Survey Says: A True Story from The Mall

She was old but sharp and I knew she identified me yards before I even noticed her standing there. With a sweet smile and grey hair, she was the kind of woman just nutty enough to have 3 or 7 cats but sweet enough to make apologies for her behavior. She held her clipboard like it meant the world to her.

“Excuse me sir, do you speak Spanish?” she asked. “Not very well,” I replied, causing her to slow down on her list of pre-anticipated responses. Her pencil fumbled to find a new section, and once she did she began all over again as if I hit a secret reset button.

“Do you like hot dogs?”

In 30-something years I don’t think I’ve ever missed the opportunity for a smirk or off-colored response to that question; with this woman it didn’t seem appropriate. I said “But of course. Why? Are you inviting me over?”

She glazed over my answer, clearly not a part of her programmed assignment, and asked if I’d be interested in participating in a focus group for a new food product. Call me a sucker, but I’ll find almost any opportunity to make myself available for a marketing survey or questionnaire if it pertains to food. With 20 years of food marketing behind me I guess it’s just in my blood, and I’m just naturally curious to see what the big food manufacturers have up their sodium, preservative-laden sleeves. Besides, if anything I’d have a free lunch at the mall and it just sounded more fun than strolling through Bed, Bath and Beyond. It might take my mind off of asking why I was there in the first place.

She led me into a makeshift office, a space I imagined once held a lounge for part-time security guards or some generic Jewelry Pagoda or Earring Palace or Bracelet Temple. At that point she passed me off to another employee, a young Latin man with a stature and face not normally seen outside of a Mexican calendar. Instead of a shield and javelin, this Aztec warrior was armed with pens and release forms. I obliged as my mind raced with images of him saving a curvaceous goddess in a flawless feather headdress on top of a mountain–with perfect make up no less.

He asked me a variety of questions like “When was the last time you had a hot dog?”  and “How often do you eat hot dogs?” and “Do you like the following:?” before stumbling on the word panini. I took a moment to explain what it was to my new warrior friend because I know for a fact there were no Panini presses in Tenochtitlan. He deserved some slack. I explained the semantic difference between panini and panino and how it irks me before I completely interrupted myself.

“Hey, wait, I’m in the food business. I’m biased. Am I still allowed to participate?”

“I don’t see why not,” he answered after ruffling through some papers. Nothing jumped out. We proceeded.

“I’m going to have you answer these questions here on this computer. When you get to page 5 click ‘ok’ and we’ll bring out the food item for you to taste and rate.”

I answered questions about my buying habits, realizing they aren’t really average American food buying habits mainly because of what I do. I’m not trying to be uppity at all, it’s just that I’m not the poster child for frozen convenience foods and novelties from any of the big chain retailers. About the most I can do is the occasional Trader Joe’s frozen pizza although France’s Picard sure does make it look glamorous, no?

I reached the page that would allow me to taste this creation, and I’m not gonna lie, y’all: I was excited. After answering some question about not being physically or morally opposed to foods cooked with microwaves the Warrior brought over a pretzel dog on a paper plate, one small napkin and one tiny plastic cup of water. I was instructed to sip, then taste, then make notes, then sip again and taste as often as necessary in order to complete the questionnaire. I dutifully proceeded.

Over the past month I have tasted over 1,500 various dishes created by complete strangers. I have dug deep into my brain for words, expressions and phrases to use when describing all these flavors. As a judge for the open casting calls for Gordon Ramsay’s Masterchef Season 2 I’ve traveled from Boston to Portland tasting and rating food created by television hopefuls with dreams of fame sparkling in their eyes. It’s been both scary and exhilarating and if there wasn’t a pesky non-disclosure form involved I’d probably tell you more about it. But I share this side job with you because at no point in my life have I felt more ready to taste this secret pretzel dog, more willing to offer my opinion on the future of its success, and more happy that its presence in the marketplace didn’t rely on a complex set of scores and algorithms filled out by me.

Boy was I wrong.

How would you rate the color of this pretzel dog? What did it taste like? Was it overly salty? Not salty enough? How likely would you be to purchase this product for your family, 1 being not likely at all with 5 being very likely? What was the texture of the meat? At $3.49 for two would you consider this a value? The questions wouldn’t stop. I bit, I clicked. I clicked, I chewed.  And like Bill Bixby to Lou Ferrigno, I was pushed too far.

The marketer in me came out.

“I’m sorry,” I wrote, “but I cannot see how this is supposed to be a Pretzel Dog when all I see is a wiener wrapped in dough. There are no baked folds nor twists characteristic of a pretzel, and sampled without the meat there is no flavor, no joy. Could you not have added color or shine to this so-called pretzel? Large flecks of kosher salt? Heck, large white flecks of fake something, anything, to signal my brain that this is a pretzel? At best it looks like a wiener wrapped in flesh-colored dough, and at worst it looks like something from a movie* I’ve seen. You asked.”

I finished by selecting the “Complete Survey” button, realizing I didn’t really offer an opinion on flavor. But when you think about it, these foods are never really about flavor as much as they are about portability, ease, and salt. Tons of salt. I began to hope that the consumer of a product like this would remember that it’s not that different than a hot dog, a food that offers you two choices: meat and bun. Two opportunities to buy the best of both and not get suckered into a buy-one-you-must-accept-the-other-of-our-choosing.

I told the Warrior that I was finished, he took my half-eaten pretzel dog away and led me to another counter. I waited a few minutes, realizing I wasn’t going to get that free lunch I was hoping for and that I’d have to brave the mall once again for what I originally came for.

“Here you go, Mr. Armendariz. Thank you for your participation today.”

I couldn’t believe it. A check in the amount of Four Dollars. I could drive through a car wash, I could get a latte, I could buy a taco. There were many things I could do with those four dollars but I can tell you this: I won’t be saving it in order to buy any Pretzel Dogs in my future.

I said goodbye to the Warrior, tempted to tell him that if focus groups and surveys didn’t work out he could always model for covers of romance novels. I could totally see it.

I waded through disorganized metal folding chairs and exited the mall office. As I left I passed the little old woman with her clipboard again as I heard her ask another passerby “Do you speak Spanish?”

I hope they like pretzel dogs.

(* in 8th Grade health class. You ought to be ashamed of yourself for thinking otherwise.)

Spice Islands Flavor Explorer Update and announcing the winner on Friday!

Man that was a long headline for this post, sorry about that! I wanted to share a few things about my Spice Islands Flavor Explorer project as well as let you know about the contest. First, for those of you who have entered I sincerely thank you! There were dozens of entries and they all looked absolutely amazing. We’ve whittled the entries to the final 10 and over the next few days I’ll be heading into my kitchen to create and taste them. And then I’ll cue up the drumroll and announce the winner as well as the runner-ups this Friday. I’m excited and as soon as I hit “send” for this post I plan on jogging around the block and running up and down my stairs to get into championship shape so that I can cook and eat like a pro. Ok, maybe I’ll skip the working out part.

In the meantime, I’ve written a few delicious recipes for the Spice Islands blog, have you seen them? I’ll be contributing recipes for the next few weeks but it was this recipe I wanted to draw your attention to.

In honor of a dear British friend (as well as in an effort to trick myself into thinking I’m not eating mounds of ‘french fries’), the recipe for my Paprika Chips with Roasted Garlic Cumin Aioli can be found here and holy smokes can I tell you that they’re good, if I do say so myself? They’re meant to snack on but they curiously became a main dish for me while photographing them at the studio and then I felt completely guilty that I ate nothing but fries, er, chips all day. Oh well, what else are holidays for?

Check back Friday for the winner! I gotta get busy — peace out!

Food Blogger Camp at Club Med – My Top 10

Our week at Club Med in Ixtapa, Mexico has come and gone. I had every good intention of being as diligent as my fellow bloggers who posted regularly, but a scientifically-proven physical reaction occurs whenever you combine these elements: Cerveza, sunshine, beach and great company. You cannot blog. You cannot stand up straight. Every tendon and corpuscle fills with an antidote for working. It’s only now that I’m able to sit at my computer and gather my thoughts. And I’m pretty sure my shorts are still filled with sand.

Last week Adam and I headed to Club Med Ixtapa for the 2nd Annual Food Blogger Camp. I joined a team of my fellow bloggers and led a workshop on food photography while Adam taught a very informative session of food styling for food bloggers. The camp was attended by several food bloggers from all over the world, some I know quite well and many new faces that I’ve come to adore in just one short week. Our days were filled with extremely informative lessons about writing for blogs, best practices and all things creative while our nights were filled with cocktail hour(s) and amazing dinners overlooking the pacific ocean. There were daily activities like market tours, fishing trips and trapeze acts but I cannot convey the true beauty of the entire weekend: Club Med’s gracious resort and the amazing people I met.

My head is still water logged and I have no doubt I’m still on Mexican time. Please enjoy my Food Blogger Camp at Club Med Ixtapa Top 10 List and when you’re done would you pass me another beer? Gracias.

10. Tortillas
A great tortilla is a marvel: warm, fluffy yet dense with a chewy texture and true corn flavor. One bite and you begin to curse the grocery store variety for its lack of character and its boring uniformity. Luckily for all of us we were treated to glorious handmade tortillas three times a day: as the base for a hearty huevos rancheros, wrapped around tender lengua for lunch, and as an ancient utensil for folding around mole de pollo for dinner. And the tortillas de maiz were just so perfect that no plate ever went uncovered with at least a few thrown on top for good measure. Many times I’d tuck spoonfuls of fresh guacamole inside, top with a sprinkle of salty cotija cheese and dollops of cool-yet-picante salsa y nada mas. A perfect lunch.

9. The People
The more I teach the more I learn. And this past week I may have stood up in front of a tripod and monitor with a plate of tropical fruit but the real lesson was learning from everyone who attended. I’ve learned so many things, been touched by so many personalities and made new friends that I cannot wait to see again. Oslo, here we come.

8. La Playa
Be still my heart. Warm water invites you in as rocky islands stand guard in the distance. Add a constant sticky breeze to the mix and you know you are in Mexico and no place else. Our collective goal was to sneak in beach time in whenever we could, engaging in shoptalk from lounge chairs as we sipped margaritas and beer. And the constant back and forth between Ruhlman and Lebovitz added fireworks to an otherwise lazy afternoon. Just so you know, they’re both always correct.

7. Plenty of Lebovitz Isles & Ixtapa Cocktails
Allow me to take credit for the naming of a delicious cocktail that was once ordered by David Lebovitz in the Bahamas. His preferred sippy was a drink made from champagne and pineapple juice. And folks, it’s goooood. So yea, we had plenty of Lebovitz Isles all week long as well as the resort’s signature drink, The Ixtapa. Muddle slices of lime, orange and pineapple, top with soda water, tequila, a splash of peach schnapps and add plenty of ice. You’re welcome.

Despite appearances I was enjoying it. Really.

6. Trapeze
Flailing high in the air doesn’t make my list because it was fun but rather for the lessons it taught me about life: sometimes no amount of harnesses or belts can keep you from looking like a fool. You simply must go for it, put one foot in front of the other and let go.

5. The workshops
This was the real reason we were all in Ixtapa, after all. And the amount of helpful information and the exchange of ideas has proven invaluable. It was an eye-opening experience to discuss best blogging practices, what motivates us to blog, how to style a gorgeous plate and to incorporate multimedia into our sites. Word on the streets is that this will happen again, I’m not going to miss it for the world. Make sure to check out the end of this post for workshop summaries.

4. The Ruhlmans
What a lovely couple they are. Donna rocks. And that Michael, well, he’s just filled with so much passion for his craft you cannot help but feel the inspiration. The man is a wonder with his words and has helped me to challenge my own ideas about cooking. I forgot to ask him to sign my copy of Ratio but it was in use every day: 1/3 beers, 1/3 margaritas and 1/3 endless guacamole makes the perfect happy hour.

3. David Lebovitz. Even when he reveals my most private and tender moments on the high wire I still can’t help but cherish our friendship. Paris is so lucky.

2. The  Mercado
We sneaked out early one morning with our best friends to experience the market in Zihuatanejo. Diane is the world’s best guide, fearlessly moving towards the good stuff like a fish swimming upstream. You’re wise to follow her lead lest you get left behind. At the market we sampled local fruit and tacos de carnitas washed down with beer. The market ladies greeted us with smiles, stopping to ask me about Adam’s tattoos and jewelry to which one clerk coyishly called out “Guapo!” Tell me something I don’t know!

1. The Lady Miss Jaden
I’m stating the obvious when I tell you that they broke the mold after making Jaden of Steamy Kitchen. Gorgeous, sharp as a tack, funny as hell, the more time I spend with her I just can’t help but love her that much more. And between Steamy Kitchen, her fantastic family and recent book, Jaden’s flawless organization kept us together the entire week like a true professional. How on earth does she do it? I have mad respect for this woman. Thank you Jaden!

Related Posts from Food Blogger Camp Participants
Food Blogger Camp, Part 1 (David Lebovitz)

Food Blogger Camp, Part 2 (David Lebovitz)

All I Got From Food Blogger Camp… (Steamy Kitchen)

Food Blogger Camp: Food Writing, Photography & Styling Tips (White on Rice Couple)

Food Photography, Getting a Cookbook Deal & Zihua Market (White on Rice Couple)

Food Blogger Camp at Club Med Ixtapa (Dianasaur Dishes)

Clicking the Mental Refresh Button in Ixtapa (Foodspiration)

Food Blogger Camp Part Uno (A Beach Home Companion)

Food Blogger Camp Part Dos (A Beach Home Companion)

Food Blogger Camp Part Tres (A Beach Home Companion)

Kickin’ It at Food Blogger Camp (Dianne Jacob)

Food Blogger Camp Tips & Insights (Dianne Jacob)

Sensuous Writing with Corn Pops (Dianne Jacob)

Eating in Paradise (Frantastic Food)

Sunset (Frantastic Food)

A Day at the Beach (Frantastic Food)

And He Said, “Let there be light” (Frantastic Food)

Constants (and Tequila) (Vanilla Garlic)

Zihuatanejo Market: A Short Tour (Vanilla Garlic)

Food Blog Camp Flickr Pool (Photos)

Food Blogger Camp: Ixtapa, Mexico 2010 (RecipeGirl)

Ixtapa Food Blogger Camp Recap (Wasabimon)

Putumayo Brazilian Café Giveaway


First things first: I have never been to Brazil. And I am terribly ashamed to admit this to you.  And you’d think with the amount of times we’ve headed to South America we could at least stop by and pay a visit. But no, I haven’t been. And it’s not only on the top of my list but every Brazilian friend I have basically says the same thing: “What on earth are you waiting for?” That’s an excellent question.

Not a lot of people know that before I stepped into the world of food & design I really wanted to pursue a career in music.  Music was an integral part of my world growing up and just about everyone in my family plays a musical instrument. After years of piano and violin lessons I was bitten by the design bug and threw all my creative efforts into graphic design although I still like to play the piano on occasion. But now it’s really just to annoy others with terrible renditions of Carpenters, Yvonne Elliman and Britney Spears songs.

Some of my earliest musical memories involve sitting on the floor while my dad played Brazilian records. It was that time in musical America where jazz had been fused with Brazilian compositions and for a while it seemed our house was filled with João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luis Bonfa and a roster of other Brazilian composers and musicians. Listening to the music never failed to put a smile on my face as I picked out the few words I understood while my dad usually strummed his guitar along to the music. Perhaps this is why I have an affinity towards Brazilian pop, choro, samba, and especially bossa nova. Put this on and it’s impossible for me to not start swaying. My mood lifts and I drift off, even during those painfully heartbreaking songs. This is a genre filled with spirit, elegance, simultaneous complexity and simplicity, with musical structures no one can even come close to.

When my friend Kaveh at Putumayo asked if I’d be interested in receving a copy of their Brazilian Café complilation I couldn’t hit my reply button fast enough. He made sure to tell me that the CD booklet contained a recipe but really, it was the music alone that excited me.  And now that I’ve been listening to it I thought it’d be great to give away a few copies and share all the sonic goodness.

Putumayo puts out some amazing titles and I’ve been a fan of the label for quite some time. Each compilation focuses on a region or genre of music and is a great first course in discovering new global favorites. With Brazilian Cafe, Putumayo brings together a terrific selection of jazz, samba and bossa nova by up-and-coming artists and it’s been in heavy rotation on my ipod lately.

Next to amazing music, I think the single best thing about Putumayo is its dedication to assisting many non-profits based in the countries whose music they share with the world. There’s a complete list here.

61khzJ06fWL._SL500_AA240_I’m glad Kaveh was open to sending me a few extra CDs when I asked if I could give a few away. And to my surprise he included an additional CD called Picnic Playground from Putumayo Kids, a collection of food-themed songs in English, Spanish and French. I haven’t listened to it yet but I can only guess it’s fun and fantastic.

I’m giving away 5 copies of Putumayo’s Brazilian Cafe + Picnic Playground to the first 5 folks who leave a comment. I’ll email you for your address and send them to you shortly. Promise me you’ll sip a Caipirinha as you enjoy the music, ok?

Good Bite: Decadent Pasta Recipes

My latest video about decadent pasta recipes with my very good friends Elise and Diane is now online at Good Bite. Or you can watch it here below. I must tell you how fun it is working with my friends and maybe one day they will let me make a video with David Lebovitz. Ok, on second thought maybe not. Check it out below.

And here’s how to make it thanks to the ever-so-adorable Aarti Sequeira. I love this woman!

Times Online


Wow! I want to thank the Times Online for selecting this blog as one of their Top 50 in the World! I’m completely humbled to be in the list at #7 and proud to be featured alongside some of my favorite food bloggers, I really am. I am proudly wearing a perma-grin right now.

timesonlinemattOver the next few months they’ll be featuring interviews with food bloggers from around the world. I’m thrilled to be the first in the series. You can read it here.

Woot Woot!

Molasses-Glazed Acorn Squash


Is there some sort of cheap plastic switch nestled deep inside my brain
that gets reset each time the season's change? I swear my friends, I
become some automated eating robot that's completely incapable of
making my own choices when it comes to food. Take Autumn. It wasn't
some gradual ease into the season at my house but a very! drastic!
change! of! the! seasons! I began snubbing the grill and light summer
veggies almost immediately in favor of the tastes that currently rule
my existence: caramelly, sticky, roasted, savory, smoky, braisey, deep
and dark. And you know what? I couldn't be happier.

[Read more…]

Introducing 1000 Markets


My heart has always been with those who follow their dreams and share their talents with the world. No where is this experienced more than with small artisan foodmakers and craftspeople. Theirs is a story rich with insight and background but sometimes things can get a bit too big and busy and those small voices may not ring loud enough to hear. Spend time talking to a grower at a farmers' market, a jewelry maker at a fair, a silversmith at a shop and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

That's why I'm super stoked to let you know that I've teamed up with And what exactly is 1000markets, you ask? It's a community of marketplaces, but it's much more than just a collection of products. It's a place for small, artisan businesses to get together and sell their unique products and share their one-of-a-kind stories. I truly love the idea and was pleased as punch when 1000 Market's creator Matt Trifiro asked if I'd be interested. I've known Matt for about a year and was truly moved when I experienced the site prelaunch. So many stories, so many unique items, and of course I loved the food aspect the most. I asked 1000 Market's creator to answer a few questions.

[Read more…]

When Seasons Collide

My apologies. If you’ve tried to reach me by calling, emailing, texting, smoke-signaling, mental-telepathing or paper-airplaning over the past week then you’ve no doubt reached my busy signal.  And you will continue to get my answering machine for a few weeks longer as this is a splendidly busy time of the year for me. I’m not gonna bore you with the details, but I’m currently cramming three holidays into one and preparing for a very special Spaniard and his partner to come visit. And because he doesn’t read English I can say this very safely: I’m putting him to work when he gets to Los Angeles and plan on sharing his family recipes with you. With his blessing, of course.

Even though it’s been crazy I still managed to make it to my farmers’ market on Sunday morning to stock up and also get some beautiful fruits and veggies for a shoot. And as I walked through the stalls and chatted with folks I remembered how amazing this time of year actually is. It’s probably some of the best summer produce we’ve seen all season along with trickles of what autumn has to offer. It’s when new crop apples share space with super sweet corn, where plums practically burst before disappearing until next year. And it’s a great time to cook, allowing you to take advantage of the bounty.

It’s like Mother Nature’s Two-For-One sale.

I’ll be back shortly, I promise. And in the meantime enjoy some photos from this weekend (except the apples, those were taken last year but if you’re like me you’re pretty excited about the new crops!)