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Chef Natasha Feldman Rages Against The Instagram Food Machine

Celebrity chefs abound on the television these days. You know, with their perfect three thousand dollars knives, their whip-sharp cutting skills and their picture-perfect dinner creations. The gap between the home kitchen and the restaurant kitchen is ever-widening. Gone are the days when you went to the diner to eat a heaping pile of sloppy eggs, an un-photogenic stack of crisped pancakes, a roll of bread engineered for maximum crunch rather than maximum aesthetic appeal. Now food must be Instagram-ready at all times, to keep up with the changing standards of the digital age’s quest for aesthetic perfection.

But Chef Natasha Feldman is out to close that gap between the perfect and the imperfect, the home and the restaurant meals. To nosh is to eat food enthusiastically, and that’s exactly what Feldman wants to remind us all to do.

I spoke with her about the importance of perfectly imperfect food, Jews loving brown dishes, and the importance of travel.

So your food kind of exists in opposition to the trend of Instagram-perfect modern food bloggers. How do you feel about the way we view food online?

It’s so incredibly overwhelming. We’ve created a monster, really. Like if our food isn’t perfect, if our chicken isn’t perfect, if our cakes aren’t camera-ready, we just go out to eat.

You can’t be Martha Stewart and have a full time job. Even Martha Stewart couldn’t be Martha Stewart if she was an executive at Nestle.

I want to make stuff that’s how I cook, get people to feel less intimidated, know that everything doesn’t have to be perfect, and let there be more goofing around in the kitchen.

So how did you fall in love with cooking?

I went to culinary school in 2010, so I’ve been cooking for 8 years. Before that, I was really not into cooking — I was determined to go into stage acting. I was studying acting in England when I fell in love with Borough Market, the huge, open-air market with huge wheels of cheese and 700 foot tall brownies, like a food Hogwarts. My brain just started whirring, like how did he make that? How did that become that? Next thing i know, I was standing across from Romeo and I didn’t know my lines because I had been up late learning how to make bread.

So food really took over your life.

Yes! And that’s how I know that anyone can cook, you just have to want to learn. Now I’m at the point where I’m making recipes instinctively but in my show, I’m making dumbed-down recipes for the me of 8 years ago.

So I think travel is so important for people. So you get to see how other foods are made, what kind of other foods there are, expand your culinary palate…you mentioned the Market. What other food was life-changing for you to eat and where was it from?

Well, first, about travel being important, I think the fact that you can take a $35 Ryanair trip from England to a whole nother country was so important to me. The falafel in the Jewish Quarter of Paris, have you ever been there?

No!

It will blow your mind. It’s better than anything I’ve had in Israel. Just the perfect blend of really crispy, soft and creamy, incredibly well-seasoned, with unexpected toppings in the pita, like slow roasted eggplant or cabbage…just complicated but unfussy cooking.

Mmm…so you mentioned the Jewish Quarter. What role does your Jewish heritage play in your cooking?

It doesn’t have a ton to do with my daily approach to food, trying to make simple, healthy foods. But I’ve always had an affinity for Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Russian foods. When I need something comforting and soul-food-y, I go for the wine-braised ribs with dried fruits or the paprika roasted chicken, instead of the lasagna or the mac’n’cheese. My Jewish heritage really comes out when I want rich, comfort food. I feel this strange sense of home when I eat those things. I also think its where my love of herbs come from. Like, I just want to put dill on everything.

Oh, god, me too!

I just found out my great-great-grandmother was actually a caterer in Poland. She sold illegal cigarettes to make money and get her family out of Poland and into the US.

So you’ve got the pedigree! It runs in your genes.

Yup.

So tell me about your new series, Nosh With Tash.

You know, everything you do is like starting from scratch and this series is brand, brand new. I really wanted to educate people and help them figure out their way in the kitchen. I really feel like the place I can help people the most is my Instagram.

Instagram is where the cooking magic happens.

Exactly. I’m mainly targeting women who’ve accomplished a lot but don’t feel like they’ve mastered the kitchen.

So you’re really a millennial chef, harnessing the digital age.

Exactly. Send me messages, DMs, I love getting those. People send me messages all the time and that’s really how I connect with people the most these days.

Accessible chef espouses accessible cooking.

I really try to be available to people, it’s not just like I put a video out there and I’m done. That’s just the beginning.

There was an article published, “In Praise Of Ugly Food,” about how food doesnn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing at all times.

We eat with our eyes first. But we don’t have to eat with our eyes exclusively. Do you think our great-great-grandmothers worried about whether their food looked perfect? They wanted people to feel nourished and loved and cared for with food. It’s strange that in this age we’ve completely moved away from that.

Curries, indjira, Ethiopian food, are all not beautiful foods. You were talking about the importance of travel. All these foods you’re traveling to eat are not Instagram-ready. And sloppy joes, hamburgers, mashed potatoes…our foods aren’t beautiful either.

Do you mean our as in Jewish or our as in American?

American. Although Jewish food too! Jewish food is like, if it’s brown, we’ll eat it. Liver, kasha varnishkas, challah…

Cooking is such a visual art to begin with. Are you seeing more of a shift towards chefs being Instagram-friendly?

It is the platform you’re most naturally on. What you see there, for better or for worse, dictates how your life should be. I’m hoping someone scrolling down and sees my picture and thinks, “Oh, I can do that.”

Shira Feder is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at feder@forward.com

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