Mob Meets... Andy Baraghani
"This is maybe a tenth of my book collection," says Andy Baraghani, gesturing towards a bookcase stacked with hardbacks. Speaking to Andy, it becomes immediately obvious that he’s a man obsessed with food. He’s obsessed with the way it tastes, the way it looks, and the nuanced way that each bite of a dish can hit your palate in a different way like hockey players colliding into one another at breakneck speed.
As a former senior food editor at Bon Appétit, Andy has spades of recipe writing experience and understands what it takes to make a dish go the whole nine yards from someone’s Instagram feed to their dinner table. He’s also no stranger to the professional kitchen, having worked the hobs at the iconic Chez Panisse in California as well as at trendy New York outfits like Frej and Corton. His style of cooking is as bold and refreshing as his personality – heavy on the salt and acid, Andy specializes in food that’s more than comfortable working a room and making an excellent first impression.
His new cookbook, The Cook You Want to Be, is filled with 100 killer recipes for everything from caramelised sweet potatoes with browned butter harissa to cauliflower bolognese and Andy’s own personal take on kuku sabzi. Taking inspiration from his Persian heritage and years of experience working in restaurants, Andy Baraghani has crafted a flawless debut that you’re going to be dipping into on weeknights and weekends.
Whether he’s fine-tuning a dish for a dinner party or a step in his meticulous skin-care routine, Andy Baraghani is all about the finer details. That being said, he still hasn’t lost sight of the bigger picture. Which is feeding people with as much delicious food as possible. Here’s what happened when Mob met Andy Baraghani.
Do you think that going to culinary school is essential in becoming a chef or recipe developer?
I certainly don't think so. I never went to culinary school and I worked my way up by learning about food and cooking in restaurants. That being said, I think the space has been changing and evolving recently and there's not a clear or linear path to take you into media. It’s not very typical, for example, to go straight from restaurants to food media, but that somehow happened to me. It wasn't necessarily my plan from the get-go.
What would be your one piece of advice for someone that did want to break into food media?
Well, we're in a really interesting time. I'm speaking less from a cook's perspective here and more from the perspective of someone who has worked in media and seen the ebb and flow of how it's changed so much. So much is digital media and digital-first and we’ve seen this ongoing trend where print publications are starting to be on the decline. I think one thing that I still believe in – and this really applies to any kind of field that you go into – is that you want to surround yourself with people that you can actually learn from and that can inspire you. I would also suggest you really do your research. Who are the writers that you love? Why do you love their writing? What is it that they're writing about? What is that subject matter? What are the publications that exist that seem to be doing a good job? Even if you don't have a clear understanding of where you kind of want to exist in that world, at least understand or have a sense of who the players in that scene are. The one thing about the media that hasn’t changed is that there’s this understanding of always looking out for what the next big thing is going to be. That exists in fashion and it exists in food.
Who were your inspirations when you were getting started?
A lot of the people that inspired me at the start of my career were cooks. In the very beginning, it was the chefs that I saw on TV like Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook as well as Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Lidia Bastianich. And then, once I realised I was interested in going into restaurants, I understood the range of restaurants and different calibre of chefs out there. Alice Waters and the chefs at Chez Panisse were a great inspiration – people like Paul Bertolli and Cal Peternell especially. Deborah Madison is also a huge inspiration, she’s just an incredible writer, such a thoughtful cook, and one of the great writers on vegetable cooking. Nigel Slater is another huge inspiration in that vein. My inspiration recently, though, has been coming from social media where there are so many incredible young talented food writers and chefs as well as brands, purveyors, and farmers. That jolt of youth and openness is something that I’m really, really into at the moment.
When did you decide that you wanted to write your own cookbook?
Well, I was actually approached about writing a book a while back – way before I even wanted to write a book. And, while I was very flattered at the time, I knew I wasn't ready. I’m someone who tends to overthink and overanalyse and won't bite the bullet. I think has to do with getting older, too. If you saw me when I was a teenager or in my twenties, I was very forward in anything that I wanted to do. I'd be the first one to go out and I'd be the last one to come home. When it came to actually wanting to write the book, it wasn't until I wrote a personal essay [“I Hid Who I Was for So Long. Until I Became a Cook”] for Bon Appétit that had to do with food and identity and my sexuality and growing up Iranian. It was very personal and I wasn't sure I even wanted to publish it. I had doubts about it and I was actually thinking about removing the article before it even went to press, but it was kind of one of the best things I've ever done. Not just for my career either. I still get messages about that essay. I think that kind of shed some light like 'oh, maybe it is time for me to write a book'.
Was it a process that came quite naturally to you?
Being an editor for so many years, I’ve been very lucky to be in a position to look through so many cookbooks and to see the kind of trends that have come and gone and those that have stuck around longer than they should have. And I thought, well, if I'm going to write a cookbook, then I want it to be about what I've learned so far. I want it to be something that felt still personal but can still empower the reader. You’re obviously trying to teach someone how to do something or to cook something but I think there's a lot of nuance in the way one writes about food and recipe writing. Many times it can come off as stiff and robotic and read as a strict template. My goal for this book was to not just provide recipes that people will fall in love with and integrate into their repertoire, but create recipes where it feels like I'm right there with the reader, cooking alongside them and that I'm letting them okay if it doesn’t completely perfectly or if they don't have a specific ingredient. There is a kind of casualness about it, while still obviously having amounts and yields and all that. I didn’t just want people to gain recipes that are good and work but I tried to integrate something where there is a lesson in each recipe – however overt or subtle. Whether that's providing some historical context and headnote or whether it's about a step in the method that's very key to learn about a technique or having a sidebar calling out details about a particular ingredient.
What sort of ingredients get a shout out?
Let’s take a salad of persimmons with torn burrata, pistachios, and crushed lemon as an example. I grew up with persimmons but many people don't know what they are. That’s why I’ve included a sidebar in my book where I write about how there are two persimmon varieties you will see: one variety you can eat when it's crunchy and crisp and it has a honeyed sweetness to it while the other variety, Hachiya, has an almost tapered oblong shape. You should never eat a Hachiya when it's firm because it will be so astringent in your mouth and you have to let it soften and let the skin almost get wrinkly until the flesh inside it becomes so soft it almost becomes like a custard or a jam.
Is there a difference between writing a recipe for a website and writing a recipe for a cookbook?
Absolutely. When you’re working for a brand you're obviously writing out each recipe yourself but you’re doing it in the brand's voice. While I think I was able to carve out my own voice and style of cooking in the many places that I worked at over the years, I knew that with this book I had full range and control. One rule that I had was that if I couldn’t make the dish in my tiny New York City apartment kitchen, then I wouldn’t put it in the book. That’s why these recipes don’t call for a stand mixer or a hand mixer – there's maybe only a few that have a food processor or a blender involved. I've seen a lot in recipes where there's a lot of prep involved in the ingredient list, so you'll see like “two carrots, peeled” or an “onion, coarsely chopped” written down in the ingredient list. I really try, for the majority of the recipes, to remove that shortcut and incorporate that process in the method instead. One, because it’s in real-time: you’re grabbing the carrots and you're peeling them when you’re following the recipe and you’re not going to have all these magically pre-prepped things. Two, so much of the beauty of cooking, to me, is in those moments of preparation. If you have everything prepped out in the ingredients list, you're just writing about combining things in a bowl or throwing them in a skillet. There's not enough movement there for me and it’s those irregular parts of cooking that are the most beautiful. It's not always about perfectly sizzled onions or a perfect bake. It's the stirring, the peeling, the removing of the pith with a paring knife that I think is essential. That’s where the writer is really able to tap into the reader, to the home cook, on how to actually accomplish those tasks.
Have you got a favourite recipe in The Cook You Want to Be?
You know, I don't really feel like I have a favourite yet. Maybe one day I will. There are certain ones that I really love, there's a torn plum and pistachio cake that is very delicious, but then there's also a salt and pepper cod with buttered turmeric noodles that I love. And a sticky basil shrimp that I’m mad about. I never thought I would say this but a recipe for roasted chicken breast – which is not something that I usually eat – where it's served with a cold, tangy acidic salad with chickpeas and celery is another favourite. I really tried to think about the food that I want to be eating now and the food that I think we, as a society, should be eating now. There is meat in this book, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to meat, but the majority is vegetable-forward cooking, for sure.
How much does your Persian heritage influence the way you cook?
When I started cooking professionally, the last thing I wanted to cook was Persian food but it obviously came back and grabbed me. I would say Persian cuisine and the food that I grew up with has definitely inspired and influenced the way I cook but I would never describe myself as a cook who cooks Persian food. I wouldn't put those parameters on it. I would say that there are certain ingredients and techniques from that cuisine that I do incorporate and there are definitely dishes that are part of the canon of Iranian cuisine that are in the book and that I have cooked. But it's certainly not a Persian cookbook.
What do you think the most underrated ingredient is?
This is probably a shocking answer for so many people but I'd say the one thing that I grab at least once a week is onion powder. Onion powder is the most incredible ingredient. I'm not talking about granulated onion or onion flakes either – I'm talking about onion powder. It just makes everything so delicious. I’ll even put a good amount of it in when I'm sizzling onions. If I'm doing a yoghurt marinade for a chicken or something, it adds a sweet umami-ness and an unctuousness that is unlike anything else. Not garlic powder, onion powder. I am full chaotic.
What’s the one dish that you think everyone should be able to cook?
If you eat meat, I think everyone should know how to roast a chicken. I'm not getting an award for that answer. The next thing is equally obvious but it's a little harder because I don't think most people know how to properly cook pasta. I think people are still trained into boiling a pot of pasta and then cooking it al dente (or overcooking it), draining it, putting it in a bowl and then tossing it with some sauce. If you're lucky, maybe they’re taking the pasta out and putting it with sauce in the pot. But what makes pasta so good in restaurants, and pasta is usually better in restaurants, is a few things. Like, for example, if the instructions for a pasta say it takes 9 minutes for al dente, you don't want to cook your pasta to al dente. You want to cook your pasta to 7 minutes, under al dente, or a minute or two before it's al dente. After that, you want to save a lot of pasta water before move that pasta into a separate pot that has your sauce. Add a splash of pasta water and cook it over medium. The pasta will cook to al dente but the sauce and pasta water will start to emulsify and cling on to the pasta. Then it’s not just pasta and sauce: the two have married together and become one. I don't think enough people create that marriage.
What’s your favourite song to listen to while you’re cooking?
It depends on my mood. When I'm by myself, I can get into Van Morrison. A lot of Van Morrison and occasionally Black Sabbath. But if I'm around my partner, then it will be maybe like Aretha Franklin potentially some Janis Joplin or Joni Mitchell. I used to be a wild party person and now I've calmed down a bit. I can't listen to Adele or Béyonce when I'm cooking though. I love listening to them when I'm not, but if I'm in the kitchen then listening like something to that would take me out. There's a time and a place.