MOB Meets... Molly Baz
If you know what a “Cae Sal” or a “Smoo” is, then it’s safe to say that you probably know who Molly Baz is. If you don’t know what a “Cae Sal” or a “Smoo” is – and your brow is currently furrowed like some sort of forehead corn maze – then let me be the first person to tell you that you’ve been wasting a lot of precious time (and syllables) on the verbosity of words like “Caesar Salad” and “Smoothie”.
With well over half a million Instagram followers, and a mission statement of making accessible (and liberally abbreviated) plates of food, Molly Baz is a recipe developer and cookbook author who you should definitely have on your radar. She’s committed to her personal brand – anyone for a “Cae Sal” T-shirt? – but even more committed to teaching people like you and me just how fun cooking can be.
As a former senior food editor at Bon Appétit, Molly left her position at the food magazine in October 2020 to carve out her own path in the food scene. It’s kind of like when Justin Timberlake left *NSYNC to pursue his solo career. Except with a couple more issues surrounding accusations of toxic workplace culture and structural injustice. And a hell of lot more recipes for jammy onions and chewy miso oatmeal cookies.
If we’re continuing on that Timberlake train of thought, then Molly Baz has just released her Justified – an impressive solo album packed full of culinary bangers. Her debut cookbook, Cook This Book: Techniques That Teach and Recipes to Repeat, is filled with simple, hearty dishes like Pastrami Roast Chicken and Chickpea Carbonara as well as dozens of QR codes that link to instructional videos hosted by Molly herself.
Those videos, which bridge the gap between Molly’s infectious online personality and the gorgeous print product you’re inevitably going to end up covering in schmaltz, are designed to lay down the groundwork on basic kitchen techniques. It’s an innovative approach; one which I think that many cookbooks will be looking to as a template in the future.
The long and short of it is that Cook This Book is a super approachable and friendly cookbook and Molly Baz is a super-approachable and friendly person. Here’s what happened when MOB met Molly Baz.
How long have you been wanting to write a cookbook for?
It's always been a dream of mine but it’s not something that I thought would be a reality this soon in my career. I didn't go out planning to write a book when I got offered the book deal that I got. I was approached by an editor from Penguin Random House who asked to take a meeting with me out of the blue, and that's how this whole process started. But, in my head, at that point, I wasn’t planning to even start thinking about a book for at least two years or something. So it happened two to three years sooner than I thought it would have. But now that I've done it I'm like: "what was I thinking?!" There's no time like the present and it takes so long to write a book that if I were to have started thinking about a book two years from then it wouldn't have been out in the world for another four or five years. Which is crazy.
If you could go back and give one piece of advice to yourself when you first started cooking, what would it be?
I’ve definitely got to think about this for a second because there have been so many ups and downs recently. When I first started my career, I was working in professional kitchens and it's been such a winding trajectory since then. One thing I would say, for sure, is that perseverance really pays off. I get a lot of questions from people like "how did you get your job?" or "how did you end up in the Bon Appétit test kitchen?" and "what advice can you give to me?" and there's not a perfectly calculated equation for it. But what I do think I did, and what I'd recommend to people who are trying to get their toe into the food media publication world, is to connect with as many people as you can. Send emails, offer up your services, take informational interviews, jump on phone calls, just connect wherever you can because those conversations inevitably come back around and can open doors for you down the line. That's basically what I did – I just reached out to any contacts I had, asking them, "what can you tell me about working at a magazine?" and eventually I got through this circuitous path to something that panned out. I was offered a freelance position at Epicurious and that's kind of what launched my career. I'm not saying that working at Epicurious or working at a magazine will launch your career but I think the takeaway is just: persevere and stay connected to the community that you want to pursue as best as possible.
Who would you say your biggest inspiration was in those early days?
It wasn't a person at the time because – I'm not going to lie – Bon Appétit was always the North Star for me. My friends tell me that they remember when I was, like, 14 and would talk about how one day I wanted to work at Bon Appétit magazine. So, that was always kind of my goal in my career and what I strove for and I certainly did not think I would ever end up there. But I did. So, I’m fortunate I was able to get there somehow.
Obviously, you've had a bit of a transition to go from working in a team like that to doing more solo stuff. Where does your personal recipe inspiration tend to come from?
It comes from a lot of different places. I would say that I always try to be sure that I’m continuing to eat food that is not my own, whether that’s by eating out or getting takeout from restaurants, because I get so much inspiration from tasting other people's foods and points of view on food. The moments when I usually get stuck in a rut are when I haven't been outside of my head and I haven't tasted something that's not my own cooking in a while. I do like to strike a balance with that because what's really important for me, creatively, is to allow myself time to cook in a whimsical, improvisational manner at home. I spend so much of my time thinking about recipes at a granular level and thinking about how many garlic cloves to add or how many tablespoons of olive oil this dish calls for that it becomes almost formulaic.
It can be easy to kind of over-think things and so I find it really important to carve out time for myself where I'm not following a recipe. I need moments where I'm not thinking about work or how this recipe or dish will be perceived by anyone else; I'm just opening up my fridge and I'm cooking and I'm looking around for inspiration in my pantry. And those meals always end up turning into a recipe down the line. Maybe the recipe will look nothing like what that meal did that night but just having had that freedom to cook intuitively always comes back around in the form of some kind of inspiration for me.
Obviously, social media is a big part of the recipe world. Do you ever make recipes specifically with something like Instagram in mind?
I honestly think that the photograph is more important than what's in the recipe. I could develop a recipe for any sort of mundane not super-jazzy or interesting-sounding dish, but if I capture a photograph of that dish and it's just, like, a banger of a photo? That recipe will perform well. You eat with your eyes and Instagram is such a visual platform that I feel like people spend a lot of time thinking about the look. And rightly so. In food, we obviously spend a lot of time thinking about "what's the title for this recipe?" and "what's the concept behind it?" but, really, at the end of the day if your photo sucks, no-one's going to make your recipe.
What’s the one dish that you think everyone should be able to cook?
I feel like this is so cliché but I firmly believe that everyone should be able to roast a chicken. Mostly because it's actually the easiest way to put something delicious on the table. Even if you kind of fuck it up, there's so much delicious juice and schmaltz and flavour going on when a chicken hits the oven that it's just kind of a win. I feel like people think that roast chickens are this big to-do and that it’s this long and tricky thing that you can really mess up. But, for me, a roast chicken is my go-to "oh shit I haven't figured out what's for dinner" meal. Like, it's 6 o'clock on a Tuesday and I don’t know what we’re having for dinner, I’ll just literally put a chicken in the oven. It could not be easier than setting your temperature to 450°F, putting some salt on it, and putting it in the oven. Nothing is more simple than that in the kitchen. I think that's what everyone should learn to do and I would like to take this opportunity to say, once and for all, that roasting a chicken is one of the easiest things you can do in the kitchen.
'Cook This Book' has got a lot of QR codes that direct readers throughout to short technique videos. Is that mixed-media approach something you can see more cookbooks adopting in the future?
I hope so. I keep saying that this is the first of a new kind of cookbook and that we're trying to bring cookbooks into the digital age. That’s always been my plan from the beginning because I saw this disconnect between this physical book and the way that most people of my generation, who are going to buy the book, actually function in the world. Everything is mediated through our phones now and I was, like, there has to be a way to bridge this weird gap. Our generation is just not a purely physical one anymore and so I feel like – because my presence and my personality is something that my readers know mostly through seeing me in videos and seeing me on Instagram – that there had to be a way to connect that back to the physical book. And I feel that, especially now that the pandemic has made it more comfortable and commonplace to use QR codes, people are more ready for it. It brings it to life in a way that a static page can't. It was definitely weird timing in that sense because QR codes have become a necessity in a way that they weren’t two years when I came up with the idea. And I think it could be the future of cookbooks, I really do. There's so much more you can do with it and I plan to expand on it in the future as I write more books.
You've said before that one of the aims of your cookbook is to teach reachers about “the invaluable superpower of improvisation” – can you expand a little on that?
There's a basic sort of premise to the book which is: 'Technique x Flavour = Cooking'. So the recipes in the book are designed strategically to cover all of the techniques (both big and small) that I think a home cook needs to master in order to feel really capable and confident and equipped, from a technique-perspective, in the kitchen. But then it's also like: you can have all expertise in the world as far as how to properly roast a chicken, but if you don't understand the basic tenets of flavour then that chicken will not taste good. That, for me, is the other side of the equation and so the second part of the book is about building flavour and understanding the different flavour profiles that your palate and your tastebuds can perceive. It’s thinking about how different ingredients interact and complement and contrast with each other to create flavour.
I know you're big on your abbreviations. When did “Cae Sal” and "Smoo" start to become a part of your personal brand?
I mean, I've always talked that way so it wasn't a decision where I woke up one day and I was like, "okay, my brand is abbreviating and now I'm going to put that out into the world." It was because I started shooting video at Bon Appétit and, of course, I'm not an actress so my videos are just, like, me being me in the kitchen and that was captured on camera. It was really the audience that figured out I like abbreviating – it’s what the YouTube viewers latched onto in my videos and you can see in the comments that they loved the wacky words and the abbreviations. They also started to pick up on the fact that I'm obsessed with salt and seasoning and that I talk about it obsessively. I really feel like it was the people who carved out those parts of my brand that have now stuck with me.
So… is there such a thing as too much salt?
Yes! Oh my God, yes. I feel like people misunderstand me in that they think my advice is always "dunk it in salt and it will taste good," and that's not right. My mission is just that I know – because I have seen it time and time and time again – that most home cooks under-season their food and it's the number one culprit for lacklustre food in home kitchens. Something as simple as grabbing a large three-finger pinch of salt in your hand and seasoning a bit more liberally can totally transform a dish and take it from "this was OK" to "this tasted fantastic". An under-seasoned dish is always lacklustre, so that's the point I’m trying to make when I repeatedly hit people over the head with the importance of seasoning. I know that people are under-seasoning their food and it's a bummer because it's such a simple problem to fix.
What’s your favourite song to listen to while you’re cooking?
ANYTHING and EVERYTHING Nina Simone.