I’m lucky. I got to ask Aida up close and personal. If you don’t know her name, you should. Aida Mollenkamp is California-based food expert, TV host, writer, and culinary curator. She studied at the Cornell Hotel School (like me!) and Le Cordon Bleu Paris before joining CHOW.com where she worked behind the scenes as Food Editor. Eventually, she moved to television where she hosted her Food Network show Ask Aida (you get the pun now) and later the Cooking Channel show, foodCrafters.
I met her while she was promoting her first cookbook, Keys To The Kitchen, at a Cornell University Alumni event. The book is a modern manual to the kitchen and was published in late 2012 through San Francisco-based Chronicle Books. Over the years, she has authored more than 1,000 original recipes and continues to publish new recipes on her site, aidamollenkamp.com. Through her work, she aims to inspire creativity in the meals you craft, the gatherings you design, and the food adventures you embark upon.
After looking through her cookbook, I would describe her style as approachable foodie. This book is good for anyone who likes to cook, from the novice to the home chef. There are plenty of recipes, variations, and how-to’s. She’s giving you the “keys to the kitchen” so you, too, can cook like a pro. However, some recipes were a little too fancy for the palette of my 8 and 7 year old (and might have taken a little too much time for someone who often starts cooking at 5:30). So, being The Family Chef, I have adapted a few of her recipes to my family’s tastes. Look for posts for a curried cauliflower and peas as well as a creamy tarragon chicken.
1) What was the inspiration for the book?
While a lot of cookbooks are a catalogue of recipes, “Keys to the Kitchen” is more of a kitchen reference combined with a cookbook. It’s a modern manual to the kitchen that teaches you how to shop, covers basic kitchen techniques, and then culminates with over 300 original recipes that cover everything from an elegant holiday-worthy roast to ideas for reinventing last night’s leftovers.
I wrote the book for my friends who like food but are intimidated by the kitchen because they were never taught to cook. Over and over again, I’d have people ask me the same general questions — things like how to read labels, which cuts of meat are best for which preparations, and recipes for interesting but accessible recipes. I wrote “Keys to the Kitchen” to provide those answers and to help people become better cooks, whether it’s their first time turning on the stove or the one-thousandth.
2) What is your favorite thing to cook?
That’s a hard question because it’s constantly changing. If I’m in the kitchen, it’s almost always about recipe testing so I don’t have a ton of time to cook just any old thing. I do really enjoy working with doughs and pastas because it’s a really apparent payoff as the effort and time you put in directly results in the level of quality of the finished product.
3) What are your “keys to the kitchen”?
Well, there are chapters and chapters of them in the book, including tips, tricks, and techniques I’ve learned over the years!
But, what it all comes down to is keeping your experience in the kitchen educational and exciting. I talk a lot about “food adventure” because I believe that you eat three times a day so you might as well have fun with it. For people who have found themselves in a cooking rut or are intimidated by the concept of food adventure, I recommend the following:
Follow flavors you like
Don’t think of your favorite recipe merely as one dish but rather as layers and layers of flavors. With that mentality, taste and dissect the details at your next dinner.
Travel through your taste buds
Many a food lover pines for food travel adventures, but few of us can afford that reality. Instead, live vicariously through food — though you won’t have souvenirs, you’ll rack up plenty of food memories.
Buy something new every time you shop
Consider each trip to the market as a chance to explore and aim to buy a new ingredient each time you shop. Sure, you may encounter a few duds, but more often than not, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and realize you actually love sauerkraut.
Think of your kitchen as a lab
Change your perspective and think of cooking not as drudgery but as your daily chance for culinary creativity. And really, it’s a lab with pretty low risk — the worst-case scenario is that the dog ends up being fed really well.
Make mealtime mash-ups
With cooking experimentation comes rule breaking, so don’t be scared — just go with it. In the last few years, all sorts of ethnic flavors have (like music) been mashed up into cross-cultural dishes — like the now ubiquitous Korean tacos. Take a page from that trend and try a spin on your favorite foods, like chorizo on a gyro, kimchi in a Bloody Mary, Madras curry spices whirred into your vanilla ice cream, or any other twist that will help you forge your own food adventure.
4) How would you describe your cooking style?
My cooking style is considered West Coast Eclectic because I take fresh, seasonal ingredients and Mediterranean flavors – the tenant of classic California cuisine – and combine them in a contemporary way. Because I grew up in Southern California I’m really influenced by the diverse cultures there – including great Korean, Persian, Japanese, and Mexican food. That said, my family’s background as French and Italian really is the backbone of my food.
5) Will you write another cookbook?
Oh, definitely. I’m not sure exactly when it will be but I loved doing it and am hope to write a few more in the future.