The Art of Great Eating with Ashley Rodriguez
A conversation with food blogger Ashley Rodriguez
Ashley Baron Rodriguez ’04 is the creative genius behind the award-winning food blog, Not Without Salt. She’s the author of two bestselling cookbooks, and Ashley hosts a new YouTube series called Kitchen Unnecessary, which was recently nominated for a James Beard award. Amanda Stubbert, SPU’s director of Alumni, Parent, and Family Relations, recently spoke with this influential foodie in Ashley’s beautiful new event space in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, over a delicious meal.
Amanda: Ashley, you have accomplished an awful lot in the food realm, which I’m sure a lot of people wished they could break into, because it just seems like a lot of fun. But I happen to know you got there through a roundabout way. You didn’t go to culinary school, you didn’t go to college for nutrition. Can you just start by giving us a snapshot of that journey, and how you made your way to food?
Ashley: Yeah. It’s one of those things, when you’re in the midst of the journey, it doesn’t make any sense at all. And now, having the perspective of many years, it’s cool to see how it all perfectly aligned. But I was going to school, getting an art degree and my teaching certification for high school. I was planning on becoming a high school art teacher, and I took advantage of the consortium travel abroad program at SPU. And so, I spent a semester in Italy and I was studying art history, the Italian language. What better way to learn about art, than sitting right under the masterpieces, right?
Ashley: When I was in Italy, I was living off a student budget and I would go to the farmer’s market every week, just to experience it. We were living in a convent — art students were living in a convent. So, I would go back to the convent with my tiny little hunk of Parmesan cheese, and a slice of pizza bianca, which is basically just like focaccia, and I would just cherish that Parmesan and the focaccia. We would go out to eat on occasion. I was spending what little money I did have all on food. At first, I was like, “Oh no, but you can’t take that with you. I should …” While the other girls were out shopping, and trying to find the perfect pair of boots to take home from Italy …
Amanda: That would be me. I would want the boots.
“I was spending what little money I did have all on food.”
Ashley: I know, I wanted some too, but I just couldn’t resist those plates of pasta. The food was so simple, but it was unlike anything that I’d ever tasted before, and I absolutely fell in love. I also realized that it was the first time I experienced a culture that existed around the table. The town shuts down for three hours in the middle of the day, so that people can go home and have a meal with their family, and then take a little nap. Because after a plate of pasta, everybody needs a nap.
Amanda: You rest.
Ashley: Yeah. But those times that we were going out to eat, we were having this incredible experience. I was getting to know the students, and those were the things that I was taking back with me. That time influenced me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I knew that I would be so inspired by the art, and all of that education. But I fell in love with food, and I fell in love with the table basically, and the magic that can happen when you gather people around the table. Things kind of shifted when I came back from Italy, and something clicked that I realized, people can make a living around food and I wanted that, and I just … I fell hard. Just my passion for food grew so quickly, but I wanted to go and see what that looked like a little bit more, before I really considered culinary school, which is a big financial investment. So I just wanted to make sure that I was making the right decision. I actually started by working at the Essential Baking Company. Love that place.
Amanda: I know!
Ashley: Not bad, except that my shift was 7 p.m. ‘til 3 in the morning.
Amanda: Oh, wow. Okay. So much for the social life around the table outside of work.
Ashley: Exactly. My husband, Gabe and I, had just gotten married and he was working in a bank, so he was working 9 to 5, and I was working from 7 p.m. ‘til 3 a.m., baking. But it was a really, really cool experience. It was during the time when William Leaman, who now owns Bakery Nouveau, was the chef there. It was really fun, and he was studying for the Coupe du Monde, the bread baking championship; he competed against France, and he ended up winning. It was really cool, because every day at work he’d be making these incredible bread sculptures.
Yeah, that was an amazing experience. I continued to fall hard for it, and then Gabe and I decided to move to LA. I got a job at Spago Restaurant in Beverly Hills and worked on the line.
Amanda: That’s a very famous restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Ashley: Very well known. It was an incredible experience. Very intense. I felt like I was getting paid to go to culinary school. That was sort of the education that I was receiving. And then, when we were living in LA, we got pregnant with our first kid. And that has a way of shifting everything, right?
Ashley: We were on a different path than what we expected, so we ended up moving back to the Pacific Northwest. And then, I started a blog, and I had a wedding cake and dessert catering business on the side, but the blog was born then, and that’s kind of how it led to everything that I do now. I fell in love with food writing, recipe writing, and food photography. From there, I’ve just continued to follow my passion in food, and just do whatever I can to try and get people around the table, as often as I can.
Amanda: That’s amazing. I love when I hear how people find their passion, and like you said, you didn’t really know, you kind of fell into it. But going through life, especially those earlier years in your life, open to travel and open to experience in your passion, it feels like things just kind of come to you. I love that you can see that throughout your life, of just being open to what’s next, and letting things find you. Do you want to talk to us about your new video series? Because I hear you just got back from shooting an episode in Montana.
Ashley: It’s called Kitchen Unnecessary, and it’s basically the joined passions of my brother and me. My brother is the co-creator. He loves the outdoors, as do I. We both love food, and it was this project that was dreamt up around the campfire. We take our kids, and our other brother’s kids, so there’s three of us siblings, and then each of us has three children. There’s a bunch of them just running in the woods, racing around …
Amanda: What’s the age range of all nine?
Ashley: The oldest is going to be 16 in a few weeks. And then my baby is the youngest, and she’s 8.
Amanda: That’s a great troop.
Ashley: Yeah, it’s really, really fun. They all watch out for each other, and they get along very, very well. We’re sitting around the campfire and year after year, I’m increasing what our campfire looks like. I love good food, and anytime there’s an opportunity to eat, there’s an opportunity to eat beautiful food, and that includes when we’re camping. I just started upping our camp food, and as we’re sitting around, I think we were eating a braised chicken thigh, and we had this cast iron skillet full of melted cheese and we’re dipping bread into it, and just having this incredible experience as we do. We’re sitting around spinning ideas, and my brother is an incredible cinematographer and filmmaker. And so, that’s how Kitchen Unnecessarilywas born.
Amanda: So you have nine kids that are getting along, playing in the woods, and you have gourmet, delicious, perfect food over the campfire. The real question is: Can I come camping with you?
Ashley: We get lots of people inviting themselves onto our camping trips, and I say the more the merrier, you know? Absolutely. That’s part of Kitchen Unnecessary, too, is to hopefully inspire people to spend more time outside and make the food something to aspire to. But it’s also, I hope, very, very approachable. It’s shot so beautifully, but at the same time, it’s supposed to be educational and encourage people to try this technique. Because it is an experience that is unlike any other. We start off by working with a guide who takes us out to forage, hunt, fish, gather these wild ingredients that are accessible. That’s what I was saying to Chris. Just the two of us were out in the woods yesterday, and just for fun out gathering some morel mushrooms and I’m thinking, “Man, wild food, it’s classless. It’s accessible to everyone.”
“We start off by working with a guide who takes us out to forage, hunt, fish, gather these wild ingredients that are accessible.”
In the market, morels are expensive. But if you have a car, if you’re willing to do the research and put in the time, you, too, can come home with a basket of these beautiful mushrooms, and I love that. I love educating people on the bounty that exists naturally, and then doing as little as we can to it, because the ingredient is so incredibly delicious and precious and such a gift. Then we just cook it over the fire, in the way it’s been done for generations and generations, and have this incredible transformative experience while sitting outside. It’s really beautiful.
Amanda: As a mom of two children, and as part of a group of friends that have 10 kids all told, we’ve gone on camping trips for years. What I love most about this is you’re taking the part that’s the chore that someone has to go away from the fun and go do the chore, and you’re making that a lovely part of the experience. Instead of, “Oh shoot, I drew the short straw, this meal. I have to go away from everyone else and go cook.” It becomes actually part of the trip. It’s something that everyone’s involved in and enjoys.
Ashley: And you’re in the center of the fun if you’re cooking, because everyone’s gathered around the fire, and you’re cooking over the fire. I will say, I mean, I know for those family camping trips, I’m like the camp chef in that I create the menu, and then I create a list of like, “Okay, can you your family bring such and such? Can your family may bring such and such?” It’s really not just one person sharing. It’s definitely a shared experience.
Amanda: So you have three small children?
Amanda: As you write cookbooks and keep your blog going and publicized, and launch a video series, no big deal. How do you do all these things? How are there even enough hours in the day?
Ashley: Well, that’s the problem. There aren’t enough hours in the day, but I am not alone in all of these endeavors. My husband is the most supportive and encouraging partner I could have ever asked for. It’s definitely not a solo gig. Now my kids are at the ages where I have a little bit more flexibility in my day. They’re all in school. Also, we try and take them on these adventures with us, and we take them even into the day today. I mean, this space that you see here is often cleaned by my 13-year-old, who needs some spending cash.
Amanda: I love that.
Ashley: Both Gabe and I are freelancers, and we have this gift of time in that we get to be home when they come home from school. But we also have this flexibility that we get to take them into the process, and see what it’s like to grow business, what it’s like to have an idea and follow through with that, the hardships, the joys, all of it. That is such a gift that we’ve created these careers in this life, that they get to be a part of it, and especially as they get older.
It gets easier and easier to bring them into it, and they don’t always want to be brought into it. That’s fine, too. But yeah, especially the last cookbook that just came out, Let’s Stay In, is a collection of recipes that are all approved by them, for the most part. There’s a few that I kind of overrode that I was like, “No, this is going in the book, even though it doesn’t get all three of their thumbs up.”
Amanda: So they cook with you as well?
Ashley: Sometimes. Over the years, it’s sort of changed as they’ve changed, and the boys are not as into it, although it just depends on the day. It’s never been something that I’ve forced. When they were really young, cooking dinner was kind of my sanctuary. I wanted them out of my sight for just like a little bit, so I can have this time to be creative and to play in the kitchen. At that age when they wanted to come into the kitchen, it was very much like, “Okay, this is kid cooking time.” I needed to separate it for myself in order to stay sane. But now they’re really helpful, and they’re starting to do things more just on their own, and I’m trying to encourage them to just go play in the kitchen. Because that was the gift that I feel like my mom gave me: Not being afraid of the kitchen. It’s important to play around if you think that, “Oh, maybe the combination of this, plus this sounds interesting.” Try it. Because I think that one sets you up for a lot of success. It’s one thing to be able to learn how to read a recipe. It’s another to feel like you have freedom.
Amanda: So I do have to ask the one question every parent is thinking: Do you make your kids peanut butter and jelly, and chicken nuggets? Or do they always get grilled asparagus?
“It’s one thing to be able to learn how to read a recipe. It’s another to feel like you have freedom.”
Ashley: They make themselves their peanut butter and jelly. When Gabe and I first started having children, we said, “Okay, we’ll never be like short order cooks.” It’s not going to be the …
Amanda: Three separate meals.
Ashley: Yeah, exactly. But we also never wanted the dinner table to be a battleground. So it’s not, “You have to clean your plate.” But we do have the rule of a “No, thank you bite.” It’s not like, “Okay, you tried the broccoli. Now you don’t ever have to eat broccoli again in your life.” It’s like, “No, every time we have broccoli, you need a no, thank you bite.” That’s how I taught myself to love oysters. It’s like, everyone says so many wonderful things about oysters. I’m missing out on something. And so, I just tried to …
Amanda: Kept trying.
Ashley: … again and again. Then you eventually learn to fall in love with them. But no, they all are their own individuals. They all have different tastebuds. They all have their likes and dislikes, and our food on an everyday basis is quite simple, and it’s nothing too extravagant. My middle son is incredibly adventurous, and he can just pound a dozen oysters all by himself or he loves the pate that they serve at Le Pichet. That’s his love language right there.
I get really excited about food, and I want to be excited about what’s being served for dinner. And so, I cook very seasonally and the food that sounds really good to me, and if they don’t like it … but you know what? Sometimes macaroni and cheese sounds really good, too. Because really, that’s the thing — I want them to find enjoyment in food and understand what a gift it is, and to want to be at the table, because that really is such a precious time.
Amanda: Absolutely, and I know it’s so important to keep trying. I remember trying to make homemade fish sticks for my children one time. Their comment was, “It tastes like wet chicken.” I don’t even know what that means. But it was like, “Okay, that was a fail.” But that didn’t mean I was going to stop trying, right?
Ashley: That’s right.
Amanda: And I think it can be hard. You try, and then when they reject you, just give up.
Ashley: That’s part of the reason why this space that we’re sitting in now was created, because I wanted a table that I could feed people, and people who appreciate food, and appreciate the food that I cook, because I definitely don’t always feel appreciated at my house. Because they are kids and they all have different tastes. Even my husband and I, we have polar opposite tastebuds. I do most of the cooking, so I’m going to cook things that sound good to me. That doesn’t always win fans in the family.
Amanda: So full circle, from this moment in Italy where you say, “I want my life to be about bringing people together around food, creating culture, fostering family,” to this space that you have, the way that you’re reaching folks from your blogs, to your cookbooks, to your videos. What are you most proud of, throughout that whole journey?
Ashley: That’s a good question. I think that in it all, just looking back on that path and seeing the passions emerge, and just fearlessly following that passion, that curiosity. I think sometimes even passion is too big and too scary of a word, and it just starts with this little like igniting light feeling, almost like in your belly that you’re like, “Oh, that sounds fun.” Just every step of the way I’ve listened to that and followed that, and I do feel like it is put there by the Creator. Like, “Okay, this is what I meant to do.” And then, it’s just been so incredible to watch that that unfurl, and see what comes of it in the midst of that. Then bringing people to the table or around the fire, or whatever that looks like, to facilitate these moments of just enjoying life, and enjoying what has been given to us.