Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs on building their thriving business and why kids should be in the kitchen
by Colleen Crivello
SHARE THE LOVE (& THE STYLE)
To say we’re inspired by these two mamas would be a severe understatement… when Amanda and Merrill set out to build an engaged online community for people who are passionate about cooking based on their own fresh, contemporary and pragmatic perspective on food, the result was astounding! Nearly 7 years later, their digital empire Food52 is a robust hub that attracts millions of users to their site monthly with dazzling partnerships all set within their stunning new offices – also home to the most to-die-for kitchen. Bravo ladies!
We sat down with this accomplished duo to uncover their beliefs around food, what it truly takes to grow a digital business from scratch plus their tips for involving your kids in the cooking process. Join us for a motivating moment with Amanda and Merrill @food52 www.food52.com
Photographer: Lindsay Brown @lindseabrown The catalyst for launching Food52: AH + MS: We met working on The Essential New York Times Cookbook; together, we tested thousands of recipes and took a deep dive into the cooking and eating landscape of the US over the past 150 years. While we were working on the book, we realized that there wasn’t an online community for people who care deeply about cooking, and about the home in which they do it. So we set out to build a brand that addressed this gap head-on: we created a platform where people could share recipes, tips and tools and gain inspiration from each other every day – and where they could get everything they need in order to bring that inspiration to life.
The business has grown so vastly since launch – your secret behind taking a small idea and making it so big:AH + MS: A can’t fail attitude. We knew we were onto something and remained determined through the speed bumps. Every entrepreneur gets a lot of ‘nos’, and while it was important for us to listen to feedback and criticism, it was also critical for us to push our ideas forward. Over the years, we’ve realize that a lot of success in business comes down to tenacity and grit.
This determination was also helped by the fact that our crowd-sourced platform quickly blossomed into a thriving community and a top-quality recipe database. We couldn’t have grown without this foundation of a strong, engaged following.
Did your views on food and cooking change once you had kids?AH + MS: We realized that in order to stay sane, we had to play around with our weeknight dinner routine and what our timeline around that should look like. Busy running a successful tech start-up, we started planning weeknight dinners on the weekends. We didn’t change our views on food and cooking as much as the methods we use to stay true to them. This month, we’ll be publishing a book on this very topic, titled A New Way to Dinner, where we take a deep dive into the topics of meal planning and cooking ahead.
Favorite dishes to cook for yourselves and your children: AH: Low-Maintenance Fish Tacos, Luciana’s Porchetta, Jook (a savory rice porridge, topped with spicy greens, sausage, scallions, pickled onions, sriracha), Peach Tart
Tips for parents who want to start cooking with their kids: AH:The earlier, the better. I felt like it was critical to make them feel comfortable about food and the kitchen from a young age. Having your kids in the kitchen may not be the most helpful at first, but it is worth the mess they make while learning. Now they’re ten, and I’m thrilled with their culinary skills (seen here!).
MS: My daughter is four and loves helping out in the kitchen. I like to work with her on one skill (like measuring dry ingredients for baking, or stirring ingredients together in a bowl without spilling them over the sides) at a time, practicing it with her several times, until I feel like she’s gotten the hang of it; then we move onto something else. I usually pick recipes for us to cook together with this in mind. If your kids are still quite young but eager to help out, give them a simple, absorbing task like transferring dry beans — one at a time! — from the package into a bowl. This will occupy them while you knock off several of your own tasks.
Recent food discoveries you’re currently obsessed with: AH: I really like Anita’s Creamline Coconut Yogurt, which doesn’t try to be like a cow’s milk yogurt. It’s something else entirely – dense, creamy, tangy. I’ve been playing around with ways to use it.
MS: Brie is definitely back in fashion, which makes me happy – it’s easier now to find really good varieties than it ever has been.
Favorite apps to use:AH + MS: Our team launched an iOS app called (Not)Recipes earlier this year that taps into the way most people cook at home, which is more off-the-cuff and not tied to a specific recipe.We’ve found some great inspiration among the photos and captions that our community posts describing what they’re cooking, and we love sharing our own efforts in the kitchen. A few other apps we can’t live without: Pocket (for all the articles we don’t have time to get to during the workday), Instagram, Spotify, Stitcher, Foodkick, Headspace, Chairish, Dark Skies, and Google Photos.
On ‘wellness’ and cooking:AH + MS: We like to focus on the quality and variety of what we eat – for us, it’s about eating with intention and with joy.
Guilty Pleasure:AH: I like Fritos—but I don’t feel guilty about it.
MS: I love both Cheez-Its and Oreos on occasion. The only time I feel guilty is if I eat the last one!
Top location you’ve traveled with your kids:AH: Two years ago, we took our kids on a road trip from Brooklyn to Nashville. We left with just one plan in place: tickets to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Every day we had to map our route, discover things to see and do, and find restaurants and hotels. For very-scheduled NYC kids (and parents), it was a great chance to learn to navigate a day more freely and see parts of our country that were entirely new to them.
MS: We took our daughter on a long weekend to Philadelphia when she was two, and that was a great trip. We were able to do a lot of exploring on foot and we ate really well, and there are lots of great activities for both parents and kids, like the Camden aquarium.
Where would you like to travel to with your kids?AH: To as many places as possible. We’re planning another road trip, this time on the West Coast. We’d also like to expose them to other continents and cultures. This year, we went to Panama. Next year, our goal is Southeast Asia, and maybe Africa the year after that.
MS: I’m looking forward to taking them to Italy once we feel more confident about the overnight flight!
Favorite restaurants in the US:AH: Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY; Pok Pok in Red Hook, Brooklyn; Sqrl in LA; Gjusta in LA; Sitka & Spruce in Seattle; Coi in SF.
MS: In NYC, Le Bernardin or Blue Hill for a special occasion, Freek’s Mill in Gowanus for a great neighborhood dinner, Sqrl in LA, Vetri and Pizzeria Vetri in Philadelphia, Street and Company in Portland, ME, Kindred in Davison, NC, Black Eyed Susans in Long Beach Island, NJ, BT’s Barbecue in Sturbridge, MA, Lotus of Siam and Carbone in Las Vegas, Uchiko in Austin.
Favorite food city:AH: I’m always excited to go to Los Angeles because it’s a city where I feel no pressure to try an expensive or well-publicized restaurant. The best places there have always been hidden gems, and I like the sense of discovery you feel when you find some amazing Korean place in a far-flung strip mall.
MS: Nothing beats New York for sheer number of great restaurants and access to fantastic ingredients. For a smaller city, I think Portland, Maine punches well above its weight.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest and what would you serve:AH: If she were still alive, Nora Ephron, who was both the best dinner host and guest. Nora was funny, opinionated, and seemed to know a lot about everything. I once made Turducken for dinner (which is a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck, further stuffed into a deboned turkey) which amused her. I like a dinner guest who appreciates good food but who can also embrace the ridiculous.
MS: I’d love to have Paul Rudd for dinner; he just cracks me up, and he’s done a lot of roles that expose the inherent ridiculousness of parenting. I’d serve steak with arugula and lemon, roasted potatoes and peach or plum tart.
Do you think moms are different today from the previous generation?AH: Yes, moms are beginning to be seen as “parents” along with their husbands. I look forward to when this evolution is complete.
MS: One thing we both appreciate about our own childhoods is the degree to which our parents left us alone to do our own thing and entertain ourselves, encouraging self-confidence and vital social skills. These days, the tendency is for parents to schedule non-stop activities for their children, so that every moment is structured for them; we find ourselves defaulting to this as well, so we try to remind ourselves often that free time and free play are really important for our children’s development.
Greatest mom moment so far:AH: Sorry but only rookie moments are coming to mind! One weekend, my husband was away and we’d just started potty training. I thought it would be a good idea to take my twins, who were not wearing diapers, to the playground. You can guess how that outing ended! MS: Worst moment: Leaving behind a treasured stuffed animal when we went on a week-long trip. Best moment: Staying completely calm while my daughter threw up all over me (multiple times), and then getting in the shower with her to clean off and in an attempt to sooth her.
What’s next for Food52?AH + MS: We’re about to release our cookbook A New Way to Dinner (preorder below), a playbook for weekly meal-planning plus we just launched our first exclusive color of the enameled cast iron cookware from Staub (a handsome navy blue with brass trim). We’re also coming out with a new slate of Food52 branded products for the holidays, giving our podcast, Burnt Toast and app a facelift, and doing a lot more video.