Snack Like a Chef
"I like to eat in company, but I like to snack alone," confesses Jeffrey Yoskowitz, author of The Gefilte Manifesto.
I am the same way. As a chef, recipe developer and food writer, I understand the momentous occasions of my life through dishes enjoyed and dishes shared–and I look at these with a laser focus, dissecting them, explaining to others their constituent parts, and unpacking the magic of many, many meals. But sometimes the best snacks are enjoyed in between those momentous meals.
I snack thoughtfully. I often find myself, standing alone at the kitchen counter and wondering what to make for myself. In these moments of solitude, I revert to my college self, before I learnt to cook. The toaster oven becomes once again, my only vehicle in which to apply heat to food. I'll make myself buttered toast topped with condensed milk or a toasted hot dog bun, filled with melted cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and two–maybe two and a half–chicken nuggets. I'll eat the other half of that nugget while waiting for the cheddar to melt.
I asked some of my chef and cookbook author friends what their midnight, after work or pre-work snacks of solitude are. Some of them snack intelligently, learning through every bite, and training their palates to love something new. Some of them snack to bring their taste buds home for a moment. Some of them snack a little more weirdly.
Yoskowitz certainly falls into the two former categories. "I like to try out new snacks all the time. When I lived in Waltham, MA, I chose a different Indian snack mix each week from the many Indian grocers. I learned to appreciate Indian snack mixes from an old roommate of mine when I worked on a pig farm in the South of Israel," he says. "When I'm feeling it, I do the herring in sweet white wine vinegar sauce and pickle route, though I feel like that's pretty expected of someone like me who's obsessed with eating like they grew up in the shtetls of Eastern Europe."
My cousin Louis Kao, whom I am struggling to not refer to as "Junior" here, is the chef and owner of Noodle Theory in the Bay Area. He's one of the finest chefs I have the privilege of knowing, so I expect him to tell me he crafts a thoughtful bowl of ramen whenever he feels peckish. "Butter Garlic Kimchee Chow Mein with Kalbi Short Ribs and Sharp Cheddar," he practically shouts. "It's a decadent spicy-fat-sugar-carb bomb, but it's a great contrast with the acid and heat from the kimchee and the sharpness and creaminess of the cheddar."
Just when I think he's done describing his love of carbs, "I also love medium grain sushi rice with buttery mashed potatoes—with pomegranate pork chops. Man! The texture contrast of smooth buttery mashed potatoes combined with chewy rice is heaven."
Brooklyn-based food photographer Clay Williams, who has likely tasted more extravagant meals than anyone I surveyed, doesn't hesitate when I ask what his go-to meal is. "Bacon, egg and cheese from a bodega." He specifies, "American cheese–it melts the best. One place in the neighborhood does it on an English muffin, which I like. Oh, and at home I usually douse it in chili crisp. The classic one with the lady on the jar."
Cookbook author Whitney Otawka tells me, "I have various jars of nuts and seeds stashed around my house. I'm mad for almonds and eat handfuls daily. It's the crunch that satisfies. And I love Rancho Gordo Red Crimson Popcorn. I keep it stocked at home. Toppings range from olive oil and nutritional yeast to chicken fat (so good) and Aleppo."
Toni Elkhouri, the chef-owner of Florida's Cedars Café reports that her favorite snack combination is "Potato chips and dark chocolate." When she's planning menus, she warms "72-78% dark chocolate with some kind of nut and then I dip the chips in. Salt and bitterness work so well together—especially when it's thick cut crinkle chips." She adds, "Oh and fairy cakes! There's also nothing like creamy butter on toast with sprinkles."
Chutatip Suntaranon, the chef and owner of Kalaya in Philadelphia, goes home at the end of the night to Pan Sib Sai Pla, tiny fried fish dumplings filled with white snapper. "They're sweet, spicy, crunchy," she tells me, "I treat myself to a few pieces before bed."
Lee Anne Wong, the executive chef of Koko Head Café and Papa'aina at the Pioneer Inn gives me a precise list of her favorite snacks. "Luxe: Caviar on vacuum dried banana chips. Budget: Bacon and American cheese on Triscuits melted together in the toaster oven. Mid-level bougie: IKEA Kalles Kaviar on Trader Joe's White Truffle Potato Chips."
This reminds me that Wong is responsible for another one of my snacks of solitude. Her Breakfast Bruschetta (Japanese rusk topped with macadamia nut yogurt and fruit) on the Koko Head Café menu had me slicing baguettes, toasting them with butter and sugar and then dipping them in yogurt at midnight for months after I first had it. In fact, I'm going to make myself some right now.