Chef Amanda Cook: On Food Science and Chocolate Charcuterie

Pastry Chef Amanda cook was so not expecting a James Beard nomination in 2010 that when a friend texted, “Congratulations on your JB nomination” she assumed it was a local Washington DC award or something and texted back, “What’s that?”

Her desserts at Cityzen were catching the attention of many, and she’s done the same in New York’s Cookshop in the East Village. There she combines her degrees in food science and the culinary arts to create plates that stun in both their skill and comfort.

What did you learn from food technology degree? What was your pocket of focus?

I’ve always been interested in food and had thought about culinary school right after high school, but my dad asked me to look at colleges. Going to Virginia Tech was the best decision I’ve ever made. I was really interested in nutrition, originally, but I wasn’t interested in the job of a clinical nutritionist, or working in hospitals – I’m terrified of hospitals – so when looking at schools I was thinking about some aspect of nutrition. But when checking my major at Virginia Tech I actually checked the wrong major! Food Technology was under “Agriculture” and the Science of Food and Nutrition was under the college of “Human Resources”. So, I ended up taking the Food Science and absolutely loved it, and went towards the technology option. It was a small department within a large school, so some of the classes were very small and you could ask questions. I learned so much there, and I absolutely value my degree 100%.

And right out of college?

I was intending on going into the field working as a food technologist. When I was looking at jobs after college most were on the sweet bakery side. With a degree in Food Science you could go into a wheat processing or a poultry processing plant, too, but that really didn’t interest me! So basically I went to Krispy Kreme over a poultry processing plant!

What did you learn from working there?

I worked in their lab in North Carolina. At the time they were doing the dry mix for all of the stores there. So my job in the lab was to test test the incoming raw ingredients to makes sure that they were up to company standards. In particular we were to check the flours for protein moisture and ash and make sure they within the spectrums of what we were looking for; the mix going out to the shops had to be very consistent and we needed to make sure the ingredients all tested within our specs.

Is there any crossover between food technology and people who just like to make chocolate chip cookies at home on Sundays?

Ha – cookies and Sundays are two of my favorite things!

I learned a lot about ingredient interaction and developing mixes. My big project was developing mixes to apply within California food laws; at the time there was an ingredient that wasn’t allowed by the state’s ingredient laws, so I worked on a reformulation of the mix so that we could expand into California. And I learned a lot about how flours perform in a yeast or cake dough; really, the importance of ingredients and the interaction of them on the final product. Including chocolate chip cookies.

What shifted you to an active aspect of the pastry industry?

I wasn’t necessarily thinking about being a pastry chef at the time; they had hired a research chef, and I was doing more quality control in my position. But I really wanted to explore product development since I love to experiment. A lot of companies at the time were hiring research chefs, so I was thinking of a further degree because most places required an advanced degree or PhD. The other option was to go to culinary school and then go back into the food industry as a research chef to do product development with the degree that I’d always wanted. At the time the Academy of Cuisine was the best affordable situation for me. Afterwards I did my externship and found I really liked the restaurant business, and the industry in general. I felt, “Maybe I’ll work here for a while.” So I gave it a shot and ended up not leaving.

What was it you realized you loved?

The excitement, the non-stop action, and the kind of Zen of coming into your own and understanding that you can do service and production – the whole gamut. I really enjoyed the whole thing: the creativity, the not having to sit at a desk. Just everything about it.

With your degree, it would make sense that you would develop a very modernist style of pastry, but it doesn’t seem that you’ve done that. How did you lean more towards the comfort-food niche in pastry?

I am fascinated with chemical reactions, but I’ve actually never worked in a restaurant that had a lean into modernist cuisine. I’m fascinated by the science behind food, making a starter and knowing the reaction of bread as it’s rising and baking and knowing the chemistry behind it. But I’m not so interested in making a foam that tastes like bread. Or a gel. It’s just a personal preference.

What makes you excited about what you get to make now? Either that you like to eat or make?

I really like cookie dough. I eat raw cookie dough – it’s the best perk of my job. I love making cookies, and I love to bake because I used to bake all the time as a kid – all the time. I’d bake and give things to my father and he’d take them down to the office. That’s just the best feeling to me, to bake something and give it as a gift. You don’t say, “Here’s a really tasty meatloaf! Take it to your office to share!” But nice, warm, cinnamon rolls you put in the break room?! I think the creating and making people happy is the most gratifying part of the job.

Your work at Cookshop runs the gamut, from morning through evening, sweet and savory. What rules or guidelines do you set for yourself, and what does something have to hit for you to love it?

Of course it has to be tasty, and it has to be a crowd pleaser. I think it’s very important to know your audience, and know what they’re looking for. I wouldn’t put something on the menu that’s too far out there. I think we should look to what our guests want, and then also look to what the rest of the restaurant is. Here at Cookshop I try to be really mindful of the thoughtful savory menu that they’ve put together, and match it so that there’s a continuous flow with the meal. And I kind of took on this process of more of a homey, rustic cuisine, which I like; everyone can find comfort in classic comfort foods.

It’s now James Beard “season”. You were at Cityzen when you got your nomination in 2010. What do you feel you were doing at the time that was catching people’s attention?

To be quite honest, I had no idea it was coming and so I was completely shocked. Someone texted me “congratulations on your JB nomination!” And I was like, what is that? Is that some sort of local thing?! Because surely it wasn’t a James Beard nomination! So I really was surprised, and 100% honored, and I have to say at the time I was really just trying to keep up with Eric and the caliber of his food, because clearly everyone knows he worked for Thomas Keller for 20 years and has such an incredibly high skill and passion and dedication, so he was really pushing me to the chef I am today.

Did being nominated change anything?

I had to really step it up and make sure I was on point!

Any advice to people in the final running now?

Enjoy every minute. It’s such an amazing honor even to be on the long list or short list; just to be acknowledged in that group of peers was really amazing. And if you bring your family there, have them enjoy it, because those tickets aren’t cheap!

You’ve been in New York a little bit now. Did you feel you had to shift your style for New York comparatively to DC?

I don’t think I really changed my desserts. I feel like I’m still doing the same… I don’t want to say “style”. I feel the desserts haven’t changed but I’ve definitely progressed in my skill and technique and confidence. I’ve been here for a while and hope that I know the guests very well and am doing things they are happy about.

Is there anything on the menu now that’s a culmination of your past that you couldn’t have done a bit ago, that’s 100% of what you and Cookshop are?

I’m about to put on the menu this week a good representation of where I’ve been and where I am now: a chocolate charcuterie board I’m calling “Chocuterie”. Each item really uses a skill or technique from where I’ve been, brought altogether. It exemplifies a fun, playful nature of me as well as, I hope, Cookshop.

I have a, well, “chocolate sausage”: it tastes like a Tootsie Roll and looks more like a sausage. There are some chocolate and vanilla crepes that I kind of swirled to make look marbled like prosciutto, piled on the plate to look like it. There’s a milk chocolate ganache in a little jar, more like a cremau or chocolate pudding, topped with a thin layer of white chocolate to look like the fat cap. Then a piece of chocolate pancetta, which is a chocolate and vanilla puff pastry swirled together. And then a chocolate torchon and brioche to be served with that with “mustard” that’s a lemon poppy seed curd, and a pickled dried cherries. It’s extensive. My staff is dreading all the work.

It sounds like so much fun, though!

It is. I’ve taken little things and parts of things I’ve done and put them together. It’s fun and playful and great shared. Cookshop is such a gathering spot: it’s a good place to come on a date, a good place to come for families, and for star sightings. I hope it will be a winner. New York has been a great learning experience for me: it’s fewer politicians and more movie stars!