Judith Rontal, Food Blogger & food waste's arch nemesis

For anything related to cooking, eating or hosting: this food blogger and former restaurant publicist has some genius tips.
Discover Judith's Lists in Compell'd

Talking to Judith is a bit like watching your favorite cooking show. The more you listen, the more ideas you walk away with that you can’t wait to try for yourself. Her approach to minimizing food waste is inspiring and doable, and you won’t want to miss the stories she shares from her time as a restaurant publicist (we’re still talking about them). Learn more about her, below.

 

Give us a little bit about your background - how did you fall in love with food?

I grew up in a Jewish family, and food was always a gathering point for us. Hosting big meals for the holidays was a family occasion, which meant we all got involved. As a child I enjoyed burning the egg for Passover (we used cinder blocks to make mini bonfires) and secretly drinking Elijah’s cup of grape juice to prove he came to our Seder,  but I realized later that actually making the food can be a fun part of it all, too. 

It really wasn’t until I moved to DC after college that I got into learning techniques and developing a whole strategy around cooking. I was on a tight budget with student loans and high rent, but also running regularly and wanting to eat healthy. I like to say I learned to cook from cabbage. It goes back to when I was grocery shopping right around St. Patty’s Day, because all of the cabbage was on sale. I was looking around, and I realized I could buy either spinach or cabbage, and the cabbage was so much cheaper (25 cents a pound!). So I bought a ton of cabbage and went home to Google what to do with it. And by the way, cabbage is an amazing thing to learn to cook with... It never goes bad and you can practice some knife skills. You can roast it, ferment it, you can even blanch it and use it as wraps, it can be sweet or savory. I just love it.

From there, my love of food deepened even further once I started hosting and creating social experiences around food. Cooking and eating alone has never been enjoyable, and actually, I went through a bit of a struggle with food and dealt with an eating disorder that I’ve since recovered from. It really wasn’t until I started cooking and hosting that I had a positive experience with food, which in turn helped me overcome my eating disorder as I learned to love to be around it.

“It wasn’t until I started cooking and hosting that I had a positive experience with food and learned to love to be around it.”

Thank you for sharing that part of your story with us, that is absolutely incredible. Tell us a little bit about how you’ve taught yourself to cook over the years?

Well, after I started to cook more and more, my curiosity just kept growing! I started to go to the farmers market, and I would see new foods that I had never cooked or eaten before, and I let that inspire me to ask questions and learn. It just kind of builds and builds over time, and as you get more comfortable doing something, you get more curious--or at least in my case. You know, if you look at the kitchen with fear, you’re never going to be happy there. You just have to take baby steps. I’m a runner, and running a half marathon is the same way. You don’t start with 13 miles or homemade pasta, you begin with 5k’s and homemade mac and cheese (add paprika).

“If you look at the kitchen with fear, you’re never going to overcome it. You just have to take baby steps.” 

You develop some amazing recipes (and have won some recipe contests!). Tell us a bit about your creative process in the kitchen.

I rarely start completely from scratch. A big part of what I do is I look in the fridge and see what needs to be used, because I absolutely hate food waste. From that foundation I challenge myself to use absolutely everything that I have (hence my Watermelon Rind Kimchi). The other day, I had a really sad looking cauliflower and some herbs. I remembered I had seen a Francis Lam recipe for Ginger Scallion Sauce, so I made something similar with the scallions and cilantro I had on hand, and used it on the cauliflower. I love reading through recipes, but I rarely ever follow them precisely… I’ll only do that if it’s the very first time I’m making it, and even then it’s hard for me to resist making adjustments. Over time, I’ve learned where to make judgments based on budget, the time I have, and my personal preferences (I hate olives). 

It really comes down to letting yourself learn and try different things in the kitchen. And mind you, they don’t always work out. There was one time I had beet greens I wanted to use, and what I made came out terribly. I hate food waste so much that I forced myself to eat it for dinner but couldn’t stomach the leftovers the next day. The taste was fine but I didn’t properly clean the greens ahead of time so there was a ton of dirt in the dish! But really, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Most of the time you can add a bunch of hot sauce or tahini and it will be fine :)

How do you discover the food minds that you follow?

There are some people that I’ve been following forever, like Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen. She takes a similar approach to my cooking style, meaning that she’ll start with a recipe she likes and modify it from there. She always links to her inspiration, so I’m able to find a lot of new sources from her. I’m also a part of the Food52 Cookbook Club on Facebook, and I love being a part of this online community around at-home cooking. I peruse through the comments and photos of what people are cooking, especially if I’m thinking about trying out a recipe from that month’s book. I also check out cookbooks from the library to browse through; cookbooks are a great source of inspiration and the library is a free resource to use. 

Do you have any tips for limiting food waste when you’re hosting one of your famous dinner parties?

I usually start menu planning based on what I’m in the mood for. I’ll find one dish that I want to eat myself, and I’ll go from there. Like maybe, I’m really craving beet hummus. So if I make that, I’ll have beets, I’ll have chickpeas, I’ll have tahini. And because I’ll have beets, I’ll also have beet greens. So I’ll think, what else can I make with those ingredients? I’ll start with one recipe and figure out which flavors and ingredients to extend throughout the meal to minimize waste but also make the menu more cohesive. I did this via a taco bar recently because I was craving Mexican food, and it was great because everyone could build their own meal based on their personal preferences (and it makes great leftovers, too).

You’ve worked as a food and restaurant publicist - tell us a little about this experience.

From my experience, I can tell you that life as a chef is not sexy! They taste all day (they carry spoons in their aprons) and by the time they get home and are ready to eat, it’s super late and they need food fast. I’ve seen chefs at incredible restaurants (I’m talking two Michelin stars) bring lunchables for their meals, or go out and get a footlong from Subway. 

A lot of times in food PR, you’re not dealing with the chef. You’re working with the marketing people or with the communications manager. My favorite experiences were when I dealt with the chefs directly, because I loved learning about their stories behind the food they were making. One of my favorite chefs I worked with gave me a sourdough starter she created from her family's apple tree in Italy! Those connections through food are what I really loved about the job.

Something else that I learned is that a lot of these “Best XX Dish in DC” (or any city) are made for clickbait. The person writing the list may not have even gone to all of the places on that list, it’s all about the best photos and who’s the most persistent PR person. You always have to get your recommendations from people you trust, and these lists aren’t always personal in my experience but they are a great starting base for ideas.

“A lot of these ‘Best XX Dish in DC’ lists are made for clickbait - the person writing the list may not have even gone to all of these places. You always have to get your recommendations from people you trust.”

Thanks so much, Judith! I’m a fellow Wolverine who hasn’t been to nearly any of your Ann Arbor finds, and honestly, I’m embarrassed and will change that ASAP.

Discover Judith's Lists in Compell'd
February 20, 2020

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