Asking me to pick my favorite Special Sauce episodes of the year is like asking a father to choose his favorite child. In many ways, I love every episode equally. Why? For the same reasons I love Serious Eats as a whole: I like putting together a strong team and watching each member do their thing.
In the case of Special Sauce, that means the teamwork of Associate Producer Marissa Chen and producer/editor extraordinaire Marty Goldensohn; the editors at Serious Eats; and you, our listeners. Between selecting and researching guests, structuring and conducting the 90-minute interview, editing it in post-production, and writing up an article to accompany the audio, each Special Sauce episode is really a microcosm of Serious Eats as a whole. Both on the site and on Special Sauce we’re trying to tell the best, most well-informed food-related stories in whatever form is appropriate, be it a recipe or technique, a video, a feature, or an equipment review.
All that being said, after great deliberation, I’ve chosen five Special Sauce episodes that I think exemplify the best audio storytelling we do. I hope I haven’t offended my other Special Sauce “children,” the other 45 we produced this year, because each of those contains many unforgettable gems as well.
How did we end up getting Last Jedi star Adam Driver on Special Sauce? Well, it turns out that one of Kenji’s sisters is good friends with Adam’s wife. Adam’s approach to his work, along with his newfound love of cooking (which came from, among other things, reading Kenji’s recipe for meatloaf), became the basis for two great episodes of Special Sauce. Though Adam is a Juilliard grad, he movingly explained that his craft, and the capacity for empathy it demands, developed as much from his experience in the Marines as it did from his classical acting training.
When it comes to food, Adam admits that his eating habits are more than a little idiosyncratic—when Kenji cooked dinner for Adam and his wife, he ate a bowl of cereal a few minutes after the meal was over. And this is not an unusual occurrence. As to why he went through a period of eating a whole chicken every day for lunch, Adam said, “I don’t know. I couldn’t answer that. I put myself on this big physical regime coming right from the military that I thought was…to challenge myself, and a whole chicken was part of it. One day I had a whole chicken and a foot-long sub from Subway and I’m like, ‘This has got to stop.'” Adam Driver is that rarest of birds—a thoughtful, non-self absorbed movie star who engaged in real conversation with me, a total stranger (though we do have Kenji and his sister in common). Maybe that’s why I loved his Special Sauce episodes so much.
Helen You is the owner of Dumpling Galaxy, the finest dumpling shop in New York City, and coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook, written alongside former Serious Eats editor Max Falkowitz. Her dumplings are world-class, with delicate, almost translucent wrappers and distinctively flavorful fillings. But as good as her dumplings are, it’s Helen’s remarkable personal story that moves me most.
Helen grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. When she was a little girl, her political activist father was sent to a labor camp, where he remained for 22 years. Helen, abandoned by her friends, became a pariah at her school. But she found refuge in her mother’s kitchen, where her mother and grandmother made dumplings every day. When Helen was 12, she started making monthly 20-hour sojourns to deliver some of those dumplings to her imprisoned father. Eventually, Helen made her way to America. She spoke no English when she arrived, but nonetheless managed to put herself through school and become an accountant, and ultimately to open up a tiny dumpling stall in a basement food court in Flushing’s Chinatown. The rest, as they say—and as you’ll find out when you listen—is dumpling history.
Chef, restaurateur, and humanitarian Marcus Samuelsson didn’t have an easy start. When Marcus was a little boy in Ethiopia, he and his entire family fell victim to a country-wide tuberculosis epidemic. His heroic mother carried him and his sister 75 miles to a hospital in an effort to save them. Miraculously, the three did in fact make it to the hospital. Tragically, though Marcus and his sister survived, his mother did not. In our interview, Marcus admits that he is still haunted by the fact that he’s never seen a picture of his mom. You’ll also hear the remarkable discovery that Marcus made years later, after he had found a new home with his adoptive family in Sweden.
Marcus’ journey from Ethiopia to Sweden to restaurants in Europe to chef stardom in the States would be deemed far-fetched by any movie executive. Amazingly it’s true, as you’ll hear on Special Sauce. It makes for riveting listening; you won’t be disappointed.
Kenji hipped me to Andrew Rea’s terrific show Binging With Babich. Its ingenious conceit—trying to create or recreate dishes found on television shows and movies—is so deftly executed it may have restored my faith in YouTube cooking shows. How Binging With Babich became a viral phenomenon, with two million subscribers and counting, involves an unlikely road map and journey indeed. As with most successful things, it starts with hard work, insane focus, and sheer determination. Anyone interested in creating something of meaning with value in the digital realm should listen to what Andrew has to say.
Seth Godin is a serial entrepreneur, an insanely prolific and thought-provoking blogger and author, and one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the good fortune to have lunch with. His book Tribes should be required reading for anyone interested in embarking on the less-traveled path to career satisfaction. Consider his take on failure: “You can’t make the fear go away, you have to learn to dance with it. Pablo Picasso painted 10,000 paintings, only a hundred of them are amazing, fifty changed the world, which means he failed 9,900 times.” I also love Seth’s definition of an artist: “What it means to be an artist is to do work that matters in a human way that changes someone else.”
Given the particular path I took to start Serious Eats, I was especially interested in what he’d have to say. Our interview is an edifying dive into what it takes to run a passion-driven business.