By Carly DeFilippo

If you like cooking and have access to the internet, chances are you’ve heard of Food52, the brainchild of former New York Times dining writer, Amanda Hesser, and freelance editor/recipe tester, Merrill Stubbs. The two met when Amanda was charged with revising 1,400 recipes for The Essential New York Times Cookbook and over the course of many, many sessions in the kitchen, the pair discovered a mutual dissatisfaction with the state of online cooking resources—which, at that time, focused more on the quantity rather than the quality of recipes.

Amanda shares the story of Food52 with ICE students.

Amanda shares the story of Food52 with ICE students.

The founders had a vision for a website that would provide “everything for your cooking life,” from recipes, to kitchen tools, to servingware and more. Today, after launching with a focus on carefully curated recipes, that vision has been fulfilled, as the site has recently grown to include Provisions, an online lifestyle shop for food enthusiasts.

In the over-saturated world of food blogs and websites, the legions of followers and industry-wide respect that Food52 has garnered is an extraordinary success story. It was, therefore, no surprise that Amanda’s visit to the Institute of Culinary Education was a particular thrill for our students.

Food52's strategy? Get bigger by being better.

Food52′s strategy? Get bigger by being better.

When asked to describe what she believes distinguishes Food52 from other sites, Amanda cited a few specific aspects of their team’s philosophy:

  • A Unique Voice: Amanda believes that what prevents recipe-seekers from feeling loyal to recipe aggregators like Epicurious or All Recipes is the fact that these sites lack a unified perspective or tone. She explains, “[Voice] is what makes people feel they share your sensibility.”
  • A Thoughtful Aesthetic: Just like a beautifully presented plate of food, the understated look of Food52 has far more depth than you could even imagine. Their logo color? Grabbed from a pixelated photo of kale. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t notice—the point is that they’ve thought about it. “When you set a strong voice and aesthetic,” Amanda explained, “it’s like a magnet.”
  • Multiple Levels of Engagement: Only 2% of the Food52 community actually wants to add recipes, but there are many, many more users who want to comment, favorite and share the recipes with their own community. That said, of the 28,000 recipes currently on the site, 98% were provided by the community.
  • Self-Selecting Content: Amanda and Merrill intentionally chose to make the process of adding recipes to the site a commitment, automatically weeding out less-committed cooks from their pool of ad-hoc contributors. To bolster that pool of content, they run specific recipe contests—for example, a contest for burger recipes during grilling season. They’ve also signed on a few of their staff members—including Executive Editor and ICE alum Kristen Miglore—to maintain ongoing columns, like the ever-popular “Genius Recipes” series.
A manifesto for the cooking community of Food52

A manifesto for the cooking community of Food52

Sticking to these principles, Amanda and Merrill have grown one of the most successful food start-ups in the industry. Over time, their staff has grown and business needs have changed, which sometimes means revising the game plan. For example, in the beginning, they never planned to have “featured contributors” from other successful food websites. Yet, over time, they have figured out how to seamlessly celebrate the cookbook launches or other milestones of their community’s favorite DIY celebrities.

In fact, one of Amanda’s most resonant points was that their staff is very keyed in to the voice of the community. From viewing analytics reports to maintaining an unusually high response rate to their audience’s questions and comments, their multi-faceted approach is akin to a master class in Community Engagement 101. The end result is impressive: one of the most civilized web communities on the internet. As Amanda put it, “People [only] misbehave when they feel like there’s no one there [listening].”

Amanda answers students' questions and signs their New York Times cookbooks.

Amanda answers students’ questions and signs their New York Times cookbooks.

Advising those who want to launch their own food start-up, Amanda emphasized that it can be a long and bumpy road. “I have start-up baggage, but I think that baggage is actually good. [Before working at Food52], I made some mistakes without doing a lot of damage.” In short, working for a start-up on someone else’s dime to figure out how the financing and logistics come together might not be a bad idea. And don’t expect to get bought out for millions of dollars like some tech company: “Brands are not born overnight; we were not going for hyper-growth.”

Amanda also had salient advice for other aspiring food writers—namely, that the industry isn’t what it was when she first came onto the scene. “If you’re really interested in food, do something interesting in food,” Amanda says. You don’t need to be a full-time food writer—a role that rarely comes with a sense of financial stability—rather, you can work for a company that furthers your experience and knowledge, helping you to gain credibility.

Amanda with Dean of Culinary Business Steve Zagor and ICE Instructor Kate Edwards.

Amanda with Dean of Culinary Business Steve Zagor and ICE Instructor Kate Edwards.

Last but not least, Amanda shared a bit of insight that can apply to all ICE students, whether future entrepreneurs, bakers, recipe testers or food media personalities: “We’re not in a business of big wins—it’s about small adjustments. Always be ready to adapt.”

For more lectures and discussions with industry leaders at ICE, click here.

When ICE President Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride wrote Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food they discovered a plethora of food jobs they had never heard of before. Since the book’s release, they have been discovering even more interesting culinary career paths. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature: “Unique Culinary Careers.”

James Ransom is a food photographer. His work can be seen every week at FOOD52, where he snaps a variety of recipes from their start as raw ingredients all the way through to final presentation. As anyone who has dabbled in food photography knows, it’s not as easy as it looks. Crafting that perfect shot requires a mix of careful styling skills, knowledge about lighting, and much more. Just thinking about it leaves us in awe of Ransom and the quality of his work. We talked with him about his career path and his advice for would-be photographers.

How would you describe your job?
My job is to create an image that makes you want to eat the food I’m photographing. Sometimes that’s harder than it sounds.

How did you get this job? What has your career path been like?
I studied photography in high school and college and received a BFA in Photography from Brigham Young University. As soon as I graduated, I packed up my car and drove out to New York. I started out as an in-house photographer at an e-commerce site called UncommonGoods where I photographed products for their website and print catalog. After a few years I decided to set out on my own to freelance. I picked up small clients here and there and put in a good number of years as a photographer’s assistant. About three years ago, I started shooting food and really fell in love with it. Through a series of fortunate events I was introduced to the folks at FOOD52, where I shoot the bulk of my food assignments at the moment. More…

ICE President Rick Smilow Introduces Modernist Cuisine Author Nathan Myhrvold

Modernist Cuisine is perhaps the most highly anticipated cookbook ever. Nathan Myhrvold and co-authors Chris Young and Maxime Bilet (an ICE grad) worked with a 20-person team and spent six years creating the six-volume, 2,400-page set that reveals science-inspired techniques for cooking. And last night, the team celebrated the launch of their book at ICE.

During their week in New York, the team appeared on the Today show and The Colbert Report and prepared food for events at the Core Club, the New York Academy of Sciences and Jean Georges. The last event in the city was the launch at ICE. In attendance were industry notables such as chefs Marcus Samuelsson, Nate Appleman, Johnny Iuzzini, Paul Liebrandt, Waldy Malouf, as well as food media personalities such as Amanda Hesser, Gail Simmons and many others interested in hearing from the chefs behind the immense project.

Red Rooster Chef Marcus Samuelsson with ICE Alum Gail Simmons of Top Chef and Chef Nate Appleman

Myhrvold, the former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft, feels that the book represents a revolution in the art of cooking. Ferran Adria has said, “The book will change the way we understand the kitchen.” He shared that there are over 1,150,000 words, 1,522 recipes and 3,216 photos in the completed volumes. While many people assume the book is full of very technical recipes that require expensive equipment, Myhrvold said, “Half the recipes in the book anyone can cook at home.” For example, while his detailed chart for making different types of custard looked confusing, he pointed out that the only ingredients on it were milk and eggs and the only technology required to make it was a thermometer. More…

Last night, ICE’s Center for Food Media hosted Amanda Hesser in the An Evening With… series. Hesser is best known for her role as food columnist and editor at the New York Times for more than a decade. She has also written The Cook and the Gardener and Cooking for Mr. Latte and edited a collection of food essays, Eat, Memory. Her latest book, The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century is a compilation of 1,100 recipes from the New York Times going back to the 1850s (and it was just nominated for a James Beard Award). She is also the co-founder of Food52, an ever-growing website dedicated to building a network and community of cooks.

Hesser did not always want to be a food writer. In fact, she studied economics and finance and university, but she followed her love of food to Europe where she worked in bakeries and restaurants in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France. During her time abroad, she wrote letters to her friends and family back home, and found that she really enjoyed it and began to consider writing as a possible career. While working in France for Anne Willan, the founder of La Varenne, a cooking school, she met the French gardener who would become the subject of her first book, The Cook and the Gardener.

After completing the book, she began working at the Times. Hesser said, “When I turned in my first story, my editor told me it was missing a nut graf. I had no idea what that was.” After more than a decade there, she wrote over 800 stories for the newspaper, ranging from restaurant reviews to recipe columns. More…

ICE President Rick Smilow with Nick Kokonas, Grant Achatz, Amanda Hesser and ICE Director of Education Richard Simpson

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“Being creative as a chef is not mimicking what you see in Tokyo or Bangkok,” said Grant Achatz, the chef-owner of Alinea in Chicago, at ICE last night. “It’s being inspired by that. It’s reactions to influences, whether those are reading a book, walking down the street or looking up something online. Creativity is really unpredictable, and can come from anywhere.”

Achatz was in town to promote his memoir, Life, on the Line, co-authored with his business partner, Nick Kokonas (ICE alum Rachel Holtzman was on the editorial team behind the book). Both spoke at a panel moderated by food writer and Food52 founder Amanda Hesser and attended by chefs such as Peter Hoffman and George Mendes, media such as Jeffrey Steingarten and Melissa Clark, and a bevy of industry professionals and ICE students. ICE Chef Instructor Chris Gesualdi made a selection of hors d’oeuvres for the evening.

Achatz, whose restaurant is seventh in the S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants (the highest ranked in the United States), won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in 2008. He met Kokonas when the former trader became a regular at Trio, where Achatz first showcased his unique cooking style as executive chef, and offered to build a restaurant with him.

“You need commerce to make the art, and vice versa,” Achatz said after Kokonas pointed out that Achatz has much more of a hand in the business side of the restaurant than people think. Kokonas also said that people are surprised to hear how often the two talk about food together, as the pair explained how their collaboration works. Kokonas pointed out that Achatz could not create the food he does without a lot  of infrastructure. Even though Kokonas never interferes with what Achatz puts on the menu, the two jokingly acknowledged that anything Kokonas doesn’t like seem to disappear from the menu after a few days. More…

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When ICE President Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride wrote Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food they discovered a plethora of food jobs they had never heard of before. Since the book’s release, they have been discovering even more interesting career paths in the food world. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature, “Unique Culinary Careers.”

ICE alum Kristen Miglore is the Editor of food52, a unique food website dedicated to building a network and community of cooks. Users submit recipes to weekly contests, help each other solve food pickles and test each other’s recipes. In this spirit of support, the site has quickly become a hot spot for foodies to discuss and develop recipes and techniques. In fact, ICE Chef Instructor James Briscione’s recipe for Classic Southern Buttermilk Bathed Fried Chicken will be included in the first edition of the food52 cookbook, designed, edited and written by food52’s community. We talked to Kristen about how she transitioned from economic analysis to food, her externship experience and working in the new world of online media.

How would you describe your position?
I’m the Editor of food52.com, which really means I do anything that’s needed to help keep the site up and running — write, edit, test recipes, help organize the weekly photo and video shoots, maintain our social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and our weekly e-newsletter, and manage the community, which is so warm and well-mannered compared to other corners of the internet that it’s actually pretty good at managing itself.

What has your career path been like?
After graduating from college (with an economics major and professional writing/editing minor), I tried be prudent and found well-paying work in economic analysis. Not surprisingly, three years of data wrangling left me all the more certain that I had to find a way to work in food. I moved from California to New York and found myself at ICE. I did internships with a food writer launching a new business, at a trade magazine, at a flossy lifestyle TV show and in the test kitchen and editorial wings of a high-end food magazine. I wouldn’t be able to do my job well now without all of this humbling and eye-opening work behind me. More…