TL;DR Get to know the incredible Emily Peterson in this interview we had with her. If you are interested in reading the rest of this interview along with interviews of other inspiring chefs, check out our upcoming book!
Chef Emily Peterson is a food writer, culinary instructor, and Executive Chef at Astor Center in New York City. Emily is a professor of food studies at NYU and Montclair State University. Her work has been featured on Martha Stewart, Robb Report, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Time Out NY, Huffington Post, Edible, CBS, NBC, FOX, Food Network and Vegetarian Times. Chef Emily hosts the weekly call-in radio show Sharp & Hot on HeritageRadioNetwork.org. She lives on a 250-year old family farm in New Jersey with her husband, son, cat named Oyster, a flock of chickens and a dog named Rooster.
Can you start by telling us a bit about your background?
Well, I guess I never went under the real background checks (smiling). In any case, both my parents are great home cooks. My dad has always wanted to open a restaurant, and I remember before I even went away to college, he offered me the chance to open a restaurant with him. But back then I said: “No Dad! I’m going to be a graphic designer!” So I went to undergraduate art school and graduated with a degree in graphic design.
After graduation, 9/11 happened, and it was very difficult to find a job. I worked in public events at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, where I was able to run my manager’s job for two years when she was on leave, planning fantastic events like the Cherry Blossom Festival.
After that, I ended up applying to be a New York City teaching fellow. I taught middle school and 2nd grade. I loved working with the kids, and hated the grown-ups. Then, I ended up working in tech administration, and my last job before culinary school was actually in a cubicle!
Wow, that is a long and winding road before culinary school, so what gave you the push you needed?
So I was an artist then a teacher and now stuck in a cubicle. At that time, I had a three hour commute each way to work. There was a guy on the train on my commute to work, and he told me that I was flying to Germany every day. He was right! In 6 hours I could be flying to Germany, but here I was, wasting a big chunk of life. The time on the train gave me a lot of time to reflect on my life, and I came down with a case of existential depression.
One night, I found myself in the kitchen making chicken stock in the middle of the night. For me, cooking was about comfort and feeling in control. Up to that point, cooking had only been a secondary point in my life and not a focus. I normally don’t believe in religions or higher powers, but that night in the kitchen, I really did hear a little a voice say: “Go to culinary school!” It seemed like a crazy idea, I was almost 30 years old! But I ran up stairs, my husband was sleeping, and I woke him up told him I want to go to culinary school!
I took out a student loan the size of a small BMW and enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education the next week.
After graduating from culinary school, I went to work for Mary Cleaver at the Green Table in Chelsea Market. Mary is one of the pioneer of the Green Movement. She is super passionate about food, and she taught me to think about food from a seasonal perspective.
Around the same time, I started teaching recreational cooking at Astor Center – within 2 years, I became the executive chef there. We host a lot of dinners for wine industry people. I would create dinners to pair with wines, getting wines set to me in advance, tasting them, and seeing what works. I recently took and passed Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1 exam!
Being a professor at NYU, what is one book you most often recommend to aspiring student chefs?
I’ve recently been obsessed with the books of Yotam Ottolenghi – his flavor combos are so bizarre, yet are incredibly delicious. In the book Plenty More, he has a recipe for an upside down cake with potatoes, sundried tomatoes, but then he added caramel! I tried it and this recipe just SINGS. Who would have thought that caramel and boiled potatoes and cheese are so good together?
At the same time, it is a book you can trust when you want something different. The problem with many food blogs is that there is no standardization. Some recipes just fail, which shows that some people are just reading, instead of actually cooking the recipes to test. For example, if there are 4 cups of olive oil and 4 cups of vinegar for a salad dressing for 4 people; that is just off – you can tell that no one is actually cooking this! So I tend to go to Julia Child and Rick Bayless, Serious Eats, Epicurious, Martha Stewart…where I know they are investing a lot of money in recipe testing.
Where do you usually look for inspiration for recipes?
I always go to the green market at all opportunities, in every city I visit. Also, Asia food stores like Kam Man and HMart. Or just ethnic grocery stores in general. I like to find Latin grocery stores and find the “weird” things, the furry fruits and vegetables. I strike up conversations with the people there and I’m afraid of being laughed at. That’s how I learned to cook nopales. A woman I met in a Latin American market just told me to put it on the grill!
For more with Chef Peterson, other chefs, and a guide to recipe development please take a look at our upcoming book!