Dishing with food52's Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

Last month food writers Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs launched their much-buzzed-about website, food52, hosting an enthusiastic, open forum where home cooks are invited to submit their best recipes based on weekly themes. After a year of gathering winning recipes--determined by reader votes--the results will be collected in a cookbook published by HarperStudio.

And today Amanda and Merrill launched what promises to be a very entertaining feature: The Tournament of Cookbooks. Sixteen of 2009's best cookbooks will face off against each other with their fates determined by a star-studded panel of celebrity chefs and food writers. The winning cookbook will take home "the coveted Piglet trophy." Early round action kicked off with an upset as Donald Link and Paula Disbrowe's Real Cajun sent John Besh's My New Orleans back to the Big Easy. And the first-round fun continues with Eugenia Bone's Well-Preserved taking on Erin McKenna's BabyCakes and Matt Lee and Ted Lee's The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern going up against David Chang and Peter Meehan's Momofuku.(See the complete bracket.)

I caught up with Amanda and Merrill to check in on food52 and talk about what makes a great recipe, the art of adaptation, collaborating in the kitchen, and get the skinny on the Piglet.

--BTP You and Merrill have been working together for five years testing 1,200 recipes and now, with food52, you’ve launched another major project together. What’s the key to your collaborative success?

Merrill Stubbs: We're great friends, and we have similar cooking styles and palates, which makes things run pretty smoothly in the kitchen. Of course, there are ingredients and techniques that we don't agree on, which often inspire interesting (and sometimes lively) debates. Our writing styles are different but complimentary, perhaps because each is colored by the fact that both of us are home cooks at heart.

Amanda Hesser: Merrill has excellent knife skills; I do not. I like working with pastry; Merrill does not. That pretty much sums it up! There’s an austere charm to your mission: “Every week we name the themes. You submit the recipes. We pick two finalists. Everyone votes. And the winner goes into the book.” How do you go about curating the selection of finalists for each week’s themes?

Hesser: We read through every recipe that's submitted for a given recipe theme, and we choose a handful to test. Then we split up these recipes, test them and report back. After selecting the best two, we cook them again on the day we do photography. For our weekly video, we cook two finalist recipes a third time, so by the time the finalists are announced, the recipes are fully vetted. This also gives us a chance to genuinely get to know the recipes and write up an informed headnote. We also read through all of the recipes coming into the site because every week we name a "Wildcard Winner." Any recipe uploaded to the site is eligible, and we keep a running list of recipes we think have great potential. So, behind the scenes, we're constantly cooking these recipes in search of ones we think are truly great. Wildcard Winners also go into the cookbook. Now that you’ve opened the doors to food52 what has surprised you the most about the submissions?

Hesser: How great they are! We've been delighted by the quality and originality of the recipes. When we came up with this idea, we were betting that there were extraordinary home cooks out there waiting to have their work discovered. And it turns out--thankfully--we were right.

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