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A book that's going to make you smarter about food
A Q&A with Matt Rodbard, co-author of the upcoming book: FoodIQ, 100 Questions, Answers, and Recipes to Raise Your Cooking Smarts
If you watch a lot of cooking videos, there’s a moment you treasure. It’s usually not the point of the video, but mid-recipe the chef does some small technique or explains something in a way that reorients how you think about food. You could call them kitchen hacks, but they are more than that. They are techniques born of deep experience.
A bunch of recent cookbooks have focused on bringing that knowledge to the general public (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat and Cooking at Home by David Chang and Priya Krishna come to mind). Next week a new one is coming out: FoodIQ, 100 Questions, Answers, and Recipes to Raise Your Cooking Smarts by Daniel Holzman & Matt Rodbard. This isn’t just a cookbook, it’s a book that will make you smarter about food.
One of the things I saw from our reader survey (have you taken it yet?) is that people are open to new formats and styles. So today, we have something different. Matt Rodbard is the Editor-in-Chief of TASTE and a long-time food and culture writer. Matt has been a huge supporter of Snack Cart over the years. Matt sent me an early copy of the book and agreed to a short email interview. I intended to skim the book and ended up getting extremely sucked in.
While you wait for delivery, enjoy my interview with Matt, lightly edited for clarity and context.
So tell Snack Cart readers, what is this book? Cookbook, textbook, memoir, podcast transcript?
Great question, and honestly thanks for reaching out and writing your newsletter. It’s been a fun and useful read for years and years. Great taste isn’t always Substacked and you’ve got the juice [ed note: aww shucks].
Food IQ was born out of Daniel and I being friends for over a decade, writing columns for Saveur and TASTE, and eating out at a lot of restaurants in cities around the world. We also would cook together from time to time. So, there’s a lot of that (and us) in the book. I do consider there to be moments of memoir sprinkled in—or at least debates about the best pancakes and playing F, Mary, Kill with kitchen appliances.
Textbook—not really. That is less fun. But cookbook for sure! Writing 100 rock-solid, clearly written, and interesting recipes was paramount—and tbh, the book doesn’t work without them. We have 100 food questions, our answers, extra takes from outside experts, and a great recipe to prove to the reader that this answer is legit.
Who do you hope will pick this book up and what do you want them to get out of it?
As we write in the intro, we are reclaiming the term “foodie”. The foodies have won, and there is no going back baby! We believe that there is a massive audience for this book and subsequent books. That audience is folks who read a lot of food media (your newsletter included), who dine out with spectacular frequency, but who also enjoy cooking at home. This is not a book only for home cooks. It’s for people who know a little (and perhaps a lot) about cooking and food culture, but still have lingering questions. Like, have you ever wondered why people love chicken breast? What is the difference between hot smoking and cold smoking? Is it ok to cook with frozen fish and vegetables? We answer all with a style that we think is useful but not boring.
You covered so much in the book. Not just about cooking but about restaurants, trends, even history. You also had contributions from many of the most popular and important food voices. It almost felt like a state of the food world. Briefly, what do you see as the state of food right now?
That’s cool of you to point out. The interviews with folks like Priya Krishna, Sherry Yard, Roy Choi, Thérèse Nelson, José R. Ralat, and Ligaya Mishan (to name a few) were super important for us. First, it’s a dream to ask for time from writers like Helen Rosner and Cathy Erway and get to Zoom with them for an hour (we were writing this during deep pandemic). So it was part catching up, but also Daniel and I needed to speak with experts outside our own personal expertise and history. We know a bit, and cite cookbooks and writing throughout the book, but nothing beats a great interview. We feel our 20+ interviews give Food IQ a really cool flavor.
Boy, the state of food media right now. Want to podcast about this? I will say this. I’ve been an editor, writer, and TV producer for nearly 20 years and the quality of writing/reporting has never been better. From the New York Times’ super deep bench of writers and editors, to the always exciting newsletter scene, to the fun and games on Twitter, it’s a really cool time right now to be working in food media.
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I learned a ton reading this book. Two things I can't stop thinking about are knife hand / chef hand and how it’s the hot water, not the starch, that causes pasta sauce to emulsify (For years, my sister and I have been debating how you are supposed to add pasta water to sauce, but that makes the sauce too salty). What is your favorite new thing you learned writing this book?
Yo! We’ve been talking a bit about that pasta water question and answer. The truth of the matter—and this is from Daniel who has worked at some great Italian restaurants over the years—is that the starch in pasta water you produce when boiling a single pound of pasta doesn’t do that much. If you are working the line at a busy, pasta-centric restaurant like A16 and there’s a constant caldron of boiling pasta water, that water has enough starch to help emulsify the sauce (your goal is to evenly coat the pasta and not have your sauce “break” or clump up). At home, just adding hot water will do the trick (there are more details why in the book). If you add properly (and heavily) seasoned pasta water to your sauce, there’s a pretty good chance of over seasoning your beautiful puttanesca. Ick.
And chef hand, knife hand comes straight from Daniel. I think I was asking him about how a line cook survives a shift and one of the tactics was thinking about your knife hand as just that—the hand that drives the knife, stays clean, and is used to grab a spice jar or something from the refrigerator or make a quick cocktail. The chef hand is doing everything else—the tossing, slicking, poking, prodding. It takes some practice, but if you can negotiate the messy stuff with one hand—and keep your knife hand clean and dry—it really does speed things up.
It must have been hard to limit yourself to 100 questions. What are a few that hurt the most to cut?
Def hard, and we are working on a few concepts for a follow-up that we hope to have out soon. Why limit this to 100? We also are answering questions weekly in our Friday newsletter, which keeps us on our toes. I wanted to talk more about cooking with canned foods—not just tinned fish but canned fruits and meat. There’s an exciting world there and a lot of misinformation to correct. We wrote a great question about MSG (not just why it’s great to cook with, but also a great scallop ceviche recipe). We want to dive more into the spice cabinet and answer questions about white pepper vs. black pepper vs. red pepper. Also, I’d love to dive into the incredible yuzu kosho for a question and recipe. Am I maybe hinting that our next book could be all about grocery shopping? ;) For real, Grocery Store IQ could be interesting. We spend so much time thinking about our food shopping and many questions remain.
Some of the question/recipe pairings were really inventive. I wasn't expecting your shrimp example to be Shrimp Louie Salad. How did you and Chef Daniel approach those pairings?
We wanted the recipes to be interesting to cook but also serve a purpose to the reader. We feel that the only way to truly understand a home cooking concept is to actually execute it in your kitchen. We have the question: I love the greens at my favorite Chinese restaurant, can I make those at home? Well, the short answer is yes you can. But we also have a great recipe for Gai Lan (Chinese broccoli) with fried garlic. Plus, a very cool interview with the incredible chef Simone Tong. We have a question about which potato should you buy for mashing, frying, or roasting paired with a great recipe for Pommes Anna, which is the best fancy ass hash brown you will ever make.
Is there a recipe from this book that you found yourself coming back to the most?
Two, actually. I like to cook whole fish and our writing about cooking the whole fish (you should do it early and often) is great. Our technique for cooking the whole fish in paper (en papillote) is pretty bomb. We also write about shifting the style of your whole fish from Mexican to Italian to Japanese.
The other recipe is Daniel’s dry-braised lamb. We answer a question about dry braising—as in, isn’t braising all about the liquid? No! A slow steam acts like a braising liquid and infuses so much incredible flavor into the shoulder (In this case, garlic, anchovy, sage, thyme, rosemary). The technique is simple—once the lamb is prepped, you seal it in a Dutch oven (first with plastic wrap, then with foil) and roast at 230 F (low) for 5 hours. Do not peek! I’ve done this a half dozen times. Daniel picked this up when he was working at the Inn of the Seventh Ray in Los Angeles. Bonkers good.
I bought Koreatown a while ago, and looking at your writing history you tend to work with collaborators. How did you and Daniel meet and decide to do this project together?
I love working with chefs not simply as a collaborator (ghostwriter), but as a partner. This goes for Deuki [Deuki Hong, Matt’s co-writer on his previous book, Koreatown: A Cookbook] as well. We are starting work on our Koreatown follow-up: Koreaworld. I like to think that I demand a lot from my partners. We work hard on the writing and recipes in a way that can get pretty intense. But in the end, it makes for a great book that we are proud of. And I’m super proud of Deuki and Daniel—they are wonderful chefs and incredibly open-minded and large-hearted people too. I have been very lucky.
I loved the sections where you two clearly disagreed. What was the most intense disagreement you had in the book?
I mean, to be honest, yes. Daniel can be a strong personality (it’s why I love the guy), and while he’s super open minded and a very positive person by nature, we def got into it—when it came down to the questions about pourover coffee and what makes a great burger. We also have a bunch of power rankings – pancakes, sandwiches, burgers. Those were fun to get a little heated about.
What makes a great partnership?
Mutual respect—and knowing when to jump in, and when not to. We each have specific lanes we like to stay in, which do cross from time to time. But we def know not to get in each other’s way. We also both also really, really love Korean, Japanese, and Mexican restaurants and street carts. So dining out is always the best time together and nourishing for our partnership.
If you could recommend two other books for Snack Cart readers to read after Food IQ, what would they be?
YES. Two is hard. Wow. Off the dome, the two I love and are sitting on my shelf are Dinner by Melissa Clark. A few years since it was published, it’s easily my most-cooked-from book. I also still very much love the Momofuku cookbook. I return to it often.
Man, this is hard. I love books by Andrea Nguyen, Caroline Eden, Tadashi Ono, Alison Roman, and of course the goddamn god Yotam Ottolenghi. And a couple non-cookbooks I want to shoutout. I return to Women on Food a lot. The writing and overall vibe of that book is exciting to dip in and out of—even years after it was published. Charlotte Druckman can move mountains, and I’d love to work on a project of that scope one day. And I have to give it up to the Roads and Kingdoms crew—in particular Matt Goulding. His Japan, Spain, Italy trilogy was a little uneven, but I still go back to sections in each of the books for deep pleasure reads.
Oh, and can I plug Koreatown? [Ed note: please do]. I still think that book is pretty great, but I’m biased.
Out of Context J. Gold of the Week
I used to joke that Koreatown was basically a midsized Korean city whose culinary specialties were soondubu and laterally cut short ribs. Now, it is clear, Koreatown is functionally a distant district of Seoul — in capital as well as in culture, in both commerce and cuisine. - Link