Before having the pleasure of actually meeting her, I sampled Cathy Erway’s cooking at a May Day dinner party on Queens County Farm, where she and Hapa Kitchen partner Akiko Moorman were responsible for the evening’s culinary delights. This was their first supper club dinner and, needless to say, it was a busy night for the Hapa girls (Hapa is the Hawaiian word for “mixed-race” and is generally used to describe anyone of part-Asian descent—Erway is Chinese-American and Moorman Japanese-American, raised in Alaska nonetheless).
The next day, at the Brooklyn Food Conference, I finally got a chance to chat with Ms. Erway, who was also in attendance. Clearly our interests intersected, I just wish I was as good a cook.
So, let’s get this straight, you have no formal culinary training?
Nope. I’ve taken several cooking classes around NYC, but nothing that’s gone toward a degree. By far, my most beneficial culinary training has come from just getting into kitchens with friends and family, whether they be trained cooks or just amateurs like myself. I did this for a lot with the supper club A Razor, A Shiny Knife, and hope to continue that with a cooking community called the Hapa Kitchen which I recently co-founded.
I know, I got to sample some Hapa goodness, and I think the future is bright. It’s so sad, though, that cooking has become a novelty. Every time I bring my brown-bag lunch to work I get the same reaction — You cook? Um, yeah, I do, don’t you? But I guess many people really don’t. How do you think this change in mindset happened?
In many areas, there are more fast food restaurants than there are grocery stores; this all started in the industrial revolution but took off a lot in the 1950s and 1960s. In many urban neighborhoods today there are virtually no places to buy fresh food within several blocks, but there are fast-food restaurants. I think this has spurned a generation of young people who simply never cooked at home so they don’t really know how or where to start.
It’s so easy to get suckered into this whole take-out culture, especially living in NYC. Have you always been a home cook?
I’ve always appreciated cooking, thanks to my parents’ appreciation for it, too. But I was definitely into the take-out culture for the first two years or so of living in NYC. It’s hard not to fit in, especially when you’re the only person at work with a brown bag. But missing my parents’ home cooking definitely set the wheels in motion for thinking, can I make something better than this sub-par Thai take-out?
You started a great blog called Not Eating Out in New York, tell me how that came about.
Thanks! Like many bloggers, I assume, I wanted to write about food but couldn’t always find a publication for my pitches. Simultaneously, I wanted to cook more and share my recipes, and the idea of eating in all the time to save money seemed like a great pitch, to me, at least!
I think it is. But what are the most challenging aspects of not eating out in New York?
Knowing ahead of time how much food to pack or cook can be a challenge, but it gets easier with time. I figure if people can stick with a Kosher or vegan or gluten-free diet, it can’t be impossible.
Very true, it’s all about the attitude. So, what about the most rewarding?
Aside from saving money and learning how to cook much better than when I began, the communal aspect of cooking in has led me to great events, ideas and people.
Do you feel healthier?
Absolutely. I feel that I’m not eating as many processed foods, and that I can control how much fat or salt I put in my food. Also, buying raw ingredients has made me more aware of what types of them I’m getting — are they organic, non-genetically modified, or humanely raised? With the amount I’m saving by not going to restaurants I can afford to be choosy about these things, and buy for my health and environmental/political reasons.
What inspires you?
People. I learn to cook from other people — I love seeing what they come up with. Every time I go to a cook-off, or an occasional supper club, led by amateur home cooks, I get to see what other people like to cook when they’re really trying to impress. I think it’s a lot different than restaurant chefs, who are more swayed to keep definite crowd-pleasers on their menus, like the gourmet burger, in order to stay commercially successful. (Also, these people are often doing it for unbridled fun rather than for money.)
Have you ever ventured into freeganism (dumpster diving for food thrown out by bakeries, restaurants etc.)?
Yes. I think that everyone should take a look at the dumpster of a food retailer on an average night, not necessarily to snatch food for their own use, but just to get an idea of our out-of-control waste stream.
Are you part of a CSA?
Yes, this year I joined a new CSA in my neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I’m splitting a full share with a friend, and I hadn’t joined before because those two conveniences hadn’t been available before. It’s a testament to the awesome growth of CSAs, that are now available in so many places — in NYC there are 50% more than there were last year, which means access to fresh food for so many more people.
Where do you find recipes, do you experiment and make your own?
Something about following a recipe word for word takes the fun out of cooking for me, so I just experiment and make up recipes on my own. I’ll hone them a couple times if I’m going to publish them on my blog, but it always starts by thinking about what’s available at home, and what’s in season at the Greenmarket.
I know, I couldn’t follow a recipe by the book even if I tried. It’s like making art, throw this in there, that in there, and you may just make something great. What’s your favorite thing to cook?
That’s such a tough one, because there’s a different type of thing I enjoy cooking/eating for every occasion/mood. I love working with fresh, really nice ingredients that are just beautiful to look at, but I also appreciate the quickness of a simple stir-fry, or the doting demands of a slow braise, roast or risotto.
What’s your worst culinary failure?
Hm. Making something completely inedible is definitely a downer, so I’ll say any time I’ve burned toast beyond oblivion, or underestimating the time something needs to cook, since waiting sucks too. For both of these reasons, I’ve baked many horrible loaves of bread in my time.
But the occasional failure only makes you stronger, right? So, I know there are a lot of people out there who would love to cook more but just don’t know where to start, do you have any advice for them?
Yes! Just do it more and more, and don’t be afraid to experiment on your own. You can clip and save recipes, but beyond exact measurements in a cake or custard, say, there’s a whole world of leeway to wiggle around in. Also, ask your friendly food purveyors and farmers what to do with whatever produce you’re buying, in case you’re at a loss for ideas
What does the Good Life mean to you?
Cooking with lots of friends and family, soaking up some sun, having the luxury to continue learning and exploring new things with my free time, and seeing positive changes happening all the time.