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So you want to be a Test Kitchen intern.... Meet Sicily Johnson

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The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of recipe testing in the Kitchen, and today is no different. It may not officially be Thanksgiving yet, but here in the Test Kitchen, we've been "celebrating" the holiday for the the last three weeks as we've tested and fine-tuned upcoming recipes. Next week already, we'll be focusing on Hanukkah and Christmas.

Of course, even with all the work, we still find time to have a little fun -- especially over the holidays (One of our interns brought in the Halloween knife prop, above, which we found especially entertaining as we tested recipes).

In addition to our full-time staff, we host interns from culinary schools all over the United States, including international students. These students receive hands-on training as they learn the finer points of recipe testing and development (recipe reading, wording, problem solving, adapting for the home kitchen and testing for consistent results). The students also learn tips for food styling and interact with chefs, writers and food professionals of all kinds.

And as much as they may learn from us, we also learn a lot from them. Hailing from various regions and with diverse ethnic backgrounds, our interns bring unique perspectives and passions to our kitchen, whether it's discussing the secret intricacies of a Texas-style "bowl o' red" or sharing a mother's technique for making Chinese bao. What we all share is a deep love of food.

Over the last few months, I've introduced some of our recent Test Kitchen interns, including, most recently, Joe Moon, Maria Sulprizio and Mary Pat Kuppig. Joe has gone to continue his studies at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and Maria and Mary Pat will be graduating from Le Cordon Bleu this weekend.

Here, I introduce Sicily Johnson, on loan from the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles (Hollywood Campus). -- Noelle Carter

I’m standing on the stage at the LA Times’ first Food and Wine Festival setting up for a cooking demonstration. Looking out at the Paramount backlot in Hollywood, and I have to say the experience is mind blowing. You see, I kind of “grew up” on this backlot –- I’ve been acting professionally since I was seven.

Now, Noelle Carter and I are preparing to demonstrate a recipe, a savory dish of grilled shrimp with charmoula sauce. And for maybe the first time, I feel like my past and present lives are intersecting.

Like so many of us, food -– particularly baking –- is a passion that hooked me early on, and it’s played a prominent role in so many of my earliest childhood memories.

I remember my mother’s baking, sweet potato pie and caramel cake.

Mom had a cake-decorating business growing up, and not only did she make all of the cakes for my three brothers and me when we were younger, it seems she made all the cakes for everyone in the neighborhood. I think this is where my love (and addiction) to baking began. I hate to admit it, but I remember sticking my fingers in the back of her cakes where I thought no one could see, just to get a sample! (Mom still won’t let me live that down.)

It seems almost as soon as we could walk, Mom involved my brothers and me in the kitchen. By the time we turned six, Mom was actually teaching us how to cook dishes –- a culinary “right of passage,” of sorts.

Before too long, the four of us kids were cooking Sunday dinners. One brother was in charge of the meat, while the other two brothers would each fix a side (my younger brother can fix some mean baked beans!). I fixed the salads and did the baking.

Food is what made us close as a family. My mom was a single parent who scraped by to make ends meet, and her way of keeping us together was to have us eat a meal together that each of us had a hand in making.

When we weren’t cooking, we were acting, and that was sort of a happy accident. My oldest brother happened into the business when a close friend of his from school began acting. My brothers and I simply followed in his footsteps.

When I was seven, I found myself on my first autition in the backyard of a casting director for Sesame Street. I was hired to do some specials, one of which won an Emmy. Soon I was playing one of the Power Rangers (I played the Yellow Ranger when the rangers were transformed into little kids), and did movies like “Children of the Corn V” (and I survived!!!) and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”

Finally, I landed a role as a series regular for the UPN show “One on One,” and shot the show for about five years at Paramount Studios. While I worked on the show, my love for cooking and baking grew, and soon I was spending as much spare time in the kitchen as I could find. One holiday season, I made caramel cakes for everyone involved in the show –- cast, crew, writers –- for Christmas.

Shortly after I stopped working on the show, I decided to go to culinary school to see where my real passion, food, might lead. And now I’m interning in the Test Kitchen.

Blog2 What I love about the Test Kitchen is that it takes such a different approach to cooking. In culinary school, we learned to prepare for restaurant-style cooking, where you work “the line.” In the Test Kitchen, we’re not making food for customers, per say, though each recipe we make is tested for thousands of readers.  It’s stimulating, because we also get to play with a lot of different ingredients and experience a wide variety of dishes.

I think the thing I love most about the Test Kitchen isn’t even in the kitchen itself. It’s the weekly reader request column, Culinary SOS. One of my jobs is to help respond to readers’ letters and emails. I love reading the excitement in each reader’s request, hearing about an unforgettable dish and learning each reader’s story. After each SOS request is catalogued, I often contact the restaurant or bakery to see if they will share their recipe. If the owner or chef decides to share the recipe, we will test it, and it’s so wonderful to see a reader’s request come to life, as we try to recreate that special dish. Sometimes a restaurant says no, and sometimes a recipe just doesn’t work. But when we have a success in the kitchen, there is nothing more exciting for me being able to help a reader,  making sure that a restaurant or bakery proud with our re-creation, and being able to share this with our other larger readership.

As I continue on my path, I think about what I’ll be doing in a few years and where my culinary passion may lead.  As I look out at the backlot from the stage, I think the future. I’ll be graduating very soon, and am looking to go back to school to study hospitality and restaurant management. Of course, I would also love to use my acting skills to help teach kids about food. The future is wide open.

-- Sicily Johnson

Photos: Kirk McKoy (top) and Noelle Carter. Bottom: Sicily prepares caramel apples for a KTLA "Eat Beat" shoot as everyone else in the kitchen looks on.

 
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Daily Dish is written by Times staff writers.