Food expert, avid traveller, on-camera host, author and founder of the food travel website Salt & Wind, Aida really knows it all. Having worked as Food Editor of CHOW.com, as host of the Food Network show Ask Aida, and the Cooking Channel show FoodCrafters, she is comfortable both in front and behind the camera. Her favourite place though remains the kitchen, whether that’s in her home in Los Angeles or somewhere in the world – where there is food, there you’ll find Aida.
Having recently published her cookbook Keys to the Kitchen, where she gives foodie newbies the knowledge and skills they need to survive in the kitchen, the Cornell Hotel School and Le Cordon Bleu Paris graduate now divides her time between hosting the TasteMade digital series Off Menu, and running Salt & Wind. Through her work, she aims to inspire creativity, and hopes to get more people cooking and travelling. Below she tells us all about her humble beginnings and why travel has become such a big part of her life.
See more of Aida’s photos on her Instagram: @aidamollenkamp
How did you get into food, more specifically into cooking?
It was a happy accident really. My family is very into food. We’re of French and Italian heritage, so Sunday dinners are a big deal. After a skiing accident that stopped my dreams of dancing professionally in their tracks, I looked for something else to get into, and found food. I started cooking in my teens and was fortunate enough to have a teacher who told me I could major in hospitality management, and make a career of my passion. I knew I wanted to be in this industry but wasn’t really sure what exactly my job would be so I started cooking at 14 but didn’t really find my dream job until I started working in food media in my mid 20s.
How did you manage to turn your passion into a career?
It was a mix of lots of sacrifice, a bit of luck, and some wonderful mentors. When I started to get interested in food media, it wasn’t as popular as it is now and the digital media world was basically non-existent. I knew I wanted to work at a food magazine but couldn’t find a way in, so asked for informational interview after informational interview with anyone within spitting distance of the job. Eventually, I came across a New York Times article about a just-launched food magazine named CHOW and I flew to San Francisco, knocked on their office door, and told them I wouldn’t leave until they hired me. It took a lot of convincing, a ton of work, and a long period of making very little money, but it was all worth it in the end.
What did you do before becoming an expert on food and travel?
I studied hospitality management and finance at university so I ended up doing hotel and restaurant financial consulting for a bit. It taught me a lot about how to run a business but I quickly learned my real passion was in cooking and headed to culinary school so that I could shift my focus toward food editorial.
What does travelling mean to you?
Travelling to me is like a language. Every time I travel I feel like I learn the vocabulary of the world, different people, and various cultures so much better. One of the things that constantly amazes me about travel is how your senses get heightened when you’re in a new place and everyday feels like it got the saturation filter (for scents, colours and noises) thrown up a couple of notches. I also adore that travel doesn’t have to mean hopping on a plane around the world – you can drive across town to a new neighbourhood and have just as amazing an adventure.
Food is obviously at the heart of your travels, how did you discover the best food places while in a new city?
Social media is really amazing for this. I spend more time than I should admit on social media and I search out the local experts before I travel to a city. If I’ve developed enough of a rapport with them, I’ll usually reach out to them and ask for their recommendations. I also shout out on Twitter or Facebook to see if anyone I know or trust in food has been where I’m heading. But, really, more than any book or online source, I talk to the locals. Some of my best food recommendations have come from cab drivers, surf instructors, and the like. Oh, and if you find a cafe, bakery, bar, or restaurant you like, always always ask them for their recommendations!
What is your favourite food city, and why?
Oh, that’s like asking a parent to pick a favourite child! I’ll always love Paris because I went to culinary school there and it taught me to appreciate quality cooking. Living in San Francisco taught me to really embrace local and farm-to-table food, and my home town of Los Angeles got me to love ethnic food – from Persian to Mexican. I feel like I can’t definitively decide on a favourite until I’ve hit some of the other great food cities – Tokyo, Lima, Mexico City – out there.
What’s your favourite taste sensation in LA?
As a native Angeleno, I take a lot of pride in the flavours of Los Angeles. The reason I still live here is because it’s so culturally diverse you can taste the world just by heading down the street. When friends visit, I like to take them on food crawls of my favourite neighbourhoods (Downtown LA is always a great choice!) so they can get an idea of how deep our food culture rolls.
What makes a good Instagram shot, especially food shot?
The thing about Instagram is you want to post photos that really jump off the page. If not, people will literally scroll right by your photo. When it comes to food overhead, graphic shots translate really well to Instagram but I also like including people whenever it works. The most important things you want to go for are a bright photo with just a few bright colours (red always does well!) and to up the contrast every so slightly so that it stands out.
How do you keep your food and travel blog updated?
Salt & Wind was launched just a year ago and we have quickly grown the magazine to have a slew of contributors for both recipes and travel stories. I’ve met some incredibly talented photographers and writers from around the world thanks to Salt & Wind and love that new acquaintances come with the job!
Where’s your next destination? What was your last one?
I just returned from Hawaii. My fiancé is from Oahu so I have developed major love for the islands in the time we’ve been together. Now, more than ever, the food scene in Oahu is really interesting with a lot of classic Hawaiian food and some up-and-coming chefs who are really celebrating farm-to-table.
As I write this I’m on a plane to Barcelona where I’ll be kicking off filming for my next season of my food travel show, Off Menu. The second season will focus on Europe and will cover some amazing cities including Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Copenhagen, and Dublin.