ABOUT ME

My culinary life began when my mother married her second husband when I was nine years old. All of a sudden our house was filled with cookbooks and magazines brimming with recipes and color photos of luscious—and sometimes exotic—food.  Obviously I ate—and I loved to eat as evidenced by photos of me as a pudgy little kid—but before my mom got hitched to my step dad (“pop”), I had no exposure to fancy food, foreign food or restaurants of any stature.  When it was just my mom, sister and me, we always ate breakfast together before my mom went to work and my sister and I walked to school.  When my sister and I came home from school, I made a snack or we would go to a neighbor’s house where a nice stay-at-home mom might ply us latchkey kids with cookies and milk.  My mom always cooked a proper dinner. And then there was lunch.  Back in the old days a tradeable lunch was what every kid desired and most kids had:  a peanut butter and jelly or tuna fish sandwich on white bread, a bag of chips, some cookies, and maybe an apple if you were lucky or unlucky, as the case may be.  And then you bought milk.  My sister and I were the proud possessors of the untradeable lunch:  cold spinach or zucchini latkes, a slice of boiled tongue or a piece of gefilte fish, some carrot and celery sticks, and a piece of fruit, all wrapped in waxed paper and stuffed into a brown bag.  That’s all she wrote folks, and no one wanted it, not even us.  There was a good chance the food was made by our Russian maternal grandmother, who was an inconsistent cook at best.  The latkes were from her vegetarian phase, and when she moved out of that, she went back to her roots, schlepping a whole tongue and/or live carp from the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles to her little apartment in West Hollywood and doing the dirty work in her tiny kitchen.  When we slept over at her house, we ate grated onion and radish salad for breakfast and drank hot water with lemon and honey.  You could say she was a woman ahead of her time, out of time, or out of her mind, and all would be correct.  But I digress.

 

After my mom married my pop, they started having cool dinner parties. They cooked all day, set a beautiful table, and served up specialties like vichyssoise and beef Wellington and chocolate mousse, preceded by cocktails, accompanied by wine, and followed by Cognac served in large snifters.  This was serious stuff. Or they would throw an exotic themed bash—the likes of a Moroccan feast featuring  bastilla and couscous.  We started going to sophisticated eateries where we ordered food we had never seen or tasted before.  The rule was we had to try everything once and if we did not like it we did not have to eat it.  Every Sunday night we went to an authentic Chinese restaurant downtown where my pop knew the waiter and we got special treatment. I actually started reading those cookbooks and magazines, and then thought it might be fun to cook.  My friend Emily and I began a dinner party club in middle school, known as junior high back then.  We made dishes from Pelleprat’s Modern French Culinary Art and Gourmet Magazine for our unsuspecting folks, and they were not half bad.  I mean we would not have made it to the final round on Chopped Junior, but no one got sick.  

Karen Kaplan

Writer, Editor, Translator, Recipe Developer

Fast-forward to college in Northern California where I lived in a university-sanctioned commune. I was basically helping to run a kitchen that fed 64 members all day everyday, as well as a for-profit café. And way before farm to table, we were growing our own food in university gardens, making zucchini bread from oversized squashes we could not stop pulling from the earth, and whipping up batch after batch of crunchy granola.  At the restaurant, we served up the best damn soybean burgers (yep) and the ultimate grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, which I make to this day. During college I took a year off to move with my family to London, where I ran the household as my mom and pop were working and my sister was in high school.  London was nowhere near the culinary powerhouse it is today, but as I shopped at Sainsbury's and ate at local pubs I was exposed to a whole new world of food.  Trips all over England and Scotland exposed me to even more, and jaunts to Amsterdam and Paris really opened my eyes to how exciting, revelatory and culturally enriching food could be.  

When I returned home from London, I had two more years of college, which went by in a blur.  Between my junior and senior year I backpacked on the cheap through Europe for three months, spending the money I made working at a hospital and as a waitress all those years. I explored new places and new cuisines:  Barcelona and San Sebastian, Spain; Rocca di Mezzo, a little mountain town in the Abruzzo, and Rome, Italy; Granna, Sweden; Vienna, Austria; Nice and Paris in France.  I remember each and every place by what I ate: Tapas in Barcelona, bread and cheese on the beach in San Sebastian, handmade pasta with wild mushrooms and asparagus  (which I picked!) in Rocca di Mezzo, a slice of pizza in Rome, crayfish pulled from the sea on a little island near Granna, Sacher Torte in Vienna, pan Bagnat in Nice, crepes in Paris. And that’s just for starters.  I had very little money, but lots of taste.

By the time I got back I had pretty much decided that I had to move to Paris after I graduated from college. My language in school was Spanish, but I quickly added French to the mix, and by the time I finished I could get by—just barely.  With my useless B.A. in hand, I moved to Paris by myself with little money and a few vague contact numbers, and that somehow seemed easier than staying in Los Angeles and getting a job.  

 

Paris at the time was not the plugged-in, English-speaking, multicultural capital it is today.  I truly suffered for my art (poetry!) in apartments with no bathrooms, no refrigerators, no phones, no heat, which somehow all seemed fine.  I did what everyone does when they move to Paris for the first time:  devour the city literally and figuratively.  I couldn’t afford nice restaurants, but cafes, boulangeries, pâtisseries and cheap student restaurants became my homes away from home.  I got odd jobs, met people, and finally settled in as a waitress in the first American restaurant in Paris started by an African-American ex-GI after WWII.  And I traveled some more—really exploring France, and returning to England and Sweden, where I had friends.  

 

After a year I returned home, despondent.  I got a job in book publishing and made a go of things for a couple of years, all the while trying to think of a way to return to Paris.  I was more interested in food than ever and thought it might be cool to be a chef, but cooking school was way too expensive.  And then I discovered that Anne Willan’s La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris had an apprentice, or stagiare, program, in which you could work all day and take cooking classes at night and at the end of a year, if you passed your exams, you would get a Grand Diplôme.  The school took 13 stagiares a year in staggered starts on both the editorial and culinary sides of the Willan empire. I was accepted as an editorial stagiare.  I then embarked on the journey that would define my career from that day to this.  I once again threw myself into living in Paris, but this time as someone who took the metro to work every day super early in the morning, and took the metro home super late at night.  I learned quickly that I was never going to be a professional chef, but that I had a good palate and was talented at writing about food.  I spent my year doing everything from washing dishes to translating chef demonstrations to writing chef bios to working on Anne Willan’s cookbooks.  And every night I cooked my way through the classic French culinary repertoire with my fellow stagiares, under the watchful eyes of very talented and very sexist chefs.   It was exhilarating and exhausting.  At the end of my year at La Varenne I returned to the states and immediately set about trying to find a job at a food magazine.  And I finally got one at Bon Appétit. And the rest, as they say, is history.

PAST WORK

I am currently a freelance writer, editor, translator and recipe developer.  My first solo cookbook, OPEN FACED: Single-Slice Sandwiches from around the World, will be published in August of 2017 by Gibbs Smith. I was a staff writer, editor, translator, recipe developer and story producer at Bon Appétit magazine for 20 years and was in charge of the only issue of the publication to win a National Magazine Award while the publication was based in Los Angeles. Concurrent with working at Bon Appétit I was the restaurant critic for the L.A. Weekly and wrote and delivered a culinary broadcast at KCRW radio station in Santa Monica, each for seven years. I wrote the text for The Biggest Loser Cookbook; wrote the text and edited the recipes for Thermador, Taste of America, The Great American Oven Cookbook; and edited the recipes for Israel Eats by Steven Rothfeld, Monet’s Palate Cookbook, by Aileen Boardman and Derek Fell, and Pierogi Love, by Casey Barber. I have been a consultant for culinary websites and food-based reality shows, and have written for newspapers, websites and national and international food and travel publications. I have spoken on gastronomic panels around the world. I hold a B.A. in Comparative Literature and Le Grand Diplôme d’Etudes Culinaires from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. I have taught at both U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. I speak Spanish, French and Italian.  I live in Studio City, California with my husband, two dogs, and now my daughter, who just graduated from the Peabody Conservatory of Music of Johns Hopkins University.

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© 2017 by Karen Kaplan