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Inspiring Stories, Inspiring People

Ian Knauer, food writer

Ian Knauer, food writer

Ian Knauer is a notable food writer whose cookbook, The Farm, has drawn reviews as enticing as his recipes. When Gourmet magazine closed, Knauer, who was a celebrated editor there, spent the better part of a year at his family’s farm in Pennsylvania. There, he cultivated the garden once tended to by his grandfather and developed a year’s worth of recipes using its fresh produce. Here is Ian sharing a quick view of the farm—and a favorite recipe for irresistible “potato nachos.” Follow Ian on Twitter: @iknauer, his blog, or visit

PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?

IK: First I wanted to be an Indian, then a cowboy, then a chef. Everyone laughed at each of those ideas.

PPF: How long did that dream last?

IK: The Indian/cowboy dream lasted a couple years. The chef idea stuck around. I veered from it for a time, in college and just after college, when I became a stockbroker.

PPF: What was your first real job?

IK: I had a paper route in high school that I loved. I did it for almost four years. I really enjoyed getting up early. The day was all mine. I also got a job at Little Caesar’s Pizza after school.

PPF: What is your current occupation?

IK: I’m a writer and author. I specialize in recipe development and stories about food.

PPF: But you haven’t always been a food writer, have you?

IK: I was working as a stockbroker and really hated it. It was during the Internet tech boom so the markets were experiencing unprecedented growth. Making money was easy. In fact, too easy—I felt like a phony, as if I wasn’t actually doing anything worthwhile or making anything. I was just making rich people richer. Every day, I’d drive home past the ocean—I was working on Long Island—and one day I stopped the car at the beach. I took off my shoes and my jacket and just jumped in. People were staring at me. I quit the next day and started thinking about what I really wanted to do: Cook.

PPF: Was there a particular mentor, or a person who altered the course of your career by giving you a chance?

IK: Ruth Reichl. I met her after I had quit the market. She needed someone to pick her son up from school and since I didn’t have a job, it was perfect. We would chat about food when she got home at night, and in a week or two she invited me to tour the test kitchens at Gourmet. That was it. I got it in my head that that was what I really needed to do and bugged her for a month until she hired me to cook there. I would be nowhere without her guidance and her willingness to give me a shot.

PPF: Were you formally trained to do what you do now?

IK: Yes and no. I worked for Gourmet magazine for about nine years. They hired me to test recipes because I had no formal training. I would make the mistakes that home cooks would make, and I did. I was the fine tooth comb, the gateway between professional cooks and readers. The magazine sent me to cooking schools all over the world to learn varied cuisines, so in that sense it was a formal training. I did that for three years, and then they promoted me to food editor.

PPF:What has been the lowest point in your career?

IK: Low points are just opportunities. When Gourmet closed it give me a chance to write my own book.

PPF: What has been the highest point so far?

IK: The release of The Farm, my cookbook, that is some combination of recipes, memoir, family history, and photographs.

PPF: You returned to your family’s farm in Pennsylvania to cultivate the garden of your grandfather, right?

IK: Yes. The land has been in my family so long that the original deed, from the 1700s I believe, says the farm is a two-day ride from Philadelphia. My grandfather always had a garden, and my parents’ generation moved away from that—they all got white collar jobs, because let’s face it, farming is hard, hard work. But it’s been my generation that has come back to that idea of growing your own food. Now, eating locally, cultivating your own garden, is the trend. My hope is that it becomes a way of life for people. If you don’t have the land, or the time and energy to invest in a garden, my advice is to join a CSA. That’s going to give you the most realistic experience next to growing your own garden. Every week or so you get a basket of whatever is ready and then you get to have fun cooking it. It’s not like going to the farmer’s market where you pick and choose. You are second to what nature is offering you.

PPF: Now that the cookbook is done, do you still spend a lot of time at the farm? 

IK: I do. I love it there. My city friends love coming to the farm because it’s so idyllic and feels so far removed from New York. The fresh air is like an invigorating drug to them. I never know how many people are going to show up on any given night. But that’s not really a concern. If 12 people turns into 16, I just walk down into the garden and grab a few more ears of corn. We all pitch in and eat what’s fresh from the garden. And if you come for dinner, you spend the night–whether you get one of the bedrooms or you sleep in a sleeping bag in the grass. People are drawn to the place because it forces them to slow down.

PPF: So you obviously like cooking for crowds. What is your cooking philosophy? Would you say you had a cooking style?

IK:  Some of my earliest memories are of working in the garden and eating at my grandmother’s table. My grandmother was a mom to seven. She cooked simple food just to get everyone fed. The way I cook now is based on that simplicity, but through a modern lens. If I had to describe it, I’d say a modern take on rustic food.

PPF: What are you most excited about growing?

IK: I love hot peppers. I’m a chili head. They grow like weeds at the farm. I put seeds in the soil and they turn into oak trees. I make hot sauce and give it to people for Christmas.

PPF: And what ingredient are you most excited about lately? 

IK: I’m really into cooking with dill. I love it and think it’s super underrated. I put it in just about everything I make, but I also like to combine it with other herbs for an unexpected combination. Like, dill and cilantro work really well together. You get depth from the dill and freshness from the cilantro. Every herb has its own personality, so it’s fun to play around with them.

PPF: What is essential to helping you do your best work?

IK: Fresh ingredients and a sense of whimsy.

PPF: Describe your version of the perfect Saturday.

IK: A walk through a garden to find what is at its peak, cooking whatever I’ve found in a simple way, sharing it with friends and family. There is nothing more important or rewarding.

PPF: Who or what most inspires you and why?

IK: There are a number of chefs who are cooking really well and creating what I call new American cuisine. Their food uses simple flavors and techniques to highlight perfect ingredients. Aside from that, nature.

PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were?

IK: Stockbroker.

PPF: When have you been most brave in your life?

IK: Bravery and stupidity are so close to each other. If the Gourmet gig hadn’t happened, calling the editor in chief and former New York Times food critic would have been a pretty stupid move.

PPF: When have you been most afraid?

IK: Not learning from my mistakes.

PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?

IK: Be yourself and love yourself for the person you are. In other words, self-acceptance and the acceptance of those around you.

PPF: What would you want your last meal on earth to be?

IK: Fish or beef, fish or beef…Both.

PPF: What’s on your bedside table right now?

IK: The New New Thing by Michael Lewis.

PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking “one day?”

IK: I tend to go to the places I want to go to sooner rather than later.

PPF: First concert you ever went to?

IK: I think it was Ronny Milsap in Nashville with my parents and sisters.

PPF: Best concert you ever went to?

IK: Hmmm…either Mozart’s Requiem at Lincoln Center or Phish at PNC Bank Arts Center in New Jersey. Or Dave Brubeck at the Blue Note, or possibly Milton Nascimento in Rio.

PPF: Song that would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?

IK: That changes constantly. I always go back to “The Waters of March” by Tom Jobim and “The Best of All Possible Worlds” by Kris Kristofferson.

PPF: Best meal you have ever had?

IK: Roast chicken and new potatoes from the garden with lots of veggies–on the porch of the family farm, with my family and friends. It happens often.

PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?

IK: Balloon Animals!

PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him/her these questions, who would it be?

IK: Tough one. I am very spiritual, but would be hard pressed to call myself a Christian. Still, Jesus would be a fascinating interview.

*Photo of Ian Knauer by Christopher Hirsheimer

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