It’s hard to believe that almost two years have passed since we published our first three editions. And while we’ve been busy growing Short Stack, our original authors have been working on all kinds of exciting projects.
We recently caught up with Soa Davies, the author of Volume 2: Tomatoes, who has been very busy lately, with glamorous consulting projects and, most recently, the launch of a new revolutionary food-delivery company called Maple.
SS: Tell us what you’ve been up to since writing Tomatoes.
SD: The last few years I’ve been doing a lot of consulting. I was working with [hotelier] André Balazs when I wrote my Short Stack, overseeing the menu for The Standard in New York. Then I helped Virgin Hotels develop the food and beverage program for their first hotel in Chicago. After that I came back to New York and helped Andre again, with his properties on Shelter Island, Sunset Beach, and in Los Angeles at Chateau Marmont.
SS: Tell us about your current project, Maple.
SD: Last year, I was approached by David Chang about a new delivery food concept that he was involved in. The idea was to deliver restaurant-quality meals to New Yorkers quickly and affordably. Initially, I wasn’t interested at all. The idea of delivery didn’t sound appealing. But then I sat down with the founders of the company: Ashkay Navle, Will Gaybrick and Caleb Merkl. The more we talked about it, the more it made sense. Their goal with Maple is to bring farm-to-table food to an even wider audience, and that’s something that I feel very passionately about. I also got excited about the opportunity to partner with all these sustainable farmers and producers and pursue a low key grassroots movement, by exposing a large population of New York to these great ingredients.
SS: Which cookbooks couldn't you live without?
SD: Every new cookbook I have I can replace. The ones I couldn't live without are the strange old kitschy ones that I'm convinced are now one of a kind. I have an absurd (impressive?) collection, and I gain so much inspiration from just leafing through them. My new favorite addition is one from the 70's that bills itself as a "natural foods cookbook." It's called The Garden of Eternal Swallows, and the recipe titles alone are worth the price of admission. Lots of grains (kamut!) and yogurt before they were cool. I also have a 1902 edition of Boston Cooking-School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer that used to belong to a woman named Blanche C. Buffone. I bought it for $12 from an antique store in New Orleans; it's falling apart and I guard it with my life.
SS: So what’s a day in your life like at Maple?
SD: Since we’ve launched [in late April], it’s been different every day. I start the day at our food hub in Brooklyn, where we receive our ingredients, and make sure they arrived and do any last-minute troubleshooting. Then I head to our commissary kitchen, where we do all the prep and recipe development. Every recipe that we run goes through about 26 steps of development: we have to consider everything from food costs to package and storage and how well it can travel. After a recipe gets approved, it goes to the studio, where our in-house photographer and food stylist set it up to photograph; sometimes I help out with the shoot, it depends how busy things are. I’m generally back and forth between the studio and the development kitchen. We’re putting out 6 new recipes every day, so that’s where most of my attention is.
SS: What have been the challenges of developing recipes for this model? How has it changed the way you think about recipes?
SD: Well, it’s sort of changed my entire outlook. First, when you’re developing a recipe for a cookbook, you’re thinking in yields of 4 to 6 people, and you’re assuming that the only “travel” required of the dish will be from the oven or stove to the table. When I first started developing recipes for Maple, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about scale or how a dish would do on a trip between our distribution center and someone’s door. That had to change pretty quickly.
Now I think about recipes from a reverse engineering perspective, where we start by thinking about how something is going to arrive at your door, first and foremost. The testing process is hugely different: we make a dish, we do a delivery test run, and then we troubleshoot based on how it looks and tastes when it shows up.
Salad greens for instance: we learned pretty quickly that mesclun leaves do not stand up well to the cobblestone streets of NYC. Wet sauces are also really tough. So we had to go back to the drawing board and think up workarounds for these things.
SS: What has been your favorite part of this new role?
SD: Buying ingredients on this scale is really empowering, because you can make a huge difference in the lives and livelihoods of food producers. As an example, we were going through massive amounts of olive oil, but we didn’t love any of the brands we had access to. A friend of mine and had been back and forth from Portugal, and had brought me this olive oil from a friend of his that was hands-down the best olive oil I’ve ever had. Better than anything I had in Italy or France, or even in my years working in restaurants. I was determined to get this olive oil for Maple, which was no small feat. But we ended up importing 350 gallons of it, which made a huge difference to this producer’s bottom line. And we don’t need to use as much of it per dish because the flavor is so rich and intense, so even though it’s more expensive than other stuff out there, the pricing evens out for us and our customers.
That’s my motto for this project: “Use great ingredients simply and well.”