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Section: Other   Category: Interviews

Interview with Leah Koenig Food Writer & Chef Extraordinaire
Leah Koenig is a writer and cookbook author whose work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Saveur, CHOW, Food Arts, Tablet, Gastronomica, and Every Day with Rachael Ray. Leah writes a monthly food column for The Forward and a bimonthly column for called "One Ingredient, Many Ways." She is the former Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning blog, The Jew & The Carrot.

Her first cookbook, The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen, was published by Rizzoli in 2011. The book was named one of the "Best Books of 2011" by Library Journal and The Kitchn called it "a big, beautiful book that is also down-to-earth and completely accessible."

Leah lives and cooks in Brooklyn, New York with her musician husband, Yoshie.  We had the opportunity to interview Leah and find out more about her.  Enjoy! 

Like every famous chef, we'd love to hear how you got started.
Leah Koenig:
 Famous chef? You're really way (way) too kind! In terms of getting started on the food writing path, though - I learned to cook as a senior in college when I lived in the Environmental Studies house at Middlebury college. It was impossible to live there and not get inspired by my amazing roommates, who all somehow seemed to know how to cook and bake bread. I caught the cooking bug from them, and also began to develop my appreciation for eating local, fresh and in-season foods. It was an amazingly flavorful year.

From there, my passion for food and cooking really mushroomed (no pun intended - okay, maybe a little intended). I volunteered on an organic vineyard in Italy after college, and then worked for a Jewish environmental organization called Hazon for several years where I ran food and agriculture programs. So when it began to dawn on me that I wanted to write professionally, focusing on food just seemed like a natural fit.

Can anyone learn to cook well and creatively, or is it something you need to be born with?
 Skills can always be learned, but I think one needs to be born with some innate interest in cooking to really find their creative groove in the kitchen. I often compare it to musical ability. For example, I love listening to my husband play guitar, but every time I've ever tried to pick up an instrument throughout my life, I always got distracted. With cooking though, I could spend all day tinkering in the kitchen and never tire of it. I actually think I'm at my most relaxed there - even when something is bubbling furiously over onto the stovetop. Growing up I used to dance and would dream choreography at night. These days, I sometimes dream that I'm eating a dish that I've never encountered in real life - it's such a fun feeling to wake up with the desire to create the literal "food of my dreams."

With your writing credits your obviously a first class writer. Is that something you always wanted to do or something that just happened?
 Thank you! Writing and wordplay have always felt like breathing for me. As a kid I loathed math class - partially because I'm bad at math, and partially because it meant less time for reading and creative writing. But it is only in the last several years that I realized I might be able to make a profession out of it. My generation has faced great challenges with trying to find work in a rough and quickly-changing economy. But on the upside, the lack of "business as usual" stability has given many of us the permission to go after our wildest dreams.

I see you live in Brooklyn. Is that where your were born and raised?
 No, I'm originally from the Midwest. I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, which is the first suburb bordering the west side of Chicago. I've lived in Brooklyn since 2004, however, and it has definitely become my home. The things I loved about Oak Park - the trees, the community vibe, the access to great food and great ideas - are all here. And meanwhile, enough of Manhattan's manic, pulsing energy bubbles over the East River that I also get the unparalleled thrill of living in NYC.

What are you focusing on nowadays?
 I focus a lot of energy each month on the three columns I write - a monthly food column for The Forward, a bi-monthly recipe column called "One Ingredient Many Ways" for, and a monthly article called "The Lost Foods of New York City" for Capital New York. They keep me busy! On top of that, I'm constantly pitching and writing new stories (people can keep track of what I'm up to on my website), and am still traveling and doing cooking demos with my cookbook,The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook.

And of course for the grand finale, what is your absolute favorite dish?
 This changes all the time, but my go-to favorites tend to be laid back, rustic dishes as opposed to fancier fare. Right now, my "dessert island meal" would include kale sauteed with bits of preserved lemon, a super-rich macaroni and cheese, and a piece of my mom's double chocolate chip zucchini cake.

Thanks Leah.  Your way with words is amazing just like your way with ingredients.  We wish you lots of success and hope to see back on Culinary Kosher often.  Thanks!

You can see some of Leah Koenig's recipes in her recipe box (username Haddasah Cookbook)

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