people are always wondering like, ‘How does anyone survive as a writer?’

Klancy: Yeah, you have to juggle.

Alicia: Yeah, absolutely. 

Yeah, that's interesting, because I actually — I mean, I always wanted to be a writer and worked in magazines, but then I kind of accidentally became a baker, a vegan baker. And then that was how I decided to write about food, was because I was like, ‘Actually, this is too much and I'm never gonna make any real —’ I was selling stuff, but it's — the margins are so incredibly slim. I was like, ‘I don't think I have it in me to keep doing this.’ And that I was like, You know what, I can write about food.’

Klancy: Totally. Exactly.

Alicia: Yeah, it's a way to stay in the world without, yeah, without losing your marbles. 

Klancy: Yeah, totally.

This was in Paris, but I actually continued this in the States, I had a sweet potato pie little artisanal business. I would sell sweet potato pies to places. I worked as a translator. I don't know, I feel like you have to juggle but you also have to figure out, ‘How can I streamline and enjoy my life?’

Alicia: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

And, speaking of, last year you announced you were going to launch For the Culture, a magazine. And it seems people have been so excited for it from day one. But it was also a pretty prescient move as people are looking to independent media more and more, especially in food. So, how has your vision for the magazine changed over the year, of fund-raising and visibility, if it has at all?

Klancy: I think my vision is pretty much still the same. I've been really heartened and humbled and amazed by the very kind and generous support of For the Culture. Nobody could have made up this year. There's no way any of us could have imagined how 2020 would unfold. I am glad that it is a project that definitely, I think, resonates with the moment, or maybe reflects the moment a little bit — again, not that I predicted that. 

I feel like I definitely heard Devita [Davison] talking about like, ‘How is this moment radicalizing you?’ And I feel like for me, I really paid a lot of attention to and learned, I am still learning, about movements to support Black trans lives. And so I feel like, ‘Ok, if there has been any change, it's that I wanna figure out how to incorporate and highlight Black trans stories, specifically Black trans women in food, in the magazine.’ 

So, that's something that when I first started the project wasn't necessarily at the forefront of my mind. But over the course of the year, I've been like, ‘Oh, ok, this is something that I need to center. I need to have thought and reflection, and make sure that these stories are also included.’ 

So yeah, that's kind of a change, but it's not — I don't know. I feel like it makes sense.

Alicia: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

And for you, is cooking a political act?

Klancy: Yeah. I mean, I think of cooking as — I think cooking allows control. And I think it allows personal control. I think it allows for supporting a different food economy, or more directly supporting farmers. 

I also think of cooking in terms of its being a political act, I think of it in terms of imperialism. I also think of it in terms of hunger and ‘how does hunger exist?’ I don't know, just moments in history and moments in, I don't know, Ronald Reagan's war against food stamps. 

So, I feel like it's all connected in food — in cooking, cooking specifically is, I think, deeply political.

Alicia: Right.

Well, thank you so much for coming on again.

Klancy: I am so grateful you had me, and I'm — yeah, I’m totally honored. It's such a pleasure. It's my pleasure. Thank you.

Alicia: Thanks.