Alums who do cool things: Merrill Stubbs ’99, co-founder of Food52

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Whether you’re a self-proclaimed “foodie” or your Instagram feed is essentially #eeeeeats, you’ve probably heard of Food52 (they cook 52 weeks a year, get it?). The popular blog seeks to “bring cooks together from all over to exchange recipes and ideas to support each other in the kitchen.” Food52 was built on the premise that “if you want to eat better, and you want to help change our food system, you need to cook. Maybe not all the time, but some. You don’t have to eat local foods every day; you don’t have to shop at the farmers market every week. But it’s good to try. We’re not extremists in a cult of purity, slow-foodness, or locavorosity. We’re realists who believe in applying the best aspects of those food movements to our everyday lives.” Moreover, Food52 brings us mouth-watering “foodstagrams” and a great form of online procrastination not in quiz form.

What you might not know is that a co-founder of the culinary hub once dined in the Ratty and frequented late-night Jo’s. Meet Merrill Stubbs ’99 – food-lover, Brooklynite, and Brown alum. I had the opportunity to chat with Merrill about the website’s recipe for success. She even dished out advice for those sans meal-plan.

BlogDH: Why did you start Food52?

Merrill: My partner Amander Hesser and I started Food52 some years ago, and we had been working on a cookbook for the New York Times. We had been observing what had been going on in the food space online. We were observing the explosion in food blogs and there was this interesting food movement that was clearly going on offline as well. People were getting into cooking as a past time, as a way to interact with people. There certainly wasn’t a place for all these people to gather, share their knowledge, expertise, and generally have a conversation. We set out to create that place. It’s a platform to share recipes, share knowledge about cooking, general support, and create a community. It’s a hub for all things food. We started out mainly on recipes, but we’ve built it into a 360-degree food-lifestyle brand, a one-stop shop for food and cooking.

BlogDH: Did you have any previous food-related work experiences before Food52?

Merrill: I actually went to cooking school in London at Le Cordon Bleu a year after I graduated from Brown. When I moved back to the states, I worked in food for several years – in the test kitchen at America’s Test Kitchen, in a couple different restaurants in the Boston area. I started doing food writing by writing a food newsletter. It was like a very primitive form of blogging.

BlogDH: Favorite aspect of Food52?

Merrill: We do something every year that I really love called the Piglet. It runs once a year for two weeks. We take the 16 most noteworthy cookbooks over the past year and we set up a bracketed tournament like a NCAA tournament where we pair up books and have outside judges – chefs, cookbook authors, and celebrities. In the past we’ve had Gwyneth Paltrow, Mario Batali, and, this year, David Chang of Momofuku. The judges each get two books and decide which [book] advances to the next round. The books go through several rounds and you end up with a winner. I like it because it’s a different kind of award. This is our fifth year. We post all our judgments on our site over a two-week period, and it comes to be something that people really get excited about.

BlogDH: What type of post or recipe attracts the most viewers?

Merrill: Well, the most popular search terms are kale, quinoa, chicken and salmon. The secrets to success, it’s kind of amazing. We actually have a recipe for kale and quinoa pilaf. Also, chocolate chip cookies, dessert; people are always into dessert.

BlogDH: Did you cook growing up?

Merrill: My mom was a great cook. She was a very intuitive cook. I kind of learned some of my instincts from her, from watching her. I’d be lying if I said I actually cooked a lot, but I was definitely fascinated by cooking. I really got into cooking on my own my last year at Brown. We were off meal plan and cooking for ourselves. Our house kind of became the gathering place because we were cooking stuff that was beyond the standard mac ‘n cheese fare. If you cook, people will come.

BlogDH: What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?

Merrill: I actually recently started using the tomatoes that come in a box instead of a can. You don’t get any metallic flavor, and I have also heard that they’re safer for you. I also really like the fact that they’re in boxes because they stack really nicely. I basically use them almost year round, but in the summer not as much because we have fresh in-season tomatoes. I use them in pasta sauce once a week, braised dishes, soups, stews. I definitely go through a few boxes a week.

BlogDH: What’s your favorite dish?

Merrill: Depends on the season. In the winter I tend to make a lot of braised things. Braised short ribs are a really comforting dish and also… better if you serve [them] the second day.

BlogDH: Is there something you still want to try?

Merrill: I really would love to get better at bread-baking; I’m not the best baker. I’m still a little intimidated by yeast. I’d really like to do some intensive bread-baking. Sure, I can figure out a recipe, but its not where my comfort zone is.

BlogDH: What are your favorite cuisines and least favorite cuisines?

Merrill: My default is Italian. If I had to pick one for the rest of my life it would be Italian. But, I tend to have moods. I can’t think of anything I don’t like. Actually, I’m not a huge fan of very fishy seafood. It took me a long to time to break into seafood. I’m not a big fan of a lot of the more exotic and fishy options like eel and roe.

BlogDH: Do you have any advice for college kids off meal plan?

Merrill: I know you guys have so much work to do and so many other things to think about, so as much as you can, make big batches of things that can be frozen or turned into other things. Make a big pot of beans over the weekend and use it over the week. It’s usually pretty budget friendly as well.

BlogDH: Do you have a favorite kitchen appliance?

Merrill: I don’t use a ton a gadgets… My KitchenAid, I cant live without it.

BlogDH: What’s your favorite holiday to cook for and why?

Merrill: I do like cooking for Thanksgiving because the possibilities are endless. But, it’s also little bit more stressful. I actually really love cooking in the spring for an Easter lunch. I love the feeling of the promise of spring. With all the spring vegetables coming out, I feel sort of inspired to do something new.

BlogDH: What’s your favorite brunch dish?

Merrill: Gosh, I do love brunch. I just love eggs. I really like baked eggs for brunch; you can just throw anything in there. Bacon is always good. In the summer I like to put cherry tomatoes in there, and in the winter, sautéed winter squash. Always lots of herbs, a little cream. The possibilities are endless. They’re so easy to do.

BlogDH: What was your favorite meal at the Ratty?

Merrill: I knew you were going to ask this. This is sort of embarrassing; it’s a tie between two different things. They introduced the soft-serve machine when I was at Brown, which was super exciting. We would have soft-serve and put Cracklin’ Oat Bran on top as dessert. That was amazing. I know, super high brow. I also really liked Jo’s. I actually had never really had hummus before I came to Brown, and I discovered hummus at Jo’s. That became a nightly thing, and falafel. That was a revolution freshman year.

BlogDH: What’s the best food from which one can gain the freshman fifteen at Brown?

Merrill: Ice cream and Cracklin’ Oat Bran. Definitely. A lot of hot dogs, too…

BlogDH: What’s your favorite Providence restaurant?

Merrill: I haven’t been in a long time, but I have to say I really love Al Forno and  have written about their baked pasta recipe on Food52. Any excuse to get there I would take.

BlogDH: Ratty or V-Dub?

Merrill: Ratty. I was always on the Ratty side of campus.

Image via James Ransom.

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