Rick Rodgers has written many books under his own name – Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague is a favorite of ours – but he is perhaps best known in the industry for co-writing books with everyone from reality stars to restaurant chefs and everyone else in between. As Rick has told us many times, he gets the projects no one else can handle. He is a wizard in the kitchen, can spot a problem recipe a mile away and whip up a better version in a flash. An expert recipe developer and co-author with a wicked sense of humor, we sat down with Rick to muse about what he does, and does so well, and about his newest co-authored book, The Model Bakery Cookbook (Chronicle, 2013).
Bakepedia: Rick, thank you so much for giving us this interview.
Rick Rodgers: My pleasure, Dédé, I’ve been looking forward to it.
When people ask what you do, how do you answer?
(Laughs) This is so hard to answer. Sometimes I wonder how different my life would have been if had just become a lawyer, someone with a clearly defined skill set. Then I could just say, “I’m a lawyer,” because as a freelance food professional you have to wear 100 hats. Personally, after doing this for as long as I have been, I have edited some of those things out. The current state of being a food professional is that we are being asked to do more and more. Now we are asked to develop recipes, write recipes, edit, take photographs, have social media skills – and there are only so many hours in the day for me to do a good job.
I have been in this biz over 40 years, starting in high school. I started in one of the first gourmet delis in California before it was the gourmet ghetto it is now. It was run by a New Yorker who knew the gourmet space. I was 16 and learned how to differentiate between 10 different salamis and even more cheeses. It was quite the education. I went to college and by age 20 I was managing a restaurant. I was front-of-house, back-of-house – I never didn’t have people skills, although a few cooking schools might disagree! That first boss said to me, “I don’t care what you want to be, but you have the food gene.” He was right. So I fell into it.
I had also always been surrounded by food. All the members of my family identified themselves by what they cooked.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
I love to take my personal skill set and help others write their books. I am constantly learning things, like yesterday, I went shopping for ingredients with a chef and had to go to a Japanese store, a Spanish store and a natural food store and in each place we were looking for something I had never heard of before. I love that it’s always about learning something new. I just love being the guy who comes in on the white horse and brings the project alive. No one ever asks me to be on an easy project, from reality stars to 4-star chefs, it ain’t easy.
What was an ingredient you were shopping for that you had never heard of?
It was a kimchi base. Who knew?
How are you inspired to create recipes?
I always envision someone being in the room with me. Who are they? I don’t write for myself anymore, I write books for my readers. How much money do they have to make one dinner? How much time? What do they like to eat? Can they spend $100 on an entrée for four, or does it need to be a quarter of that? I am a generalist and known for being versatile. If someone needs quick-and-easy or if they want restaurant-style, that’s what I deliver. The most important thing is that you will be able to recreate this recipe with my vision. It will work.
Do you have a moment, event or recipe from your career of which you are most proud?
Oh yes! I just got an email from a college professor of mine, one of the first people who ever hired me as a caterer and he saw my name in a magazine or somewhere, probably Playgirl, who knows (laughs). He had hired me to cater a party – he didn’t have to do that, but he wanted to support me – and he wrote to say that he had never forgotten the lasagna I made with chicken, spinach, ricotta, red sauce and béchamel sauce. He was a world traveler and he said it was the best pasta he had ever had in America. He first had it in 1973, and here he was reminiscing so many years later – a lasting impression. The recipe is in my Christmas 101 book and I still get the same compliments from other people. I returned the compliment to him, because he hired me. He gave me the confidence outside of the classroom, which was not his job.
What are the three most important things that you think the home baker should know?
1. The differences in flours. They truly make a difference. I used to test recipes for Chocolatier magazine and I would answer the phone, it was always an issue of a good recipe gone bad and the most common problem was switching flour. The recipe would call for one thing and the person would have used cake flour or bleached or unbleached or whatever, but it was something other than what was recommended. People have phobia about bleached cake flour and they shouldn’t. It is a flour with great properties.
2. Same goes for eggs. I have publishers who don’t want to give egg size to the reader. They tell me, the reader will just use what they want or have around. There is a big difference between medium and jumbo, especially when there are 8 eggs in the recipe. Think of a soufflé! Huge difference.
3. Alice Medrich and I are going to have a mud-wrestling match over the importance of scaling. (We both laugh.)
You aren’t going to wrestle in chocolate?
Okay, yes, chocolate, we want to get dirty (laughs again). My take on this is to make your own decision about scaling. Baking can be intimidating enough. Scales are cheap and they have their place, but I have to tell you, I have never had a failure based on well thought-out volume measurements. Dip and sweep is a heck of a lot easier. Maybe if you start having problems, then try scaling. And think about this: scaling causes more problems that didn’t exist before because editors and copy editors don’t understand the metric system. I have had publishers ask me to scale my measurements up so that the metric is a nice, tidy number!
How do you deal with a global audience?
In all of my recent books I have been including metric, but I insist that the publisher uses my conversion chart, not theirs. Just the other day, I was reading a cookbook and thought, “this doesn’t look right.” There was a mistake in their flour measurements. The same mistake was in all of the books from that publisher, who knows how many. They had been using an incorrect chart.
Tell us about what you are doing currently.
The Model Bakery Cookbook has just come out that I co-wrote with Karen Mitchell and Sarah Mitchell Hansen. The book displays a Napa Valley lifestyle. It’s more than just about the bakery and recipes. Karen has been in that area for a long time, way before there was the romance that Napa is now. They are famous for English Muffins and they are just, oh my God, so good. You might have to play with the flour amount a little bit, as with so many bread recipes, but it is a fantastic recipe.
Other than that, in my kitchen today I am testing recipes for a reality star who I won’t mention due to a non-disclosure [agreement], but let me tell you, at least she hired someone to test the recipes! So many don’t and with horrible results. I also just finished a restaurant book for an Italian restaurant in NYC, and am also working on a celebrity chef book with Richard Sandoval. He has numerous restaurants all around the world. It’s a book on entertaining Latino-style, so I get to shake my maracas! Above all, I am doing a big book of side dishes with 500 recipes. It will be published fall 2014 with Ballantine.
What do you hope to do next?
I am actually getting ready to do less in the food business and am looking forward to “a reinvention of Rick.” I am getting my real estate license and will focus on that. I will still do books when they come along but slow down the pace. I stopped teaching already because of the wear and tear. People say I should blog. Cookbooks are a different animal than writing a blog. People like you and me and Emily Luchetti and Alice Medrich have our own intellectual property. We develop original content. A blogger’s job is so often to react to trends, not create them. That doesn’t fly with me. When I choose one site over another I am looking for original content. Some do a great job. Also, as I said in the beginning, bloggers are expected to be photographers as well as writers and recipe developers and I can’t do that. I do not have the time. There are people who say, “Just use your iPhone.” No! I work with the best photographers in the business – Ben Fink has photographed eight of my books – and I am not going to dumb myself down for that. I like to think that I am good at what I do already and that’s enough.
Well said, Rick. I can always count on you to give us an entertaining and informative interview. We can’t wait to get in the kitchen and try those English Muffins, and please do keep us abreast of other upcoming projects.
Will do, Dédé. Thank you.