“I think that a lot of people are afraid of cooking, especially young people, and I so desperately want to teach them that it’s not scary—you can mess up and that’s fine.”
Alicia talks to Lee Kalpakis, an editorial producer at Thrillist and the host of A Little Help, a YouTube show in which she helps new cooks learn to create inexpensive and easy meals. They discuss maintaining a (mostly) meat-free diet in a job that requires eating a bit of everything, the ways in which her family’s history in the restaurant business influenced her own understanding of food, and how she tries to teach others not to be scared of learning to cook.
Written and presented by Alicia Kennedy
Produced by Sareen Patel
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating from How We Get To Next. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. This show asks the question, “How do identity, culture, economics, and history affect a diet?”
In this episode, I talk to Lee Kalpakis, an editorial producer and host at Thrillist. She stars in the YouTube series “A Little Help,” where she shows new cooks how to create inexpensive and easy meals. She has a background in restaurants, and spent years working at the Peacefood Café, where she developed a love of vegan cooking. We talk about growing up in a restaurant family, blending vegan and omnivorous approaches to food, and how she went from cooking to hosting.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: So hi, Lee. Thank you so much for being here.
LEE KALPAKIS: Hi.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It’s really great to meet you in person, since we’ve followed each other on Instagram for a while.
LEE KALPAKIS: I know, I feel like we’re friends already but we’ve never met.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I know. It’s really funny. So, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
LEE KALPAKIS: Sure. So I grew up in upstate New York, in this tiny little hamlet called Olivebridge that no one’s ever heard of, but it’s very close to Woodstock and New Palz, so I usually say one of those and somebody knows where it is. I grew up upstate, there’s a lot of farmland up there.
My parents opened a restaurant before I was born, so, first they had a restaurant in Woodstock and then they had a restaurant in Shokan, so I was growing up in a, you know, it’s a very rural area. My parents owned a restaurant. There was a lot of, we had a big garden, there was a lot of planting and eating from our garden, there was a lot of cooking, both my mom and my dad. I’ve two older brothers, they’re excellent cooks. We all worked in the restaurant together, so there was just, you know, a lot of really good food, a lot of cooking from, you know, I feel like usually it’s just mom or just dad, someone is the cook in the family, but, like, I was really lucky to have, it was like an experience, like, where all five of us would cook.
So when we would get together for a meal, it wasn’t just like, you know, dad putting a meal on the table, it was like everybody had a job, and that was awesome, and it was, you know, my brother’s friends and my friends and cooking and eating was always our, like, main activity. We’d go to work and we would cook there and then we would go home and we would cook there and eat at both places, and yeah, so just like really food-centric and in a really, you know, rural area, a lot of vegetables and yeah, it was amazing, super fortunate.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Cool. So what kind of food did the restaurant serve?
LEE KALPAKIS: So our restaurant, I thought it was a normal thing until I, like, went out into the world. So it was pizza and barbecue, which I can’t think of a place like, I don’t even know a place in New York City that does that, and it wasn’t like one more so than the other, it was very much both of them. And like, also, we’re not Italian and my parents aren’t American, I don’t know why they settled on those two.
The food was amazing, but my dad’s Greek, my mom’s Polish. I don’t know where it came from, but, yeah, so it was like, you know, a smoker in the back, and we’re making like brisket and ribs and stuff, and then out front we’ve got the pizza oven and we’re doing, like, you know, Neapolitan style, but then we would also do deep dish and regular thin crust and it was like a slice shop, so you could just, like, get a slice and a soda and go. So yeah, it was odd, but it was awesome.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That sounds really really cool.
LEE KALPAKIS: Yeah, right?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. Sort of, like it makes sense in a way.
LEE KALPAKIS: Yeah, it does, and the whole slice shop thing, it had that, like, “no frills pizzeria” element so you could just get a slice and go for lunch, but then also the barbecue element is very much like more of like a sit down, like, family experience. Yeah, so there were all different kinds of people doing different things coming in, so, like, that was always cool.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s awesome. So, if you grew up around food and restaurants, what made you decide that that was actually what you want to do, or was it even a conscious decision?
LEE KALPAKIS: Well, I think it was just always there, and I didn’t really think, for some reason I never really put it together when I was younger, even though, like, even my, my grandparents and, like, my aunts and my uncles, everybody went to culinary school.
I think that when my grandfather passed away, I think he had 13 restaurants in his name, or something wild like that, like big-time restaurateurs on my dad’s side of the family. So it was just very much like in our blood, but I think I went through this teenage, early college phase where I was, like, “I want to do anything but that, because that’s like what my parents do and I want to do something else.” So like I went through this brief period where like I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but then I realized I didn’t have any patience, so I went to college and I studied literature and creative writing and then I worked at restaurants in the city to, like, pay rent when I was in college, so I was like doing that all along and food was always a thing but I wasn’t focusing on it like career-wise.
So then I just had this epiphany when I was freelance writing after college. I was, like, “I want to just write about food,” and so everything that I pitched had to do with food and that’s when I realized, “Oh, am I trying to be a food writer?” I was like, well, the one thing that I have in my life, like my one interest that I never, I never grow tired of talking about, is food. It’s like, when I get together with my friends, I get together with, obviously, my family, it’s like we just talk about food, so it’s like, “Maybe this obsession, like, maybe that can be my job somehow?” So that sort of, it was like wanting to be a writer, wanting to be a food writer and then it’s just like, “You know what, I’m just going to, like, try to get into food media and do this any way that I can.’
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. So, what was your entrance point into food media?
LEE KALPAKIS: I was doing so many, like, freelance, like, part-time odd jobs for a while that were styling, and I was doing a lot of food styling and food photography because I kind of transitioned from the writing into the visual. I realized I really liked that. And then I was working for little blogs and doing, like, recipes. Like I’d write a little blurb and then it would come along with a recipe. I was at Edible Bronx for a brief stint and I was the, an associate editor there, and just really realized that, like, I did a bunch of little odd jobs to sort of figure out what I wanted to do and had this realization that I loved the, like actually writing the recipes and styling and that recipe development is actually a thing you can do and make money with, which I was like, “Wait, what? This is amazing.” So, like, just focusing on the visual and the recipes and then kind of realizing that what I’m trying to do down the road is write cookbooks. It all sort of just, yeah, came together with, like, little jobs until I started working at Thrillist which is a full-time job, very different than, like, how I got into all of this food stuff.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. But your approach is really fresh and like inexpensive and, like, fun, and is really vegetable-forward, which is evident in your series, your YouTube series, which is called A Little Help.
LEE KALPAKIS: Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: OK, yeah. So, how did you develop that approach that’s so eclectic but also makes a lot of sense?
LEE KALPAKIS: Well, it’s kind of, just like, they give me a lot of freedom at Thrillist, which is great. So all these topics and recipes are just like, it’s kind of what I want to do and the way that I eat at home, but then it also, you know, has to meet this, it has to be on brand for Thrillist. So, of course it gets approved by my bosses, but, like, they give me a lot of freedom to do what I want. And, you know, I was a vegetarian for six years of my life, most of the time, most of that time I was vegan, and I’ve been broke for a really long time, so it’s vegetables and it’s affordable because that’s, that’s my life and that’s, like, what I like to cook and that’s the way I like to live, so they just, like, let me put that out there, which is cool.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Totally. So, what made you go vegetarian and vegan and what made you return to being an omnivore?
LEE KALPAKIS: So,I felt terrible, I think it was, like, towards the end of college, and my oldest brother dared me to go vegetarian for a week and I was like, “I can totally do this,” and he was like, “No way, you can’t do it,” and I felt so awesome after that week just eliminating meat from my diet, not even taking dairy out yet, just eliminating meat, I felt so good, my digestive system was so much better and I had so much energy that it turned into six years. And I worked in a vegan restaurant for years also, so that makes it really easy to eat vegan all the time when you’re taking all of your meals at work and it’s only vegan food. So, yeah, I just felt really good, but it started with a dare, which is funny.
And then I incorporated it back into my diet when I started to get really serious about my career, because I felt this pressure of, like, “If you’re going to work in food media, you can’t really have, like, restrictions in your diet,” so that was, that was a lot of, I just felt a lot of pressure, I was like, “Well if I’m really going to do this, I have to be able to taste everything, if I’m going to be a recipe developer, I need to be able to taste what I’m making.” And, you know, I’ve also been doing some work with Thrillist lately where I’m going out to restaurants and talking about the food on camera and, like, I need to taste that food. So, although I’m drawn to, like, veg-heavy plant-based food, I feel this pressure to, like, not cut anything out of my diet.
ALICIA KENNEDY: No, that’s very very real. Yeah. So you, where did you work at a vegan restaurant? What was your job there?
LEE KALPAKIS: I did a bunch of different things at Peacefood, which is, I was on the 82nd and Amsterdam location and now I think that they have a downtown location. Awesome vegan food. Loved it so much. I worked at the counter. I was a juicer for a while. I learned how to make, like, really great smoothies there, which I’m so grateful for and I still, like, use all that knowledge today. I, like, did prep work in the kitchen. I was working with, there was a, there’s a lot of raw options there, so I was working with the raw chef there for a while and learning how to make a lot of raw desserts and we had raw entrées that were really good and that was interesting, but I also, like, waited tables and I was the hostess for a while. I did, like, every role there, which was, it was a really fun, like, family feeling place to work.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. Do you think that working in restaurants, especially since you’ve worked in restaurants your whole life basically, how does that influence your food writing, or your approach to food media?
LEE KALPAKIS: I just think that when you have worked in a restaurant, you get how difficult it is. Like, the, you also understand like the highs, you know? I started working in my dad’s restaurant for real, when I was maybe 14, 15, and just the rush of cooking for a dinner rush, and, or like waiting tables in a packed dining room, it’s like, you understand, I don’t know, like, you can eat the food and talk about it, but to understand what it takes to create the experience and to make the food and understand what goes on behind the scenes, I feel like you just have this, this tremendous respect for any food that comes your way, because you know how difficult it is to do what so many people, you know, you go out to a restaurant and you eat and a lot of people don’t really think that, think past that, but, like, there’s so much shit that goes into making a meal, and it’s just like a level of respect because you’ve been in the trenches, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. And so, did you always know you were going to be on camera as a…?
LEE KALPAKIS: Oh no. No, no, not at all. No, I, I’m not an actor and I, like, I never expected to be on camera. I was hired at Thrillist as a recipe developer, and I was doing, and their segment chef was the role that I had when I first started there, and I was doing their “hands and pans” recipe videos, so it was literally just, like, they’re kind of phased out a little bit now, but I’m sure you’ve seen it, like, on Facebook or whatever, where it’s just like hands making something. So those were my hands, and I did that for a few months and they were like, “What if we did a cooking show, but we showed your face and people heard your voice?” And at first I was really nervous, but, I don’t know, I just kind of, I mean I still get nervous sometimes but I really liked it, so I kept going and now I want to do it more and more, which is really interesting because I never pictured myself to be, like, a host of a show, and now I love doing it, so that’s fun.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah. What’s the process like of deciding the menus for, for your show?
LEE KALPAKIS: So for A Little Help, for A Little Help I also did $30 dinner parties, which was the first thing that I hosted, which, that had, like, full menus that we would plan. That was, people would submit, like, requests to be on the show, which was really fun because we’d get these emails from people that are like, because we, you know, we put a casting call on YouTube and it was like, “Do you want to throw a dinner party but you’re broke? Like, let me teach you how to do it.” And so it was these real people that would come on and we’d hang out with them for two days and shoot the show and then it was, like, their friends would come over at the end of it and we’d, like, eat the food and talk about it, and so those menus were just based around what those guests wanted to cook for their friends, so that was really fun. I mean, it was really difficult to, like, to actually throw a legit dinner party for $30, it’s so hard, and there was a lot of Trader Joe’s, because it’s just the cheapest things that you can find, but also, like, you want it to be good, so that’s why I think we did a lot of, like, veg-centric dishes for that show because meat can be really expensive. So we ended up doing a lot of, yeah, vegetarian stuff because it was in the budget, so that was cool.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And how do you do, for your new show, what’s the process like?
LEE KALPAKIS: So for A Little Help it’s, we sort of, I’m trying to think, so we’ll focus on a theme, right? I did a “date night” one and then we did “meatballs” and we did “roasting vegetables.” It’s more of, I wanted it to be a basics show, because I think that, you know, Thrillist is, we, most of our audience are, like, millennials, and like me, I’m a millennial and I talk to my friends and I think that a lot of people, especially with Instagram and, like, food is really big right now. Food is, like, always big, but food is really big right now and I think that going out and eating, taking a picture of it, you know, like, “#foodporn,” like eating is really popular right now, but I think that a lot of people are afraid of cooking, especially young people, and I so desperately want to teach young people that, like, it’s not scary and also, like, you can, you can mess up and that’s fine. You shouldn’t, like, no one should say, “Oh, I’m a bad cook,” you just have to keep going with it. So, I wanted it to be this thing where it’s like, “Do you like pesto? Of course you do. Did you know you can make it and it’s really cheap and really delicious and, like, you can totally, like, you got this.” So, I think that the themes for all those, for that show is just sort of like, “You can do it.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. So we’ve actually talked via Instagram about raw desserts. This kind of goes a little backwards, but what do you, what is it that makes a raw dessert so good?
LEE KALPAKIS: I know, they, oh man, I remember the conversation that we had about how like sometimes I would rather the raw dessert, because it’s so, just because it doesn’t have refined sugar or flour, doesn’t mean that it isn’t so ridiculously rich and indulgent. Think about what goes into like, OK, if we made a piece of raw cheesecake, or a piece of a raw chocolate dessert, there’s so much coconut and there’s nuts and there’s oil and there’s cocoa and, like, all of this stuff that goes into it is really decadent and delicious. It just like, we’re just pulling a few bullshit ingredients out, but it’s still dessert and it’s still so delicious.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, I know. I think, I need to do something about raw desserts, because they’ve been on my mind lately.
LEE KALPAKIS: They’re the best. They’re so good, it’s crazy and you can do so many things. I’m so fascinated by, like, OK, sugar is amazing but, like, maple syrup is awesome too and how you can just swap things out and make something delicious. Like, I had a raw banana cream, it was like a banana pudding recently, and it was, like, so good, it was almost as good as like the real deal one that my mom makes, you know, and this is not that bad for me, maybe it’s not that good for me, but, like, it’s not that bad, so you can, like, eat something really indulgent, feel good about it, it’s a win-win.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. So, now that you do, you eat meat, but you have this experience both working in a vegan restaurant and being vegetarian yourself, like, how do you balance those things? Like how do you balance, like, having meat and having this, this understanding that it doesn’t make you feel great?
LEE KALPAKIS: So I will, I’m going to start this by saying, I don’t have it figured out yet and I’m trying so hard, but, like I said before, when I went vegetarian I felt amazing, so when I brought meat back into my diet I felt like shit, and it’s been really difficult, especially now doing the kind of hosting I’m doing for Thrillist, I’m going to restaurants and eating and talking about the food, so like, I’ll go, you can’t not eat something indulgent, you have to eat whatever comes your way and, like, I’m not complaining because it’s always delicious, but that just means that, like, if I have a shoot that week and I know I’m eating, like, sisig or like something really heavy and salty and meaty, or like a hotdog or like some kind of like crazy pizza, the rest of my week is, it needs to be, like, green juice, it needs to be salad, it needs to be, like, I need to balance out that one meal with as much raw fruit and vegetable as I possibly can just to, like, feel normal. You can’t, I don’t know, you can’t do that to your body. I just, I can’t. Maybe I’m sensitive, but I just know that if I’m going to do something really indulgent for work, the rest of my week needs to balance it out. So it’s like, you know, it is what it is. Like I enjoy it, it’s fine, but yeah, there has to be balance.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Of course, yeah. I think that’s, I’ve kind of said this, but what I love about just your Instagram is that you have this approach where, like, you’ll be eating a green juice or a salad or something that is healthy, which is a word I don’t like, but like, you know, and it never seems like it’s part of this annoying lifestyle, like it’s never, like, obnoxious, where so much of that is. Like if someone’s drinking a juice, you’re like, “Ugh,” because you’re starving. It’s because of all this stuff and people put a lot of weight on, you know, having a perfect diet or that sort of thing, and like, but you, kind of, say, “Hey, you can have a green juice and a salad and it doesn’t have to be, like, you know, your whole life or your whole thing.”
LEE KALPAKIS: Yeah. And then also, I totally agree with that and I see so many Instagram accounts where it’s just like, “OK, like we get it,” but, on the opposite side of the spectrum, also salad is delicious.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes, yes.
LEE KALPAKIS: You know? And green juice is delicious. Like, put a little pineapple and ginger in there and it’s awesome and like, yeah, spirulina is gross but there are ways, like balancing it out with acidity from orange juice makes it delicious, and, like, freezing your bananas, like, makes it taste like, I don’t know, healthy food, vegetables and fruit, it’s, it’s delicious. Like I’m not doing it because I’m, yes I want to be healthy, but I’m not doing it and suffering through it. I literally enjoy eating a good salad just as much as eating a good burger, like, sincerely.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. Yeah and that’s, I feel like, such, for whatever reason, that is less popular of an approach to food than, than you would think. It kind of feels like every, people are so either or.
LEE KALPAKIS: Also, I think that people that think vegetables suck just aren’t preparing them the right way. You know what I mean? Like, if you just steam stuff and you don’t put any salt on it, it’s not going to taste great, but like, put lemon in there, make a vinaigrette, get some, like, toasted nuts and put it on there, like, if you, just like cauliflower, if you do that right, that is better than any, like, crazy meat dish that, like, if you do vegetables right they are delicious.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. Yes. And I’ve noticed you’ve also moved into maybe DIY other stuff, like maybe a cleaning product or something?
LEE KALPAKIS: Oh yeah. I did, and I, this is not my idea, this was, I think it was off of Bon Appetit’s “Healthyish,” I think it was. So it was, I made, you take your orange peels, or any citrus peel and just put it in white vinegar, let it sit and that’s a cleaning solution and that’s cool because cleaning solution can be expensive, and it’s like a fun, little, like hippy-dippy project. I’m also making vats of vanilla from scratch right now. Again, like, Ina Garten’s been doing it for years, I got the idea from her. She has the same batch of vanilla extract going, I think, I read that she has had it for 35 years.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh my god.
LEE KALPAKIS: And you just keep re-upping, you keep putting the beans in the vodka, that’s all it is. It’s just, like, vanilla beans in vodka, and I love that. My, my brother does a lot of experiments like that and my mom does too. We’re always like, I brewed kombucha when I had roommates and they did not like that, but like, yeah, just always having a little project going. Like, my brother makes sauerkraut and just, it’s fun. It’s like a science experiment and then you get to eat it, you know? It’s awesome.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Also, I would love for any, like, for you to do anything about how to make spirulina delicious, because I…
LEE KALPAKIS: Oh, we can talk.
ALICIA KENNEDY: All I tell people is, like, I just, I can’t, it’s gross, I’ve, like…
LEE KALPAKIS: It’s so gross, and you know why it’s gross? Because it’s literally, like, algae from a pond, like that’s gross. The smell, like yeah, it’s not good. I don’t think anyone, if someone says that they like the taste I just think that they’re lying. But yeah, there’s a, there’s a smoothie actually, it’s from Peacefood, they taught me how to make it taste really really good and there’s a smoothie that they still make there called “The Green Power” that makes you feel wonderful, and it tastes wonderful, and you’re like, “I just drank spirulina, I can totally do this.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: There’s something, like spirulina, it’s like a teaspoon of it has like all your nutrients or something like that?
LEE KALPAKIS: Yeah. It’s so good for you. Like, I don’t like using a term “superfood,” but, like, it’s very healthy for you.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So what are you working on now? What are your, like, plans? Do you have any, like, exciting menus coming up or anything that people can look out for?
LEE KALPAKIS: So, I’m actually shifting, like, right now at work, I think we are, for now, we are done with, like, the cooking shows and I’m now, they’re transferring me into like doing this, the hosting thing like I was talking about before, where I’m going into restaurants and eating, doing that full-time. So that’s a transition for me, which is, which has been really fun but it’s a little bit weird because, just, I like cooking for a living and now I’m not cooking. I’m cooking at home, but it’s not the same.
So that’s where I’m at right now with work, just really diving into tasting food and talking about how food tastes beyond, “This is delicious,” and just like talking texture, talking balance, talking, like, richness and acidity and learning how to talk to people about what you’re tasting, which is this, like, whole, interesting world where it’s like, “Oh, I can’t say why this tastes good because the viewer doesn’t want to hear me say that.” It’s like, “Yeah, it tastes good, but make me feel like I’m there with you experiencing it.” So that’s what I’m working on now. I mean I don’t ever want to stop cooking. I want to write cookbooks, that’s like my, not end goal, but like, that’s like my five year plan. So I, I will always be cooking, but now I have this interesting opportunity to be eating, and on camera eating, so, it’s cool, I can’t complain, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that sounds like such a great approach because yeah, like again, no one wants to just hear, “Oh it tastes good.” Like it’s always so satisfying when a host does explain why the dish is working.
LEE KALPAKIS: Yeah, and I never really realized, but when you watch a lot of, like, food shows, you’re just getting, “Mmm, that’s good.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah. I think sometimes it’s probably that they don’t even know how to talk about that sort of thing.
LEE KALPAKIS: Well, it’s hard, because it’s like, “Oh, I like the way that this tastes,” but knowing why is really hard, and I, you know, I definitely grew up with my parents teaching me, like, “Oh, you taste this, that’s rosemary, that’s tarragon,” like, so I understand what, so I can break down the taste of a dish, but it’s still really hard and I can’t, I’m working on it but I certainly haven’t mastered it. Like, it’s difficult to do, for sure.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. Yeah. So for you, you do so many different things, but do you think that cooking is a political act?
LEE KALPAKIS: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that cooking, I think that every time you choose what to cook and what to eat, you’re making a political statement. You’re making a statement about yourself, about, like, your beliefs. Like, maybe that’s really intense but it’s totally true. You have a choice. You know, when we’re children we’re given food to eat, but as adults you choose every single time what you’re going to cook and what you’re going to eat and those decisions totally, like, it shows the person that you are.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. Thank you so much for being here.
LEE KALPAKIS: Thank you for having me.
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