For Ashley Fahr, choosing a career in cooking meant a lifelong journey of discovery. Starting out as an intern at America’s Test Kitchen as a college senior, Fahr moved to Paris after graduation to earn her master’s degree at La Sorbonne in Food and Food Cultures. She found herself “deeply affected by the appreciation that nearly all French families harbor for lunch and dinnertime meals.” While enjoying some of the most flavorful fruits she had ever eaten, she learned the importance of cooking with fresh and high-quality ingredients.
Since she’s moved back to NYC, Fahr has served in a variety of food roles, including line cook, recipe writer and food blogger, showing her dedication to a continuous exploration of the culinary world. We delivered two of her deliciously gourmet dishes in June 2013 and are excited to be sharing our exclusive interview with her.
Q: What made you want to become a chef?
A: I started becoming interested in cooking during my sophomore year of college, at which point realized that while I loved to eat, I know nothing about making meals and that it was probably time for me to learn. I spent the following summer cooking through every cookbook in my parents’ house and making them my guinea pigs. Distant and not-so-fond memories of serving flavorless salmon and raw meat cheeseburgers come to mind. The following summer, I accepted an internship at America’s Test Kitchen, which was my first exposure to professional cooking and kitchens. After that point I understood how important cooking was to me.
Q: Is there someone in particular behind your culinary inspiration?
A: My dad, whom I often watched cooking traditional Persian dishes throughout my childhood. Seeing my dad so relaxed and happy in the kitchen led me to understand that while working in a kitchen can be hard work, it should always be enjoyable.
Q: What’s the best cooking advice you’ve ever received?
A: While I was working at Haven’s Kitchen, I was lucky enough to work under a supremely talented chef and someone whom I can now call a very good friend. We would sometimes work together to teach group classes, and more than once she told me to ‘not freak out.’ I think this is good advice for amateur cooks as well; whether you’re in a professional kitchen or at home, things will oftentimes go wrong. A major or minor ingredient is missing, the sauce broke, the chicken is overcooked and dry, I just burned my grilled fennel to a crisp, oops the whole tray of slow-roasted salmon is now on the floor. However, as long as you embrace these challenges, figuring out ways to rectify a messy kitchen experience is part of the fun. In fact, it becomes one of the most exciting parts of cooking and a defining quality in many of the best chefs.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to an amateur chef?
A: Don’t be afraid to stray from a recipe. It is certainly helpful to have a well-written, well-researched recipe in front of you as a guideline, but the more you start relying on your instincts, the more easily you can tell without referring to a recipe how much salt to throw in or how much spice will make a dish too spicy.
Q: Is there a chef that you admire?
A: The woman I look up to the most is Elisabeth Scotto, a renowned chef and cookbook author in France. She was the first professional chef whom I developed a close relationship with, and I will always admire her attitude towards cooking: relaxed and friendly, yet utterly devoted to the profession. There are not enough professional female chefs to look up to, and I hope to see that change in the next few decades.
Chef Challenge: Head to the grocery store and pick out one item you have never heard of or never cooked with. Whether it’s a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, cut of meat or a portion of fish, have some fun and experiment with it. You can talk to butchers and fishmongers to get some advice on how to cook different cuts and styles, and there is always Google to help you when in doubt. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, and never stop cooking!
– Pareesha Narang