Full Exclusive interview with Bryan Roof

Bryan Roof has become the resident traveller on “Cook’s Country,” airing on KLCS as part of our Saturday afternoon cooking block, with the aim of finding interesting dishes made around our nation. He then returns to Boston to replicate and share his finds, and the stories behind them, on the show. We talk to Bryan, who is also a dietician, about his path to food and the show, how his travel segments started, and his funny story of meeting and bumping into Jacques Pepin – over and over again.

Bryan, you’re the resident traveler on Cook’s Country, where you get to travel and learn how to make regional dishes that may be more unusual and harder to find. What was your path cooking to TV?
I started off on the book team writing cookbooks for a couple of years, over at Cook’s Illustrated, and then I eventually I became the food editor for Cook’s Country. Three years into my tenure as food editor, we’d always covered regional American cooking, and it was kind of a joke that was floating around a meeting, “We should get an RV and travel around the country and find food, eat them first-hand before we start cooking them.” We laughed about it and a few months later, we had another editorial meeting and our boss at the time was like, “Where are we at with the RV?” (laughs) We’re like, “Oh, you’re serious!” After that meeting, “Ok, let’s try this. So I booked my first trip to Tennessee, and based out of Nashville. I just drove around various parts Tennessee and I did the first interview at this place called Papa Kayjoe’s with a guy who was a preacher and he owned a barbecue restaurant as well. He was as nice as could be and it made me understand that people were happy to talk about the foods that meant something special to them and how they grew up eating them, and how they felt about delivering them to other people through a restaurant. We just kept doing it from there. Came back inspired and booked the next trip and it’s been seven years and I’ve taken six or seven trips per year. Spending four nights at any location, meeting chefs, home cooks, restaurateurs, food editors, food writers, just talking about the local dining scene and getting some instruction on how to make particular dishes that mean something to those people and coming back to the test kitchen and trying to recreate those.

Do you every think to film these moments?
We’re actually going to start filming. It’s been a long conversation. It’s always just been me, and a staff photographer, who’ve been doing all this stuff. I book all my own travel (laughs), my rental car, my flight, call everybody myself. We’ve slowly garnered support for video to happen and we’re actually going to start shooting some video to air on the TV show and some extra stuff on YouTube. Starting in December we’ll start shooting. Air date will probably be in September.

On your travels, is it hard to get cooks to share their recipes or are they happy it will be on TV?
I never ask anybody out right for their recipe. Usually people are cool. There’s two types of people and 95 percent of the people are like, “Here’s my recipe, here’s what I do, if you want to share it with the world, that’s great.” A lot of times it’s pit masters who are like, “I stand outside for 12 hours and smoke if you want to try and do this at home, you’re more than welcome to.” There’s another five percent of people who are like, “No, you’re not getting my secret family recipe, somebody’s going to copy it and put me out of business.” But most people are happy to share their recipes. What I ask to do with them is to watch them cook, and I can gather all I need to know by watching somebody cook a recipe and tasting the recipe. I’ll take notes and watch what they’re doing and ask questions.

If you watch, you ask what the ingredients are, right?
I do ask what the ingredients are. Sometimes they tell me and sometimes they don’t always share. I don’t ask how much.

Cook’s Country executive food editor Bryan Roof rolls a sheet of brown parchment paper around a smoked brisket just off a grill while helping associate editor Morgan Bolling prepare an in-development recipe for Texas Brisket.

Is it more difficult because it’s a big show and they know it has a large following?
No, no, in some ways it’s easier for me. I think that they might be excited, if they know the brand, they’re usually excited to work with us and to talk about food. We talk about more than just the recipe. I talk to them about everything. I’ll schedule an hour meeting to include the interview and the cook through, then I’ll stay there and eat there in the dining room or they’ll just hang out with me and just make conversation for a couple hours. I try to make it so it doesn’t feel like a strict interview, I try to be very cool with it and respect their time, but also let them lead the conversation and a lot of times let them lead what recipes they want to share; I don’t go in with a preset idea anymore. Our first conversation on the phone, I’ll say, “What recipes are you interested in getting out there in the world?” or “I’ve heard you make this really well” and I see what they’re interested in talking about. I think it helps that we are the brand that we are, and we don’t try to make it a big commercial thing. It’s just me and the photographer, so we’re travelling small, we don’t go in there and shut the restaurant down, like a big TV production. We try to be respectful of their time and their food and the fact that they’re sharing all that with us.

What was your path to cooking and being a dietician?
My path is based on my mother’s love of cooking and she traveled the world and would feed me and my brother. She lived in Japan, Korea, Spain, so she would feed us paellas, dumplings, Japanese noodle dishes, soba noodle salad; my dad was from the South, so he always liked roast beef and potatoes. She was able to make the food she loved through feeding me and my brother, so I learned to appreciate food through her. I ended up just going to culinary school out of high school; did that for a few years, cooking in restaurants, got to Boston and decided to go to school to become a dietician and did not really pursue that once I got out of school. I realized that being a dietician in a lot of ways is less about the food than I thought it would be. So I learned about “America’s Test Kitchen,” applied and began working there.

Cook’s Country executive food editor Bryan Roof digs into a helping of cornbread stuffing and gravy at All Steak Restaurant in Cullman, AL. Also visible: onion dip and tortilla chips, fried crab claws with cocktail sauce, black eyed pea dip and tortilla chips, orange rolls, hulled purple peas, squash casserole, and chilled English-style peas.

What did your mom do that she was travelling the world?
She was a teacher for government students who were stationed abroad, like if you were in the military. I was born in the Philippines; she was a teacher out there for the Air Force base. That’s how she met my dad. She just had a love of traveling and she was always on the move, it was just in her blood.

She knows that your career stems from her love, right?
Yeah, I started working at ATK in 2006 in July and she died a month later. So, she knew I wasn’t going to jail (laughs) but she didn’t get to see everything take off for me the way it has. But yeah, she knew that I got into cooking because of her and that I had a passion for it.

Is Cook’s Country really filmed in a cozy Vermont house like it appears on TV?
Yes, it originally was. We would go up there back when Chris Kimball owned that house, and we would shoot there and it was like summer camp for a hot minute. They’d rent houses for all of us and we’d all go up and work really hard starting at six in the morning, shoot all day. The whole season is shot in two weeks, it’s not like we go everyday to the studio. We work hard all day, we’d bring leftover food home; we’d have these little parties at night in our rented houses. It was a great time. But then things changed. In the transition period after Chris Kimball left, we shot one season, we rebuilt that set in the sound stage so it wouldn’t be too shocking to the viewers because we had new hosts, Bridget and Julia, so we wanted to keep the set the same. After that, we then transitioned to our new set at the Innovation and Design Building.

What are you normally doing when you’re not on the show?
At work, I’m overseeing recipe development and photo shoots, planning travel, travelling, any number of those things. Strategizing what we’re putting in the magazine. Writing stuff, with lots of deadlines that are way past due, so people love me for that. I always have recipes to develop from on the road and stories to write. This year I’ve been traveling every month, every four weeks I’ve been gone, so I’ve got a lot of recipes in the bank that I have to decipher, go through my notes, transcribe and start cooking.

Do you have a favorite go-to dish when you want to quickly make something that’s healthy?
I think healthy is very subjective for me. I feel like the fact that I’m cooking whole foods from scratch in my kitchen is way more-healthy than getting takeout or from a can. My go-to is roasted chicken. My kids love it, the house smells great. Season the hell out of it, throw it in the oven for an hour, pull it out, done. In that hour I can make six other dishes. I typically make a lot of salads. I classify everything as a “salad” (laughs), so I’ll make an eggplant salad, or pull out a frozen edamame and make a spin on how people use fava beans with pecorino. Or canned beans, chickpeas, those are quick and easy things that are healthy. So I’m all about messing around with a lot of vegetables once I get the protein set. I cook gluten free and dairy-free. My wife doesn’t eat that and my kids don’t eat dairy; I don’t know who eats dairy anymore, I don’t hassle with it (laughs).

That’s what I’ve asked Julia and Becky, and since you’re a dietician, will there be more healthy recipes like cauliflower pizza or dairy-free swap-out dishes as our diets change to cut out sugar, dairy and gluten? I cut out sugar years ago myself too.
Those types of things will appear when appropriate. Like we’re working on a veggie burger. Veggie burgers are good, but it’s not because we don’t eat beef, it’s because we want an alternative sometime. If cauliflower pizza was super awesome and I saw the potential in making that, yeah, I would pursue it. Today I don’t feel a strong desire to pursue. We don’t ever rule anything out. Despite what some people might think about our food, we do all love vegetables and are very passionate about making great vegetable dishes, despite our love for barbecue (laughs).

Since you also eat dairy and gluten-free at home, do you think about doing more of what you’re eating at home on the show?
Yeah, a lot of the recipes in the magazine are based on things I eat. The flavor of the magazine has been me for the last seven years. I’m the one who would sign off on the recipes, so I always say that when I’m no longer a food editor there’ll be a trail of lemon wedges and olive oil drizzle running behind me, because those are things that I cook and how I eat. There are those things in the magazine now; and when it makes sense for us to do something that is going to be, or happens to be gluten-free, then we’d totally pay attention to that. Like can we use water instead of chicken broth and it’s going to be just as good? Let’s go with it.

What’s the favorite part of your job?
I love the travel; of course its like the most fun for me. I’m just going around the country, exploring new places, talking to people about food, getting to try cuisines that I probably would never try firsthand. Learning how to cook those things, watching people cook it. Just spending time with people who are passionate about food, that’s probably my favorite. And second, is working with the staff at ATK, they’re a bunch of people there who just love cooking, very curious cooks and it’s great to be surrounded by them.

How do you find where you want to travel to next? Do you look up food blogs, YouTube, local newspaper articles?
All the above. There’s no consistent way, it changes every single time. For me, just talking to somebody in the hallway at work, to being on Instagram and looking at somebody’s video about a taco they just had in Tucson, to reading an article in an inflight magazine. All those things shape where I go. So it’s a lot of research.

That’s fun because your antenna is always open.
Yeah, yeah, and (laughs) sometimes when you’re not getting any reception, you get a little nervous, like have I gone everywhere I’m supposed to be?

Do you worry about running out of ideas for the next deadline?
I definitely have those moments where I’m like, “What else is there?”

Even in such a food-dominant blogosphere, you still do?
Yeah, once you get all the low hanging fruit, all the gumbo in New Orleans, all the barbecue in Texas, you have to dig deeper. What’s really happening in Tucson? Why is that food the way it is or how is it different.

That’s a harder job because you have to find less obvious places, right?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t want to go to the places everybody else has gone. I try to dig deeper. Somebody like Guy Fieri has a huge network of people finding spots for him,; here it’s just me, so I’m trying to navigate like, “What can I do so I’m not on somebody’s coat tail?” So it’s a lot of conversations with people that lead to something else that lead to something else.

So far, almost everyone’s had a Julia Child story, do you have a Julia Child story?
My mom was a huge Julia Child fan, some of her go-to recipes were Julia Child, like beef bourguignon and coq au vin. Those made frequent appearances in my house, as did the glass of wine while cooking (laughs). So I have tremendous respect for Julia Child because my mom loved her.

I would assume because you’re from Boston.
I was born in the Philippines, I grew up in the South, I just moved to Boston 20 years ago.

Alli Berkey, left, uses a slicing knife to cut a whole gooey butter cake into twelve squares as Bryan Roof, right, looks on during a tasting of an in-development recipe.

Oh, when your mom traveled, the family was with her.
She traveled before we were born, but we moved back and forth to Florida and to South Carolina and Georgia. I grew up in the southeastern United States.

Do you pinch yourself you get to do this for a living and follow in her footsteps, educating people to cook on TV?
It’s a super great gig. I love it. It’s a ton of fun to do the travel piece, to work with the folks that I do and the TV show is a lot of fun to film. All the camera people, all the cast, all the back kitchen help, they’re all like family at this point. I’ve been doing the TV show for I think over 10 years now. So you get to know all these people and you see them for two or three weeks a year and it’s great to reunite. It’s definitely a really great gig.

Do you get recognized now from the show?
On occasion. I’m wearing a mask a lot like everybody else, but on occasion. It’s always at an awkward moment, like in a men’s room. And then I always stick my hand out to shake, “Hi!”

That means there are male viewers too, that’s good.
Yeah, yeah, definitely.

What’s the most popular question you get?
(laughs) People always ask that same question, “What’s your specialty as far as cooking goes?” And I always find that it to be a funny question because if you’re anybody who’s curious about food or enjoys eating, I don’t think there’s ever one thing that you always return to. I feel you’re always trying to experiment with some new food or your palate shifts because you just saw something on TV or in a magazine. You’re always curious about something new.

As a cook at home, you must sauté a lot and it must get greasy in the grates in the stove vent above and the sides of the cabinets. What’s your cleaning routine, how often, and what do you do to clean the stove, oven top, vent, cabinet walls around the stove of grease? Cleaning is the hardest part of cooking.
Yeah, definitely. I clean very night. Everything is wiped down every night. You can’t let it sit because then three weeks from now (laughs) you’ll have that sludge that you can’t even peel off with a palette knife. Just a bucket of soapy water. Saturate everything, scrub it down and then sacrifice a dish towel to dry everything off in one fell swoop. Everything I do in the kitchen, as far as cooking, is immediately tied to the cleaning as I go. I have an entire routine. The dishwasher’s empty before I even start cooking. If the kitchen’s a mess, I can’t cook. I have to clean the entire kitchen before I start cooking. So, kitchen is clean, I go in to cook and as soon as I’m dirtying stuff, I may drop something in the sink for a minute just to turn around and do something else, but as soon as the food is in the skillet coming up to temperature, I turn around, I rinse out that bowl and I throw it in the dishwasher. So when I’m done, there’s no pile of dishes. There’s no-sh-t show in my kitchen, because I just have a bunch of completed dishes that are sitting off on the side table ready for people to come in and eat. I cannot operate with a mess in the kitchen (laughs).

Do you clean the grate in the vent above the stove and take it out all the time?
Yeah, it’s funny, it’s in my dishwasher right now. I run my poor dishwasher three times a day with a bunch of kids living here.

Do you ever indulge and just watch a bunch of PBS cooking shows, or is it like work too much?
I love watching Patti Jinich, I think she’s wonderful. I love Jacques Pepin, I’ll destroy some Jacques Pepin shows in one sitting and my kids love him too. My Julia Child is a Jacques Pepin story. Two years ago, I was booked, I was going to Puerto Rico; I had the tickets, the AirBnB, it was all set. I had a contact to show me around for work. We got nominated for an Emmy and I’ve already been to the Emmy’s once and I don’t have a strong desire to go back. Then everybody’s like, “You’ve got to come dude, what if we win?” I was like, “Alright, fine, I’ll go.” At this point I’m such a huge Jacques Pepin fan, that I was like, “Maybe, he’s getting older, maybe it’s one of those things I’m probably never going to meet Jacques Pepin. That’s fine, I still admire him from afar.” So I went to the Emmys and I must’ve been flying by myself without any of the other cast members, and I got to the hotel and I put my stuff down. It’s California, so it’s frickin’ beautiful, “I’m just going to walk around.”

What hotel?
We weren’t in L.A. proper, could’ve been Pasadena. I put my stuff down and I went out to the backdoor because of construction at the front door and I’m just walking and I see this dude kind of hobbling up down the walkway. I’m like, “Holy sh-t, that’s Jacques Pepin.” (laughs) I would never do this with anybody, but I went over to him, “Hey, I’m sorry, I’ve got to stop and say I’m a huge fan, I work at ‘America’s Test Kitchen’ PBS and he couldn’t have been nicer, took a picture with me and I swear I was starting to tear up, I was so excited, “My kids love you.” And then, for the next three days, I proceed to bump into him at every turn. To the point where he probably thought I was stalking him. (laughs) I was two doors down from him on the same floor. I was in the elevator with him numerous times, I was sitting next to him outside. It was crazy after a while. (laughs) Our director for our show I think used to work on Julia and Jacques’ show and I would always say to him, “Why don’t you call him and invite him over here?” But it never happened, so it was great that it happened the way it did.

What keeps it fun for you?
I love cooking, I love food, I can honestly cook all the day at work and come home and cook dinner and just be happy as a clam to do it, because it’s a different style of cooking for me when I go home. I don’t follow recipes, I just feel my way through it. I guess what keeps me happy is the ability to learn to cook new things everyday and to experiment with food. And of course the travel, but it all ties back to the food. I love eating.

When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places to go to or dine at?
I went to Grand Central Market when I was there a few years back. I don’t know if the place is still there or not or if it’s been hipstered out of existence, but it was a taco stand that had pig snout tacos. And it was so frickin’ good. That Langer’s, I love those Langer’s sandwiches. I’m overdue to go back to L.A. I just went back to San Francisco a few weeks ago and I’m overdue to go back to L.A. in the next couple of years. But L.A.’s such a big spot. I like Guisado’s, it’s a taqueria. I went to the one on Cesar Chavez Avenue and I did an interview with those guys. That was when they were opening their fifth location. It was a father and son thing and they do all these stews for the taco fillings.

For those of us who watch the show religiously, is there anything you want to add to tell viewers?
I’m excited for the upcoming season. Toni Tipton Martin has become our new editor-in-chief and she’s just been wonderful and were working on taking the show in new directions. It’ll still be the same cast, same set, but with the upcoming travel segments we’re going to start putting in there, Toni’s doing a library segment in each show now. All the recipes will still come from the magazine, but I feel like we’re starting to branch out a little bit more with the recipes that we’re doing in the magazine that will eventually end up on the TV show. The mix of recipes is going to only be more interesting moving forward, and fun and easy.

You can tune-in to “Cook’s Country” Saturday afternoons on KLCS, visit klcs.org for a complete schedule. Keep up with Bryan on his social media; follow him on Instagram (@bryanroof), Twitter (@bryanroof) or visit the Cook’s Country website: cookscountry.com


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