Unique Culinary Careers: Allison Fishman

When ICE President Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride wrote Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food they discovered a plethora of food jobs they had never heard of before. Since the book's release, they have been discovering even more interesting career paths in the food world. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature, “Unique Culinary Careers.”

ICE alum Allison Fishman is the author of the new book, You Can Trust a Skinny Cook. After graduating from ICE, she went on to work in test kitchens at Saveur, Martha Stewart and Food Network. She has also worked in TV and graduated from NYU’s food studies program. Her classes at ICE focus on healthy, delicious cooking using simple techniques. Fishman says, “It can be a bit confusing, this hodgepodge food career. My dad is always trying to explain what I do in one sentence, but it doesn't work that way. When you come down to it, I cook at home, write about home cooking, take pictures of food and teach others how to cook. I guess that's my sentence.” We asked her to tell us some more about her career and the process of writing a cookbook and working as a teacher in the industry.

What has your career path been like?

When I met with ICE Admissions Rep Linda Simon in 2001, prior to enrolling at ICE (then Peter Kump’s), she asked me why I wanted to go to culinary school. I told her that I was a terrible cook and I had no kitchen confidence, and many of my friends felt the same way. We were well educated, moving up in the corporate world, but had no idea what to do when it came to the kitchen. I knew there were a lot of women out there like me, and I wanted to help my generation become comfortable in the kitchen, and have fun doing it. When I graduated, I went to work in the test kitchens that home cooks turned to, like Saveur, Martha Stewart and Food Network. I wanted to be a part of the kitchens were setting the tone for home cooking in America.

As I worked in these kitchens, I was teaching in people's home kitchens. This was the key part — the home kitchen is where the knife meets the cutting board, or more accurately the garlic meets the press. I taught, but I learned far more. I observed what home cooks needed and wanted. From there, I moved between editor and food stylist positions, always teaching on the side. I finally started my own cooking school in 2005. Then I was asked to host a TV show (Home Made Simple) that would have me traveling across the country, teaching people how to cook. I did that for a few years and then moved onto hosting Cook Yourself Thin, which again had me working with home cooks to make healthier versions of favorite dishes. After the success of that show and cookbook, I had the opportunity to write a cookbook of my own.

What is a typical day like?

There’s no such thing as typical! Sometimes I take a “food exploration day” and spend the day eating in NY. I try to eat wherever I go — there's always a local tradition worth investigating. Sometimes I do the equivalent on the Internet, searching blogs and news sites for ideas. As I write this, I'm in a hotel in Birmingham, Alabama where I'm doing a video shoot for Cooking Light for the next few days. I know I'm going to eat well in this town, and it's going to inform the next set of recipes I develop. Sometimes I'm negotiating contracts, developing recipes, writing, teaching, shooting... it's a mish-mosh. But no matter what, I eat several times a day. Whenever I eat, I'm thinking about making it, eating it, how I can use this dish in teaching, writing or cooking.

What was the inspiration for You Can Trust a Skinny Cook?

My students. When I teach, the most popular recipes are polenta and roast chicken. As culinary students and grads, sometimes we forget that home cooks have a different agenda. They aren't cooking for a New York Times review — they want to make sure their family gets fed and they aren't buried in dishes afterward. The key is how can cooking at home become fun, all the way from shopping through serving? I'm also inspired by all the home cooks I know, from my mom to my sister-in-law and cousins. What's amazing to me is how home cooks rock it out, five or six nights a week — without any training. And sadly these days, fewer people are cooking, more homes are two-wage-earner families, so it’s tougher and tougher for people to cook. Unless it becomes part of the routine and part of the joy of the house, it’s not gonna happen. We know we need to cook for our health. So how can we put joy and confidence back into home kitchens?

What was the process of writing the book like?

It was fun. Since I've been teaching cooking classes for ten years, I picked my students’ favorite recipes. Then I asked Sue Park, another soon-to-be ICE grad, if she would test all the recipes in my book as her externship. We worked together for months in my Brooklyn apartment, testing each recipe in the book. We went chapter by chapter, which was a good way to organize, but a funny way to eat. During our salad phase, we were ear-deep in roughage. I’d send Sue home with Glad containers full of soup, pasta, you name it. Or I’d drop the containers off at friends’ houses or have people over for tastings. Nothing went to waste; we ate everything or gave it away to friends and neighbors. When my book was done, my editor selected the recipes he wanted to photograph; we had a five-day photo shoot. Then layout, design, ship the book overseas to be printed and now it’s here. I signed my contract to do the book at the end of January 2010, gave the completed manuscript to my editor in April (which was fast, a bit unusual), and the book is in stores now — so about 15 months in total.

How did ICE help prepare you for your career?

When I attended ICE, I worked as a kitchen assistant as soon as I could, and I continued to work for a year after graduation. I remember transitioning from student to cook, working under the teachers as a cook, doing events at ICE. I remember Chef Mike telling me, “Forget what I taught you, here's how you really cook.” Tasting spoons went out the window in a hurry. Learning like a “student” is key, and it's important to partner that strong academic background with the lessons those very instructors teach when they cook professionally. Also, I remember Chef Ted trained to teach with my class in June 2001. I know so many students who adore him, and I can honestly say I helped break him in. That's the thing about teaching — today’s student is tomorrow’s teacher and vice versa.

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