Q&A with Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen

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Jaden Hair (pictured above with her sons Nathan, 5, and Andrew, 6) is one of an increasing number of bloggers who have made the leap from hobbyist to media professional. With incisive wit, lush imagery and craveably simple, family-friendly recipes, Jaden's blog Steamy Kitchen became the hub of her ever-growing media empire in online, print and broadcast media. Her first book, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook, brings easy Asian recipes into the home. We were able to get a few minutes of her time to discuss the Steamy Kitchen phenomenon.

Congratulations on being one of the latest to make the blog-to-book jump. When you began the blog, did you have a book in mind as a goal?
When I started the blog, it was really a way for me to store my recipes. I had previously written recipe on 3 x 5 cards (and then would lose them) and on my hard drive (BSOD FAIL!) before I realized that maybe the smart thing to do would be to publish them via a blog so that the data would be safe.  When I first started I really had no intentions of anything more than sharing it with friends, family and students who took my cooking classes. But then I started making friends online, participating in the world of food blogging and falling in love with recipes and stories from David Lebovitz, Smitten Kitchen, Lucy's Kitchen Notebook and Simply Recipes.

It wasn't until three months into the blog that I decided that food writing, photography and blogging would make a fantastic business. That's when I started getting serious about creating Steamy Kitchen as my full-time job. At first, I contacted a small community newspaper and asked them if I could contribute a recipe each month. They said, "YES!"  and then a few months later a bigger newspaper called wanting me to write for them, and then an even bigger newspaper called. Now I am published every Sunday in the Tampa Tribune Newspaper. Same for television. I called the teeniest tiniest local television station and asked if I could go on once a month in the morning. They invited me on ... and then a bigger station called ... and then a year later, a syndicated show called Daytime asked if I wanted to come and cook regularly.

How did you find your publisher?
When my blog was six months old, Holly, an editor from Tuttle Publishing emailed and asked if I was interested in writing a book. Her sister, who lives in Tampa, had been reading my column in the newspaper and thought I'd make a great author.

You had to convince your publisher to let you do your own photography. What’s different between blog and print photography? What did it take to get your images print-ready?
Oh wow, yeah. That was hard work,  convincing my publisher to let me do my own photography. Two years ago, my photography was fantastic online, but it wasn't anywhere near the quality required for a beautiful cookbook in print. So for six months all I did was practice with styling and food photography. I didn't have a contract yet from my publisher, but I would take photos, send them print ready files, and they would send back my photos printed on glossy cookbook paper. We went back and forth three times during those six months and finally they told me that I was ready. It took a lot of studying, observing, playing around with my camera.

Do you have any specific tips you learned during your photography learning curve that you can pass on to budding food photographers?
Well of course having a dSLR camera is important for nice pictures. But it's not about how expensive that camera is nor is it about a specific lens. I shot parts of my cookbook with an entry-level dSLR (Canon Rebel XT) and a $90 lens (50mm 1.8).

What's important is having an eye for what looks good on plate. I could have the best camera in the world, but if I just plopped a big spoonful of ragu sauce sloppily on the plate, it will still look sloppy in the camera.  I studied the photos in cookbook after cookbook and loads of food magazines. Look at a picture that I liked, I asked myself, "what makes that look so good in this photo?" Conversely,  if I don't like a particular photo of a dish, I asked myself, "why does this dish look so crappy?"

I'm not a big fan of heavily composed shots or food photography that's too perfect.  I want my food to look like something you could cook in your home kitchen. Some of the too-perfect food shots are so intimidating. You don't want your readers to feel like they could never re-create that dish.

In the book you say all the shots were taken 15 minutes before the food was eaten by your family, but you also seem to use only natural light. I know it's sunny in Florida, but what time does your family eat dinner?
I'm fortunate to live in an area where we have sunshine most days. During the spring, summer and fall, it's easy, as I can get good light until 7 pm. During short days of winter, it's a lot harder. By the time five o'clock rolls around, it's too dark to get a good shot. So I cook earlier in the day and shoot around 4:30 pm. We'll have dinner early in the winter, which is still nice because we get a lot of family time in the evenings to snuggle on the couch and watch a movie.

What prompted you to shift focus on Steamy Kitchen from strictly Asian fare to different foods? Another book in the works?
I got bored! LOL. And that's the truth!  There is only so many days we can have rice and noodles before my family starts craving hot dogs and spaghetti.
 
Your media empire is on the grow. Beyond the book, you write for print and online outlets and have made television appearances. Do you still consider yourself a blogger, or something else?
You know, I don't think there is an accurate word to describe what I do. I develop recipes, write, cook on television, style food, photograph food, travel, create videos, am active on Twitter, and do public speaking.  I struggled with that title for a while now, and I've simply resorted to "I like to feed people" when asked what I do for a living.

Blogging is only one part of what I do, but it is how I got started and I always pay props to my blogging roots.

How do you juggle it all: the cooking, the writing, the photography, the media appearances -- oh yeah, and the family?
Lots of wine.

LOL, just kidding...

kinda...

I'm one of the most unstructured, carefree, spontaneous people ever.  I don't do well with schedules, deadlines or requirements. Which is why I love what I do because every single day is different, I get to work from home, I get to bring my kids to the television studio with me (they often come on set and cook with me), and I get to play in the kitchen, cooking whatever I feel like cooking. Steamy Kitchen gives me that freedom to work from anywhere in the world,  or not work at all if I don't feel like it. But most of the time, I don't even consider what I do work.

It's funny, I'm always asked the question of how do I do it all, and my reply is always I don't understand how so many people can wake up, drag themselves to work and sit in a cubicle uninspired for eight hours. What makes my job so fulfilling is that I also get to help other people. Whether it's through creating a recipe that might become someone's family favorite, teaching a cooking class or mentoring a beginner blogger. I'm just grateful that the stars have aligned for me and that I'm also able to give back.

Do you still consider cooking pleasurable? Does it ever become a tiresome chore?
I think cooking would be tiresome if I worked in a restaurant and I had to cook the same dishes over and over and over again. Which is why I've never worked in a restaurant before! The things that I find tiresome are writing, editing and doing dishes. You'd be surprised how much I hate writing, with the amount of "writing" that I do. But the secret is that I don't technically "write." I dictate.  After being on the computer for so many years, I've developed tendinitis in my arms and it's painful to be on the keyboard for so many hours. A few months ago I bought a program called MacSpeech and started dictating my blog posts and my newspaper columns, which makes my life so much easier. Love talking, hate writing. Oh and I hate doing dishes too, but I haven't found a program to handle that chore yet.

Care to share a recipe with us from the book?

Grilled Bananas with Chocolate and Toasted Coconut Flakes
My friend, Andreea Gulacsi, of Glorious Food and Wine blog, recently took a trip to Champagne, France, and had the most awesome dessert ever. Chocolate grilled bananas. I’ve added my favorite flavors to the technique—chocolate and toasted coconut. It’s deceptively simple, yet a showstopper on the table!

Grilled Bananas

SERVES 4
4 bananas (leave peel on)
3 oz (85 g) dark or milk chocolate bar, broken into pieces
1/2 cup (40 g) sweetened coconut flakes
(or other toppings of your choice like chopped nuts or chopped fruit)

1. Lay the bananas sideways. Carefully slice the bananas open (cut through the skin and through the banana itself) without cutting through the bottoms or through the ends. You’re creating a pocket for the chocolate.
2. Tuck the chocolate inside the banana.
3. Set them on a grill preheated to low heat and grill for 5 to 7 minutes, until the bottoms start to turn black and the chocolate has melted.
4. While bananas are grilling, heat a frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the coconut flakes and stir continuously until golden brown at the edges. Immediately pour onto a plate to stop the cooking.
5. When the bananas are done, top them with some toasted coconut or other topping of your choice.

Grilled Bananas

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