I first got to know Chris Mower in high school, and he always struck me as a highly talented, cheerful person. I’m so glad he agreed to let me interview him for my “Inspired By” series! To learn more about the “Inspired By” project, click here. For more “Inspired By” interviews, click here.
A Word of Warning: Grab a snack before you start reading this interview, because all the great recipes Chris talks about (not to mention the photos) will make you hungry!
Kim Harris Thacker: Tell us about yourself and your creative work.
Chris Mower: Hmm… this is always the hardest question people ask in interviews. I’ll try to be brief: If it’s creative, I’m drawn to it. This has made it difficult to focus on one specific thing through the years. There are two things that I’ve always come back to though: web design and cooking. I try to balance both of those interests out as fairly as I can.
Lately, I’ve been highly focused on cooking and recipe creation. I feel at home in my kitchen; it’s a workshop of sorts for me where I can experiment with flavors, textures, and colors. I don’t really see any downsides right now to cooking, even washing the dishes and cleaning up the aftermath can be enjoyable. During those times I find myself contemplating what I learned, how I might improve a dish, or just shutting off my brain and giving it a break.
KHT: How did you become involved in your art form?
CM: Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away… oh wait, wrong story. Sorry.
Every December for as long as I can remember, my mother spent hours in the kitchen making delicious vittles for our neighbors as a Christmas gift. These treats consisted of English butter toffee, cookies, divinity, cookies, penuche, cookies, peanut brittle, cookies, caramels, cookies, chocolates, and cookies. I looked forward to this every year. It was a fun way to spend time as a family.
As I’ve carried the candy making tradition on in my own family, my interests have widened, though I always find myself coming back to the sweet sugar-packed goodies.
A few years ago I felt stuck in my job and needed a creative outlet. I’ve always loved writing and I decided that I could use that as a release. I didn’t have anything specifically that I felt like writing about—I just wanted to write and unwind. After a few attempts at writing about various things, I decided to focus on food, as it was something that has been a large part of my life (as my belly will testify). I created a website called The Cooking Dish (www.thecookingdish.com) and began to research and answer questions that I had. The only difference now was that I was sharing it with anybody else who might be interested.
My first blog posts were awful: I cringe when I go back and read some of them. I can’t decide if I should go back and rewrite them or leave them alone to remember the “good ol’ days.”
KHT: What excites you the most about your art form?
CM: I love almost everything about cooking, but a few things are especially pleasurable. First, working with food is a full-on sensory experience. The smells, tastes, textures, sounds, and looks of food are all very real and exciting; each sense plays an integral part in a recipe. The kitchen is the perfect place for a curious person like me who loves to play and experiment with those senses.
Second, food brings people together. I absolutely love being in the kitchen with family and friends, and food has a way of opening people up to sharing stories and ideas. I believe that anything good is worth sharing, and that’s especially true with food. As part of that, cooking with my kids provides great teaching moments. It gets pretty messy at times, but it sure is a lot of fun.
Third, cooking is introspective. Many times I’ve purposely taken the long route when cooking, such as kneading dough or whisking batters by hand, so that I have time to think. I’ve learned a lot about myself, what I believe, and even figured out difficult issues while cooking. It’s amazing to me how many parallels can be drawn between food and life. As I let myself open up, realizing I don’t know it all, the easier it becomes to learn.
KHT: How does your work allow you to explore the world?
CM: Food is at the heart of every culture. Take chicken for example. There are thousands of ways to cook a chicken and they differ from country to country. Heck, even in America chicken tastes and is prepared differently from state to state. Thanks to the Internet, I’m able to look up recipes from all over the world and learn how they’re prepared and experiment on my own.
I dream of traveling the world and learning to cook the cultural foods at each destination. To me, that would be heaven.
Another fun part of cooking is eating at a restaurant (I love foreign foods) and then coming how and figuring out how to duplicate the dish. I like the challenge, and I especially like saying, “I did it!” I recently changed my fried rice recipe after eating at an Indian restaurant. I loved the flavor of their fried rice so much, that I had to create it at home.
KHT: Tell us about your work routine. Do you have an office or workspace? Do you work for a certain amount of hours each day/week? Do you listen to music while you work? Wear bunny slippers? Eat gobs of bon-bons?
CM: Between my full-time job and freelance web design business I don’t get a lot of time to cook on the weekdays, which is unfortunate. Therefore, I usually end up cooking on Saturdays and Sundays. The weekends are also the best time if I’m going to be taking pictures of the food, that way I have the option of using morning, afternoon, or evening light.
The process of creating, making, and posting a new recipe to my blog is actually extremely time consuming, though I’m slowly becoming faster at it. I keep a notebook with all my ideas, and often will pull out the colored pencils and sketch what I want the final dish to look like. At this point I also begin to look for food pairings: textures, flavors, and so forth.
When I think I’ve got the idea to where I want it to be, I’ll purchase the groceries, bring them home and get to work. Chop chop chop, stir stir stir, etc. etc. etc.
During the whole process, I keep my camera and tripod next to me and take pictures every step of the way. I style the final dish for the beauty shots and take a few more pictures. Then, I edit the pictures and write my post. A 30-minute recipe can take up to 4+ hours from start to finish. During this time, music is a must… I find The Weepies especially enlightening. But movies are off limits during the creation period as they’re way too distracting.
KHT: Tell us about a project you worked on that meant a great deal to you/has been your favorite project so far.
CM: Creating my ninja birthday cake was a blast. It was the first (and so far, last) time I’d worked with marshmallow fondant. I also created a new inner frosting with mint, raspberries, chocolate and a couple other flavors. It was the BEST frosting I’ve ever tasted on a cake. It made up for the fondant, which in my opinion has never been tasty.
When all was said and done, the cake itself was pretty goofy looking but it tasted great! To top it off, I cut it up with a katana. I enjoy the nerdy things in life. I found out that it takes a lot of practice to use fondant, and it’s ones skill that I just haven’t quite gotten the hang of yet.
KHT: Tell us about your current project.
CM: I have numerous recipes that I’ve been developing, but haven’t had a chance to post yet. They’re more focused on meals instead of desserts. I’m pretty excited about them. One is a replica of a Chinese-inspired dish I had a restaurant.
I also recently started blogging for General Mills in their Betty Crocker and Pillsbury divisions. [You can click here to see one of Chris's recipes--a yummy one for lemon-garlic chicken drumsticks!] So far, it’s been pretty good, but it can also be stressful. I absolutely love creating new things every month, but my schedule makes it difficult to balance that with my own blog and website design business.
KHT: Where do you get your inspiration for your work? Do you ever encounter the equivalent of “writer’s block”? If so, how do you get past it?
CM: Inspiration comes at random times for me. Sometimes I’ll sit down and have a brainstorming session. Other times ideas literally just pop into my head, so I’ll quickly scribble them down or sketch out a picture of what I’m thinking. The worst is when inspiration happens in the shower (and we all know that’s when the best ideas come) because I have nowhere to write it down and hopping out of the shower and streaking across the house to get a pen and paper really isn’t the best option.
So far I haven’t experienced any sort of writers block when creating recipes. I’m sure it’ll come. I definitely experience it on occasion when typing my blog posts or recipe descriptions. The only way I’ve been able to get past it is to just write something out, even if it’s crappy. It’s like a piece of dried ink in your pen. Sometimes you’ve just gotta’ scribble and write until the ink starts to flow again. Then, when the creative spark has returned, I’ll delete the crappy stuff.
KHT: Do you have any advice for folks who would like to get involved in your particular art form?
CM: I think it’s important to remember that cooking becomes more fun the more you know about it and are willing to experiment. I’ve burned my fair share of toast, ruined my fair share of eggs, and have made a lot of really cruddy (and nearly inedible) food. But that’s part of the game, and I love it. Laugh about it, take a bite to remember how awful it was, throw it away (or frame it?), and move on.
I once ruined an Easter dinner by cooking an already cooked ham to the point that it turned gray. It looked putrid and had the texture of a rubber band, but we tried it out anyway. I could only handle a couple bites it was so terrible. Every year around Easter we remember that large grotesque piece of meat as the “ham dog.” It was awful, but makes for a great memory.
Let’s have a moment of silence to remember the ham dog.
But seriously, if you really want to learn how to cook, you have to be willing to make mistakes. Embrace those mistakes. They will make you better.
And one more thing: start simple. Add one ingredient and spice at a time and then taste it. Add another and then taste it. Some of the finest dishes, in my opinion, have very few ingredients. More does not equal better. It also helps to read a few books. Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking is one I highly recommend.
KHT: What/who inspires you?
CM: My greatest inspiration comes from human expression through art. This includes music, photography, painting, writing, film, and dance. I don’t do all of these things myself (count your blessings, you don’t want to see me dance), but seeing the creativity and ability of the human race to express feelings and emotion through these mediums is profound and deeply inspiring to me.
KHT: Of course, I have to ask: What are the names of a few of your favorite books?
CM: I’m a book junkie and am always reading something. For the past 5 months I’ve been reading all I can about religion. I’ve probably polished off few thousand pages so far this year. I have a few more books on my reading list before I’ll move to another subject.
Before that I spent about 6 months devouring as many cooking-related books I could, and before that it was the classics: Pride and Prejudice (which I’ll admit was delightful), The Chosen, Little Britches, etc. For a long while, I was also reading all the business books I could get my hands on. To say the least, I definitely make the rounds.
When it comes down to it though, my favorite favorites are:
The Lord of the Rings trilogy. These ones take the cake for me. I love those books. I’ve read them numerous times and find them inspirational and captivating.
The Harry Potter septology (look at me, creating recipes and words, w00t!). I get lost in J.K. Rowling’s language and fun plot lines.
The Chronicles of Prydain (The Horned King, The Black Cauldron, etc.). Lloyd Alexander was a great story teller and these are remarkable.
Chris, thank you so much for doing this interview! You are a hoot! I had a lot of fun learning more about you, and I wish you the very best in all your many enterprises! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find something delicious to eat…
You can find Chris blogging and/or discover some of his recipes at these websites:
You can also follow Chris on Twitter (@FireSamurai) and Pinterest (FireSamurai). His facebook page, The Cooking Dish, can be found by clicking here.