Amy Vogler of Kenwood didn’t set out to make a career out of recipe testing.
But the usual twists and turns of her life pointed her in that direction, starting with her first job at a bakery on the Jersey Shore when she was 16.
“My main job was making the sticky buns, and my brother-in-law made the goo,” she said. “It teaches you time management, when there’s a line of 20 people waiting for you.”
For the past 10 years, Vogler has used her culinary and time management skills to help write, develop and test recipes for a string of high-profile cookbooks, including nearly all of Thomas Keller’s cookbooks (“Bouchon,” “Ad Hoc,” “Under Pressure” and “The Bouchon Bakery”), “The Essence of Chocolate” by Robert Steinberg and John Scharffenberger, “Mourad: New Moroccan” by Mourad Lahlou, and “Della Fattoria Bread” by Kathleen Weber, among others.
“I grew up in a family where Mom and Grandma still cooked,” Vogler said. “We had dinner together and always sat down to the table.”
Vogler was a communications major at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., then launched her career in New York City at a post-production editing house. She moved to San Francisco in 2000 to work for the same company, but when the office closed in 2001, she left advertising and reinvented herself.
“I took the pastry program at Tante Marie’s (cooking school) and still kept a day job,” she said. “In the back of my head, I’m thinking the food TV world would be great.”
Her breakthrough came when she took a food-writing workshop with Tori Ritchie, a San Francisco writer who teaches cooking and works on TV shows. Ritchie introduced her to two sisters writing a cookbook, and Vogler got her start by shopping, prepping and doing dishes for the project.
She also worked part-time at the Williams-Sonoma store in Corte Madera to get to know the products, and took a job as pastry chef at Larkspur’s Lark Creek Inn for perspective.
“I was still figuring it out,” she said. “Being paid to test cookbooks … what does that mean?”
Her food TV dream came true in 2004 when she got a job with a KQED cooking series, working alongside culinary giants such as French chef Jacques Pepin.
“I thought to myself, ‘I have been standing next to Jacques Pepin. How did I get here?’ ” she said.
She and her husband, Rocky, a civil engineer, moved to Kenwood seven years ago, where they live with their 2-year-old daughter, Aurora. Juggling a baby and a busy career has been a challenge, but Vogler somehow manages, thanks to her well-honed time-management skills.
“The bread baking (for ‘Della Fattoria Bread’) was a great illustration of fitting things in,” she said. “The night before, I weighed everything out and had the starter ready. Then I got the dough going in the morning, had to fold and get it in the oven. Then I would take my daughter for a walk.”
We caught up with Vogler while she was working on her latest tome, “The Bien Cuit Cookbook” (the working title, which means “Well Done”), by Brooklyn baker Zach Golper and Peter Kaminsky.
Q: What was it like working on the Thomas Keller cookbooks?
A: They are perfectionists to a really great fault. When you get an opportunity like that, you put your head down and work really hard.
Q: What is your procedure with recipe testing?
A: It’s ideal to see the person cook. After that, I’m sent recipes via email. I get a decent chunk and read through them, and I always come up with an initial list of questions and thoughts. I try to be efficient, and I go out and buy ingredients and I test a bunch of recipes at a time. I spend a lot of time at the grocery store.
Q: What is your typical work day like?
A: I definitely have days that I am armed with the scale, measuring cups, prep bowls and pencil. But then there are also the more heavy, administrative days where I work on conveying my findings, and equally important, when it comes to a full book, working towards consistency from recipe to recipe. … I make charts of my findings to get a better look at the big picture and isolate spots that might need retesting and where things might need more clarity.
Q: What are some of the common flaws in recipes?
A: There may not be time frames or visual cues. Sometimes, from the restaurant to the home, you’re going from a big batch to a small batch. Sometimes there are glaring errors. A tablespoon becomes a teaspoon, for example. A lot of restaurants may use a convection oven, and I know that 350 degrees is not going to make a browned biscuit.
Q: What are some of your strengths?
A: I think I have a knack for looking at the bigger picture, and I try to convey what the unique things are. In the case of Kathleen (Weber), I was looking at all the recipes and seeing what the common threads were. I helped with the structure and setting up the chronology. We put the recipes in the order that she learned to bake.
With Mourad’s book, we overtested and overwrote and we had to lose recipes. He wanted to take out the chicken skewers. But I said, “No, you have to leave those in.” If you want to try something basic, it’s a very nice springboard recipe. I still make that recipe.
Q: Do you keep the home cook in mind in terms of hard-to-find ingredients?
A: For an ethnic book (such as “Mourad: Modern Moroccan,”) you have to seek out the spices and make preserved lemons. But you also have to think about: What is someone really going to make? Now, with the Internet, you can get things mail-ordered, but I think about: What can my mom buy in South Jersey in winter?
Q: What kinds of chefs do you enjoy working with?
A: Food is very personal. For me, the people that I relate to and want to get into are those people with the uncanny ability to nurture.
Q: What are some of the challenges of working with restaurant chefs?
A: As a chef, you’re managing a staff, you’re popular and in demand, and then someone wants you to do a cookbook. You have to sit down, write the recipes and get them to me. There’s always scheduling problems.
Q: At first glance, what kinds of things can you tell about a recipe?
A: You get the sense if you will like it or not. I think I have a good palate and a pretty good idea of what is appealing to home cooks. I share food a lot. My own cooking for work goes to the neighbors, or I’ll have people over, and then I get other perspectives. … It never hurts to have a sounding board.
Q: How has recipe testing changed your palate and cooking style?
A: I think I have an everyman’s perspective, but a little bit more developed. I really do enjoy baking, and I have a hard time now not making my own bread.
But when I get free time, I don’t want to follow a recipe. I end up with a mishmash of ingredients, and we’ll do a lot of leftovers. I make a lot of soup, and I usually start with chicken broth, carrot, celery and onion. And then it becomes: What’s left? Pasta, a handful of greens, some herbs.
Q: What kind of kitchen equipment do you have?
A: We have gradually updated our appliances, and they are all new and on the nicer end of things. I have a Kenmore Elite gas range, two wall-mounted Viking ovens, a KitchenAid French-door refrigerator and a Samsung dishwasher. In terms of small appliances, I pretty much have everything you would need. Outside, I have a Weber gas grill and a Big Green Egg ceramic cooker. What is in need of upgrade are the counters, cabinets, tiles and lights: “The ’80s called and they want your kitchen back.”
For more information on Vogler, go to woodenspoonkitchen.com.
The following recipe is from “Mourad: New Moroccan” by Mourad Lahlou (Artisan Books, copyright 2011). “This is a really great chicken skewer, marinated, grilled, then tossed in the vinaigrette,” Vogler said. “You can make it ahead.”
3 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon ground cumin
¾ teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped thyme
1½ tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped cilantro
1½ cups extra virgin olive oil
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup finely diced preserved lemon rind
¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2½ tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Marinade: Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. Trim the chicken breasts of excess fat. Remove the tenders and reserve for another use. Cut the meat into 1½-inch pieces. Add the chicken to the marinade and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or as long as overnight.
Vinaigrette: Whisk all the ingredients together. Set aside.
Chicken: Soak six long wooden skewers in cold water for 30 minutes. Lift several pieces of the chicken at a time from the marinade and squeeze them over the bowl or drain the extra marinade.
Skewer the chicken, leaving ¼-inch between the pieces to allow all sides of the chicken to cook evenly. Season the chicken lightly with salt and pepper.
Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Place the skewers on the grill and cook for 2 to 3 minutes without moving them, to mark the chicken. Turn the skewers 90 degrees to mark with a crosshatch pattern and grill for another 1 minute. The marks should be well browned but not burnt.
Turn the skewers over and cook for about 2 minutes to finish cooking the chicken. Carefully remove the chicken from the skewers and place in a bowl. Toss with a light coating of the vinaigrette, and serve the extra vinaigrette on the side.
This recipe is from Robert Steinberg’s and John Scharffenberger’s “The Essence of Chocolate” (Hyperion, 2006) and comes from Joanne Chang, chef and owner of the Flour Cafe in Boston. Instead of two kinds of chocolate, Vogler said she uses larger chips like the Guittard or Ghirardelli semi-sweet and puts in big hunks of walnuts.
Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bread flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (8 ounces), at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
9 ounces Scharffen Berger 70 percent Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate, chopped into chip-size chunks
2½ ounces Scharffen Berger 41 percent Cacao Milk Chocolate, chopped into chip-size chunks
Position the racks in the lower and upper thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with Silpats or parchment paper.
Sift together both flours, the baking soda and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream together the butter and both sugars on medium speed for about 5 minutes, or until pale, light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as necessary. Beat in the eggs and vanilla until thoroughly combined. Scrape down the bowl. Reduce the speed to low, add the dry ingredients, and mix until the flour is completely blended, scraping the bowl as necessary.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the chocolate chunks until evenly distributed. (The dough can be refrigerated, well wrapped, for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 1 month.)
Drop the dough by heaping tablespoons, 2 inches apart, onto the prepared pans. Flatten each cookie slightly.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden, rotating the pans halfway through baking. Transfer the cookies with a spatula to a cooling rack to cool completely.
The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.