You might recognize Aida Mollenkamp from her days on Food Network or her new blog about all things foodie, Salt & Wind. We know her as one of our favorite food gurus, and we recently got the chance to pick her brain about her philosophy on food and the best meal she ate last year. Fair warning, this interview may induce mouthwatering.
Flights.com (F): Tell us a bit about your background in food
Aida Mollencamp (AM): I was raised on the beaches of Los Angeles, which means my first food-related memories are of horchata and enchiladas at the local taqueria. I started cooking in high school and then I attended The Cornell Hotel School and culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. I always wanted to work in food media, and I finally got that chance when I joined the CHOW editorial team. Food Network came across my work, which allowed me to move into TV with Ask Aida and foodCrafters.
F: What has been the most exciting moment-to-date in your career?
AM: That’s tough to say. I was just as excited about graduating culinary school as I was to see my TV show air. If I had to choose, I’d say it was having my cookbook published. I’ve dreamt of writing a cookbook since I was falling asleep reading Martha Stewart magazine.
F: How did your love for food in relation to travel come about?
AM: Well, just as California has influenced me, so has my family – they’re a sort of modern day Brady Bunch. With divorced and remarried parents and six siblings with every permutation of relation, we’re a sort of the E.U. of families. A bit Irish, Dutch, Italian, and French, we joke that cured meat, cheese, and good alcohol are our common dialects.
F: You frequently mention “curiosity” and “adventure” in relation to food. Can you tell us more about that philosophy?
AM: Well, we have to eat everyday so we might as well make it exciting. I think it’s amazing that even if you don’t have the means to travel out of your own town, you can still experience a new culture through food. A little curiosity in the kitchen keeps cooking exciting, so you learn and get inspired every time you turn on the stove.
F: In your opinion, how does food influence a culture?
AM: That’s a question worthy of a thesis! I look at food like an edible history of a culture. And, no matter how cliché it seems, eating a specific cuisine is a window into that culture’s customs, history, and very essence. Culture and food are inextricably linked.
F: What (and where) was your most memorable meal of 2014?
AM: It’s probably the meal I had in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. We spent the night camping under the stars and local Bedouins cooked a traditional meal of slow cooked lamb and mezze. The food was great but it was the whole experience – meeting new people, camping in the desert, eating alfresco – that made it so memorable.
F: How do you recommend visitors to a city experience local, authentic cuisine instead of tourist-trap restaurants?
AM: I think it’s really about digging your heels in and being ready for a little adventure. I love the challenge of finding a new place to eat and I rely heavily on social media for help. Before I leave, I’ll tweet or post to Facebook friends and ask for travel advice, I also scour food travel forums. When I have the time, I also search out (ahem, stalk) a few local food bloggers and ask their opinion, because locals always know best. Finally, I talk to everyone I meet at my destination, from the cabbies to the bellhops, because you never know who might have unexpected tips.
F: How you do go about creating a recipe around a new ingredient you’ve discovered on your travels?
AM: I’d love to say I use the most exotic ingredients out there but that’s really kind of rare. Instead, I eat adventurously when I travel and then bring those flavors back home. I like to take my food experiences then translate them into doable new recipes for the everyday so that you can have a little taste of your travels anytime.
F: What is the one dish you can’t live without?
AM: I’d probably be better off without it, but I dream about this Chocolate Coconut Cream Pie. My boyfriend is Hawaiian and I’ve spent nearly a year of my life visiting the islands since I met him. Though there’s a ton of amazing food in Hawaii, the Haupia (aka coconut) Pie from Ted’s Bakery on the North Shore of Oahu is a perennial fave and I make this homemade version that, dare I say, I now like better than the original!
F: How do you decide where to eat when you’re visiting a place for the first time?
AM: In order to determine where to eat, I determine first what to eat. On my recent trip to St. Martin, for instance, I read up on the food and kept hearing about local BBQ joints known as Lolos. Also, I really like getting an idea of the full spectrum of food in a place so I can do my best to hit up everything, from hole-in-the-wall joints to the poshest places in town.
F: What is your go-to comfort food?
AM: I’m Italian-American, so anything involving noodles and cheese is my comfort food. If I had to pick just one comfort food dish, it’d be my mother’s Sweet Sausage and Three Cheese Lasagna. I mean, it’s by no means authentic Italian, but it’s such a standard in our house that we expect it any time there’s a big family gathering.
F: What are your latest projects you have coming up?
AM: I have a new show, Off Menu, that will be launching on TasteMade. In each episode of Off Menu, we go to a new city, find a local food expert, and get their take on what’s hot right now in the local food scene. From classic joints like Hattie B’s in Nashville to hidden restaurants like Luksus in New York City, it was a really awesome look into what’s happening in food right now across the nation.
F: What are you most excited for in your 2015 food and travel adventures?
AM: I’m really excited to see Off Menu take off. As much as I travel to eat, I also travel to meet new people and I love that filming that show lets me do a bit of both!
If you can’t get enough of Aida (she gets that a lot), check out her cookbook for new recipes: Keys To The Kitchen.
Aida is a cook, author, and traveler. She considers herself a California girl on a mission to taste the world.