My Life in the Age of COVID: Dan Souza of America’s Test Kitchen
What's "the new normal" for a food editor and test cook confined to his own home kitchen? Well, there's a lot of sourdough.
As the COVID-19 pandemic upends every aspect of Boston life, we’re checking in with some local residents to learn how they’re processing our new normal. They’ll share serious thoughts on their concerns for the city—and yes, some silly recommendations on what to binge-watch, too. For the rest of the series, click here.
Nearly everybody has had to adjust their workflow for the social-distancing era, but there are some unique challenges for Dan Souza. Souza is editor-in-chief of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, as well as an on-camera personality for parent brand (and long-running cooking show) America’s Test Kitchen. So he typically spends his days at the company’s state-of-the-art kitchens and media studios in the Seaport, tasting recipe iterations and advising test cooks and writers. Now, though, his duties might entail editing sessions conducted over video call, showing off his kitchen tools for YouTube, or planning how to get a freshly baked beef Wellington from a North Shore kitchen to an ad hoc photo studio in Cambridge. Souza also has a keen vantage point on supply chain issues affecting grocery stores around the country—and on a new generation of home cooks who are using this time to get inspired in the kitchen. We caught up with the test cook to learn how he’s adapting in his own home kitchen.
How are you feeling right now?
In terms of my immediate circle, no one has gotten sick yet. Everyone’s been able to shelter in place, for the most part, and stay safe. I moved into a condo this summer that’s right near the Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. I’ve always loved it, but just having that as a place to get outside and clear my head has been huge for me as well. I have a housemate who is immunocompromised, so I’m really just going to the Arboretum and my own home.
Work-wise, we didn’t really understand how we were going to work from home. The whole Cook’s Illustrated crew, there’s about 10 of us, and it turns out, we’re really, really scrappy. We have figured out a way to make it work. To have work and my work-social life still going adds a bit of normalcy to my life, which I really appreciate right now.
How have you been coping?
I’ve been on and off trying to do meditation throughout my life, but I’ve had a lot more motivation to get into it now. I’ve also gotten creative with exercise, like working out with what I have, because gym equipment is hard to come by. I have been trying to read a lot. I used to drive my car every day, but now I’m doing “Sunday” drives, even during the week. There’s something nice and freeing about that. As scary as everything is, if you’re privileged enough to shelter in place and stay safe, then there’s this kind of slowdown to your life that I think you could harness for really positive things.
How many loaves of sourdough bread do you see, on average, every time you scroll through Instagram?
I see a lot, a lot of sourdough out there. [Laughs] I have one of my coworkers largely to blame for a lot of it, Andrew Janjigian [senior editor, Cook’s Illustrated]. Right at the beginning of this, my team was talking about how not only is it hard to get yeast right now, but it’s hard to get flour. A lot of sourdough starters take a lot of flour to get going, and you can go through pounds of flour by the time you have something that’s active and ready to bake. So, Andrew came up with this brilliant idea: He calls it the “quarantiny” starter. It’s just taken off. My feed is like—everyone in some way connected to Andrew is making sourdough. They’re always gorgeous. They’re beautiful loaves. I think sourdough is an awesome thing. If this is what it takes to get people involved in it, then I’m glad people are at least doing it.
What’s your average daily routine like right now?
I probably get an extra half hour of sleep now, because I’m not commuting. But then, I just pretend I’m going to work. I’ll make some espresso and some breakfast. I set up and break down my office every day, because it’s in the dining area.
The whole Cook’s Illustrated crew, we start off with a daily meeting over Zoom. Everyone gives an update, but sometimes we go off on tangents. We have a pretty close-knit team, and there was just a lot of natural socializing that can’t really be replicated over Slack and email. We keep that meeting loose and flexible, and we have it every day so that we feel pretty connected. I’ll have some editing meetings with writers throughout the day that we often do over video calls.
Folks on my team are actually working on recipe development for the magazine. It’s really interesting because, you know, our whole office is built around a number of massive test kitchens. It’s a really collaborative process. I had some pretty deep reservations about how we could move it home and still do what we do. So, Andrea [Geary, deputy food editor] just finished up an oatmeal dinner roll recipe for the holidays. We have dozens of ovens in the test kitchen so she could do so many side-by-side tests. It’s so much harder to do at home with one apartment oven. We’ve had to slow the process down even more, and really zero in on what’s going to affect people at home most.
We’re doing these show-and-tell meetings now, where people bring photos and video of their recipes so we can talk through them and feel like we’re part of each other’s testing process. Then after someone’s feeling pretty good about their recipe, they’re sending it to the team so other folks can make it at home.
One of the best parts of our process is actually thriving right now, and that’s our home recipe testers. We have about 50,000 home cooks around the country who volunteer to make our recipes before we publish them. It’s voluntary, but if they make it, they give us a lot of feedback on it. We were wondering, is it appropriate to send them out right now? People might have to go shopping to find stuff. So, we sent it out with a big disclaimer. There’s no pressure to make it whatsoever. But we’ve actually seen an uptick in the number of people that are making each recipe. I think, because people are stuck at home, they’re cooking a lot more and they’re looking for new stuff to try.
One of the final steps that we’ve found some workarounds for is all our photography. We have gorgeous photo studios back at Drydock [Avenue, ATK headquarters]. We work like other other food publications: We have food stylists, people making the food, an art director, the photographer—again, it’s a super collaborative process. Now, the photographers are at home. Luckily, they’re great cooks. A lot of them are making the food and then styling it and then shooting it. Andrew, the sourdough guy, he’s also an amazing photographer. He’s actually stepped up and is doing photoshoots at his house, too.
Alli Berkey runs the photo team back in the office, which would make all of the food for photoshoots. She’s been making stuff at her house and then she drives all around to drop it off to photographers’ homes, too. We’re working on holiday recipes right now for the November/December issue. A long time ago, we decided to do beef Wellington. It’s obviously a project. [Laughs] So at some point, rest assured, in the next week, there will be a beef Wellington created on the North Shore that will then be driven to Cambridge where it will be shot for an issue down the line.
What do you miss most about the pre-social distancing routine?
Getting around a table with my whole team. It’s one of the things that drew all of us to that job, the ability to spend time thinking and talking about food. Andrea is going to start on popovers soon. It’s one of my favorite things. It’s really hard that I will not be a part of all the tastings and the recipe stuff around it. I’m lucky, so I’m not going to complain too hard, but I do definitely miss that. It’s a really fun group of people that I’ve worked with for a really long time.
Considering what this situation is doing for interest in cooking at home, how will it inform the work that you do?
We’ve seen a lot more folks visiting our websites, and more people subscribing to the magazines. I think we’re talking to a wider group of people now, people who maybe haven’t always been as interested in cooking. We have an online cooking school that is also seeing a big jump in subscribers. That really speaks to people saying, “OK, I’m getting into this now.”
It’s already changed some of the types of recipes that we’re looking at, and definitely the stuff that we’re publishing digitally. We’ve been turning to a lot of our pantry-staple stuff and doing much bigger articles to help people navigate using those sorts of things. We want to continue to support all the folks who have always turned to us for the ideal version of something, but also just be there for someone who’s just getting their feet wet.
I’ve always loved what we do, and our mission of basically helping people succeed in the kitchen is something I really believe in. But I also recognize that when things are functioning normally people have a lot of options. Now more than ever, people are realizing that having the skill of cooking at home is more than just a fun hobby. It’s really, really valuable. It can feed your family and take care of you and help you save money.
What have you been cooking or baking, personally? What’s the biggest cooking project you’ve taken on?
Like everybody else, I’ve been working with whatever I can get my hands on. I got a really gorgeous skin-on, shank-in pork shoulder a little while ago, and I basically mapped out, like, how many things can I use this for? I crosshatched the skin and salted it. I did a little shio koji on the flesh side and let that hang out for a couple days in the fridge. Then I slow-roasted it, just blasting it at the end so you get that chicharron-kind of crispy skin thing. So we had this gorgeous roast that night as-is; I made a really nice green sauce with the herbs that I had on hand, and lots of garlic.
Then I got probably six different dishes out of it. I did tacos with it one night. I treated some of it like you would beef for a hummus topping—I had lots of cumin, Turkish pepper paste, and stuff like that, and got it a little crispy and really finely ground on top of some really nice hummus. I did a pork and bean soup with canned beans. Once I stripped off most of the meat, I pressure-cooked the shank with some chicken bones that I had to make some broth for ramen.
I hate food waste and there’s just so much in our normal lives. Most of the cooking I’m doing right now is like, how do I get every little bit out of it?
Do you have any comfort foods that you’ve been going back to?
Definitely. I haven’t been doing a ton of baking, but I’ve definitely been making a lot of pizza. Lan Lam developed this cast-iron pan pizza that’s just awesome. It takes you back to like, the Pizza Hut days. You get a fried bottom, it’s tall and plush inside, with an egregious amount of cheese on top. I’ve made that a couple of times. I also have this outdoor griddle—it’s like my prized possession. I’ve been doing smash burgers on it whenever the mood strikes, with good American cheese and special sauce on a potato bun. It’s kind of fun because it feels a little bit like you went out somewhere.
Speaking of going out, what are some concerns you have about the restaurant industry?
It’s pretty devastating. I’m good friends with Charles and Rachel Kelsey who own Cutty’s over in Brookline Village. They just had their 10-year anniversary a month before this happened. They worked at ATK when it started. Right when this hit, I was like, what can I do in an immediate way for them? So I bought a bunch of gift cards and gave them out. But then it dawned on me just how long this is going to go on. The damage is so much greater than you can fix in small ways like that. It’s something I really struggle with thinking about.
There’s this group called the Independent Restaurant Coalition that’s trying to work with Congress to address a bunch of things. Their whole thing is protecting the independent restaurant employees. I’ve been trying to support that as much as I can and get the word out on that. Anything that we, those of us who care a lot about restaurants and about the people that build them, can do to support things like the Independent Restaurant Coalition, I think will go a really long way to helping that.
Has America’s Test Kitchen experienced any access issues, like supply chain volatility?
Yeah. Our kitchen ops team handles all of our shopping and a ton of other things that happen in the test kitchen in terms of logistics and operations. As soon as this hit, they started talking about all our options—from delivery through Instacart to sourcing from individuals. They’ve done a really incredible job. But that said, we’re definitely running into, like, we can’t get turkey thighs, we can’t get flour, an order is going to take a week and a half to arrive. It actually speaks volumes: They’re absolute pros, and they are still struggling to make that all work.
We’re taking it as an opportunity to also make and test a lot more substitutions. We know that people can’t always find the stuff that they want anyway–so normally, at the end of testing in the test kitchen, we do what we call “abuse testing.” It sounds terrible, but it’s basically a battery of tests using the “wrong” stuff. We’ll have a recipe that we really love that we’ve developed on all of our winning equipment, using all of our winning products, but then we’ll try it with different types of flour, or using really thin-bottom pans and stuff like that. We had that built into our process, but now it’s kind of happening in a more haphazard way. [Laughs]
What have you learned about yourself during this unprecedented period? Has there been any soul searching?
My people have always been the most important thing to me, but it just becomes so crystal clear in a situation like this what really matters. It’s your people, and your pets. I’m happy to have my cat. I’m Zooming with my family, but I don’t know when I’m going to see my parents next in-person, or get together with my friends at their house. When work and all these other things get stressful as we get back to a sense of normalcy, I don’t want to let that stuff take up the brain space that it often does. At the end of the day, it’s just like, where are my people? Are they OK, and when do I get to see them again?
Are there any hobbies or projects you’ve been into now that you have a little more time?
I feel for people who have never loved cooking, in terms of how hard this is, but for me it’s a respite and an escape that’s really practical. I’ve been organizing and cleaning my kitchen, and really taking care of my seasonable cookware.
What have you been reading, or binge-watching, or listening to?
I’m close to the end of a novel called The Friend, by Sigred Muniz. A book I finished up before The Friend was The Overstory, which was incredible. It’s all about our relationship with trees, and all this interesting in-depth stuff on trees. Spending all this time in the Aboretum, I’m really learning more about trees. [Laughs]
I’m absolutely obsessed with The Last Dance, the Michael Jordan/Bulls documentary [series on ESPN]. There’s something about it that’s really comforting from a nostalgic perspective; I remember that time so well as a kid. We’re rewatching Community, we’re watching a lot of John Hughes ’80s movies. Nothing really dark and intense, just a lot of comforting and fun stuff to watch to wind down a bit.
Do you have any advice for others about this time right now?
That would almost imply that I have something figured out. [Laughs] Well, for the home-cooking part of it—this is something that comes from working in restaurants that I think home cooks can get a lot out of: When things are organized in your fridge and pantry, it gives you a beautiful window into all the possibilities. You waste less food that way as well. It’s a small bit of advice. Take a few minutes to organize yourself, and then cooking ends up being more relaxed, more fun, and more satisfying.