Jun 25, 2021 • 30M

A Conversation with Taffy Elrod

Talking to the chef about her upbringing and leaving New York City to open a pizza restaurant in the Hudson Valley.

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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’ve been following the chef and writer Taffy Elrod on Twitter for years, and right now she’s having a moment. From teaching virtual classes while the restaurant she owns in the Hudson Valley with her husband has been closed to working with Rancho Gordo on a bean recipe booklet, she’s been making the most of a weird moment for a chef accustomed to working with the public.

We discussed her mostly vegetarian upbringing, studying at the Natural Gourmet Institute, and the thin line between hospitality and hostility. Listen above, read below.


Alicia: Hi, Taffy. Thank you so much for coming on today.

Taffy: Hi, Alicia. Thank you for having me.

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

Taffy: Yeah, sure. 

I grew up in southeastern Michigan, in Ann Arbor. My folks were from the Detroit area. And what I ate is [laughs]—mainly, the main story of what I ate is that I grew up in that healthy, whole food hippie home. [Laughs.] Whole food, meaning the foods, not the store, because that didn't exist in our area yet. 

So I grew up eating a lot of brown food. Brown rice and millet. And gosh, lots and lots of beans and tofu. And then sort of these re-engineered foods that—my grandmother was the head of the household and the vegetarian. So, she would make things like stuffed cabbage without the meat, and all kinds of things like that. And then, that was our mainstay. 

And then there were a few other things. My dad, his family's from down South. My dad's African American, his family's from down South. So sometimes with him, then my brother and I would eat completely different foods, because we would suddenly be having, gosh, be at McDonald's or having pizza or something. But for the most part, it was that sort of healthy hippie dippie, earthy, Earth mama food.

Alicia: What made your grandmother be vegetarian?

Taffy: I mean, she was way ahead of her time. She would probably be an amazing influencer if she were here right now.

She did it for two reasons. One, being ethical. She loved animals and didn't—she grew up on a farm and didn't like hurting animals. 

And two, she just had health problems in her mid-30s. She was a typical, sort of—not typical, but she was living, I should say, a typical sort of suburban working class life and—in Detroit. And she had health problems. And that through her research, she came up with this solution to her health problems of changing her diet, changing her lifestyle. She cut out all alcohol. She stopped smoking cigarettes. She cut out white sugar, she cut out white flour. She became vegetarian. 

And I mean, of course, there was a movement at that time that she was a part of. She worked in this—a food co-op in Detroit. Things like that. But that was her journey. It was about health and about—she loved everyone and everything, and couldn't stand to hurt anything. She didn't like to bring cut flowers in the house, a habit that I have continued. She didn't like to cut a tree for Christmas. She had like a little potted fir tree. 

Alicia: Wow. [Laughs.] 

Taffy: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Alicia: You write in your bio that you grew up in a family of artists and cooks. But I wanted to ask, what drew you into working in food yourself?

Taffy: It was kind of a long, slow road, I always was just deeply intrigued by food and cooking. And obviously, it was a big part of my family. But I didn't necessarily see it as my career goal. I think because it was so deeply ingrained in our family, that it just was there as this sort of backdrop. 

But as I got older, and I was doing—I was working retail and just couldn't figure out what to do with myself. And by older, I mean like my early 20s. I realized that what I spent all my free time on was food—and my love of food and collecting cookbooks and trying new recipes and trying to learn things. And that it really was my one great love, my one true love.

Alicia: Right.

And how have you expressed it in your life? What have been the ways in which you've worked in food and expressed this love?

Taffy: Well, first of all, when I was in school, I wouldn't—I was paying my way through community college, when—back in Michigan when I was young. And like everything I did in school, if we had a paper to write or project, I would always—it would be about food. 

So, I had to give a presentation in my French class. And I came up with a pie that I could make in like 10 minutes in class. And that was the beginning of my food demonstration career. I was like, ‘My French is terrible, but if I make a pie they won't care. Nobody will care.’ 

And I found this French cooking magazine and just pieced it, figured out how to give this presentation even though I couldn't speak French. My professor was like, ‘How did you do this?’ I basically just stole it out of this magazine. But the pie was this other pie, so I mashed it together and I made a pie. So that the end of my 10 minute presentation, there was a pie for the class to eat: this no-bake pie. 

So I was always doing things like that. No matter what I had to do, I would just figure out—food would be the way that I would do it. So at some point, it just sort of became—I would be taking a writing class, and everything I was writing was about food. 

My professor was like, ‘Maybe, I don't know. I'm gonna throw this out here: Maybe you're interested in food or something.’ I just kind of eventually realized like, ‘Oh, right. This is what I should just be doing.’ Then I made the decision to get into culinary school and pursue it that way, because I thought I needed to get out of my little pond and do—go somewhere bigger to pursue my career dreams.

Alicia: Where do you go to culinary school?

Taffy: I went to the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health in New York City in Chelsea. Yeah. [Laughs.] At the time, I was still very much ensconced in that lifestyle of the vegetarian, veganism, whole foods. And I was wondering like, ‘Well, where in the world am I going to go to cooking school? What am I going to do about this?’ And then I found out about them. And they have since been absorbed by ICE, by the Institute of Culinary Education. That ICE. Not any other ICE. 

But at the time, I mean, it was really interesting to be there. It was a great experience. I made great friends. And I loved it. And I moved to New York City to do that. It was a big deal. It wasn't easy for me to do. But it made my life, my career, a little bit maybe more difficult to get a good foot into the culinary scene in New York. Because, of course, to most people it was like, ‘I'm sorry, where did you go to school?’ [Laughs.] But for me, it was the right thing for me to do at the time. And it was a great experience.

Alicia: Well, where did you end up getting your feet into the culinary scene then? 

Taffy: So of course, I had already done some work back home. My mom had a cake decorating business. My dad worked in restaurants, and my grandmother worked in a bakery. And I had done some work already with them growing up. When I realized I wanted to start cooking, I had started segueing into food. So I had done some food work growing up in Ann Arbor.

And then when I left school in New York, I had two part-time jobs. I worked in a little—another grad had opened up this little sort of lunch café place in Chelsea. And then I got a job working on a nutrition study at Teachers College at Columbia University. It involved macrobiotics, so that was how I ended up there. 

So I was doing those two things. And then I’ve done so many different, so much different work. A little bit of restaurant work. But again, it didn't always click between my background. And at the time, 20 years ago, being a woman of color in the restaurant industry, it didn't, wasn't amazing for me. It didn't really click great in the back of the house. 

So I kind of just kept on this funny path of different—doing these different things. So a lot of health and nutrition, private cooking, and so on and so forth, and demos and things like that. A lot of teaching. Gosh, have cooked in so many different places. [Laughs.]

Alicia: Well, I mean, it's funny, because I was going to ask you wha—how you have such a varied kind of portfolio in terms of different diets and different dietary restrictions, which I now very much understand. [Laughs.] Which is that you went to the Natural Gourmet Institute, you grew up with a vegetarian kind of background. It's interesting that that is something that has both held you back seemingly, but also been a way forward for you.

Taffy: Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. 

At one point in time, it was so unknown, so fringe in American culture. Now, it's become so much more accepted or popular, whatever you want to call it. And I always appreciated that I had that knowledge and that I had the understanding of it, because you can always—the other information and, is always there. And knowing how to make something taste delicious with butter was not really that hard to do. [Laughs.] It tastes good. We make stuff taste good.

When you know  how to approach food from a different angle, whatever it may be, and you know how to work with a minimum of ingredients or you know how to work with ingredients that might be outside of the ‘standard,’ that always, in my opinion, improves your cooking within the standard, because you have more tools to work with or this wider knowledge. And so, I was never undone by walking into a kitchen and finding out that there was nothing in there. [Laughs.] There was no equipment, or there was no—there's nothing good in here to cook. 

So, I worked in a place where I made gluten-free vegan soups five days a week, and—from pretty basic ingredients. So you can give me a couple turnips or a bag of lentils or whatever like, ‘I'm gonna make you some soup.’ You know what I mean? And that is obviously a skill that most of our ancestors have possessed until very recently. But it's also a skill that, as a professional cook, will really stand you in good stead. It's really great to be able to cook without needing to have the best of the best.

Alicia: Right.

Well, you live in the Hudson Valley now, right? And what are you doing now? What's your life like now?

Taffy: Hmm, yeah, that's a pretty big question. 

My husband and I are in Hudson Valley. We came up about six years ago to open our pizzeria restaurant that unfortunately is closed right now. And I mean, honestly, it was such a big change. It was such a culture shock for me—not just from New York City, obviously. But from my past life, even very different. We're in, I don't know, just a very different environment. 

And our lives changed completely almost overnight, because we found a place and just sort of took it on spec and just went from our—the lives we had in the city. I was working full-time as a cooking teacher. He was trying to sort of figure out what to do with himself next. And all of a sudden, we were just in this business. His brother was supposed to work with us, and he didn't. 

So all of a sudden, I went from having this, my job, to—we opened the pizzeria. And then suddenly, I was in the pizzeria all the time, too. Our other source of income was gone. And it was just the two of us in this pizzeria. And it was do or die. And suddenly, we were just together 48 hours a day and—just doing one of the most stressful jobs or businesses you can imagine. So I just really, there's not really words for it. 

And then of course the last year and a half, just everything ended up changing all over again. So I'm kind of starting over again. So it's just been one really wild ride, honestly.

Alicia: [Laughs.] 

Obviously, you've worked with your husband. You do recipes. You've also been a professional cook. How doyou approach cooking in a home way versus a professional way, or is there a difference?

Taffy: [Laughs.] 

That's a great question. A balance? I've never heard of it. 

I don't know. I don't think I do. When it comes to cooking, I'm like this amorphous blob. It's just all food all the time. And so, I obviously cook differently at home than I did in the restaurant. But at the same time, when we were in the restaurant 12 or 14 hours a day I cooked all our meals in the restaurant. Or he did. So home cooking didn't even exist. 

And then suddenly when we were shuttered, and I was home and I was by myself because he was stuck in Montenegro, where he's from and couldn't get home. I was just home by myself. So it was unbelievable going from cooking all day every day for our customers to just suddenly being home alone. 

But I've always had kind of this porous—I don't really see it as distinctly different. I cook at home similar to how I cook professionally. I mean, obviously, I wasn't at home making pizzas all the time. [Laughs.] But a lot of the things that I cooked in the restaurant, I’d cook them at home. I mean, the only difference for me is just the level of prep and the level of service and how I'm plating it. But I'm notorious for cooking enough for 100 people when it's two of us. Never mastered small portions. 

And the answer is, I don't. It's just me. That's what I do.

Alicia: Well, you've also been teaching online cooking classes. And why did you decide to go that route? They're very affordable, too affordable I noticed. And I noticed you're doing one called The Art of Salad. How are you deciding what to teach, and why are you teaching online?

Taffy: Yeah.

I just decided to keep that one like extra affordable, because I'm going off the cuff. I'm not giving recipes or anything, so I was like, ‘Whatever.’ 

Well, it came about because I had a couple companies that I was working with as a recipe developer doing some online work. And so at the beginning of lockdown, they had asked me to do some Instagram Lives when everybody was just doing whatever, just doing anything to pass the time. That was how I kind of got started doing virtual cooking. 

And then a couple opportunities came up in the last few months. And I had already done some filmed cooking demonstrations for a company I work with, so it was kind of natural. We didn't even think we were going to live in this apartment for more than a few months. I had never even cooked in this kitchen before we got out of the restaurant or got pulled out of the restaurant, whatever. 

So, it's been weird. It's been awkward. And that's part of why I've kind of just kept the bar low, because my kitchen is not up to a lot of demands here. But I realized that it was a good way for me—I miss people. I miss cooking for people. I miss my students. 

So, it's different. It's virtual. It's not the same, but at least it gives me an outlet to be able to share. Because I'm one of those people like, ‘Yeah, I'd love to cook,’ but if somebody isn't gonna be there to share it with—it's just half of s experience. It's not the whole experience. I'm definitely a nurturer, I guess.

Alicia: Right. 

No, I hate cooking for just myself. It's depressing. Yeah, I don't know. For me, I just make something weird. And then, it's not even satisfying. I eat it standing up. I think it is almost why I'm—I will often plate things nicely and take pictures and post them on Insta. It gives me content to make myself something, but at the same time I'm not that interested all the time in eating it because I just don't like eating—I like eating alone out at a restaurant or a bar. I don't like eating alone in my house. [Laughter.] It's simply not for me. 

Taffy: Yeah, I know what you mean. I don't mind the eating alone. But I just don't care then about the cooking. Just keep it simple. 

Once in a while, but rarely.

Alicia: Yeah, no, Maybe it's my Libra moon. I like to nest. [Laughs.]

But I wrote about hospitality for my newsletter this week. And when you quote tweeted, “Nothing’s ever made more sense to me than the connection between hostility and hospitality.” And I wanted to ask why you said that, and why that connection is so clear to you. 

Taffy: Wel. [Laughs.] 

So first of all, we had a restaurant. Or I don't know, sort of, maybe we still have a restaurant someday. We'll see. 

I worked in food service and in our restaurant for a long time with contact with our customers. In our restaurant, we had constant contact with our customers as opposed to having a lot of front of the house staff. 

And the truth of matter is, there's a lot of hostility involved. People are hostile. They feel very, I don't know, kind of—and around here, they tended to be really kind of aggressive and gruff. [Laughs.] And the first impression was always like, ‘Well, I don’t know you. Why do you hate me?’ So I mean, there's just kind of that—obviously, or of it-

But after having worked in this world for a long time, the reality is that—and I always think about this for myself. And I think I had posted something on Twitter about this. I used to work in people's homes and call myself a private chef, and I always in the back of my head used to sort of laugh at myself and think, ‘Private chef. Yes, right. But you do know that 50 years ago, you would have been the cook, right? [Laughs.] You know, this, don't you?’

There is this strange interaction, and sort of bristly space between people who are being served and people who are serving. My husband would always, always says, ‘I'm your server, not your servant.’ But the truth of the matter is that comes from—they come from the same place. It's a small difference. And there is, I think, from the people who are being served, a lot of times they actually feel very defensive about their needs or how they be treated, whether they think that if they don't tell you what to do, you're not going to do it. 

Or just that there's that uncomfortability. I mean, I remember that working in someone's home and in their kitchen and being all day with, around their kids and whatever. It was a strange feeling. You had to keep this sort of veneer of professionalism. And yet you're in someone's most intimate space, and you're doing something so incredibly intimate: preparing the food that they're going to eat, especially when it's right in their own home. 

And there is this sort of always this undercurrent of discomfort or almost—I don't know, you kind of have to be on the offensive. Or they're on the offensive. I thought, ‘How can I put this into words?’ I couldn't really, but it just seemed so clear to me. It's so obvious. I was like, ‘Yeah, totally.’ 

I mean, in our last place, it was our place. We had to be so defensive, so protective of ourselves. People would walk in and see a brown-skinned woman, an immigrant. I would get emails complaining about how the staff treated people when they were talking about me and my husband. 

There was so much constant, kind of this undercurrent of hostility and having to kind of be on the offensive to keep people in their place, because they just kind of wanted to come in and take over if they could. So yeah, it just really resonated.

Alicia: Well, I'm glad for that. But it is so interesting. As you said, your husband says the connection’s also between server and servant. These are very, very thin boundaries between these things: hostility, hospitality. Server, servant. And I think, yeah, people just aren't aware of it. They're hostile and they want a servant, and I don't know how that changes, really, on a broader scale. It's interesting. 

It's funny. When I worked at a bar, I ended up being the only employee that ever—someone ever emailed about for being rude. [Laughter.] As I remember it, I had a packed bar, and someone needed more time to decide what they wanted. And so I said, ‘Ok,’ and put my hand up in a way of kind of gesturing to say, ‘Ok, I've got what you said.’ And they were offended by that. Because I put my hand in the air and pointed to kind of make a mental note while I'm trying to remember what everyone wants?

It's just such a strange interaction all the time. If I ever go out with someone who ends up being weird or impatient with the staff, I'm like, ‘I'm never going out with you again.’ [Laughter.] I can't live like that. I can't be associated with that. Our friendship is never going to exist in these spaces.

Taffy: Yeah. 

It's weird. It's interesting. And obviously, I mean, if you've never worked in the food industry or in service, then I almost understand that you don't understand. If you have, then I really am confused by where you're coming from. ‘Well, I served people. Now I'm gonna take it out on somebody else’ attitude. [Laughs.] Just ignore the reality of the situation, I don't know. [Laughs.]

Alicia: I don’t know.

Well, for you is cooking a political act?

Taffy: Yeah.

I mean, absolutely. I mean hopefully sometimes it isn't. Hopefully, sometimes at home, it isn't. But food is. And food is so political. And everything about the act of growing, selling, consuming food. Even the connections between the food and our perceptions of our bodies is so politicized. 

It would be impossible for it not to be, because we all have to eat. So therefore, food is a point of really powerful control. So whatever your choices are, you think you're making neutral choices about your food. Believe me, the ramifications are political. And if you have choices to make, if you have the privilege of making choices, that's political. If you don't have the privilege of making choices around what you eat, that's political. 

So to me, it's just—it just simply is. There isn’t, I don't think, in this modern day and age, a place where anybody can just choose to live off the land, be free and make their own food. So I think we're all very much caught up in the web of the politics of food. And cooking and eating are so—oh, boy. Especially in the modern American culture, is layer on layer upon layer of social ramifications and guilt. 

Alicia: Yeah.

No, I mean—because these industries aren't regulated at all. The state is not taking care of us or workers or the planet. And thus, it's all on our shoulders.

Taffy: Yeah. 

But I think that's what they—I don't know, whoever they are. It's obviously all about consumption and consumerism, literal consumption, obviously. But I mean about capitalism, consumerism, and money: the almighty dollar. And so I think that just throwing it back on the consumer and saying, ‘It's on you. You figure it out. You do it. You do something and it'll fix it.’ is really—I think it's really a scam. It's manipulative, and it's toxic. The average person didn't create the system, isn't benefiting from it. 

And then obviously, when you talk about less served populations and under, ‘underdeveloped’ nations, which—I don't know. I was thinking about it the other day. I was like, ‘Why don't they call some place like America an overdeveloped nation?’ Because we are. We're not nicely developed, we’re overdeveloped. As long as it's just finger-pointing things, like ‘You're responsible!’ Like me personally is gonna change what they're doing, so they don't have to take any responsibility for it. And it's always just another ploy to create another industrial mass produced food that will be this, ‘That'll fix the problem.’ Oh, that's weird. 

My husband always jokes about fasting kits being sold, like fasting came into vogue and now you can buy a fasting kit. I don’t know what's in it. I think that just sums it all up. You have to sell something to somebody for them to not eat or drink. So I mean, that's the world we're living in. I mean, I would like to feel like it were, it was a little different. 

I mean, I can make personal choices. And I can do my best. But you know what? Somebody else is eventually going to have to answer for themselves and do something different. If it’s gonna change, actions are actually gonna have to change. 

Alicia: Yeah, yeah. 

Well, thank you so much for your time today.

Taffy: [Laughs.] Thank you.