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Chicago Was Christina Chaey’s Test Kitchen

Before she was a staple of Bon Appétit’s obsessively watched YouTube channel, the Northwestern grad and former Chicago intern hung at Hopleaf, Big Star, and the Publican.

Chaey in her home kitchen in Brooklyn   Photo: Emma Fishman / Bon Appétit

It’s the final episode of Bon Appétit’s “Making Perfect: Thanksgiving” YouTube series, and Christina Chaey is not messing around. For weeks, she’s been working with her fellow chefs in Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen to craft original side dishes — in her case, an autumnal squash and radicchio salad and glazed Brussels sprouts — for what will be the apotheosis of all Thanksgiving meals.

Now it’s the eleventh hour, and cameras trail Chaey and her colleagues as they dash around a well-appointed kitchen, determined not to screw up the meal.

“I will not be the last thing on that table,” Chaey vows, cinching her apron.

The Bon Appétit associate editor had reason to be confident: Ten years earlier, before she was racking up millions of views on the magazine’s obsessively watched YouTube channel, Chaey spearheaded a “slapdash” Thanksgiving feast in an Evanston apartment with seven other Northwestern undergrads.

“It was an obscenely enormous turkey — I remember it was like 25 or 30 pounds,” Chaey says. “That’s when I first realized I like cooking for a lot of people.”

At the time, Chaey was a junior at the Medill School of Journalism, covering everything from Bill Ayers’s visit to campus to the drunken antics of Kellogg students for The Daily Northwestern. She bridged her love for journalism and food unwittingly at first, helping assemble The Daily’s Evanston dining guide and profiling a Bon Appétit food editor for a magazine writing class. In 2010, a stint as a Chicago magazine dining intern finally connected the dots.

“In these small, ancillary ways, it became apparent to me that I was interested in this area of journalism, and area of life, generally,” Chaey says.

On living and eating in a big city

I lived in Tenafly, a quiet suburb of northern New Jersey, until I went to Evanston for college. My parents were fairly protective, and I grew up with this idea that New York was a dangerous place. Going to Chicago was my formative experience in a major city. I was like, ‘I’m moving away as far as I can, and I didn’t get into any schools on the West Coast, so Chicago it is!’

In college, I was definitely broke and not hitting the scene. That being said, there are a couple special experiences that remain in my mind, like going out to a Paul Kahan restaurant, even if it was Big Star or The Publican. There’s also Hopleaf in Andersonville, which I still love very much to this day. That’s where I really started diving in to my beer education, because I had never seen so many beers available in one place at once. Then, I had friends that would take me for day-long excursions to panaderías in Pilsen. That was great, too, because that was something I could afford at the time.

On her foray into food journalism

The spring and summer of my senior year, I interned at Chicago magazine. I count that as my first experience as a working journalist. I was the fact-checking intern when I first started, then they asked me if I wanted to become the dining desk intern, which was this very unglamorous job: It was mostly updating the restaurant database on the website. My job day in and day out was calling up these restaurants and being like, “Are you still wheelchair accessible? Are you still open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.?” But I enjoyed it nonetheless; I just wanted to be in the action.

I think I was too preoccupied with doing a good job at my specific task within that department to really understand these people had jobs that I’d perhaps want to have one day. For example, I had very little understanding of why Penny [Pollack, former dining editor] would only eat Goldfish all day. Obviously, it was because she had to go out to eat, possibly at multiple places, every night.

On leaving Bon Appétit to be a line cook

I’ve worked at BA for two separate periods: The first was in 2014 and 2015, then I came back in 2017. I wanted to learn more about the thing I was writing about and approach it from a more tactile perspective, and I had a lot of friends in the restaurant industry who were encouraging me to give it a shot.

One night, I was having drinks at Untitled [at the Whitney Museum] with a friend, and the chef at the time, Michael Anthony, happened to come by. My friend very brazenly was like, “Hey, Mike, Christina wants to start working in restaurants. You should hire her.” We met up for three hours, talked, and I left with a job. I was shocked by that.

I did a lot of freelance writing while I was cooking during that period, just to make things work. I never pursued my food education formally. Culinary school wasn’t a financially viable option for me. But I do think that I got a very specific and valuable education from working in a professional kitchen.

On landing a recurring spot in Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen videos

It was a complete accident. Claire [Saffitz, contributing editor and fellow Test Kitchen star] would probably agree with this, but none of us had any idea all of this was going to happen. I single her out because she was one of the original personalities on that channel who really blew up. Whenever she’s working on something interesting, I’m inclined to pop down to the Test Kitchen — which I do 20 times a day, anyway — and see what’s up. It just so happened that Claire was starting to do more of her work on camera. At first, our interactions just unfolded the way they normally would, just in front of a camera. But eventually, it definitely became this concerted effort, with the directors asking us to pop in while they were filming.

On quarantine cooking

I’m learning that I really, really need to stop buying food. It’s getting absurd. There’s some part of me deep inside that can’t shake the panic buying, and my roommates, my freezer space, and my pantry space are all suffering for it.

I personally have not felt the same cooking fatigue that some people have. I still find it relaxing to take time out of my day to cook something. I’m beginning to wonder how I’m going to go back to normal life without cooking an elaborate lunch for myself every day. That might be one of the only things about quarantine that I’ll miss.

I’ve been doing a baked goods drop-off with some coworkers at University Hospital of Brooklyn. I’ll also make a lot of something, pack them up, and plan drop-offs to my friends’ places around Brooklyn. This past week I made short rib pierogis; the week before that I made pork and shrimp dumplings. That’s been really nice, because I get to see them from however far away.

Lightning round, Chicago dining edition

I’d order one of everything at… Cellar Door Provisions One-stop grocery shop: We have H-Marts in NYC, but I have fond memories of going crazy on my monthly trips to the one in Niles. [The H-Mart on Jackson didn’t open until 2018.] Which dish I’d reverse engineer, Chris Morocco–style: The impossibly flaky-looking chung yao bing [green onion bread] at Lao Peng You in Ukrainian Village. I’ve only ever seen it in photos, but my Chicago friends rave about it.

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