Longtime viewers of “America’s Test Kitchen” know that Becky Hays is the healthful cooking chef on the cast, always showing us how to make tasty dishes that are also healthy. She’s the one who keeps up with the latest healthy food trends and people’s dietary needs, whether it’s making a spice-filled quinoa dish or eating more veggies in easy to make Indian dish. KLCS talks to Becky as she talks about her path to cooking on PBS, taking in the moments and being grateful for what she gets to do, filming ATK from her home last season, her time with Julia Child and we even gave her an idea for an entire health-filled episode.
Becky, your name came up when I spoke to Bridget and Julia and you’ve always been one of my favorite regular chefs because the way you cook is the way I do – healthy dishes or healthy version of dishes. What was your path to food and cooking?
It was a circuitous path. I got out of college and I worked on Wall Street for five years and I was offered a promotion and it just felt really wrong. My immediate reaction was, “I don’t want it, I don’t want it! Don’t make me do this!” (laughs) So I went to a therapist and it turned out that I only needed one session with her (laughs) because she said, “What did you like to do when you were a kid?” And instantly it was like, “Oh, I’ve been watching Julia Child since I’m seven, I read cookbooks like novels.” I was living in Manhattan at the time and I was going to the farmers market every weekend and experimenting with all the stuff. Long story short, I quit my job a week or two after that and enrolled in cooking school and along with being interested in food, I’ve always been interested in how what we eat affects our health; so I went to the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Healing, which focused, then, exclusively on vegetarian cooking with a lot of side work on Ayurveda and how food affects our health. So that’s how I got rolling. And from there, it sounds so hokey when I say it, but I say it all the time – once I started following my passion, things just started falling into my lap. And shortly after I graduated cooking school, after internships and a couple of short stops in different little jobs, I met a friend who was designing the website for “Cooks Illustrated,” which I had never even heard of at the time. It turned out they needed a cooking instructor for their website they were working on, to design some online courses. So, I went in and interviewed and I got hired and that was 21 years ago. And it’s been such a fun road ever since.
Have you ever wanted to add an Ayurvedic dish or Ayurvedic dishes for an entire show?
We’ve never done that for a show. This has changed over time, now we have cookbooks for diabetics and keto cookbooks, but for the longest time our focus has really been on what tastes good and less about what I’m talking about, that it can taste good and also be good for you at the same time. But we haven’t gone that far, we’re not quite there yet (laughs). I would personally love that!
What was your path to cooking on TV and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Was it because you were at the magazine?
I started with the company in 2000. We film “America’s Test Kitchen” in a three-week chunk, so it was all-hands-on-deck. No matter what your normal job was, people at that time when the company was very small, most people would have some job where they helped out on TV and my job was to be a runner and that meant I would set up the counter in between scenes, wipe down things, make sure Bridget and Julia had their glass of water with a straw, or if they forgot a spoon, I would run it onto the set. I did that for several years; it was tons of fun. Then one day Herb Sevush, the director, we were filming a “Quick Tip,” which was a little tidbit readers would send in the kitchen with helpful hints. I’m not sure why he did, I should ask him, but Herb said, “Oh, why doesn’t Becky film this one?” I said, “Oh, sure, why not!” (laughs) And they didn’t even put lipstick on me. Bridget and Julia had their makeup professionally done, I was like, “I don’t even get lipstick!” And I went on set with no makeup and I filmed the “Quick Tip” and I guess Herb liked it, so the next season Herb asked if I wanted to do a screen test, and I did. I still have to pinch myself, like I said I grew up watching Julia Child, so to be on the other side of things and to be actually on a cooking show is just like, I still can’t believe I am lucky enough I get to do this! I was nervous when Herb asked if I wanted to do that, but I said “Yes” anyway and the screen test went well. I made black bean soup, which is a pretty easy recipe; it was a recipe I had developed. This was in 2006, and the rest of history. So I’ve been on show ever since.
What are you normally doing when you’re not on the show?
Honestly, being on the show is a very small part of my job because we only film for three weeks out of the year, the rest of the time I’m deputy editor of “Cook’s lllustrated” magazine. My job has changed over the years. I used to develop recipes for the magazine. When I had my son, I went from full-time to part-time, which I am so lucky to be able to do.
Do you have a favorite go-to healthy dish?
I love Indian food, period. I love all kinds of food. (laughs) But lately and for the past number of years I’ve been on a real kick because of Indian food, one of the reasons is because it’s strongly focused on vegetarian food. I love Dal. It can be very, very simple, which is just beans, usually lentils cooked in water until their soft, with delicious and healthful spices like turmeric and you put ginger and maybe cumin and then I make a tadka to go on top and the tadka is what gives Dal tons of flavor. And that’s gee or butter or even oil and you add onions, chilis, more ginger and garlic and whole spices and you sizzle that up and drizzle it on top of the Dal with some rice. And that for me is just about the perfect meal, maybe with some kind of chutney on the side. That’s my kind of food. I don’t have a go-to because I love variety. My son complains, he’s 12, “Mom, why can’t we just have some fried chicken or mashed potatoes?” (laughs) He never knows what to expect when dinnertime comes because I’m always trying to make something different. I don’t make the same thing twice very often.
What’s the favorite part of your job?
It’s the food. During the pandemic, we’ve been home, but pre-pandemic, I would get called away from my desk up to 12 times a day to come into the kitchen and taste something. To me that’s just a dream come true, like I want to taste everything and I want to give my opinion on it and evaluate it and enjoy it and go back for seconds and thirds. And also, it’s not just the food, but having all these people around me that share my passion. We would come in on Monday morning and everyone wants to talk about what they cooked over the weekend and what they’re going to make for dinner that night and what restaurants they’ve been to. I always find it really enjoyable just to be really deep into my passion at my work and to share that with my colleagues is really a treat too. So, it really is a dream job. I don’t think I’ve ever
had a day honestly when I haven’t wanted to go to work. I get to be on television and I get to talk about my favorite subject all day and work with a bunch of really smart, really kind, interesting people. I feel so grateful all the time.
I’ve asked this before to Julia, but since you’re the veggie and healthy dish person, will there be more avant-garde recipes like cauliflower pizza or dairy-free swap out dishes as people’s diets change to cut out sugar, dairy and gluten?
Absolutely, yup, we’re trying to stay right on top of those trends and we’re recognizing more and more that that’s what our readers want. For our November-December issue for example, we have a vegan chocolate mousse that’s absolutely delicious and it’s made with aquafaba, which is the liquid from a can of chickpeas. It has no eggs, no dairy, but it’s still amazing. That’s the kind of recipe, at least in “Cook’s Illustrated,” that we really enjoy doing because it will appeal to everyone, whether you’re vegan or not. But yeah, we’re definitely paying attention to all those kinds of trends – dietary trends, cookware trends. We’re publishing recipes on Instapot and air fryers because those are the kind of tools that people are using at home now.
Going back to the Ayurvedic dishes, that could be a whole show because it’s different for different types of bodies.
(laughs) Yeah, maybe we’d have to do like a whole season, that would be a lot to cover. I don’t think I see us going quite that far. We tend to take baby steps when we do this kind of thing and in “Cooks Illustrated” we only publish about 10 recipes per issue and we’re bi-monthly, so we only have six issues per year, so that makes only 60 recipes a year, so we think long and hard about our recipe selection and we try and have a really wide variety.
The dishes you make on “America’s Test Kitchen” are also in “Cooks Illustrated?”
Mostly, yeah. Some of the recipes might come from some of the cookbooks that we publish, but generally they come from “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine.
I interviewed a chef once who talked about adding cream to soup and I said that’s the easy way because, of course, the soup will taste good. Do you ever watch YouTube videos for those newer recipes with healthy swap outs? I make healthier recipes like that with bananas as the sugar for a chocolate chip cookie recipe.
Yeah, that’s where some of that edgy content is and it’s hard to make creamy soup without the cream. Now you’re giving me ideas to do one show.
Yeah, with the Ayurvedic dishes, by virtue of what Ayurveda is, it would have to be one show, since it’s different food for different things.
So far everyone’s had a Julia Child story, you’ve mentioned her influence, do you have a Julia Child story?
Like I said, I would come home starting in third grade, I have a twin sister and we would sit down together and turn on the black and white TV and watch Julia and I started trying to make some of her recipes myself. I’ve been a fan of hers forever. I think it was 2002, she came to the test kitchen to visit one day when we were filming. I was not yet on the show then, this was back when I would’ve been a runner and I was very new to the company. Julia was in the back room watching on the monitors with Herb and I went in and I sat down beside her and I wanted to tell her everything and thank her and tell her how much she meant to me and tell her how much I admired her. I just couldn’t, I froze and I ran out of the room and burst into tears because I was so excited and that I couldn’t say anything. But I did get to sit right beside her, which was a thrill but, unfortunatel,y we did not have a conversation because I got too nervous. But on that same visit, she had a ton of cookbooks and she had a signed cookbook that she gave me. She passed it out to everyone that day that was on the set.
You can tell that you enjoy your job and you mentioned you do pinch yourself that you get to do this for a living and follow in those footsteps, educating people to cook on TV and in a healthier way.
Yeah, it’s still a thrill every time. It really is. (laughs) I get so much enjoyment out of it and people always say, “You look like you’re having such a good time.” And I really am, I’m just trying to soak it all up and be in the moment and feel all the gratitude for what I get to do and just have as much fun as I can with it. Another thing we used to do, following in Julia Child’s footsteps, my twin sister and I used to put on little cooking shows in our kitchen for my mom and dad. (laughs) So I’ve been pretending to do this for a long time, since I was a kid. So that just feeds into my delight that I get to do this now as an adult.
You really are living a dream.
I really am, I know!
I wish you were on more episodes, because you cook the way I do and the way a lot of people are going towards. What dictates your amount of time on episodes, is it how many dishes you developed? Is there some formula to how much you’re on?
No, there’s no real formula and these days the recipes I present on TV, I have not developed myself. I’m no longer developing recipes, so I present a recipe a colleague has developed. Over time it has kind of become that I do about seven recipes per season and that’s just because we want to give space to other cooks to do their thing as well. And that’s about enough for me, there’s a lot of work that goes into each recipe, getting the scripts prepared and the actual filming. So, with my part time schedule, six or seven per season is a good amount for me.
Do you get recognized now from the show?
I don’t get recognized a ton, but I definitely do get recognized. My dental hygienist is thrilled every time I come in, we have to take the selfie together, she’s texting all her friends (laughs). You know the bib they put on? At least let me take the bib off! I also get recognized at the grocery store and other places.
What’s the most popular question you get?
People just say they really enjoy the show and it seems like I’m having a good time and we all seem pretty down to earth, which I think we are, or try to be anyway. They kind of think that we’re always filming, so people are shocked when I say it’s only three weeks out of the year and the rest of the year I’m doing something completely different.
Do you ever indulge and just watch a bunch of PBS cooking shows?
I did for the longest time, I definitely don’t watch myself on TV, and it feels like work if I watch ATK, whether I’m on or not. I haven’t watched PBS for a longtime, no reason. I watched “Top Chef.” I think I get enough at work, it is pretty immersive in my life, so when it comes to my TV and other hobbies, usually it’s not food-related.
Since you’ve been at “America’s Test Kitchen,” the TV world has changed so much, what keeps it fun for you?
All the lovely people that I work with. We have a Zoom call every morning, the “Cook’s Illustrated” team does, Monday through Thursday and I’m off on Fridays. It’s fun for me just connecting with my colleagues via our Zoom chats. The one thing I do love to do is read our magazine. Part of my job as deputy editor is to help shepherd all of the pages of the magazine through the entire editorial process. I just adore that from when we’re conceptualizing the recipe that we want to pursue, all the way to the entire package with art and the perfect caption to accompany that art and a nice informative story to go with it and an A-plus recipe, zero errors, copy editing, proof reading, fact checking. Of course, we want the magazine to be as pristine as the recipes that we’re presenting, so I get great joy in helping to produce that.
When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places to dine at?
I have not been there for a long time. I’ve been a couple times when we were nominated for Emmys. We went to Nancy Silverton’s place Mozza.
For those of us who watch the show religiously, is there anything you want to add to tell viewers?
You asked me if people ask questions, “What happens to the food?” l would say 9 times out of 10. I stand there and I finish my serving right on of the spot (laughs), I take my microphone off so people don’t hear me chewing, but I almost always finish the food, even for filming. We’ll film two or three recipes per day, do two or three recipes a day and any leftover food will be given to anyone else that’s on the set, so 100 percent of the food gets thoroughly enjoyed by people. People always wonders what happens to all the food and it definitely gets eaten. We can’t give it away, but we do definitely eat it ourselves and take it home to our families.
Have you made that Dal dish on TV?
We filmed in our home kitchens last year and yes I made it last season.
So was that filmed in three weeks?
No, that was more spread out because of Covid, it was very spread out. It took a lot of the summer and I only did three recipes that season because it was a big production just to do that all by myself. We just had one camera person come into the house and I had to do all the prep, so everyone did fewer recipes than usual and Julia and Bridget did the bulk.
Did you like doing it at home or preferred being in the studio?
I definitely prefer being in the studio, I’ve always been thankful for all the helpers that we have when we’re in the studio, but when I had to do everything on my own, now I’m even more thankful to them. When we were still trying to figure out how we were going to film at home, at one point we weren’t even sure if we were going to allow camera people to come into people’s homes, so I did a pilot episode where I set up everything by myself. I had the real camera people and the producer and director on a Zoom call and all the cameras were delivered to my house, left on the front porch and all the sound equipment and the lights and everything (laughs) and we spent entire day where they talked me through. I set up three different cameras in my kitchen, I set up the lights, somehow, I got everything running and then the next day I actually filmed it, running everything by myself. I was completely alone in the kitchen. I prepped all the food ahead of time and then when Herb wanted a close up, I would stop what I was doing behind the counter, run to the other side of the counter, change the camera, zoom in. He told me exactly what buttons to press on the camera (laughs). I would fix the lighting; I would adjust my microphone. So that was a wild day, but I thoroughly enjoyed that too. It was fascinating to learn about how to run all the equipment and now I can add that to my resume if they ever need help on the other side of the camera (laughs), I can do that. I’ve never been so tired at the end of a day, I was flat-out. iI took a lot of mental and physical energy.
Tune-in to America’s Test Kitchen, Saturday afternoons at 1 PM, on KLCS. Keep up with Becky on her social media; follow her on Twitter (@Becky_Hays), Instagram (@beckylhays) or visi the ATK website at: americastestkitchen.com