“ I realized that I couldn't smell ” - Molly Birnbaum
In this episode host Portia Mounts sits down with Molly Birnbaum, editor in chief of America's Test Kitchen Kids. They explore Molly’s passion for food and cooking and the major life change that altered her goal of becoming a chef but ultimately opened her up to a whole new way of looking at food. They talk about bouncing back from failure and what she is learning building a new business centered around kids. Molly's story is a story of resilience, hope, tenacity and flexibility. One that will resonate with listeners given the time we are living in.
Have a question or comment? Email us at [email protected].
Season to Taste, a book by Molly Birnbaum
The Science of Good Cooking
America’s Test Kitchen Kids
Test Kitchen Kids on Instagram
The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs
A Visit From the Goon Squad, a book by Jennifer Egan
The Great Alone, a book by Kristin Hannah
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Transcript - Molly Birnbaum
Portia Mount 0:52
Molly Birnbaum so wonderful to have you here on the pod today. And like most people during the pandemic, I have been cooking up a storm. So I have to ask you, what have you been cooking? What have you been making during this pandemic?
Molly Birnbaum 1:17
Oh, wow, what have I been making during this pandemic? A lot. I mean, like, a lot of people have been cooking three meals a day for my family for the last year. We actually started eating more vegetarian during the pandemic, which was a new thing. Mainly brought on by my husband, but I am supportive. So I've really experimented more with vegetarian meals in the last year or using a lot more tofu and noodles and being more creative with what we can do without meat. I just actually started cooking from this new cookbook called To Asia With Love, which is a vegetarian quick cookbook. It is so good. So I'm particularly enamored with that. Like last night, I made a potato and chive omelet from this book, which was super, super simple. You just cut potatoes into small pieces, and then there's a ton of chives and eggs and you serve it over rice. It was amazing.
Portia Mount 2:31
That sounds amazing. And so I have to ask you, because you've got small children, and whenever you try to switch things up on kids, it can sometimes go quite badly. How have your children adjusted to this newfound vegetarianism?
Molly Birnbaum 2:51
Well, you are totally right.
Portia Mount 2:54
Listeners want to know and I want to know too, I have a five year old so I am leaning in for your answer.
Molly Birnbaum 3:01
Well, let me preface it with the fact that I definitely do not have any answers because we've had to be very flexible with the kids. My oldest Olive is four and she is very picky. So she's definitely not fully vegetarian. And you know, I wouldn't make her be a vegetarian either way. But she has a small number of foods that she really likes. And despite my job as editor in chief of America's Test Kitchen Kids, I admit that her favorite food is chicken nuggets.
Portia Mount 3:40
Oh, I feel vindicated.
Molly Birnbaum 3:42
So much so that I was talking to her the other day, and I asked her what we should plant in our garden this summer for vegetables so that we can, you know, have vegetables in our garden. What should we plant and she said, a chicken nugget plant.
Portia Mount 3:59
So I think that we'll have to invite you back to see how the chicken nugget plant is doing.
Molly Birnbaum 4:05
Yeah, we'll see. I've been looking for seeds. I can't really find any yet but my son Toby will eat anything. So he's down to eat whatever we make. But Olive is a slightly different story.
Portia Mount 4:18
That's awesome. Well, I think it's really nice to know that even the editor of America's Test Kitchen Kids has a child who is devoted to chicken to chicken nuggets,
Portia Mount 4:35
Molly, you didn't start out wanting to be a journalist. In fact, you were on your way to becoming a chef. And in your book A Season to Taste, which is really just a phenomenal memoir. And we will link to it. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about what led to your interest in food and starting on the path to becoming a chef?
Molly Birnbaum 5:20
Yeah, sure. So, I grew up in a family that liked food, and we did cook together. But it wasn't the biggest part of our lives. I grew up outside of Boston. It really wasn't until I was in college, that I got really interested in food. And that was in part, because I was studying art history when I was in school. So I spent a semester in Italy, which was amazing for the art, but mainly for the food. And now I can and I really, you know, the food bear is amazing. I was in Florence. And just every single meal was phenomenal and simple. And you could really taste individual ingredients and see the culture that came behind them. And that's, I got really interested in food there. And I also around that same time period had spent a summer volunteering teaching in Namibia in Africa, and which was a I was I had no idea what I was getting into I had never taught before I was suddenly just thrown into a school teaching so many amazing kids. I was originally going to go teach in China, I was really interested in learning Mandarin, and I was going to go live in China. But this was right around when SARS was going around. So I ended up not going there. And anyway, I ended up in Namibia. And it was a wonderful experience. And also, I was living in a village with not a lot of people, not a lot of money, not a lot of food. And for me coming from a very privileged background to suddenly seeing a totally different way of life really opened my eyes about how people live differently and the culture that comes into different foods. And so suddenly, I was seeing the types of foods that they were cooking in Namibia and this tiny village and was fascinated with where it came from. And then immediately went to Italy and saw this completely different type of food culture. And when I got home, I was just obsessed with cooking, and understanding where food came from.
Portia Mount 8:12
So you come back, you're preparing to go to the culinary arts institution or art school I think if I, if I get that right. And you are and you detail this in your memoir, you're hit by a car and you lose your sense of smell through a head injury. Can you talk a little bit about the process of healing after that life altering setback, and you write about it in great detail. And the reason I'm interested, Molly is, we're talking a lot about resiliency right now as a result of the pandemic and how people deal with loss, major changes in their lives that alter the course of what they expected to happen, right. And so we know what that context is. I wonder if you can talk about what that was like for you. Because then it sets you on this completely different career trajectory. Right?
Molly Birnbaum 9:14
Right. Yeah. So after I graduated from college, I wanted to be a chef. That's kind of where my food obsession brought me. I wanted to know everything about where food came from, how it worked, the science behind it, and how I could harness all of that and, and cook. So before I was in this accident, I had waltzed into the kitchen of a very well lotted restaurant near Boston where I was living and basically begged for a job. And so we're starting at the bottom rung of that restaurant as a dishwasher but learning along the way and so I was really on a path but I thought was a long and winding one but to understand to learn how to cook and I had a starting date at the Culinary Institute of America, and I could see this pathway in front of me of becoming a chef. But as you said, I was, it was, it was the same day that Hurricane Katrina hit land. That's kind of the mile marker for when this happened. So it was 2005. It was in August, I went for a jog one morning, and was hit by a car when I was crossing a four lane road. And in that accident, I fractured my skull on the back of my skull on the windshield of the car, and I broke my pelvis and a number of places and I severed all of the tendons in my left knee. It was a mess. I don't really remember any of that.
Portia Mount 10:57
I can't. That's unbelievable.
Molly Birnbaum 11:01
Yeah, I have hazy memories of that time. And I feel worse for my parents than I do for myself at that time, because I don't remember it. And they were there. And I had a head injury and they weren't sure if I was going to be myself again afterwards. It was a really scary time. But I was incredibly lucky. In that I recovered, physically, I recovered, I had knee surgery and my knee healed, my pelvis eventually healed, my head, I could eventually, you know, focus my eyes. And I was apparently very out of it for a while. But I came back to myself within a couple of weeks after the accident. And the only lasting injury was that I realized I couldn't smell. My stepmother had baked an apple crisp one day when I was recovering. And it was one of my favorite desserts. Like I'm from New England, it's fall, it's apples. It's butter. It's cinnamon, it's, you know, it's delicious. And she baked it and everyone that was in the room with me was ooing and aaing over the scent. And I couldn't smell anything. And I was really confused. I thought maybe something was blocking the odor from reaching my nose, or I don't know, it was confusing, but she held it under my nose. And so I could inhale and I could feel the steam. In my nose. It was thick, it was hot. I could feel it, it was there. But there was absolutely no smell.
Portia Mount 12:42
Molly Birnbaum 12:43
And I realized that I couldn't smell and smell is incredibly important when it comes to flavor. This was something that even as obsessed with food as I was I hadn't fully realized how important smell is for flavor. Without smell, you can still taste so there's the salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami that your taste buds can detect on your tongue. But that's it. So all of the nuance, all of the detail, all of everything else comes from smell. So suddenly, I went from being washed with flavors and scents in a restaurant every night to not being able to detect a thing. Like if I had, if I tasted a bowl of vanilla ice cream and chocolate ice cream, they would taste exactly the same except in less. I could look at them and guess but there was no difference.
Portia Mount 13:43
So you could taste the sweet but you couldn't taste that Oh, this is vanilla, this is chocolate?
Molly Birnbaum 13:49
Yeah, I could taste sweet. I could taste cold and I could feel creamy but there's no additional flavor to it. So I knew that I couldn't cook professionally if I couldn't taste food. And it was, you know, disorienting in a number of different ways. Because smell is not only important for eating and food, it also is integral to so many other parts of our lives. Every place has a smell. Every person has a smell. Our memories are attached to scent. You smell warning signs of danger, like smoke for fire or gas. Smelling if your food goes bad like there are so many elements of your life that are clued in by smell that you don't really think about because it's such an invisible sense. But all of a sudden all of that was gone. And I knew I couldn't cook. And so I had to figure out what to do. And eventually it took a while, obviously to recover from the accident and I was 22, I was living with my mom, I, you know, I had a bunch to figure out but I eventually decided to move to New York City and try to get a job in writing. And my plans were just as vacuous as that sounds, I really had no idea what to do.
Portia Mount 15:20
It's the next best alternative.
Molly Birnbaum 15:22
Yeah, I mean, but this was, this was like 2005/2006. And I had, so this was like, the beginning of blogs. Right? So this was the very beginning of when people were really starting to write on blogspot.
Portia Mount 15:42
Yeah, that seems like so long ago. But yeah, it looks like when you just didn't blogs were really new and fresh and kind of groundbreaking, right?
Molly Birnbaum 15:50
Yeah. I mean, I say that I had, like, started a food blog, during this time when I was working in the restaurant, because, for me, there was just so much to process. And I loved writing about it. And if I was writing about it, then I wasn't just washing dishes, I was also doing something else. And so I had started a food blog. And at the time, that was actually kind of a new thing. It's not now obviously, but at the time it was. I got some readership from that. And I loved doing it. And so that was basically what I based my next steps on, I loved the writing that I had done for this blogspot blog. So I moved to New York and tried to find a job in publishing.
Portia Mount 16:37
So it sounds like you are, you know, more or less, maybe healed isn't the right word, but you are able to move forward. And you go to New York, and you're, you know, getting into journalism, and I'm wondering like, were you still processing, like trying to heal it like so you're not smelling at this point, either still right, when you're when you're pursuing this new career around writing and journalism, do you have your sense of smell back? So where does the book come in with that part of it, then?
Molly Birnbaum 17:16
Totally. So right before I moved back more, right before I moved to New York, one or two smells had returned, my sense of smell returned very slowly, over the course of what would be eight years. And...
Portia Mount 17:32
A long time.
Molly Birnbaum 17:33
A long time, and one scent returned before I moved back to New York. And it was the fresh herb, rosemary. And it came just suddenly, I was cooking with it. And all of a sudden, I had this scent in my nose, and it brought me straight back to my childhood and riding a horse for the first time where there must have been Rosemary out west. And...
Portia Mount 17:57
Molly Birnbaum 17:58
It was wild, it was just this one singular smell that came back first. And then when I was living in New York, it was really interesting, because when I moved there, the city was almost as if it was in black and white, because I couldn't smell anything. And as I would later learn as New York kind of came to color, as I regained my sense of smell, it is a smelly city, like there are so many...
Portia Mount 18:29
New York is very smelly, New York is very smelly.
Molly Birnbaum 18:33
In good ways and in bad ways. But it is, it's a city that is in many ways defined by scent. And everything from like, the subway in summer to Central Park, to the hotdog stands to the bagels to the restaurants to that, you know, like every block has a different scent. And so, New York really came alive for me, as my sense of smell returned slowly, really like one scent at a time over the course of a few years when I was living there. And it was during this time that I really started to wonder what was happening to me and what was happening to my sense of smell, because the doctors I had seen hadn't really been able to tell me if my sense of smell would return and if it did, how and what it meant, and why smell was so attached to so many other aspects of my life beyond food. And so I started trying to find some answers for myself. I was working as an editorial assistant at an art magazine. But I started reaching out to scientists and doctors and asking questions about smell. And I eventually decided to go to journalism school because I had an editor at this art magazine that was so inspiring to me in terms of how she reported, how she gathered facts, how she put them together with words. It really took my love of words and writing, and turned it into a love of finding answers to questions that you would not normally know. But if you ask the right people, you can understand so much more and create a story that other people can relate to as well. So I decided to go to journalism school in New York, to kind of kickstart my journalism career. And it was when I was there, that I really started reporting on the sense of smell.
Portia Mount 20:33
That's, I think, what's so interesting and maybe timely about this, of course, now, we're, I hope, at the end of the coronavirus pandemic, with all the vaccines rolling out and one of the key features of that disease was people losing their sense of smell. So for people beating down your door, trying to understand like, you know, because I, what I'm hearing is that there are even some long haulers, or people who had, you know, maybe even mild cases, but like, they found that their sense of smell either is coming back really slowly, or they haven't gotten it back at all. And probably, you know, and I think that's got to be I saw, I can only imagine that people are unlike googling, I lost my sense of smell and your name pops up and, and your book pops up, are you, are people, are people beating down your door?
Molly Birnbaum 21:26
I wouldn't say beating down my door. But I've definitely heard from more people. And I'm actually working on a piece right now about smell loss and my experience and people who have COVID, their experience for the America's Test Kitchen podcast called Proof. So I've been talking to a lot of people who have lost their sense of smell due to COVID. And it's, it's interesting, because I hadn't really thought about it in a while. I mean, it's been 16 years since I lost my sense of smell. And so it, it just hasn't felt wildly present for me, in the last few years, especially since I've had kids and it's just there's been a lot, a lot of things going on.
Portia Mount 22:13
You've had a whole life.
Molly Birnbaum 22:14
A whole life since then. But talking to people who have lost their sense of smell has really brought it back for me and reminded me of the potency of that loss. And it's also, it's also a really interesting time and in smell science. Because normally, I mean, you can lose your sense of smell from a head injury, you can lose it from a common cold, you can lose it from Nasal Polyps, like there are all sorts of reasons that you can lose your sense of smell. Normally, everyone loses it a little bit as they get older. It's the first sign of some neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, like there's a lot going on with smell as a symptom or a precursor of other things. But normally smell researchers aren't seeing a ton of people that have recently lost their sense of smell, because there just aren't that many people normally going through it at any given time. But suddenly, there are millions. All of a sudden, researchers went from having a pool of dozens to hundreds of 1000s. And I think that that's really going to open up the possibilities of understanding this still relatively mysterious scent, sense. Sense of scent.
Portia Mount 23:13
That's super interesting, you’re right. It'll be interesting to see how science advances much in the way that MRNA has advanced vaccines in a way that vaccine development in ways that we can't imagine. There is something interesting about this time around all the scientific advancements that are happening.
So I want to maybe sort of shift into how America's Test Kitchen Kids came about. So you are your, you know, journalists, you're an editor and now you're leading the startup business. So talk a little bit about America's Test Kitchen Kids. What is it about? I knew about America's Test Kitchen, didn't know about the kids' part. And I'm really kicking myself because at the top of the pandemic, when I was desperate for my kids to do and this site, we're gonna link to it, is so cool. There's so many cool products. So I would just talk a little bit about that, Molly.
Molly Birnbaum 24:46
Thank you. Yeah, so sorry. I can go down a smell rabbit hole when I get in that mindset.
Portia Mount 24:54
Yeah, so no, I think it's all it's all kind of interconnected, isn't it? Because for me what's powerful about what you're sharing as you started your career. And this is something that I think our listeners grab the way, the reason they gravitate to these conversations is, one is really good to hear, you know, this, you are a successful person, smart woman, you start out on one path, and then you know, as is what happens, life throws you these curveballs. And you have to figure out how to navigate it. And I think the story of, you know, how you pivoted to become a journalist, and then you're still dealing with this. I don't know if you call it a disability, or just sort of inability, maybe inability to smell and, but then that opens up a whole line of scientific inquiry for you. And so I find it really pretty inspiring, actually, because I think there are people listening who will, who will probably be able to relate, maybe not around smell, but around something around something else. So you know, appreciate your sharing that.
Molly Birnbaum 26:01
Well, thank you. Yeah, I think, I think for me, it's important to acknowledge, in my story, that, you know, I was able to pivot from a career that I thought I was going to have into a new one. But I was really only able to do that in part because of the privilege that I come from too. I just want to like, acknowledge and recognize that. Like, I had a family to take care of me when I was recovering and to prop me up when I moved to New York City without any plan, like. So I think that one of the reasons why I really care as someone with a successful career now about helping people who are up and coming and are in the process of pivoting that maybe don't have the resources that I did when I was 22, in order to do that. So I just wanted to acknowledge that. But yes, I eventually wrote a book about smell, which you've mentioned. And right before that was published, I had moved to Boston with a boyfriend, my boyfriend at the time, and again didn't really know what to do. I had finished this book, it was going to come out and I didn't have a job lined up. So I started looking around and I eventually...
Portia Mount 27:33
So this is the second move. By the way, I listen, I hope listeners get this like because so often, you know, we see Insta fame, we see everyone's perfect life on Instagram. And the reason why I love these conversations you find out like it's like people are like, No, I didn't. I didn't know what I was doing next, there's just gonna move to the next thing. And it's awesome to hear it because it's like most of us don't have it all figured out. Right? We're just going with the vibe, we're going with a feeling or we're going with, we're going with a boyfriend.
Molly Birnbaum 28:05
Yeah, totally. Oh, the story really crystallizes in retrospect, right. When you're in the moment, you're like, what am I going to do next? I have no idea.
Portia Mount 28:15
I have no idea. Then you look back. And then you're like, how did I ever survive that? Like, what was, what group of angels was looking over me as I went from one wild idea to the next. Right?
Molly Birnbaum 28:28
I think about that a lot. But yeah, I was at the end of this one wild idea, which is a memoir about smell. And then I was just applying to jobs like willy nilly. I had no idea what I wanted to do. There wasn't really a career in smell writing. Still isn't but there definitely wasn't then.
Portia Mount 28:53
You could have been a science writer, right?
I could have been yeah 100%.
But if you were interested if that's, if that was...
Molly Birnbaum 28:59
I wasn't sure, but I was broke, and I needed a job. I just needed money. I blinded us and I ended up getting a call from Jack Bishop who is now the chief creative officer at America's Test Kitchen. And he is amazing. I love him. He's now been my boss for almost 10 years. But he was like, about to travel somewhere. So I ended up meeting to come in for an interview at like 6:30 in the morning to this empty office in Brookline to talk about a mysterious job.
Portia Mount 29:37
It sounds super sketchy.
Molly Birnbaum 29:40
And, like, really glad it worked out.
Portia Mount 29:42
I'm sure if your mom knew all this, you would have been like, Oh my god, like that just sounds totally sketchy. And also completely like something I would have done back then too.
Molly Birnbaum 29:53
Like, yes, I want to talk about a job and it turned out he had the opportunity. He was looking for someone to come in and edit/write America's Test Kitchen's first science focused cookbook, which ended up being called The Science of Good Cooking. And because I came in with this food, science senses history with my writing my book, it turns out to be a great fit. So I started an America's Test Kitchen, right before my book came out in 2010. I think 2011 to write The Science of Good Cooking, which was so much fun. I mean, America's Test Kitchen is half of it as a professional kitchen and there are professional chefs developing recipes for Cook’s Illustrated and Cook's Country and a television show every day. And so being able to be in that environment and work with all these incredibly smart cooks was so much fun. And I reported on the science and we created this amazing book. And then I stayed at America's Test Kitchen after that, because I loved working there so much. I worked on Cook's Illustrated for a little while. But eventually...
Portia Mount 31:01
By the way, Cook's Illustrated is the most like sort of a geeky cooking magazine, because it's like, hey, here, you know, we tried 700 ways to make hot chocolate. And we figured out the best way, and I just geek out over that magazine. It's so good. And I actually there are, by the way, the hot chocolate recipe that comes out of that is literally the best hot chocolate ever.
Molly Birnbaum 31:31
I fully agree. I mean, I get excited to read Cook’s Illustrated every time it comes out. But I work there. And I know what it's like, it's such a great magazine, and it is geeky and sciency and filled with delicious recipes, which is exactly the type of environment I wanted to be in. So I worked there on the magazine for a little while, before I started to get a little bit itchy to try something new. So I ended up actually leaving America's Test Kitchen to work at a startup in upstate New York, a magazine called Modern Farmer. And this was a really fascinating experience. I was there for a year and a half, maybe even two years. And it was a print quarterly magazine with dynamic narrative journalism all around agriculture and food with gorgeous photography, there was a whole shop component to it, there was a fashion angle to it. And there was a really small staff, all in this tiny town in upstate New York. And we all live together for a little while. I mean, it was like something out of a movie. It was a lot of drama. It was so fun. We want a bunch of awards the first year. And then we add startups and things kind of fell apart. So it was about, I think, a year and a half that I was there. And then suddenly I was looking for another job. Again, really not sure what I wanted to do again, needed money again.
Portia Mount 33:03
But this is the book out, is the book out at this point?
Molly Birnbaum 33:07
Oh yeah, at this point, my memoir had been out, The Science of Good Cooking had been out for a while.
Portia Mount 33:14
You got track record. You're not like a total just like a newbie on the block at this point?
Molly Birnbaum 33:21
No, but that doesn't produce the feeling of not knowing what you want to do, let's say. And at this point, I had also tasted the amazingness of startup land or like the amazingness and the pain of startup land, where you can really see the possibilities of what you can do when you're starting something from scratch, and also the major risks that go into that. But as I went, I ended up going back to America's Test Kitchen, because there was another science book to edit and write, and the possibility of starting something new in the company itself. So a startup within the company. And this is not actually the kids startup, which you alluded to a while ago now. I keep on talking but a different one. So I first started a narrative journalistic science magazine called Cook Science for America's Test Kitchen that was all online. Totally free. We had a small team, we created articles about food science, and the people surrounding it, and then created recipes. And it totally bombed. It just failed so hard.
Portia Mount 34:39
Do you know why, do you know why it failed?
Molly Birnbaum 34:42
It failed. It failed because we didn't have a business plan in place. It failed because we didn't really know what we were doing. We were so passionate about the content and we felt so sure about the content and we felt so sure that we would figure out how to make money. I mean, it was a very bad idea.
Portia Mount 35:10
Molly Birnbaum 35:12
Yeah, I mean, it was, the passion was there and the content was so good. And it was like, I hold Cook Science so deep in my heart, I loved what we created. But it was a massive lesson in what can work in a business world and what cannot. And you need a business plan is step number one.
Portia Mount 35:37
So I love that you are sharing this story, because how many, how many people have had ideas that they just think this idea is amazing. And you're so passionate about the content. And then you put it out there. And it's like crickets. We're kind of laughing like, Oh, it's a really bad idea. But I'm wondering, in retrospect, beyond maybe, maybe that's the answer. There was no business plan. And so therefore, it didn't succeed. But I'm wondering if you know, if you have distilled any other lesson, Jennifer Martino, my co-author and I of Kick Some Glass, we talked about glorious failure, and how, and we talked to so many women who have had these glory, like these aren't just like small, little failures. They're epic. But the great thing about the epic failure, or the glorious failure, is it sort of, it reveals something quite extraordinary, that then sort of can catapult you to the next level. So I'm wondering if you had any of those kinds of like, Oh, my God, like, yeah, that kind of sucked. But like, Wow, now I totally get, no, this is what I've learned. And this is what I'll do next?
Molly Birnbaum 36:52
Oh, yeah, this was, this was a glorious failure, for sure. And I wouldn't be where I am. Now, if we hadn't done that, if I hadn't done that, if I hadn't failed so gloriously in that, because I learned so much. I learned so much about myself as a leader, I learned so much about the people that I work with, and, and America's Test Kitchen too. I mean, America's Test Kitchen is filled with amazing, smart people. And I learned how to work with all of them in all of their different roles in really different ways. And it really, I think it gave me the confidence to know that I could, I can do this, I can run a business. Just not that one. I can, like I understand, it helps me to really understand how to marry amazing content with a really solid business plan, and how to be thinking about media today. And what you need in order to succeed from the, you know, business side as well as the content side.
Portia Mount 38:14
So, if that being the case, now with ATK Kids, America's Test Kitchen Kids, did you write the business plan yourself? Did you put a bunch of people together and say, let's create this business plan and make sure you know, make sure that we got the right, you know, customer targets? Right value proposition, right funding, you know, right, financial models, etc? How so? How did you take Cook Science, that failure, knowing you needed the business plan to now thinking about, okay, what's the business plan for ATK Kids?
Molly Birnbaum 39:05
It was a slightly circuitous route to launch a brand America's Test Kitchen Kids. We started by deciding to publish a book, The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs. And this was the first time we had really decided to talk to kids. I mean, America's Test Kitchen has been around for 25 years and we are an education company, like we teach people how to cook. But we had never, we had never talked to kids before. And so a number of us felt like this was such an amazing opportunity, and we would give it a try. But a lot of people in publishing that we talked to were concerned that we wouldn't be able to sell this book. That kids didn't want cookbooks, that kids didn't need cookbooks, that this wasn't a time for kids to be cooking. They just wanted to be on screens, etc. But as we went through the process of creating our program, and recruiting kid recipe testers so that this book could be kid tested and kid approved, rather than just being created by adults, and then given to kids, we really wanted to meet kids where they are, and make sure we're creating recipes that they liked that were at their level, we really started to see this incredible enthusiasm, and how cooking could really empower kids to be confident not only in the kitchen, but elsewhere to you. So just in the act of doing this first book, we really started to see this amazing potential. And it was, during that time, that I started working with a few other people in the company to create a larger business plan to not just do a book but to create a brand. And it was really that initial work, looking to the future, what more could we do for kids? So we started plans for adding a website with these kid tested, kid approved recipes, experiments, activities, how to create a community around that, how to reach kids, where they are thinking about videos that we would create, we decided to launch a subscription box business for kids. Thinking about all of the different ways that kids interact with food in the kitchen, and what makes kids excited, like kids are excited to get things in the mail. So we wanted to create something that would give them mail once a month filled with recipes and experiments, teaching them not only about food, but about science and art. So we just started to create this larger plan for a brand. And that's what we really never did in my Cook Science days. It was about like, here's what we're doing now, here's the amazing content we're going to create this week, this month, you know, in the next quarter, but it was never like, where's the brand going? How can we create something larger than the present? And I think that's what we've been doing with America's Test Kitchen Kids. And that's what has been really exciting and successful both. Also gives room for taking risks. Because if the one thing you're working on isn't working out, there are lots of other things that we're doing too, because now we do cookbooks, we do board books, we do picture books, we have a subscription box, we have a website, we have a podcast. And there's more things we're adding on. There's just so many things to reach all sorts of different kids in so many different places.
Portia Mount 42:49
It sounds like also with this, you really zeroed in like it's clear you have a passion for the topic, but it also sounds like you really zeroed in on your audience, right? Your audiences, kids and kid testers and really, really thinking about what it was that they needed and then kind of have laid out a kind of a classic business problem like where's the unmet need? Right? Where's the unmet need? And can we fill it in? Is there an audience for it? And what is that audience? And what's going to resonate with that audience? Picky little kid, in this case, picky kids.
Molly Birnbaum 43:33
Still working on solving that problem. But yeah. What's kind of interesting about, I think, my experience, or at least it is interesting to me, as you know, I came up as a journalist. I came up as a content creator. I have worked on how to craft stories, and I didn't know anything about business when I was working in restaurants, when I was in journalism school etc. And the most fun thing for me in my time at America's Test Kitchen is learning all of the roles of all of these different critical people that make a business work. The marketing side in particular, has been fascinating, and the ability to marry my content brain with this marketing business side has been, you know, hard but the most rewarding part of this and the most interesting part of it for me.
Portia Mount 44:40
And I'm assuming Molly, you have, like a team that you've built too, you know, like, whether it's marketing or digital, you know, digital. Do you, have you built a team around you to kind of help you build out the business. I know it's not just you.
Molly Birnbaum 45:01
I would not be able to do that by myself whatsoever. Yeah, we've gone from a team of five to a team of 18, just in the last year and a half. So we...
Portia Mount 45:12
You scaled up pretty big.
Molly Birnbaum 45:13
We've scaled up pretty big. And it's such an amazing team. It's a delight.
Portia Mount 45:18
I'm curious, what's been the biggest, like most surprising, delight about ATK Kids and building this business?
Molly Birnbaum 45:29
Um, besides just not having a failing business? The kids. It’s being able to run something that so directly impacts kids who are growing up and learning about food and cooking. And I can see every day we get emails, we get videos, we get voice memos, even for our podcasts with kids talking about things that they've made in the kitchen, with the help of our recipes, and how proud they feel as a result. So I think getting that direct feedback makes it all the better.
Portia Mount 46:16
What's been frustrating?
Molly Birnbaum 46:20
I think the frustrating parts have been muddling through new, unknown situations where we're not totally sure how something's gonna go, we're not totally sure how someone is going to react. And so we have to be ready to pivot. I mean, it all comes down to pivoting and we try something, and it's not going to work. So we have to take a step back and try again, and a lot of work goes into every plan, every attempt, whether it's, you know, a new book topic, or you know, a new paid media strategy or what have you, and we think it's going to work, but then for whatever reason, it's not. And you have to backtrack and start, again, with a new path. And that can be frustrating. But I also obviously think it's super important to be able to do.
Portia Mount 47:22
You know, it actually brings to mind for me, Molly, being able to let go of things is as important as being able to take the risk to start something new. And so you talk about, you know, look, we don't know how a certain product is going to perform, or, and I'm wondering if you have any tricks, or sort of mental hacks for letting go when you've been really invested. Right. And this is, like, I suspect is something for a lot of entrepreneurs are just really smart people, right? Smart, idea driven people, you get this great idea, you put a lot into thinking it through building it out, maybe even launching it and then for whatever reason, it just is like a dud. And, you know, there's maybe some inclination of like, Well, let me just keep iterating it and trying it, you know, and seeing, seeing if it works, versus maybe just cutting the rope and saying, you know what, this is dead. Let me move on. So any hacks for letting go?
Molly Birnbaum 48:31
That is such a good question. Because it really makes me think I think the biggest lesson that I learned from the failure that was Cook Science was the need to be able to let go. And I was just so invested in that idea, and that brand. It was so hard. It was heartbreaking to let go of it. And so I think that a big part of what I've brought with me to America’s Test Kitchen Kids is the ability to let go of individual ideas. And I've thought about that a lot because I love America's Test Kitchen Kids and I am incredibly passionate and invested in what we're doing. But I have developed the ability to let go of ideas, products, books, whatever that we're doing. without pain without too much pain, maybe a tiny bit of pain, but not a ton. And I think that the mental hack that I've used for that is my passion is more invested in the big picture, rather than the day to day, pieces of content or products or strategies. And so when I think about what we're doing with America's Test Kitchen, I'm thinking about the five year plan and where I generally want to be and not the three month plan and what we said we were going to get done and what it is and how it's performing, etc. And I think that's what's allowed me to function more easily in a world where you need to let things go pretty frequently.
Portia Mount 50:32
I think that is so profound, Molly, it's I think what I hear you saying is like, you have a big why, right? Like your big what, like, the five year plan, right? And I love that framing because it sort of gives you a break, right? You have more freedom and flexibility than being locked into this one way of doing something. And I think a lot of our listeners are uber high achievers, like, they just like grab after that goal, like a dog with a bone and they don't want to let it go. And so I suspect a lot of people will really resonate with Hey, am I still on my way towards my big goal, even if this smaller thing that I was working on isn't working out the way I planned. I think that's pretty profound.
Molly Birnbaum 51:39
Yeah, I totally agree.
Portia Mount 51:42
So any future projects you want to share, we're going to link to all the cool stuff on ATK Kids and America's Test Kitchen. I think there are a lot of people who didn't expect they would become cooks or amateur chefs during this pandemic. But judging by the number of weeks that flour was missing from the shelves of the grocery store. Although I will say I am looking, I was very happy to see that our supply chain around baking goods has somewhat normalized.
Molly Birnbaum 52:13
Yeah, I know, thankfully.
Portia Mount 52:15
Thankfully, right? Because that was actually gonna be a bigger problem than COVID, I think at some point when we were running out of ingredients, but any cool new projects you can talk about?
Molly Birnbaum 52:26
Yeah, we are just starting to create books for teenagers right now. And I'm really excited about that because I think teens in particular are so interested in exploring through the kitchen and through food and trying more adventurous recipes. So all of our recipes that we create for kids are simple and doable. So if you're just starting to cook, or you’ve been cooking just this year, and you need some additional ideas, definitely check out our website. But with teens we're going to be able to do slightly more projecty recipes and ideas and like things that they can cook to impress their friends and family.
Portia Mount 53:15
Oh, I love it.
Molly Birnbaum 53:17
It makes me feel inspired too, like hand fold noodles or you know, beautiful cakes, things that are impressive.
Portia Mount 53:27
You got my attention on the cakes. I have been following Christina Tosi of Milk Bar. I don't think I have the attention span to make one of her cakes that usually they're so complex, but they are amazing. And so I may need to actually do your teen. ATK Teens cake recipe. That's probably more of my speed.
Molly Birnbaum 53:56
Yeah, that sounds good.
Portia Mount 53:57
I know it's still gonna be delicious. So Molly lightning round. I feel like I should have a little bell that goes Ding Ding Ding. Do you have a motto or favorite saying that you live by?
Molly Birnbaum 54:39
This too shall pass. One of my favorites. Anything that's bad is definitely going to end. Just got to get there.
Portia Mount 54:48
Just got to get there. Oh, very appropriate. I think we can all take away you’re busy mom. You've got two young kids. I used to laugh at the term self care, so I'm going to just be totally honest. And I am all about self care now a year and some change into this pandemic. I can't get enough of it. What does self care look like for you?
Molly Birnbaum 55:15
Oh, self care?
Portia Mount 55:17
Do you do self care? Maybe I should start with that. Do you do self care?
Molly Birnbaum 55:24
I am, I try to. I think my form of self care is going on walks by myself, without my children when I can. Listening to audiobooks, that's my greatest form of self care.
Portia Mount 55:43
Is there an audio book that you're listening to right now that you really love?
Molly Birnbaum 55:49
I am listening to Kristin Hannah's book, The Great Alone, which is just this, like, a massive book about living in the bush of Alaska. it's not a happy book, but it's very... I'm deep in it. It's very good.
Portia Mount 56:08
It's one of those books that kind of transports you?
Molly Birnbaum 56:13
Yes. And that is my greatest form of self care is getting transported a bit from the day to day through audio books.
Portia Mount 56:20
Oh, love that. Yeah. And I too, and a lot of our listeners are huge audiobook fans so we will link to that book. What advice would you give to 20 year old Molly?
Molly Birnbaum 56:38
I think the greatest advice I can give to myself at that time, which I would definitely not listen to as a 20 year old is like, no matter how much you want to control the situation, you're likely not going to be able to. So you should just be cool with going with the flow. And not, not get too worked up about it. Because there's no way you're going to know where life's gonna take you and how you'll feel about it when you get there. Because everything changes and your priorities change as a process. So I guess the advice is, stop trying to control everything.
Portia Mount 57:32
I think that a lot of listeners are going to resent that comment. Because they resemble that comment. Yeah, yes, the present company included.
Molly Birnbaum 57:45
It's hard. Yeah. It's hard to not want to control everything. I still...
Portia Mount 57:49
It's overachievers. It's part of the overachievers curse. Right?
Molly Birnbaum 57:52
It's all about letting go right?
Portia Mount 57:54
Not trying to bend the universe to your will all the time. Right.
Molly Birnbaum 58:03
Portia Mount 58:05
I think it's great advice. Is there a book you find yourself recommending or gifting repeatedly?
Molly Birnbaum 58:18
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
Portia Mount 58:21
Oh, interesting. I've never, I've never heard of that book.
Molly Birnbaum 58:25
Oh, my gosh, it is so good. It is just a beautiful story. And she's a master crafter of language and silence and music. And it's, I can't even describe what it's about. You should read it. I highly recommend it.
Portia Mount 58:42
Oh my gosh, I am going to get this book this weekend.
Molly Birnbaum 58:47
Portia Mount 58:48
It's an I have to just sort of sidebar comment. I am a collector of books. And maybe it's because I'm the daughter of a librarian. But I have such a huge stack of books, Molly, but from doing this podcast series and just, I'll read something, I'll be like, Oh, I need to buy that book. And so I have enough books for the next pandemic. That's how many books I have.
Molly Birnbaum 59:09
I am in exactly the same position.
Portia Mount 59:12
Molly Birnbaum 59:13
Exactly the same. Yep. Yeah.
Portia Mount 59:15
I don't know. I don't know that I'll live long enough to finish all the books that I have. But I can't stop buying them.
Molly Birnbaum 59:20
And I can never move from this house because it has so many books in it. So many books. Yeah, I'm going to die here so I can be near my books.
Portia Mount 59:28
Surrounded by books. Yeah, like I would be the quarter that's me. So what new habit or belief have you adapted that's had a positive impact on your life?
Molly Birnbaum 59:44
I think the new habit actually that I picked up during the pandemic is listening to audiobooks while I walk. I love just getting so immersed in listening to stories. Fiction stories, so not nonfiction, not anything to do with food, not anything to do with parenting, not anything to do with anything except fiction. And I go on walks and I listen to them and it's so great.
Portia Mount 1:00:19
It's soothing. I do the same thing. There's a beautiful lake not far from me. It's seven miles around, and I'm telling you if I put my audiobook on, I can get around that. I can do that seven miles in my sleep.
Molly Birnbaum 1:00:32
Portia Mount 1:00:32
I'm just I'm just so I'm transported. Okay, final question. The best investment of $100 that you've made recently?
Molly Birnbaum 1:00:47
I suggested to my husband that he buy me an Ember coffee mug, which is a mug that sits on a little charger and it will keep your coffee warm for as long as you want it to.
Portia Mount 1:01:10
OMG. Why haven't I heard like, I am a coffee maniac. Why haven't I not heard of this?
Molly Birnbaum 1:01:16
It's kind of life changing because I often am just in meetings all day on Zoom at my desk and my coffee gets cold. But now I have hot coffee all morning for my Zoom meetings. It's a small change, but a good one.
Portia Mount 1:01:34
The ember coffee mug. Okay, we're gonna find that and link to it as well because I feel like this could be the most game changing advice that we've all heard in a long time.
Molly Birnbaum 1:01:45
It's pretty game changing.
Portia Mount 1:01:46
Yeah. Besides how to grow a chicken nugget tree like that. That would we have to get back once you figure out how to grow a chicken nugget tree.
Molly Birnbaum 1:01:53
I will report back on the chicken nugget tree. But first get the Ember coffee mug.
Portia Mount 1:02:00
But coffee first. But as the saying goes, coffee first.
Molly Birnbaum 1:02:03
Portia Mount 1:02:04
Molly Birnbaum. It has been such a delight. Thanks so much for coming on the pod. just lovely to talk to you.
Molly Birnbaum 1:02:12
Thank you so much for having me.