Follow the Platinum Rule: Feed others as they wish to be fed. This is such a tough one for so many chefs! We have our standards, opinions, and culinary points of view. We should encourage and educate through our food (to a degree), but at the end of the day, our first job as cooks is to delight the diner…to lure with aroma, entice with color, disarm with texture, and seduce with flavor. Sometimes a customer wishes to be delighted in a way that seems just dreadful.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Lauren Braun Costello, the force behind “It’s Lauren, of Course!”
Lauren is a classically trained chef, published author, cooking show host, and expert food stylist. She has helped countless people become better, more confident, and capable cooks. Through her “It’s Lauren, of Course!” segments, viewers love seeing this modern-day Jewish mother, highlighting the culinary techniques needed to make great meals without the anticipated torture. For Lauren, there’s a right way to cook, a wrong way to cook, and her way to cook.
Lauren has made numerous television appearances as a guest on shows including ABC’s The View and WNBC’s Today in New York. As host of AOL’s cooking series “Pantry Challenge,” Lauren logged more than five million views for her show in its first three months, becoming the most popular show on AOL’s cooking channel, KitchenDaily.com. Lauren has published three books: the critically acclaimed Notes on Cooking: A Short Guide To An Essential Craft, The Competent Cook: Essential Tools, Techniques, and Recipes for the Modern At-Home Cook, and an award-winning children’s book Eat Your Breakfast Or Else!. Her recipes and party-planning advice have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and New York Daily News.
Lauren has also styled for some of the biggest names in the culinary and entertainment worlds, from Tyler Florence and Alice Waters to Trisha Yearwood and Gloria Estefan on national shows for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and the Hallmark channel.
Lauren’s culinary career began on a dare. She had been working on Wall Street and cooking elaborate meals in her spare time. Her then-boyfriend-now-husband, Sean, dared her to quit her job and go to culinary school. She enrolled in The French Culinary Institute, earned a Grand Diploma in Culinary Arts with distinction, and never looked back. She launched Gotham Caterers as Executive Chef/Owner while simultaneously working as a private chef, teaching cooking classes, and pursuing her passion for food styling on live television.
Born and raised in New York with an early pitstop in Wichita, Kansas, Lauren now lives in Connecticut’s suburbs with her husband and two sons. Yes, she is that mom who makes over-the-top boxed lunches and weeknight dinners. And she lives to entertain! When people walk in her home, they “ooh and ahh” over the food, and nothing brings her more joy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
Growing up in New York — on the Upper East Side and East Hampton — I was exposed to such sophisticated food, both in restaurants and at home. We lived with my grandparents, who were both successful business people. My grandfather was a real estate developer. My grandmother was quite unconventionally a brazier designer with 13 patents to her name (if you have ever worn a training or underwire bra, my grandmother Lillian is to thank). At home, entertaining friends and family was an endless joy for my parents and grandparents. Every meal was thoughtfully curated — even takeout was set in crystal bowls! When we traveled, each meal was spent talking about the next meal. So much effort and so many resources were dedicated to creating the most alluring experiences possible, always centered around food. During the summer months, when every guest room in our country home was filled with visiting friends and family, my job as a little girl was to set up the breakfast trays for the guests each night with my grandmother before I went to sleep. I was so struck by how much emphasis she placed on every detail to make our guests feel comfortable and welcome. All details from the food to the service were attended to so that each person would want for nothing. I learned that great hospitality is the anticipation of needs, not merely the response to them. I knew then that I wanted to excel at that very thing, with delicious and memorable food prepared with love and passion at its center. I knew I had the entrepreneurial spirit to make it happen. As I look back on my journey, I realize that I started in the kitchen and never left.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
My training is French, my heritage is Ashkenazi Jewish, but I love to cook all foods. I love curating an experience, a feeling, a sensation, a way to transport people to someplace magical even if momentary. I grew up attending a French elementary school in no small part because everything French was revered in my Francophile family. When it came time to select a culinary school, I knew that regardless of whether I chose to cook French food, learning French techniques was essential since those techniques are the foundation of classical cuisine. At home, cooking traditional Jewish dishes for all the holidays was an annual ritual and privilege for me. From the time I was a young teenager, I prepared gefilte fish from scratch with my grandfather. He categorically refused to use the food processor. We used my great grandmother’s wooden hock bowl with a mezzaluna to grind the fish — equal parts carp, pike, and whitefish — by hand. It took forty-five minutes to do that. My septuagenarian (at the time) grandfather never tired of the monotony or the exertion. He insisted that the only way to manipulate the fish and control the light and fluffy result was to do it this way. I’ll never forget the day we made quenelles in culinary school — in the food processor, bien sur! They were light and fluffy French gefilte fish of sorts. Once the torch was passed on to me to be in charge of the gefilte fish preparation, I decided to do it my way: I grind the fish in the food processor to a point, but not all the way, and then finish the job by hand in the very same hock bowl. I understood the technique my grandfather had taught me, but I wanted to remove the torture! That was probably the first time I realized that there is a right way, a wrong way, and then ultimately my way to cook.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
Since I used to be a live TV food stylist for celebrities and celebrity chefs, I can honestly say I have too many of these stories to count. Everything is a story when live television is involved. One of my favorite stories is when I styled for Chef Ming Tsai on ABC’s The View. As is typical of live food styling, you plan and work for days down to the very last minute for a mere few minutes of live television. On this particular day, everything was set and ready to go for Ming Tsai’s segment to go live at 11:51. At 11:15, the producer told me that she was considering moving me up to the 11:30 spot. What?!
I had been planning — no exaggeration — for days and had the final 30 minutes meticulously planned down to the second, all the final details to be executed in rapid-fire order. I was just informed that I had exactly half the time to get it all done, and at that for live TV. Failure to be ready at the auspicious moment was not an option. As I turned to Ming Tsai with a look of exasperation, he knowingly said, “Tell me what to do.” I immediately started barking orders for him to chop this as I chopped that, enlisting some of the crew to help as well. I’ll never know how, but through my marching orders and the team effort we were ready at 11:29 when the producer told me, “Never mind! It’s too much of a hassle to move the other segments. We’ll just keep you at 11:51.” I nearly collapsed. I looked at Chef, and he exhaled. What a fire drill that was!
Now I had a new set of problems. I was ready for the segment to go live at that moment, but now we had 20 minutes. Would everything stay hot, looking fresh? Oh, it didn’t matter at that point, but in the end, the segment went off without a hitch to the millions of viewers. I apologized to Chef for having barked orders at him instead of the otherwise deferential way I normally would have communicated with him. He was not bothered and was entirely pleased with how everything played out, given the circumstances. I had earned his respect, and I had done my job well. It turns out that someone else had been watching the mania and the scrambling from the sideline. Whoopi Goldberg — this in her first few months at the show — turned to me after we were told, “never mind,” and I had apologized to Chef, and she said, “I like you.” She smiled and winked. She approved. She understood me. She understood that I understood. She respected that I didn’t pitch a fit and that I got the impossible done, and that I kept my eye on the ball. It meant the world to me, and I always had a special connection to her during my years’ styling at The View.
The big takeaway is to be prepared, do your very best, remember your role and ultimate goals, and always conduct yourself with professionalism and respect. I know for a fact that many food stylists make food look even more beautiful than I do (I’ve trained some of them!), but I don’t think I was ever hired once for my hard culinary skills. I was hired because of my reputation, my soft skills. People wanted to work with me because of how I operated on and off the set because I lived and worked by the notion that “good enough” isn’t good at all. Reputation is an intangible, not at all fungible, and something for each person to cultivate and nurture. It is the singular ingredient that sets you apart from the competition.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
I started my career after college on Wall Street. Working hard with deadlines was nothing new. A few years later, when I left for the culinary field, I was young and determined and responsible only to myself. It was full steam ahead. All I had to do was work hard, do what I loved, and I knew I would succeed. It has been my second act that has been a truly uphill climb. At age 42, after a hiatus for the better part of a decade, I decided to go back to the culinary career that I had abandoned to raise my children. What a shock to realize that the entire world had changed. All of a sudden, expertise and past accomplishments were no longer relevant or rewarded in the democratized world of content creation and social media. Followers are the metric that matters most. It has been such a challenge to find and grow a loyal and engaged audience large enough to matter, to re-open doors that had once been open to me. How to overcome it? I have repackaged my talent, created a loyal following, and leveraged my experience with brands, and every day my engagement increases. I’m bringing people into my world with authenticity and honesty, even with some bloopers along the way. The connection is what makes it work. Forward motion and perspective help, too!
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
If you love it, they will love it. Diners can taste the cynicism and the apathy, the arrogance or the indifference. It jumps right off the plate and falls flat. But if you love a dish, have passion for the ingredients and technique, it works its way into the food, onto the fork, and right into the heart, mind, and belly of the diner.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
The perfect meal for me to prepare is one in which I am in total control, and I have curated a theme (like haute Mexican, Northern Italian al fresco feast, or Swedish winter solstice tasting menu), served in distinct courses that build and connect. I always begin with hors d ‘oeuvres and cocktails, and then have everyone seated at the table with an amuse bouche waiting. Then I serve at least three courses, followed by dessert and a thematic edible party favor, like tomatillo salsa and homemade chips, chocolate covered biscotti, or sweet St. Lucia buns to enjoy with morning coffee. The experience and the hospitality must continue into the next day for me. It means everything for me to have the delight linger.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My biggest inspiration comes from the seasons, travel, and my heritage. This past summer, I decided to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) at my local farmer’s market, not knowing precisely which fruits and vegetables would be coming home with me each week, and that’s just how I wanted it. I yearned for the challenge without the horror of having to cook competitively on TV. It kept things fresh, and I was undaunted, of course, but it was a lot of fun to get the direction from the ingredients instead of the other way around. It was the best thing for me because it forced me to create and cook with the tail wagging the dog a bit. Typically someone decides to make ratatouille then goes and buys the necessary ingredients. It was fun for me to end up with so many tomatoes, squashes, and eggplants that ratatouille was the only option, marked by the excitement of realizing that I would be preparing it when it was intended to be made, as the produce was harvested at its peak. Anyone can play this culinary game, even if they can’t get to a farmer’s market. Select 2–3 ingredients each week you have never used before — radicchio, freekeh, celery root — and commit to searching for recipes and preparing them.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
I began partnering with Stew Leonard’s, a grocery and dairy store chain in the northeast, to create recipes and videos for their social media. It is so much fun to create recipes for a store where I regularly shop. Most of the customers likely do not cook and eat as elaborately as I do… it’s truly an exciting challenge to develop recipes for this audience because it helps me creatively, forcing me to elevate through the simplicity of ingredients or technique. Every chef and craftsman benefits from this reductive approach from time to time. It is rejuvenating, more often than not, reawakening something basic but lost in my own cooking. I love hearing from shoppers the moment they see the video or read the recipe that they know what they’re having for dinner tonight!
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself or try something new, whether it be a cooking style or an ingredient. Don’t lose your sense of wonder. One of the best ways to do that is to be the customer…eat…enjoy…receive pleasure to know how to deliver it. Just as a good writer writes, a thriving cook must eat!
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. When your favorite hobby becomes your job, your relationship to it changes. When I first began cooking professionally, I would receive at least half a dozen calls a year from a friend of a friend or someone’s second cousin asking my advice about becoming a professional cook. They would tell me how cooking is their therapy, that they love nothing more than to cook and bake to feel relaxed and happy, that it’s their favorite thing to do. That’s wonderful! Making your work from something you love is generally a good thing, as long as you understand that once you make your favorite thing to do your job, you might no longer relate to it the same way. People ask me if I bake or cook for pleasure, for relaxation, or “just for fun.” Not anymore. Not since I became a professional cook! That is not to say that I don’t enjoy cooking. Of course, I do…very much. But the last time I baked cookies to “relax and unwind” was probably twenty years ago!
2. Just say yes. I figured this one out for myself, and it has made all the difference in my career, in fact, defining my career. Whenever anyone asks if you are available to do something and the terms are acceptable to you (the pay is fair, or there is no pay but you know the learning experience/connections are worthwhile), just say yes. The only jobs I have regretted were the ones I could not take because of scheduling conflicts, etc. Every single job I have ever taken has led down paths I could not have imagined. Three weeks after my grandfather died, I got a call from Gail Simmons of Top Chef fame (at that point only in its second year) to be her food stylist for an online cooking show for AOL. My husband was away in Europe on business, I had a toddler at home, and I was exhausted emotionally. But I thought, well, it’s Gail. I really like Gail. It’s a good paycheck for what will be a very long and hard week, but it’s just a week. I had not worked in a month because of my grandfather dying. So, I said yes. Thank goodness I did. From that experience, the producers offered me my own show on AOL. That was my most significant exposure and my biggest payday of my career to date. My name and face were in a grid next to Gail, Tyler Florence, Mark Bittman, Marco Canora, Curtis Stone, and Marcus Samuelson, some of the business’s biggest names. I shot 45 episodes of my show, which became the most-watched series of them all. Imagine if I had said no! If you can do it, just say yes.
3. Selfcare is Ingredient #1: Take seriously taking care of yourself. Many chefs wear it as a badge of honor to stand all day without going to the bathroom once, put in 18-hour days and do it six or even seven days a week. We chefs are tough, but to what end? Taking care of yourself — like going to the bathroom at least once in the middle of the day! — isn’t a weakness. It’s common sense and probably the very best investment in your future and potential for longevity in the most literal sense and long-term professional success.
I wish someone had told me that I should establish those boundaries for myself, that I could still be tough and strong and a beast in the kitchen while minding after myself a bit better (but we female chefs have even more to prove). It isn’t just about being tough; when your job is to serve people, and your focus is on others, you often fail to make a list. I once worked with a chef who looked down upon the rest of the team for taking a lunch break. He didn’t need one. But many people on the team did. They weren’t any less skillful or efficient cooks for needing that break and refueling. Figure out what you need and make sure you are doing it most of the time. Be it eating properly (yes, just like the cobbler’s son who has no shoes, many professional cooks don’t eat well as a matter of routine), exercising, keeping up with friends and family, or sleeping. Something will give eventually…. don’t let it be your health. To be a chef definitionally means you are a leader, so set a good example for your team and value their well-being, too. Self-care is an essential ingredient in a chef’s life.
4. You are valuable. Do not undervalue yourself, your food, and especially your prices. When you first start, you don’t want to charge too much because you don’t want to price yourself out of the game. You want to get the gig, the experience, the chance. Be honest with yourself and your customers. I did so many catering jobs early on where I served people three-course meals for 30 dollars/person! After my food and transportation costs, paying an assistant cook a fair wage to help me during the event, and all my time shopping and preparing for the event, I honestly made about 3 dollars/hour if the true number of hours I spent on the job were calculated. Even as a young cook, you have to assert yourself fairly. If you value yourself, others will, too.
5. Follow the Platinum Rule: Feed others as they wish to be fed. This is such a tough one for so many chefs! We have our standards, opinions, and culinary points of view. We should encourage and educate through our food (to a degree), but at the end of the day, our first job as cooks is to delight the diner…to lure with aroma, entice with color, disarm with texture, and seduce with flavor. Sometimes a customer wishes to be delighted in a way that seems just dreadful. A client once asked me to make an endive salad with a classic vinaigrette, mangoes, and sliced raw button mushrooms. Gasp! I was so disturbed by this combination that I consulted no fewer than four colleagues as to what I should do. Two said to refuse to make the dish because I should not risk my reputation, and two said just to do it even though it was not my style. I was the tiebreaker in the end and decided to do it because it came down to this: The Platinum Rule. Yes, the Golden Rule dictates that we feed others as we wish to be fed. But the Platinum Rule demands that we feed others as they wish to be fed. My first job is to delight; I reminded myself. Whether you are just starting out or winding down, your job is, above all, to bring pleasure to those you feed.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
There isn’t one dish. It’s about the experience. I like for people to be thoroughly experientially immersed from the moment they arrive. I like to progress with a theme so that everything from the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, to the amuse bouche, to the edible party favor lures them in and lingers. That’s the “dish” I want people to experience.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I am trying to trigger the movement that we truly connect through and take responsibility for our heritages and food cultures, for ourselves individually and collectively. While we each might hail from one or two distinct cultures (mine is Ashkenazi Jewish on both sides of my family), we really are connected to one another’s food heritages so much more deeply than that. I am Jewish, yes, but I am also a New Yorker, American, and a Francophile. A specific style of pizza and eating it a certain way is as much as part of my culinary heritage, as is gefilte fish. People eat sandwiches the world over, but we Americans are the keepers of the quintessential burger. In my family, tartines and croissants are in the regular rotation because those were staple items of my rearing. There are plenty of New Yorkers who come from a totally different ethnic or cultural background than I do, but “bagels and lox” are just as much a part of their culinary identity because they are New Yorkers. We share so much with one another through food simply because we enjoy food from all over the world in every part of the world. Food is the conduit to connect, and that connection can be a powerful force for taking care of one another.
If that is too intense a movement, there is always #crimesagainstcorn. Consider this: every summer, I watch shoppers peel back the corn husks to check if the cob is up to snuff. Sometimes the shoppers take the corn, and sometimes they put the corn back. Madness! We don’t open up bags of potato chips to see if any of the chips are broken. We don’t peel oranges to see if they are juicy! Why do we think we can do this to corn? It’s not fair to the vendor or future shoppers because it shortens the corn’s shelf life by stunting freshness. It’s also unnecessary. Feel the corn through the husk to verify that the kernels are plump. If we stopped the #crimesagainstcorn, I do believe it would give us all a little pause to consider not just our own needs, but the needs of others, and that could change the world…and to think it could start with corn.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!