Liveblog: Innovator Interview: Aida Mollenkamp

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer Food '10 panel "Innovator Interview: Aida Mollenkamp."

Here's the description:

Aida Mollenkamp is the epitome of a modern food star. A Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Aida started out her media career as a founding editor of venerable food website Chow. Within a few years, she has attained regular shows on both the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. Her Food Network show, Ask Aida, centers around interaction with her audience via the web, bringing the spirit of the social web to television. Aida maintains a robust online presence outside her cooking shows, and even finds time to work with a non-profit dedicated to addressing child hunger and helping kids learn how to eat and cook healthily. With BlogHer co-founder and CEO, Lisa Stone, at the helm, we'll explore Aida's evolution from chef to online writer to multimedia personality.

ELISA CAMAHORT PAGE: It's my great pleasure to introduce my co-founder, Lisa Stone, and our guest, Aida Mollenkamp.

LISA STONE: We're interviewing a woman who has been described as a modern food star. You come from a cooking family, Women who cook. Tell us about that.

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: There's a restaurant, Mama Leone's, in New York, and I'm from the family who started that restaurant, which is now part of a larger company. My mother thinks I'm my grand-father re-incarnated...

LISA STONE: He would be a beautiful woman!

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: I'm from a blended family, like the Brady Bunch. I have a mother from Ohio with Italian-American roots, and she insistd on cooking for us. My father married a woman who is literally off the boat from Northeast France. She introduced me to butter and cheese.

LISA STONE: Did you cook with your step-mom? Did she teach you to cook souffle?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: She first taught me to cook Potato Leek Soup, which is still one of my favorite recipes.

LISA STONE: One of the things that fascinated me when I was reading your backgorund - you have both sides of the food world in your head. You worked in the hospitality industry. Can you tell us about your dregree that took you to the business side, and your experiences that took you to the cooking side?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: When I was young, I tore my ACL. While recovering from surgery, I started reading those large-format "Beautiful France", "Beautiful Italy" types of books - and I fell in love. I had always liked science in school, and cooking is science. One of my teachers recommended a program at Cornell, and I attended a seminar and decided I'd like to attend. I was good at math, so I decided to go into finance. After graduating, I went to work for Ernst & Young, and I often came into the office with baked goods. My boss told me, "You're really good at visual basics, but your cake is better." So I decided to apply to culinary school. I attended Le Cordon Bleu in France. I wanted to combine left and right brain, and decided to go into media.

LISA STONE: Did you have a major?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: You have to choose between pastry, savory or both. I did both. I read about Chow magazine http://www.chow.com/, and I thought it sounded so rockstar. I came to San Francisco in 2004, and told them that's what I wanted to do. They told me I could start as an intern, and it was magical. I was the third person working on Chow.

LISA STONE: When did you first start blogging?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: I started my own blog, which I deleted because it was really cheesey and I don't have a writing backgrond. We [Chow] were in San Francisco, and Heidi Swanson and Amy sherman and Elise Bauer - these few people were making their name known in the food blogging community. But we didn't know what we were doing. I called up my brother and asked how to publish a page in Wordpress.

LISA STONE: How did "Ask Aida" come about?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: The Chow story that doesn't get told is that April 10 we sat down and said: "We are down to our last dollar. What do we do?" We thought that on April 15, we'd just close the doors. At the end of that week, a guy from cnet.com walked in thte door and told us that his wife loved the magazine, and that he needed to buy it. So he did, on the condition that we went online. This was 2006. We didn't have multimedia people, editors, etc. A guy from Food Network called and said he saw me in a Chow video online, and wanted to talk to me. I thought it was a prank call. I went into their offices and they sat me down in front of a panel. They were all throwing questions at me, it was kind of scary. Eventually, they said: "We have this show idea, you seem to fit the mold, what do you think?"

LISA STONE: They made that decision without taking a pilot video of you, dailies, etc.?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: Basically, I came to the Food Network building, and one level is the kitchen, one level is the studio, and the third level is their executive offices. They said, "You need to give us a recipe and cook it tomorrow. And as I was cooking it, they started asking a bunch of questions. Just peppering me with questions. Afterward, I thought I bombed it - that it was awful, but they loved it, it went over well. I went back a couple weeks later and did a pilot. Then PBS came out with "America's Test Kitchen", so we changed the show we were developing and came up with the Ask Aida format (http://www.foodnetwork.com/ask-aida/index.html).

It's a very unique role being a food host. Food hosting is the only time you're doing what we've been talking about here [at BlogHer Food '10] all day long today, where you're selling your own story about your relationship to that food. It was therapy to me, to say: Why do I love tomatoes so much? It made me look inward to communicate the outward better.

LISA STONE: What was the goal of moving to the Cooking Channel vs. the Food Network?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: The real thing for me was - I came to Food Network via Chow. At Chow we were snarky. At Ask Aida, on the Food Network, there is a lot of that on the editing floor. If you look at the numbers, I pull in mostly male and female, I pull in younger [age groups], I pull in urban. It seemed a natural fit for Cooking Channel, so I hopped on over.

LISA STONE: Your new show on the Cooking Channel, FoodCrafters (http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/foodcrafters/index.html)...what's the mission? What is it like to start a new show?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: I love startups. They're extremely fun. The people I work with at Citizen Pictures are so much fun. They do travel shows on the side, and what I didn't know until I started the show is that risk-takers are food crafters because of the downturn in the economy. They're helping their businesses. After we promote food crafters on the show, the individuals are seeing measureable results [to their exposure and bottom line].

ATTENDEE: What is your earliest memory with food?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: My earliest memory is influenced by photography. My grandma would come in and make pasta with us from scratch, with an old school pasta crank. And we have photos with pasta flour all over my face. It's one of my favorite memories!

ATTENDEE: I love FoodCrafters, what do you see as the next trend with putting up?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: The easy entry into D-I-Y, are jams, preserves, breads. You can learn so much in so little time. I have seen a lot of people brewing, that I haven't seen before. Whether it's ginger beer or alcoholic, I see that as an up-and-coming.

ATTENDEE: What is the hardest part about going from behind scenes, like at Chow, to in front of camera, like Ask Aida or FoodCrafters?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: Not taking stuff personally. To this day, I'll have people come up to me and recognize me, and that's bizarre. It's hard to be in front of the camera and have the consequences that come with that. To me, you guys [food bloggers] are the one making this food movement happen. We'd sit around at Chow talking about your blogs.

LISA STONE: Considering more appetizing prospects of food media, there's been an explosion of personal brand in the space. Julia Childs, Rachael Ray are both brands. Are you going to build a world-class brand?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: I'm a perfectionist, I try to make everything as perfect as possible. There will never be -- really, truly be -- another Beatles again. I believe we'll never have these greats again that we have today, like Julia, like Rachael. Today it's more of a collective voice. You're responsible to curate content in your own voice. If you have enough people listening to that voice, you can go far with it. Mine happens to be one to help others find their daily food adventure, whatever that is for them. There hasn't been a lot of intelligent food media in the mainstream, and we're able to change that.

ATTENDEE: How do you balance having a vision and working with a network; bringing ideas to the table and when your ideas are shot down, etc?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: That's one of the things that has been so interesting for me this last year. Until October last year, I was only dealing with Food Network and CBS, and neither of those voices were mine. since joining Cooking Channel, I've found my own voice.

ATTENDEE: What advice do you have for people who want to have their own TV show?

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: I met a girl at Sunset Celectbration Weekend, who wanted to be a food star. I told her to watch out for the word "star". If you're going for fame, they'll see right through you. It's a very, very difficult career path. You have to find a production company to develop a show idea. Hopefully they'll fund your pilot. Then you have to shop that around to the networks. Sometimes you'll have others underwrite you. It's a long path. Not everyone's path has to be to Bobby Flaydom. If you truly think you'll be the next Julia Child, I'll give you all the information you need. But I'll also warn you that it's not an easy path.

ATTENDEE: I keep hearing from some of the TV people about the hard work. That's good because people think you came out of nowhere and are suddenly famous. Do you think that people with family should pursue a career in food television? The thought of executing that is daunting.

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: You have to think about the time it takes. Eight days in studio, eight weeks ahead of time preparing. At Chow, I would work full-time, then come home and work six more to prepare. If you really want to do it, it's totally possible. Food Network has seen nearly every idea at this point, and you have to have a solid idea. Next Food Network star will give you an idea of what they're looking for. For a work/life balance - Melissa d'Arabian (http://www.foodnetwork.com/melissa-darabian/bio/index.html) would be a good person to turn to. She has a family, three kids, films Ten Dollar Dinners, does it all and seems to be happy.

ATTENDEE: What chance does a rather overweight older man who dyes his hair have a chance at being on a show? Not that I'm describing myself...I'm describing a friend. (laughter)

AIDA MOLLENKAMP: It's the same as what makes it a really good blog or a really good anything else. Does looks really have anything to do with food? You're selling food. If you can make the food fun, that's what it comes down to. Any one can have a show if you have a really solid idea!

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