The man behind the mask
a little backstory
I’m not really fond of talking about myself, but I thought it might be helpful to give you all a rundown of the parts of my biography that relate to what we are up to here. This is a slightly longer version of the story I tell when I teach classes and ask everyone to introduce themselves and say a little about their background in baking.
My last full-time gig was as senior editor, test cook, and resident breadhead at Cook’s Illustrated magazine and America’s Test Kitchen, which ended when I decided to make a go of turning this newsletter into something more serious. I left ATK initially on generally good terms, but my relationship with the company went south this past spring, when its CEO—who you would think would have bigger fish to fry—decided that said newsletter, with its 600 or so paying subscribers as of 8/8/21, represented a financial threat to a major corporation. (I wrote about this falling out not long afterward.)
Since leaving ATK and re-launching this newsletter in August 2020, I have also been writing and developing recipes as a freelancer, including at places like Serious Eats (where I am focusing mainly on Armenian recipes), King Arthur Baking Company (where I write about bread, natch), Epicurious (on fresh flour and milling at home), and Edible Boston (bread recipes, mostly).
I’m also a passable photographer and since quarantine began I’ve been cooking, styling, and shooting food photos for various places—ATK, initially, and nowadays Serious Eats and Edible Boston—in my home kitchen.
And I’ve been a breadbaking instructor at places like King Arthur Baking Company in Norwich, VT (one of my happy places), King Arthur at The Bread Lab in Burlington, WA, and Central Milling in Petaluma, CA. I can’t wait to get back to in-person instruction once COVID is completely in the rearview mirror, but in the meantime, I’ve been teaching virtually from home mostly via my Airsubs account. (Classes will resume in September after a summer break.)
Before joining ATK, I worked for 12 years as an organic chemist at the biotech company Genzyme, where I worked in drug development for diseases like cancer and multiple sclerosis. I had no prior practical experience in chemistry when I began working there; the job started out as a short-term paid internship while I was in the midst of a post-bac pre-med program at Harvard, but soon became a full-time job that ended any pretensions of going to medical school.
I was good at chemistry in the way that I am good at cooking: Give me a dish and access to recipes I can figure out how to make it, give me a molecule and access to recipes I can sort out how to put it together. I learned a ton while there—most importantly about how to run and interpret experiments and how there’s no such thing as ‘failure’ in science—and loved my work, but I heard the siren song of food calling me back, and I was fortunate enough to hear it at just the right moment. (And to meet my pal Meredith, who convinced me to come in for an interview.)
While I was at Genzyme, I took advantage of the company’s generous continuing education program to get a master’s degree in biology at the Harvard extension school, with a focus on mycology, aka the science of fungi or mushrooms, in Dr. Don Pfister’s lab. The focus of my work was in mushroom cultivation, specifically on improving low-tech and energy-efficient ways to sterilize the materials the mushrooms grow on. Just as with organic chemistry, I loved mycology lab work, particularly the learning-how-to-keep-microorganisms-alive-and-happy part (sound familiar?).
Before I became a scientist of one kind or another, I worked in restaurants as a line cook, both here in Boston (where I grew up) and in New York City (where I went to college and lived throughout my flailing twenties). The place I worked the longest (and where I really learned to cook) was a tiny-but-lively place in the West Village known as the Universal Grill (RIP). Here’s the Times review from right about when I started working there (yeah, I’m that old):
And before all that, I was just a teenage kid who decided that the thing he wanted to learn to cook first was pizza. I don’t remember exactly how old I was—thirteen, maybe?—but I can still picture the pizza cookbook and shiny perforated pan I got for a birthday present that year. My early pizzas surely sucked, but one reason my pizza recipes are the bomb now is that I’ve been testing and retesting those recipes for some 35 years. (Another reason my pizza rocks is that I am Armenian, and it’s a little-known but indisputable fact that Armenians set the stage for the invention of pizza in Italy when they created lahmajun a few hundred years prior. So pizza is baked into my genes.)
The funny thing is that despite my early embrace of pizza-making, I only started baking bread fewer than 15 years ago. Or even caring about it, for that matter—I spent a semester in Paris during college and never gave much thought to all the amazing bakeries around me. I can date the start of my bread obsession nearly to the minute: the November, 2006 publication of Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe in Mark Bittman’s Times column. Like just about everyone else back then, I tried the recipe, and my world was forever changed. I had no idea how good fresh baked bread could be—smart as I am, I’m also something of an ignorant dope until I’m not—and I had no idea how easy it could be to make at home. Within a few years I was taking classes in bread baking at King Arthur Flour and building a backyard wood-fired oven for pizza and bread.
And a few years after that I started working at Cook’s Illustrated. Within a year, I developed their recipe for Thin Crust Pizza, my homage to all the NYC slices I’d loved before. It’s been one of the magazine’s most popular recipes (pizza or otherwise) and served as the inspiration for at least a dozen other pizza and flatbread recipes I developed after that. (An updated and improved version of it can be found here.) So the circle of life is complete, or something like that.
Anyway, enough about me, let’s get back to the dough. More soon.