Welcome to On Location, where we talk to the coolest cooks and makers around the country about what's inspiring them right now.
If you’ve been remotely paying attention to the “who’s who” of cooking for the last few years, you’ve surely heard of Andy Baraghani. There’s a good chance you’ve tuned in to his cooking YouTube videos with "Bon Appétit," where until 2021, he served up skills-building tutorials with a side of fan-building snarky charm. You may have also purchased his cookbook, "The Cook You Want to Be: Everyday Recipes to Impress," which debuted at #6 on the "New York Times’" Best Sellers List.
What makes Baraghani stand out from a crowd of Instagram-famous cooks and TikTok chefs? For one, his resumé is impeccable: With a gig at Chez Panisse as a teenager, and time clocked at NYC cult-favorite Estela, he built skills as well as a mastery of ingredients that walks a graceful line between traditional Persian flavors and California sunny-fresh vibes (Baraghani is based in New York).
He also happens to be a delightful human with an infectious laugh. I know this from experience—we used to work together at "Bon Appétit." I was the social media manager and he created recipes as a food editor in the Test Kitchen. Baraghani was always ready with a joke or a conspiratorial wink when I was having a stressy day, and I’ll never forget that he so willingly shared his secret stash of fancy vinegars and salts for my daily lunchtime salad.
Recently, Baraghani taught us here at Spruce Eats how to make kufteh. Like all of Baraghani’s recipes in "The Cook You Want to Be," the kufteh is a little bit traditional and a lot of bit Andy — they’re giant, and stuffed with fresh herbs and turmeric. They’re cooked in a wildly bright tomato sauce. They’re irresistible, and with a little help from Baraghani, you can definitely make them for dinner tonight.
In a recent Instagram post, you described lamb as “America’s least favorite meat.” Why is that? And what can we do to change Americans’ minds?
It’s unfamiliar to most American cooks. In the States, it has not been our dominant meat. Beef, chicken, and pork: Those are the proteins Americans tend to consume the most. There may be a certain smell or flavor that registers as strong to some people. But anything that’s unfamiliar may catch you off guard.
The key with lamb is salting it early, which brings out anything funky, and deeply seasons it. When it comes to shoulder and leg—the parts of the lamb that have a lot of intermuscular fat—you have to be a little more thoughtful with your approach, as compared to something simple like a lamb chop. Because these heartier cuts are already so robust, I try not to bury them with heavy ingredients. For example, I braise lamb in white wine, not red. It’s a little more delicate. I load up on alliums, like onion and garlic, but don’t take them to a very dark place; they’re always very soft and sweet. And although rosemary is traditional, I think bay leaves and thyme are a touch more gentle. I promise lamb will taste so much better with a lighter hand.
So much of writing a cookbook is about defining your “unique point of view.” How do you describe yours?
I was approached about writing a cookbook first right after I wrote a personal essay at Bon Appétit. That got attention because there was the understanding I was not “just” a recipe developer. But with this book—"The Cook You Want to Be"—I wanted to share all of the experience I’ve had. I don’t meet a lot of people in this industry who grew up as first generation Iranian American; then went into the food space at such a young age; worked in editorial test kitchens; traveled on their own… throughout my life, I have learned so many lessons within these four spaces. My goal was to distill those lessons and pass them along to the reader.
The way you title your recipes is so unique—for example, “Fat Pieces of Citrus with Avocado and Caramelized Dates.” What was your creative process like for naming dishes?
Over my time cooking professionally, I’ve developed probably over 450 recipes—for newspapers, magazines, and websites. The recipe name has never been something I had full control over. With this book, I wanted to be able to touch every aspect of the recipe. So when it came to the titles, there were a few things. One, it needed to speak to my personality. Two, it had to catch the reader and make them want to cook the recipe. Finally, it was important I used real, evocative words that immediately resonated with readers.
This book is not about a specific type of cuisine. It’s really my kind of cooking: vegetable-heavy, herby, tangy, acidic—it’s a subtle commentary on how I think we should be eating now. Not a lot of meat; using what’s in our pantries. The recipe titles are meant to relay that. Ultimately, I wanted them to feel appealing, smart, and delicious.
What type of cook do you hope your readers will become throughout their time spent with your recipes?
There are certain themes throughout the book that I was very intentional about. I didn’t want a book that was only full of delicious, highly-cookable recipes. I wanted readers to go the extra step; I wanted them to learn about an ingredient, a technique, or a cultural context that accompanies a dish. A recipe that works and is delicious is great, but it’s a whole other thing when it teaches and empowers you—when it extends beyond the page.
I hope readers are more curious and open, both in and out of the kitchen, when they finish with this book.
What’s one brave thing home cooks can do tonight that will expand their skill set and confidence?
In the introduction of the book, I wrote my 10 rules for cooking. The very first rule is the most important. That’s “Cook the Unfamiliar.” If you’re cooking the same thing over, and over, and over, you become numb to the experience; it narrows your mind and narrows your palate. If it’s within your budget, grab that ingredient you’ve never tasted; try that technique you’ve never used. The worst thing that’s going to happen is that it might turn out wrong, or not be as delicious as you thought. But you’ll have learned something, and that seems like a win.
- Describe your cooking style in four words exactly.
Thoughtful, curious, tangy, and herby.
- Ditto, your eating style.
Vegetable forward, and without borders.
- Your favorite ice cream topping?
Oh, no! I’m an annoying person. I don’t want toppings. If the ice cream’s good enough, I don’t need all the stuff. Generally, I crave plain coffee ice cream; sour cherry with chocolate. Although I have been known to catch people off guard and order a banana split. And in that scenario, I want everything; the banana, the whipped cream, hot fudge, peanuts.
- You have a low-tech kitchen. But what’s the tool or utensil you absolutely freak out about if someone else touches?
There’s one particular knife no one can touch. I hesitate to let some people use my mandoline, just because it’s dangerous unless they’re very familiar with it. I don’t think anybody tries to use a mortar and pestle around me.
- Finish the sentence: The best fast food burger is…
In-N-Out. A #1, with onions—raw. And hot chilies on the side.