Ask Aida

Ask Aida

CHOW’s food editor on her Food Network show

What’s it like to be a Food Network TV personality? CHOW’s food editor, Aida Mollenkamp, is finding out. The former ballerina and Le Cordon Bleu–trained chef just finished taping her own Food Network show, Ask Aida, in New York City a few weeks ago. The program’s hook is interactivity: Aida answers viewers’ questions submitted in video and email form through the show’s website, in between demonstrating recipes. We talked to Aida about hot lights, long days, and how freaky it is to suddenly see yourself on-screen during a JetBlue flight. Lessley Anderson

How long did it take to tape the show?

We shot 13 episodes in eight working days, working 13 hours a day. I’d come in at seven, have breakfast while my hair and makeup were done, go over changes to the general outline of the show we were going to be filming, and by nine we’d start filming. I’d be done by seven or eight.

How did you come up with the theme for each show?

The producers and I would first look at the user-submitted content, then decide on three to four recipes to make per show. Like, there are all these Mexican questions, so let’s do a whole Mexican meal. From there it was a brainstorming session between the producers and myself for things that are doable but still fit with my style, which is California-influenced and using very fresh ingredients. (I try to open a can as infrequently as possible.) Then we’d come up with a general outline, no script.

Was everything planned out?

Before filming, we would run through every single move I’d make in my recipe for the producers, camera, and lighting people. It would be like, “The camera has to be here at this second, and lighting has to be here.” So if I forgot to pick something up with my left hand and used my right by accident, that would be a problem. A lot of precision goes into it.

What were the user questions like?

There was this woman who said she had a really trashed pot, and she wanted to find out how to get the stuff off. I called her, because I wanted to find out what she’d been cooking in it, to find out why it was so caked on with craziness. She’d been using a stainless steel pan under the broiler for years, and she just hadn’t been cleaning it. I said to soak it for a while, simmer over heat, and scrub it. Or use an oven cleaner as a last solution, because it’s not as green.

How did they want you to look on the show?

I was really clear that I have an opinion about my style. I have graphic T’s and wear jeans and Converse. We used a lot of the Brooklyn Industries T-shirts, and Rogan’s organic line, because I try my best to be sustainable when I can. I was really excited about WESC, which is a Swedish brand. As far as makeup went, they didn’t put heavy pancake on me. I could actually go out to dinner with it on.

How did the set look?

I like things that are kind of minimal yet warm, so there was a fair amount of stainless steel, but they had a window put in and a distressed wood table, and though I would never have admitted it before I walked on set, I really like stuff in the purple family. I realized it when I saw the wall they painted sort of mauve. As far as appliances and tools, it was what I was used to and prefer, like a Viking range, Wüsthof knives, and Emile Henry and Le Creuset cookware.

What were the hardest parts about doing the show?

I surprisingly wasn’t nervous. The one big challenge was that when I do videos for CHOW, they’re just a few minutes, and the idea is to disseminate the information as quickly as possible—with online, people find you because they’re already searching for something. But with TV, people are channel surfing, and the burden is on you to catch their attention in a millisecond. You’re really trying to sell what you’re showing the audience. The producers wanted me to delve into personal stories when I was talking about an ingredient so people can get excited about it. My mother was actually on set with me for a few days, and she would remind me of experiences from my life that would make good stories.

What was it like being “on” all the time?

Even though you think you’re being really, really obnoxiously boisterous, it’s as if the camera somehow sucks energy out of you. You have to be even more outgoing with your personality to convey how much energy you do have. You’re standing on your feet for many hours, cooking, being on the whole time, and it’s basically like an all-day party—very taxing. The lights were very hot. The executive producer told me that everybody has a breakdown on day three. It definitely was true. At the end of day three, I hit a wall and just said: “I think I’ve had too much.” But the next morning I was totally refreshed.

Did you get stage fright?

Not at all when I was filming. However, last week I was on a JetBlue flight, and as I flipped through the channels I saw a commercial for [the show], and all of a sudden I realized the whole world was going to see it. It’s really hard to watch or hear yourself.

Where will you be when Ask Aida premieres on August 2 at 12:30 p.m.?

I’m going to be at my friend’s wedding watching her walk down the aisle. Luckily my family will be recording it so I can watch it later.

Lessley Anderson is senior editor at CHOW.

Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe