Is there any coincidence that one of this season’s “Food Network Star” contestants grew up in a state known as the Nutmeg State? Emma Frisch is a 1st generation American who grew up in Wilton to an Italian mother and a British father. I had the privilege of talking with this bubbly, energetic and talented contestant last week.
Her non-traditional, non-American upbringing would influence Emma both in and out of the kitchen. Her mother cooked everything from scratch and embraced home-grown when few in this country did. There were no processed or ‘kid-friendly’ foods in Emma’s childhood home, instead, esoteric items like tripe and sardine sandwiches were commonplace.
Emma’s love of food and cooking was passed down from her mother who focused on making food the centerpiece of the home. Emma explains “There was once a great farming culture in Wilton as evidenced by all the stone walls. My mom had a way of finding the local gardeners and farm stands, and I was so embarrassed because other people’s parents didn’t do this!”
What at one point caused Emma great embarrassment would eventually influence the way in which she would come to view and prepare her own food, as would her own and very diverse family. “My mother had two brothers. One moved to Kenya and one to Jamaica. The brother who moved to Kenya married a Chinese woman and my other uncle married a Jamaican. My cousins are half Jamaican and half Chinese and when we would get together for holidays or reunions we’d have these very international feasts.” These international flavors would also greatly influence Emma’s cuisine.
When Emma left Wilton to go college she attended the University of Maryland for a year. “I thought I wanted to study green architecture and so after a year I transferred to U Penn. I enrolled in the green architecture program and then realized that that was not what I wanted to do. I had always been cooking and was always really into food, and so in college I started to explore my cooking and food because it was the first time my mom wasn’t in charge of my food.” She continued on to say “I started to eat a lot more boxed and processed food and not feeling so great.”
After deciding that architecture wasn’t for her, she took a class called “The Politics of Food” which really opened up her eyes. “I was learning about what food was in America - how we’ve been farming and what we were eating.” She so enjoyed that class that she up taking all 7 classes that existed around food. From there she started a Farm to Cafeteria program at the university working with Aramark and Bon Appetit, two of the largest food service companies, to help them source more from regional farmers. If they couldn’t obtain locally, she helped them to become more aware of what they were sourcing in terms of nutrition.
This mover and shaker has done quite a bit since her days at UPenn. She has also been farmer, a restaurateur, a Fullbright scholar, a blogger, a chef, a teacher - all of these experiences have greatly influenced her love of cooking and the message she hopes to share.
In talking with me about her experiences thus far on the show, Emma explained that while many of the other contestants are trained, seasoned, and professional chefs, “I’ve spent a lot of time in the food world focusing on the other end, which is unique as a chef. I’ve learned that people who go to the grocery stores are the people who drive the way food is produced. If people aren’t cooking they aren’t going to care where the food is coming from.” She believes that cooking and the relationship we have with our food is what builds the story and our relationships with people. “I’m always hosting parties and entertaining and I love to teach people in ways that are fun and informative. And so when I started my blog I knew it would be the perfect medium for this. I could teach through my writing, my pictures, and videos. I would be able to give people a gateway into a lifestyle that is built around food.”
Food should be happy and healthy and fun. Emma’s goal is to let people know that cooking is available to everyone. “Not everyone has to like it. But I want to make cooking fun - I want to make people feel fearless when they get into the kitchen and I want to help people become friends with their ingredients by learning where their ingredients come from. I want to let the ingredients shine and to let the ingredients tell us all about the land and culture, and what it brings to the table.”
I asked Emma about the term “Farm to Table” a trend that caused her a bit of grief by the judges who deemed it too trendy and overused. She explained to me that while it is indeed a trendy word, she in no way thinks of it as being overused. The Farm to Table philosophy is being embraced on the coasts, but is still not readily accessible to much of the country. It starts with being aware and cooking more but there’s a lot more work that needs to be done before it is a term that becomes mainstream. There are still many barriers including price and access to land.”
I then asked Emma about the term locavore, one that is embraced by many farmers. She was quick to add that she is not a locavore. While she very much favors buying locally, many of the items that make up our food stories simply cannot be purchased locally. Furthermore locavore is another philosophy that is unattainable for much of our country. Buying the freshest ingredients around is very important. She hopes to teach everyone how to do this – whether at a farm stand or the grocery store. Because her own family is so culturally diverse, Emma very much favors using food and spices from other countries. “We have all these wonderful international flavors that are now readily available to us. Using these foods and spices from other parts of the world is such a beautiful thing – It allows us to become more creative in the kitchen.”
Her message is a thoughtful one. “When we buy food it’s more than just about our money, it’s about how we are treating our bodies, other people, and the land – and about the story we are weaving on the plate.”
Emma describes herself as a home cook who is influenced by food that is ingredient driven. She believes in selecting ingredients based on price, freshness and story. “That is how I build a recipe. I love to teach how to make the familiar better – to make comfort food healthier,” says Emma who never had American comfort food growing up. “I am influenced by Italian cooking but not driven by it – I get inspiration from everywhere. I like to serve family style and encourage everyone to dig in together, to eat in a friendly and informal way.” Emma’s specialty, American comfort food with a Frisch Twist!
For more information on Emma Frisch, her cooking style and recipes stop by her website Recipes from Frisch Kitchen. For more on her and the other Food Network Star contestants visit the Food Network Website. The show airs every Sunday night at 9:00 pm.