James Beard Award winner Jennifer English dishes with MindMeet’s storyteller Araxe about flavor, truth, and some of her favorite things.
AH: What is truth?
JE: Truth is something that’s really important when it comes to food. We are in this era of fake food. I don’t want my food to come from a 3D printer. My bowl, my plate, my dish, my fork, my spoon—3D printer those all day long. But not my soup, not my chicken leg.
Truth is intention in the form of love. How do you honor whatever you’re doing? You have to do it with integrity and intention. Put a dishonest onion in a soup and you get a soup that tastes like a lie.
AH: What is Love?
JE: There is nothing in the world that can’t be fixed, made better, invented, or created without it. If you do anything, with any hope of it bringing you synchronicity, success, and satisfaction, it has to be done with love.
AH: How do you bring love into the kitchen, the cocktail and the teacup?
JE: When you work with food, you understand the incredible, intimate, and intricate relationship between what you are and what you consume. Because you are what you eat. You have to think, every time I eat or drink something this is what I’m choosing to be, just like you choose a behavior. We always have a choice. Even in an airport when we’re grabbing things—there’s always a choice—how we behave, how we react, commit, honor our own code. How we choose to love.
AH: When are you most creative?
JE: I am most creative when I allow my mind to wander. There’s a certain eruptive nature to a true creative moment that is unpredictable. If you’re not quiet you won’t hear it, and if you are quiet you will hear it, and you have to have love and beauty in your heart to hear it.
AH: How do you nourish yourself?
JE: Today, I made a piece of toast with my lightly dressed salad greens from my garden: tatsoi, arugula, and lettuce—a delicious mix. Then I put a perfectly poached egg on top and put the smallest punctuation mark of butter on top of the egg so that it just melts down the skin side of the white over yellow portion of the egg and when I open it up and the yellow just flows through the greens. The whole thing becomes a power-boost of love and nutrition. And just in case that wasn’t enough because it was cold today, I made a big pot of Congee, which is a Chinese rice porridge, and it has a version in almost every culture that has rice. It’s one of the simplest things to make, but it’s like Chinese penicillin. I make one with tons and tons of slices of fresh ginger root in it so it becomes perfumed and gingery and warm and nourishing.
AH: How do you define beauty?
JE: It’s your human response. It is something so pure that it makes you react in an organic way that is more akin to an impulse than a considered response. Beauty triggers a human response.
AH: Why is it important to try new things?
JE: In terms of food and flavor, I have a theory that every single one of us has, what I call, a “flavorprint.” If you look at all the foods in the world and flavors that taste best to you, you can’t fake that. You either like something or you don’t like something. And the things that you like more than other things give you more pleasure, and the more pleasure you get from the things you like, the more satisfaction you get.
It is incumbent upon you, with self-love and self-acceptance, to find all the things that taste best to you and to know them the same way you know the books you like to read, the kind of music you like to listen to, the kind of movies you like to see, and the kind of foods and flavors that taste best to you. It should be just that kind of self-awareness—your connoisseurship. And yes, you absolutely are a connoisseur of what tastes best to you.
When kids say, “I’m not going to try that,” I respond, “what if the thing that you’re afraid to taste is going to become your next very favorite food of all time?”
AH: What determines taste?
JE: My parents encouraged me to have jobs, so I worked in a Jewish deli with the old guys with the white t-shirts who wore the snap front shirts and the Morty Seinfeld glasses. And they could tell that I was passionate and interested in food. And they would teach me the difference between corned beef and pastrami and rolled beef and roast beef. One day this old guy—I think his name really was Mort—said to me, “Do you like chopped liver?” With that old Jewish-deli-guy accent. I said, “No.” And without missing a beat he said, “Have you ever had good chopped liver?
So another thing I say to people who tell me they don’t like something is this: “Have you ever had the best example in the whole wide world of this thing?” Because if you haven’t, then you don’t know if you like it or not. You know you don’t like the bad version. But what about the good version? What about the best version? It teaches you something important that you carry with you in your food career: unless you are tasting the best thing, how can you judge? How can you know if you like it or not?
AH: What is balance?
JE: It’s an attempt to shine light on the things that aren’t necessarily the strongest voices in your own emotional room. We all have everything we need in us, but there are times when the stress is much louder than the peace—or even in the good times when the happiness and love are louder voices in the room than humility and gratitude. The dream of balance is the dream of having the smaller voices in my room be at my table and have the mike for just as much time as the loud voices in my room.
I also think joy and humor are essential to balance. When we don’t have those things they leave a large hole that can get filled with fear. Everything is out of balance when fear takes the place of faith. The more fear you have the less faith you have, and the less faith you have the less balance you have. It comes down to this idea of how do you maintain your faith—whatever it is you believe—the power you put out in the universe is the power that exists and that will come back to you.
AH: What is your favorite word?
JE: “Irresistible.” If anyone works in any aspect of food, drink, and hospitality and doesn’t strive to make what they create irresistible, they’re not doing it the right way—and I don’t care what it is that you’re doing. And if it doesn’t end up as irresistible, then you need to go back and try harder the next day. And I think that goes for anybody in any endeavor.
AH: Was there a piece of advice that changed the course of things for you?
JE: I was living at the Algonquin Hotel, where I had been asked to host a revival of the legendary Algonquin Round Table as a lunchtime talk show that was broadcast on the radio. I was invited to recreate the environment in which all of the most famous quotes from all of the most famous people at the round table happened. My producer introduced me to a man named Donald C. Farber (there’s an award at the Grammys named for him), who was Kurt Vonnegut’s agent, and later become mine. And he brought Kurt Vonnegut on the show. If you’re a talk show host and you get Kurt Vonnegut on your show, that’s just about as good as it can be.
So, one day I’m at Don’s office and he does this party trick where he folds a dollar bill into origami shapes. I wear a lot of button down shirts, so for me, he folded one into a shirt and then asked me for another dollar. I opened up my wallet andhe saw this little button I carry in there from Avis rent-a-car because my grandfather was a pioneer in the rental car business and I grew up with Avis. They had a campaign at one time that said we try harder in every language. I carried this one around with me my whole life and my motto really became: we try harder. So, I always tried hard.
Don, who liked ephemera and curiosities, looked at it and looked back at me with his round glasses and his bowtie and with all the love I know he had in his heart. And he said to me the most powerful words anyone has ever said to me as an adult (other than “the baby is coming!”). He said, “Stop trying so hard. Don’t force it. Let it be.”
AH: What would you tell your 5-year-old self?
JE: Yes, I will take you to the Ritz Carlton today for lunch and we can have all the things you like to have and then we’ll go see Nana Kitty. Because nothing bad can happen to you when you’re in a good hotel.
AH: What would she say to you?
JE: I loved the consommé and I loved the Duck L’Orange in the Adams room with the blue Bristol-cut chandeliers.
Based in Tucson, Arizona, culinary connoisseur, cook and eater Jennifer English is on a quest to discover and celebrate the irresistible. She is both an anthropologist and a storyteller through her work as a broadcast interviewer, collector, culinary scribe, sage, and fan. Her in-depth interviews and intellectual musings on the craft, history, and culture of all areas of food and drink have earned Jennifer the prestigious Gracie Allen Award from The American Women in Media and The James Beard Foundation Award for Best Radio Show, as well as numerous other awards and honors. She is the founder and host of the Food & Wine Radio Network. Jennifer is a founding editor of Tea Journey Magazine and a member of the International Specialty Tea Trade Association. Currently Jennifer proudly co-hosts Fong on Food: The Radio Show with celebrated chef Nathan Fong, on Roundhouse Radio.