So you want to be a Test Kitchen intern.... Meet Emily Taylor.
So what's it like working in a Test Kitchen? Well, it's definitely fun. How could it not be? You're surrounded by food all day. Literally.
But can there ever be too much of a good thing? I dare say... sometimes. Take the cookies in the picture above, for instance. They're samples from the final batches of cookies we tested for our first L.A. Times Holiday Cookie Bake-Off. We made over 50 dozen as we tested and finalized the recipes over the course of a week; by the last day of testing, there were cookies everywhere. Everywhere.
Only problem? We couldn't eat them. Not a one. We had to save the cookies for photo shoots. Definitely not fun.
Needless to say, by the time we finally were able to eat the cookies (a few days later), we wasted no time sampling (and resampling) cookie, after cookie, after cookie. The sugar rush? Great. The stomach ache afterward? Well, not so much fun.
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 get tips on 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, Mary Pat Kuppig, Sicily Johnson and Larry Diamond. Mary, Sicily and Larry have graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles. Here, I introduce Emily Taylor, on loan from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland, Ore. -- Noelle Carter
My second day in the Test Kitchen, I was handed a Culinary SOS recipe for a Cold Borscht Soup from Warszawa restaurant in Santa Monica. Upon first glance, the recipe was deceptively simple; limited number of familiar ingredients—buttermilk, sour cream, fresh herbs, beets, cucumber—and a short, deceptively clear procedure.
But the devil lies in the details.
At some point I knew I was just going to have to jump off that high dive into the pool, so I picked two beets, trimmed off the leaves, covered them in an inch of water in a small saucepan and let em’ roll. When they were done cooking, I took them out and peeled them and began to grate. Beet juice began to creep everywhere: my perfect white cutting board stained, tiny red spots on my bleached chef coat, my hands, oh lord my hands. It’s a blood bath, a murder scene; I’ve killed someone’s recipe, the proof and the guilt it’s all on my hands. “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”
After cleaning my station of the wreckage, I measured out the rest of my ingredients, and moved on to step one. “Blend well first six ingredients.” I got out the blender and pulsed away; the brutal beets disintegrating into the silky puddle of white buttermilk, till suddenly an electric pink—not “it’s a girl pink!,” but laser tag glowing obstacle pink—ignited before me. This just couldn’t be right.
Over the next two weeks, I play phone tag with the restaurant, until finally I was able to talk to the owner, Elina Sidorowicz O'Lague, on the phone. “How pink should the borscht be?” I asked. “A nice pink,” she responded. Is my pink “nice” I wondered? I decided I must see this borscht; it’s the only solution to my problem. I got to the restaurant at five, maneuvered my car into a slim spot in the back, and headed toward the restaurant for my date with some “nice” pink, cold borscht. The owner, Elina, brought me a small cup of glowing pink soup resting on a pristine white saucer. A sense of relief: It, too is a brilliant pink.
Elina sat across from me, “So, did you go to school for journalism?” she asked as I slurped away. “No, I majored in Literature, and was pre-law.” She smiled, “I was a literature major too, at the university in Poland. So now you cook?”
It was unclear at this point who was interviewing whom, but I told her about my departure from the world of politics—for a while I was a congressional intern—to culinary school. How I love to cook, but never really knew why.
She shrugged her shoulders, her eyebrows arched, as if she had some insight into me already, and said, “I like the instant gratification too.”
We began to go over the recipe, and when we got to the sour cream, I suggest that maybe it’s more like ½ cup, instead of the full cup, for her borscht is much thinner than mine. “Sure,” she said, “I cook by the seat of my pants.”
My next big mistake was the blending. “So I put all these ingredients in a blender,” as I began my sentence she interrupted me, “No,” she said, waving her arms. “I meant blend with a spatula,” Ah, again, hence why mine was thicker. “So you should be able to see the shreds of beets?” I confirmed.
“Of course, it’s borscht.”
The borscht should be similar to a gazpacho, intended for warm summer days in Poland, a traditional, non-fusion dish, she said. The cool sweetness of beets, the bursting crunch of cucumbers, and the final accent of fresh dill and parsley. I apologized for my limited knowledge of Poland, and admitted that I typically think of Polish food as warm sausages on cold, snowy days. Polish food can be very fresh and flavorful, she assured me, and proceeded to give me a lesson in Polish culinary history, the 16th century Italian influences of pasta and vegetables, from the wife of King Sigismund I, and so on.
She told me of her first restaurant in Berkley, near Alice Waters’ restaurant and the movement there for fresh ingredients. I assured her that I am familiar with the movement, having grown up in Oregon, gleaning with my fourth-grade class, gardening in my second-grade class vegetable garden, and spending a summer cooking from my family’s weekly CSA. She smiled, and looked around her, our conversation having gone on too far, the staff preparing rapidly for a 6 o’clock opening.
When I got back to the Test Kitchen and tested the recipe again, I knew what the end goal should taste and look like. I knew who Elina was and what she wanted this dish to say. In that moment I knew that a piece of history, this typical, yet relatively unknown Polish dish would live on, and be delicious. A year ago I was convinced that law school was the best way that I could represent people. In the last few months I have come to realize that I was wrong. Everyone has to eat. The best way I can help represent someone is by sharing their story through the food they make.
-- Emily Taylor
Photos, from top: Intern Emily Taylor sampling some cookies from the LA Times' first Holiday Cookie Bake-Off. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times. Cold borscht recipe as adapted from Warszawa Restaurant. Credit: Bob Chamberlain / Los Angeles Times