Arts & Culture

Lapine ’07: ‘To feed my creativity’

Diverse taste memories inspire balanced, eclectic cuisine for alum’s cookbook and food blog

By
Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Less than 10 years out of Brown, already a published cookbook author and featured on the Food Network, Phoebe Lapine ’07 is the blogger behind “Feed Me Phoebe,” a site that shares recipes, gives cooking advice and catalogues culinary adventures. Her repertoire is inspired by her exposure to many different cuisines, and her love of cooking is supported by the joy she derives from feeding her friends and tasting her unique creations. Lapine spoke with The Herald about the progression of her life in terms of food — from three meals a day at the Sharpe Refectory to the healthful, gluten-free creations of her current kitchen in New York.

 

Herald: How old are you in your earliest fond memory of cooking? When did you begin to appreciate and enjoy the culinary arts?

Lapine: I have a few memories from when I was in the West Village as a child and having birthday parties at the Cowgirl Cafe. And then I was lucky — I lived in Paris when I was really young right after, when I was about three or four. And so I had major taste memories from there, and I think that kind of helped evolve my palate. It became very fancy from a very young age. My poor parents were feeding me sole meuniere with a side of French fries and string beans.

My mom was a great home cook, and so I was really lucky to grow up in a household that valued family dinners and homemade, real food. Everything was really very organic, and I wasn’t allowed to have any prepackaged foods from the grocery store. For a while there I used to rebel against that. I would go over (to) my friends’ houses and literally just inhale every little package of Fruit by the Foot. But I think that she was treating my palate from a young age, and eventually when I was old enough to make decisions on my own and make choices on my own, I totally knew the value of home-cooked food and was very eager to do it for myself.

 

Did you start cooking at a young age as well?

Yeah, my mom would always keep me involved, mainly in baking projects. We’d make bread together, cookies. And then there’s the early days when I learned to feed myself in a real way. My summer going into my junior year of high school my parents were out of town, and I stuck around to do an internship. They didn’t leave me very much more than my normal allowance, so I really had to be thrifty. I literally cooked my way through my mom’s whole pantry and I’d call her, trying to make some of my favorite dishes, saying, “How do you make my favorite salmon, again?”

I also always loved the Food Network, and actually, it gave me a lot more knowledge than I gave it credit for at the time. So I was cooking in high school for sure, and in college once I got my hands on a kitchen off campus, and … studying abroad in Rome, that’s when I did a lot of cooking. I was definitely always the one feeding everyone else.

 

Tell me a little bit about the food on campus when you were an undergraduate — were you satisfied with the options here?

Well, no. But I think the problem is, it’s not that the dining halls at Brown are worse than they are anywhere else. It’s just that there’s a real emotional side of home cooking. Also, just the agency involved and knowing what goes into your food — it’s really hard when you have no control over that. I would go home and literally my mom would make everything, all my favorite dishes, and I would take containers back with me and put them in my mini-fridge.

I mean, I was like any other college kid: I very much enjoyed eating on Thayer Street and very much did not miss home cooking at that stage. But I think I just recognized that when I would have dinner parties, there was something different in my outlook than my friends’.

 

What was your go-to recipe?

I was only on meal plan for the first two years. My go-to was meatloaf and margarita nights at 169 Cushing St.! I would mainly cook real dishes for parties. Cooking has always been a very social thing for me. Once people had cars, I would go to Whole Foods, and buy things to put in the freezer and eggs — I ate a lot of eggs. So the cooking I did for myself was definitely semi-homemade. And I’d host a break-fast for Passover every year with matzo ball soup and brisket and all that.

 

You concentrated in urban studies as an undergrad. Did this concentration at all relate to your interest in the culinary arts?

Well, I went to Brown because of the freedom to take whatever classes I wanted, but then there was a point that I realized that there were requirements for majors. Around sophomore year I think I decided to be an urban studies concentrator because it was the only way that I would be able to get to Rome and I really wanted to do that.

And I loved urban studies — it was a funny little major, but I never thought I would go on to become an architect or go on to work for the mayor’s office. I always knew that I wanted to get a really nice, well-rounded education and thought that I would figure out what to do come junior year, at a later date.

I saw the L’Oreal table (at a career fair) and I thought, “Okay, marketing, I feel like I could apply for this.” And so, of course, because I didn’t want it and was so relaxed in the interview, I got the job. I didn’t expect to stay more than a year, you know, I wanted to learn the whole deal, get the most out of the program. Then a year in, I got hired out of the program, and it was like the slippery slope of corporate culture — I ended up getting sucked in, which (was) fine amidst the recession. So I just stayed on, but on the side I realized that I needed to find something to feed my creativity.

So on a whim, the day after Thanksgiving of 2008, I started my first blog with my best friend from high school. We just did it on the side of our day jobs and then we got really lucky — we got a cookbook deal like nine months in. So we quit our day jobs. I wouldn’t have ever thought while at Brown that I would end up where I am. When I was at Brown I was a woman of many hobbies, and so it’s funny that this one won out.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of being discovered for your cookbook and how your culinary career evolved from there?

The cookbook was incredibly validating. We just got so lucky: We were so young. I think it all felt a little surreal until the physical copies were actually in our laps.

At first our blog traffic wasn’t amazing, but we had a really defined niche, which was “cooking for twenty-somethings,” and that was really smart. You know, people ask me how I got into the food industry and I say, “It was because I was bored at work,” but that’s only true to some extent. I don’t think any of this could have been possible without that first job at L’Oreal, because it did give me a lot of skills that, after four years of a liberal education at Brown, I did not really get. It really helped my marketing mind, and the whole design of the website was feeding a market need that didn’t exist.

 

When you’re coming up with a recipe, what’s the factor that you pay most attention to when creating a dish?

When I left my first website, my friend and I went our separate ways, and I started “Feed Me Phoebe,” I had (had) such a defined brand prior and it was kind of tied to another person’s personality. So when I went out alone, it was kind of like, “What is my philosophy, what is my outlook?” It existed, it just took me a little to articulate it. I didn’t even realize it at the time — maybe because our site was a mixture of two people — but I was totally the healthy chef.

I love vegetables — I try and make these salad meals in this column that “Feed Me Phoebe” has called the “Balanced Diet” and just trying main courses that are chock-full of veggies and maybe a little less meat than usual and definitely with something whole grain.

But it doesn’t feel like it’s health food. It’s total comfort food, except maybe a little bit more balanced. I don’t think if you landed on my site that you would think, “This is a health food site.” I try to avoid making it too crunchy-granola. I think part of that is the experimenting with other cuisines, which are naturally healthier than American food.

 

You mentioned earlier that you liked the social aspect of food. Is entertaining your favorite part about the experience of cooking, or is there something else that keeps you dedicated to a career in the culinary field?

It’s definitely feeding friends and people I love. In terms of the actual professional side, though, I love the creativity of conception. I (couldn’t) care less about spending so many hours coming up (with) the perfect recipe for something. I (couldn’t) care less about making the best French onion soup in the whole world. I like coming up with creative twists on it, and making something that I feel is original and interesting and hits on those notes. It’s a nice challenge.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

  • Grrr

    Dear Phoebe Lapine, I do not think “literally” means what you think it means.