Oct 23, 2020 • 21M

A Conversation with Vallery Lomas

Listen now | On her upbringing, her forthcoming cookbook, and the balancing act that is freelancing in food media.

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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The first time I met Vallery Lomas was at the Food Writers’ Workshop in 2018. She had DMed me on Instagram asking if it was ok for her to show up, even though she hadn’t been able to secure a ticket. Venue occupancy limits be damned, I told her to come by, because she was—as I said to her then—“famous.” And she was, because she’d won The Great American Baking Show but it had never aired. One of the hosts had been outed as a sexual harasser before it debuted.

Regardless of that start to her career in the public eye, Lomas has emerged as a baking star, publishing her recipes with The New York Times, appearing on the Today, show, and working on a cookbook for Clarkson Potter. While she had already been famous in the food world, she’s destined to reach far beyond. Listen to our conversation above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi ,Vallery—thanks so much for coming on.

Vallery: Hi, Alicia. Thanks for having me.

Alicia: I was gonna ask my normal first question, but since you said you've had such a crazy week, can you tell me about why you've had a crazy week?

Vallery: [Laughs.] Yeah.

So, I am in the process of preparing for the photoshoot for my book, which will be out in September of next year. The photo shoot — we're starting beginning of next week. 

And I'm also working on manuscript edits and working on a project that's going to be really cool. It's going to have something to do with holiday baking. Just getting ready for that, since we are making some videos and you kind of have to do some — a lot a — just, a lot of work gearing up for that.

Alicia: Oh, wow. Well, that's super exciting, then.

Vallery: Yeah, it is very exciting. [Laughs.]

Alicia: Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Vallery: Yeah. 

So, I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, born and raised. And I ate just a lot of different things. Obviously, I ate a lot of Louisiana food, like crawfish boils. That's what you do in springtime. like April, May. 

I always loved fresh fruit. And my grandmother, she always had like fig trees, and a grapefruit tree. And we had blackberries growing wild in our backyard. So, I was always just tickled to be able to go and pluck fruit off of the tree and enjoy that. 

And my mom, she's actually from Indiana. So, we also ate rice for breakfast, which is apparently a very Midwestern thing, just rice with butter and sugar.

Alicia: That’s awesome. I mean, it sounds like oatmeal, basically, just with rice.

Vallery: Ok, that's a very interesting way of looking at it. I never thought about it — I just thought, my first cousin, and I was like, ‘This is so weird.’ But we'd go spend summers there. And I'd be like, ‘This is delicious’

Alicia: Well, you didn't start your career in food. So, what inspired you to get into food? What role has food played in your whole life, and what made you make that leap to kind of making it your whole life?

Vallery: So, for me, creating food, and not just creating it but sharing it with other people through media — and for many years, that was through a blog — it was really just an outlet. Because I enjoy doing it, and I had just something inside of me that had this impulse to create things, and take pictures of them, and write about them, and share it with other people. 

And I never really saw, or even really thought about, I guess, how it could potentially be a career. Because I was always very focused on my academics. And it was always you do well in school to go to a good college, and do well in college to go to grad school, and you do well in grad school to pass the bar exam and get a good job. And I had always thought along those lines. I had never really kind of branched out into this concept of the world of being more of an entrepreneurial creative. 

I'm trying to think about when it was that I saw this as an actual career path that I really, I thought I could make something of. And I think I actually had the idea of sharing food in a book before I had the idea of knowing this could be a potential career. I just thought it would be something that I could potentially do while still working as a lawyer full-time. 

But I competed on the Great American Baking Show in winter, or in fall and winter of 2017. And when I got back home from competing on that, I was just sitting at work, feeling like the walls were closing in on me. And I knew that I couldn't devote the best hours of my day to work

that I just was — I really wasn't passionate about it. And that isn't to say that there wasn't a place for me in the legal field where I could have felt that, but I wasn't feeling it. 

I took this leap and was like, ‘Well, I don't know how we're going to make this work.’ And I didn't have anything lined up. And I just said, ‘You know, I want to take that chance to see if I can make an actual career out of this.’

Alicia: Right.

Has that training as a lawyer helped you in your career now, focusing on being a food writer and a kind of a food content creator?

Vallery: Yeah.

I mean, it's interesting, because I think a lot of lawyers, they're self selected for a number of reasons. But, I do enjoy reading, I enjoy writing, I enjoy analyzing, and those are all skills that I really honed in on as a law student, ’cause you don't really have a choice. And also just understanding the concept of sources and primary sources, and knowing — just kind of knowing how to research, and not taking everything at face value, and understanding terms of art. 

And also just knowing how to work hard, because, for the vast most part, being an attorney is — extremely, it's a lot of work. And it's a lot of expectations that people have, just the nature of the job, for some reason is not a good work-life balance, as they say. It's just an expectation of a lot of hours and an expectation of really being committed.

And I think anyone who has written a book, and definitely a cookbook, really understands how much it takes to kind of do it start to finish. So, I think just that work ethic of knowing how to really push myself has probably been the most practical thing.

Alicia: Right. 

It's funny, ’cause as you say that I'm like, ‘All the people I know who are lawyers, and all the people I know who are bakers, are the hardest-working people I know,’ because they're the ones who are like working these long hours. Bakers have to get up at like three in the morning to bake the bread, etc, etc. There is that connection between this very, very focused and intense work ethic, which I hadn't thought about before.

Vallery: It's unavoidable. Any lawyer has studied for the bar exam, which is a crazy thing. And just to kind of put yourself in that zone, and be in that zone for months and months, or people who have worked in the field years, it's a lot of pressure. 

Alicia: [Laughs.] And so, we talked a bit about the pro — where you are in your cookbook process right now? What was the difference between doing a cookbook versus doing your blog or your Instagram? How have those processes differed, or maybe, how have they been the same?

Vallery: Yeah, I mean, I feel like with a book I'm always thinking about this much bigger picture, whereas — and the bigger picture I'm thinking about with a book is, one, it's sharing just my absolute favorite recipes and recipes that are meaningful, but also telling this broader story. 

Whereas with Instagram, I mean, I use social media for a number of different ways these days. But ideally, when I'm thinking about the bigger picture of Instagram, I'm thinking more aesthetically, like, ‘Ok, what photo will look good next to the eight photos I've just posted on my grid? What's the color scheme? What is it so that it fits, so that I don't have a bunch of round pies, one after the next?’ Yeah, I think I think about it a little bit more aesthetically. 

But, I also use social media as a way to — it's a lot of the bread and butter of this whole career in food media. It's how I pay these bills. So, a lot of social content is kind of — I'm not gonna say dictated — but that's a huge part of social content, including blogging content is what different brand partnerships that I have.

Alicia: Does that, I don't know, change your creativity in any way? I don't know, I think people talk about Instagram, and usually they're talking about it in these, laborious ways like, ‘Ugh,’ about these aesthetics, and the grid, and performance, or something like that. For me, and I think for other people, maybe for you, too, it doesn't always feel inauthentic. 

And so, how does Instagram kind of being the bread and butter of your work in food media, change maybe what you want to do? Or does it influence things in a way that you don't like? Or are you still doing kind of what is authentic to you?

Vallery: Yeah, I mean, I think that's an interesting question. Because I feel from when I first got on Instagram to where I am now, it's been a total evolution. 

And when I got on it in 2016, it was really with the idea of one, people are sick of me posting food photos on my personal account. And two, I think the — one of the earlier pictures I posted got reposted by a big account. And I then saw like, ‘Oh, hey, this is a way I can actually build a community of people who are interested in the content I'm creating.’ 

Whereas now, I feel like it — Instagram is a full-time job. When I’m really excelling at Instagram, I am putting in so much thought and time and energy into it. Earlier this year, I got to a point where I was like, ‘This is enjoyable again. I like this. This is fun.’

Just how my account evolved, I think, it has been a struggle to balance it with other creative endeavors that I have. If I'm trying to build connections, where I'm sharing recipes with other media outlets, that's a recipe that I'm not going to share on my blog. And the reach I can get from other media outlets, it — and the credibility is, I think, important for me to kind of take the next step that I want to take in my career in this industry.

So, it's kind of this tough thing to balance of recipes that we've saved for the book, recipes that we're pitching to other media outlets, and then it's like, ‘Ok, so what's left for my blog? What's left for social media?’ 

And that's where those brand partnerships definitely come into play. And some of them are indeed — or I'll say, most of them — are very authentic and genuine. And I actually really enjoy developing recipes for brands, and it also gives me mandatory blog and social media content. 

So, it's a balancing act that I am working on.

Alicia: Right.

No, and I think every freelancer is working on similar balancing acts. I have the newsletter now, and I'm writing a book. And I'm supposed to write, still, for other people. It's like, ‘Where's this well of inspiration that I'm supposed to be drawing from?’ 

Especially now in the pandemic, which — where inspiration used to be pretty easy to come by, because you’d just live in the world. And someone would say something offhand, and you'd be like, ‘Oh, that's a great story idea, actually.’ Or you could observe what is trending, or something like that. But now, it's — everything is coming from the inside, which is an interesting thing. 

And for you, has the pandemic affected your cooking or your work? Where have you been drawing inspiration?

Vallery: Yeah, I mean, I think those are all just really great points. 

And I think I told myself several years ago, when I really kind of went down the rabbit hole of food media and wanting to exist in it. One of my mantras was like, ‘You are an unlimited well of creativity.’ [Laughter.] Whether it's true or not doesn't matter, but you have to at least tell yourself that.

But yeah, I mean, I think with the pandemic — I don't know. I had a really rough start to the whole pandemic, and recovery has been slower than I'd like. And that, just coupled with manuscript edits — that's a really great question. I'm like, ‘Where am I getting inspiration from?’

Oh, actually, my parents. So, my dad — he is, he just has all the great stories about every family member and every ancestor. So, I actually published a recipe for New York Times Cooking a few weeks ago, on succotash with sausage and shrimp, and my dad was 100 percent everything behind that recipe. He was telling me how his dad made it growing up and then how his mom made it, and how his grandmother would make it, and how he makes it now and how his brother makes it now and how his friend makes it now. And I just kind of used all of that to put a recipe together. So, definitely my parents.

Alicia: That's a great place to find inspiration. 

And you talked about how your cookbook is telling a story. What can people expect from that cookbook? And what is the story you're telling?

Vallery: The story is really just about resilience. So, it's about not letting adversity kind of stop you from whatever it is that you want to accomplish. 

Alicia: Got it. Right. 

You are famous for having won a show that didn't air. Do you have a different kind of relationship to that, now that you — you've been seeing such success? How does that feel nowadays, the whole controversy around the — America's Next — what is — America's — [Laughter.]

Vallery: It’s the Great American-

Alicia:  — Great American Bake Show, because I get confused. Because there was America's Next Great Baker, and then it's the Great British Bake Off, and then yes, so. [Laughter.]

Vallery: Exactly! So, a little known fact, and I actually learned this in law school — ’Bake Off’ is a trademarked term by — I believe it's Pillsbury. So, that doesn't extend to Europe. So, that's why they can use the term ‘Bake Off,’ but we can't use the term ‘Bake Off.’

Alicia: Ok. [Laughter.]

Vallery: It still doesn't feel good. And it's not something I think about, because I don't want to give power to it essentially. It's not something I think about often, yeah.

Alicia: There's been so much controversy, since that moment in food media, that there's been so many moments where it seems that things might change in food media, in terms of who is held up and who gets positions of power, and that sort of thing. And your whole career in food media has been in this — these moments. 

And, do you have some hope for changes in the future in terms of who's given power and what kinds of stories we're allowed to tell?

Vallery: Ooh, that's a very — that's a really good question. And I'm just so used to kind of censoring a lot of my actual opinions about these things. 

Do I have hope? I would say optimistically, I have hope. Realistically, I just feel like — the question is just — it's a bigger question than about food, or food media. It's just a question about where we are as a society. And I think we're all kind of seeing exactly that play out, exactly who we really are as a society. And I don't think anything, and our industry in particular, is going to be all that different from everything else that we see in our society. 

So, I would say optimistically, yeah, I have a little bit of hope that there can be some fundamental, foundational changes when it comes to equity, when it comes to equality, when it comes to representation. Real representation. But I think we know what that would actually look like, and that would be across the board representation from every facet. And, we just, we have to ask ourselves if that's where our society actually is right now.

Alicia: Right. No, it's so important. 

Vallery: Probably not. 

Alicia: [Laughs.] Well, for you, is cooking a political act?

Vallery: I think existing as a Black woman in this country is a radical act in and of itself. 

Alicia: Yes, absolutely. 

Vallery: I can't quite separate any particular thing that I do from just existing, let alone having some level of success. Just the fact that I'm here is almost a political statement in and of itself.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for chatting, Vallery.

Vallery: Yeah, thanks, Alicia!