Olga Massov, Food Writer and Creator of Sassy Radish
Olga's story resonates with us on a number of levels. During a successful - but wholly unfulfilling - 10-year run on Wall Street, Olga would spend whatever bits of free time she had cooking and writing, tinkering around in her kitchen and sharing the adventures on her popular blog, Sassy Radish. Eventually, the Russian expat chose to leave the world of finance to follow her dreams full-time and so far, her gutsy move has paid off; her first co-written cookbook, The Kimchi Cookbook, came out last year and another one is in the works. Olga's writing, much like her food and cooking style, is full of wit, charm and humility, always leaving you hungry for more.
Read on for some candid advice for those looking to break into food writing and to get a glimpse of Olga's favorite sous chef - plus, a giveaway!
Hi Olga! Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your blog, Sassy Radish.
I started the blog so long ago, it makes me feel like a dinosaur, in 2005. Mostly I just wanted a wee space for myself where I was happy. I wasn't in a good place in my life: I was very unhappy at work and I worked very long hours. But then when I started the blog, I didn't really do much there, since I was working really long hours. It wasn't really until fall of 2008 when my life became much healthier and balanced that I started to spend a lot of time on the blog: writing, cooking, photographing. I think I started to find my voice, also, because I was spending a lot of time thinking about food and what I wanted to share.
You made a very brave jump from the corporate world of finance to food blogging and writing. What REAL advice would you offer to those dreaming about paving a similar path in the food industry? Break it down for us.
Ah, yes! Actually, the timing of this is funny, because, from my observation and what I've gathered, it's very hard, if not impossible to make a living just as a cookbook writer. I know a few people are doing it, but more and more, what I am hearing is that to make a living, a sustainable living, at it, is very very hard. I, myself, am re-evaluating what I need to be doing in order to keep my writing afloat. I don't want to give it up, but at the same time we cannot survive on the income I make as a writer. Molly O'Neill, the great [food writer] Molly O'Neill, gave me some great, not warm-and-fuzzy advice. She said, "Get yourself stable. Get yourself in a position where you're not worried about money. And write in the time in between. It'll be hard, but you will actually enjoy it more if you are less stressed out."
The advice I have is this: figure out what you're comfortable with. Everyone has a different budget and also people are in different places in their lives. Also, figure out what you actually want. Only very recently was I able to articulate that I wasn't interested in making a "name" for myself, in that if I never write my own book, or become a household name, it doesn't matter to me. I want to write, and I want to work on good projects – projects that are interesting and involving talented (and nice) people. It's not that that's not what I wanted, but for whatever reason, I couldn't articulate it succinctly, and there’s something to be said for that.
Because I have a blog, there's a lot of focus on SEO, comments, traffic, and all that stuff. I have not been immune to it in the past, but ever since I've let go and stopped caring, I've been much happier about writing on the blog and creating. I'm not out there to become everyone’s go-to blog. I write because it makes me happy. And people who want to read it – do. And if it means Google search ranks me lower because I don’t have some plug-in – eh, I am okay with it.
Kudos on your continued cookbook writing success! Please tell us how you were able to make that initial jump into writing about - of all things - kimchi-making and cooking!
I honestly couldn't have done ANY of it without Melissa Clark, who I often joke is just like my fairy godmother, except she's way prettier than fairy godmothers have been, historically, in books.
I have, I suppose, a rather unorthodox way of trying to eke out a living as a food writer. I didn't go to cooking school, and outside of a one-day trail in ABC Kitchen, I've never worked in a restaurant. In fact, I spent almost a decade working in finance before doing this.
In the winter of 2011, the company I was working for shut down its New York office and moved entirely to Asia. I took the opportunity to try to work in food, making it work as a writer, recipe tester, stylist and general assistant. It was Melissa who took a chance on me and took me under her wing, and let me come into her kitchen and be her assistant for some time. I did everything from taping receipts and making expense reports (I'm a wonder with Excel!) to running out for groceries to testing recipes when needed. Melissa also allowed me to help out with various books and freelance work that she was working on, so I got to see start-to-finish how a pro writes a book with other people. What she looks for, how she structures her time, how to properly test a recipe, etc. Melissa was the one to introduce me to Lauryn Chun of MILKimchi in the summer of 2011, and she and I wound up writing the The Kimchi Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2012) together. I'm also working on a book with Iron Chef Marc Forgione (due out in the spring 2014).
How do you think you've grown as a cook and writer since committing to this career switch full-time?
I'm a lot more fearless, but also, sometimes, after a day of testing various recipes, I realize that cookies and condiments do not a meal make, so my husband and I order take-out a fair amount, actually. Ditto for days when I'm cooking at another place and am on my feet all day. I come home and sit on the couch. I know it sounds crazy, but if you cook all day, you want someone else to cook your dinner!
I've become a better cook overall though. More intuitive. Much more willing to take risks. It has also made me a lot more humble. I've learned that there are as many ways to cook eggs as there are people cooking them. Ditto with chicken. Ditto with ricotta. Anyone who tells you that this is the best way to make something might need to step back and cook with other people more.
I think when you work for yourself and by yourself, you have to be disciplined or else. I'm very disciplined about when I get up, when I sit down to work, when I have to meet a deadline. I'm very diligent about that. I'm less diligent about, say, going to the gym, but that's more of a mental thing.
Writing is a muscle. I try to write every day. Random thoughts and bits. Things that no one ever sees. Sometimes it's just a sentence or two. Other times it's pages. It all depends. Sometimes you start writing about a chair you're sitting on and how you should've paid a little extra and purchased lumbar support (if only you knew it was an option!) and you wind up remembering a cake your grandmother made. Just the process of putting words on paper is excellent. And people who really want to write, should do it regularly, much like that gym I'm so good at avoiding.
And last, but certainly not least, I read a piece in McSweeney's recently that basically said, "Good writers are also good readers." It's so important for writers to be reading as much as possible. I realize that this might be a very bourgeois thing to say, when we're all running around and are feeling behind schedule, but reading other people's work, good work, makes you a better writer in turn.
Top pantry essentials?
Lemons, salt, quality vinegars, mustards, anchovies, garlic, chili flakes, Aleppo pepper, various chiles, piment d’Espelette, good olive oil (or a few), flaky sea salt, good bread (we are addicted to the miche we get from Bien Cuit), vanilla beans, honey, maple syrup, mayonnaise, Sriracha, kimchi (duh), preserved lemons, olives, capers, onions (I panic when we're out of onions), cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel seed, mustard seed, dried chickpeas and beans, lentils, quinoa and rice, pasta, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, quality canned sardines, dried fruit and nuts, Finn crisps.
What do you and your husband love to cook at home?
We have several that we made frequently: green curry mussels; midnight pasta (with capers, anchovies, garlic and chiles); roasted cauliflower with za'atar and spiced yogurt dip; roasted chicken; whole roasted branzino with rosemary, lemon, and garlic; roasted shrimp and broccoli.
Who is your biggest professional or personal food inspiration?
It's a mix. Sometimes I taste something in a restaurant and I'll have a huge grin from ear to ear. There are some amazingly talented people working in food. I think I am mostly inspired by people I know personally because I know what drives their cooking and how they think and it's much more personal that way.
Favorite kitchen utensils or gadgets?
So many. I love my Microplane zester and I have even traveled with it. I can't stand when people's zesters are dull and just tear the skin off the fruit rather than give you beautiful zest. My $2 vegetable peeler that does not quit. I love my Vitamix. I know it sounds so froufrou to say that a very expensive blender will change your life, but it will. A blender does not equal a blender. Mine gets almost daily use. I love my knives: I have a few good chef’s knives and a cheap, but amazing paring knife. I could probably just live with those two knives and be fine. My KitchenAid mixer is a powerhouse and my Cuisinart food processor is amazing. It's very large so I can make a lot of pie dough at once, freeze it, and then make pie last minute. My used wooden spoons show me how much I've cooked with them; it's nostalgic. My All-Clad pots and pans; my Staub cocotte; my copper jam pot. I know it sounds like I'm listing a lot but here's the thing: anything that enters my kitchen, anything that has a permanent spot, means I have scrutinized it and thought: can I live without it? All of those items make my life easier and better as a cook, and happier. So many good memories with all those kitchen objects.
A tomato red pegboard that would make the great Julia Child beam with pride
Soldiers reporting for duty!
How would you describe your cooking style? How much does your Russian heritage influence your cooking, aesthetic and pantry?
Hm, if anything I don’t have enough Russian ingredients. I wish I had more. At the moment, I am not really cooking anything Russian; I'm going through a serious Middle Eastern phase. I'm cooking a lot from Jerusalem (Yotam Ottolenghi's new book), and a relative just sent me this amazing book on Persian food.
I love Russian food though – to me it is true comfort food. The one I want to make when I'm sick or sad. Salad Olivier, venigret, Russian cabbage soup, herring and potatoes, pelmeni – those are my comfort foods. But my ultimate comfort food is a simple bowl of mashed potatoes. I can go on and on about its restorative (and therapeutic) properties, but I'll hold back. But I recently read Nora Ephron's Heartburn and she went on and on, in the same way, about mashed potatoes. In fact, her character makes it to console herself that she's seven months pregnant, with a toddler, and a husband who is cheating on her. And she even gives the recipe in the book!
But back to my influences. I went through a phase, as a teenager, where I loathed anything Russian. I was in a pretty American setting and being different in middle school and high school, is not exactly what you aspire to. Maybe I would have, if I spoke fluent English and life was generally stable. But I was an immigrant and everything about me was different, and I was trying so hard to keep some things from not standing out. I couldn't control my accent, but I could control what I ate, and so I shunned Russian food and embraced all things American: Thanksgiving, pizza, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, peanut butter – you name it. The only thing I couldn't get behind was Marshmallow Fluff.
At the moment I'm cooking a lot from Jerusalem. I very much like both of Melissa Clark's books: Cook This Now and In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite (they are great for cooking everyday meals); Tom Colicchio's Think Like A Chef is fantastic; Edna Lewis's work; Julia Child's; Marion Cunningham's The Breakfast Book is genius; The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is unlike anything else, as is the Chez Panisse series (I'm a huge fan of the Desserts one). I just started reading A Girl and Her Pig and Vegetable Literacy, and all I want to do is just lock myself away for a few days and read every single page. Gorgeous, amazing, inspiring books! As for blogs: I love what Heidi Swanson does on 101Cookbooks and I've been reading a lot of Dinner: A Love Story (I'm a latecomer to Jennie's blog). Also: Smitten Kitchen, Orangette, The Wednesday Chef, This Yellow House, Sweet Amandine. Everything Elissa Altman (of Poor Man’s Feast) writes is incredible. I love David Lebovitz’s humor and irreverence. Lately I've been enchanted by The Guardian's food writers lately: Yotam Ottolenghi, Nigel Slater, Felicity Cloake.
So many… La Vara, Franny's, Marc Forgione (I know I'm writing a book with him, but it has been one of my favorites since he opened in 2008), Recette, ABC Kitchen, Aldea, Fisherman's Dawta (an amazing Jamaican place in our neighborhood), Gramercy Tavern, Maialino, Buvette, Prune. I know I'm missing a whole bunch, but in general, I'm a sucker for cozy places and great food. I can appreciate fine dining, but I always have a far better time somewhere where I can show up in jeans and a T-shirt, and not have six forks and five knives. Those places are lovely, but I feel more comfortable somewhere less formal.
Play out your ideal last meal for us.
Ooof, that would be a big meal… Start with Wellfleet oysters and beer. Then I'd want to eat lots of vegetable salads and sides from ABC Kitchen and Franny's. Also, ABC Kitchen's clam pizza and Marc Forgione's spicy lobster (and the kanpachi appetizer); I think I'd want the cacio e pepe from Maialino; a cold borscht from my grandmother; herring and potatoes; pelmeni; then a small break and have actual New England lobster with corn on the cob and finish everything with a homemade blueberry pie. In between, I'd like to eat some lemon squares and Melissa Clark's pecan pie. I know I am forgetting a lot of things. But if it's my last meal, I need to really eat up! I think I'd like it to be picnic-style and outside on a cliff overlooking the ocean. And I'd like to share it with my husband, Leon Panetta (because he has the best laugh), Michael Symon (also the laugh), Rachel Maddow (because she makes a mean cocktail and because I am obsessed with her show), my and Andrew's families, our best friends (really we're throwing a party!), and our cat, Forrest, because he'll be begging everyone for food.
Whose pantry would you like to raid?
I'd love to raid a pantry of someone who cooks totally different food: so someone with a very Thai-centric pantry or a very Indian pantry because I don't have as many items in my arsenal. Also, anyone who is a passionate cook has an interesting pantry – so I'm not picky.
Anchovy-Panko Roasted Broccoli and Farro Salad
1 cup farro
1 cup panko
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
5 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed into a paste
2 pounds broccoli, trimmed and cut into long spears
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley, optional
Juice of 1 lemon
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Soak farro in water for 25 minutes. While farro soaks, prep your other ingredients.
Drain the farro and transfer to a medium pot. Fill the pot with enough water to cover farro by at least 1 inch and set it over high heat. Bring farro and water to a boil, season with enough salt until the water tastes like the ocean, and cook until the farro is al dente, about 20 to 25 minutes. If necessary, add more water to the pot. As soon as farro is done, drain it and set aside in large bowl.
While the farro cooks, heat the oven to 400 degrees F with the rack positioned in the middle. In a medium skillet set over medium heat, warm 2 tablespoons of the olive oil until shimmering. Add the panko, anchovy, and garlic, and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape into a bowl with the farro and let cool.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, toss the broccoli with the remaining olive oil and very lightly season with salt. Spread the broccoli on a shallow baking sheet and roast for about 15 to 20 minutes, turning once midway, until slightly tender and lightly browned. Transfer the broccoli to the bowl with farro and panko, add the parsley and lemon juice, and toss everything to combine. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with more olive oil and serve.
Thanks, Olga! For your chance to win a copy of The Kimchi Cookbook, please leave us a comment below. You have until the last day of the month, Tuesday, April 30, at 11:59pm/EST. Winner will be chosen at random - good luck!
*Photos by Christine Han Photography for Pantry Confidential. All photos on Pantry Confidential are original. Please credit and link back to our site when using our images, thank you.