Kitchen Talk with Robyn Andrea Burgess of Runaway Apricot

From an early age, Robyn Andrea Burgess knew that cooking was going to be a lifelong passion. Now a private chef, cooking instructor and founder of the blog Runaway Apricot, Burgess is making her mark on the world of healthy cooking. She shared with us some of her favorite memories from the kitchen, recipes and tips for aspiring healthy chefs.


Tell us a little about yourself...
Hi, my name is Robyn Andrea Burgess and I was raised in Oxon Hill, Maryland. I came to New York City almost 10 years ago to attend Columbia University and now I live in Harlem. I am the founder of Runaway Apricot, a blog focused on local, seasonal and healthy cooking from scratch, and I also work full-time in cross-channel marketing. Coincidentally, today is my 27th birthday!

What is your earliest cooking-related memory?

As I grew up, my father always made Sunday morning breakfast before we all headed off to church. Each week we would have a huge menu of pancakes, eggs, fried potatoes, bacon or sausage, orange juice, and more. My first experiences in the kitchen, as a very tall 5 or 6 year old, were helping him flip pancakes or measuring out the water to reconstitute the orange juice from concentrate. He would always sing on Sunday mornings so I liked being there with him in the kitchen.

How did you first become interested in cooking?
I first became interested in cooking when I was about 7 years old. My mom always bought great ingredients but didn’t have great technique for preparing meals. I started studying cookbooks and cooking shows so I could learn how to avoid overcooked broccoli and underseasoned chicken and slowly took over the duties of cooking dinners. Later, when I was in high school, I created my own business of selling baked goods to classmates and family friends under the name Runaway Apricot (a match to my first name, Robyn Andrea). As I was earning all the money I needed for new clothes or going out with friends I kept exploring how to be a better and better home cook.

Why did you start your blog?
I started RunawayApricot.com in 2009 to record my thoughts as I explored my passion for food. As an anthropology major at Columbia I chose classes and papers that allowed me to study food systems and food behaviors. The blog gave me the opportunity to build on my work as a student and practice communicating my belief that food choices represent cultural, political and economic choices. By teaching people how to cook from scratch I believe that I am helping others to make healthful choices that will make our community strong and successful for generations to come.

      

 

What type of food/cuisine do you like to cook most, and why?
I make New American cuisine - uncomplicated dishes with ingredients that are grown locally but influenced by world cuisines. By sourcing many of my ingredients from local farmers markets I’ve grown an appreciation for how incredible natural flavors are when the fruits or vegetables were picked just hours or days prior as opposed to weeks in advance like can be the case at traditional grocery stores. I do what I can to complement or enhance those flavors with simple treatments and herbs, spices, and acids without obscuring the natural taste.

What has been your most rewarding cooking-related moment?
My most rewarding moment as a chef and food blogger was pulling all of my skills together to teach my first cooking class in mid-January. I hosted the class as a 7-year anniversary celebration for RunawayApricot.com and taught almost 30 students ranging in age from 13 to 60, all races and religions. The diversity of the crowd reminded me of how many lives can be changed by learning to cook healthy and affordable foods with confidence. Sometimes I wonder if I should be pursuing other avenues to make a business of my passion for food - like opening a restaurant or producing a food product - but the class helped to reaffirm my goal of teaching my community to cook.

What is your number one cooking tip/technique?
Mind the temperature! Cooking is a transference of heat that changes ingredients at a molecular level. If you get distracted and the pan is too hot, there’s no going back to fix overcooked (read: burnt) food. Then again, if the pan is overcrowded the temperature can drop and cause food to steam rather than sear in flavor. Keep an eye on the temperature of the pan and make adjustments when needed to maintain the correct temperature. Anyone who can master temperature will become a much more confident cook.

What kinds of cooking classes do you teach?
My cooking classes focus on healthy cooking fundamentals. I like to discuss the impact of eating local and seasonal produce, proper technique for knife and cooking skills, and how to be agile in the kitchen by making substitutions or seasoning to taste. Ultimately my aim is to show people that cooking high-quality foods from scratch is both easy and affordable.

What is your favorite restaurant, and what should we order?
My favorite restaurant is Jaleo by chef José Andrés in Washington, DC. I worked there as a hostess right after graduating high school and was able to make my way through nearly every item on the menu of Spanish tapas. It’s a fun environment that makes you want to share and discover new dishes and has had a major influence on the way I construct meals.
  
What is your favorite recipe, either of the moment or all-time?
My recipe for Kohlrabi and Apple Salad with Manchego and Walnuts is one of my favorites because it represents the exploration of an ingredient that was new to me - kohlrabi. The crisp white flesh mirrors that of tart Granny Smith apples so I paired the two for a new take on a simple Spanish salad that was on the menu at Jaleo. The resulting salad is juicy, sweet, tart, nutty, a little salty and absolutely delicious.

  




What is one misconception about healthy cooking?

Food marketing tricks a lot of people into believing that you need fancy, packaged "health foods" in order to have a healthy diet. The truth is, if something has a label that reads “natural” or “healthy,” it’s likely to be an empty promise and marketing trickery. I believe in buying the highest quality raw fruits and vegetables that one can afford, manipulating it as little as possible, and serving it while fresh is the healthiest food one can get. No labels, no boxes, no value-added “convenience” products to create confusion or stand between the farmer and the consumer.

Who has been the most influential person to you in your cooking career?
My mother’s braggadocious support of my cooking has been critical to my development as a chef. From the very beginning she was excited for me to cook for the family while offering rave reviews of my meals. That gave me the confidence to keep studying and learning to be a better cook when I was just a teenager and continues to this day.

For someone who focuses on healthy eating, what is your one guilty pleasure?

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures because I will eat anything and everything in moderation. That said, there are some dishes that I LOVE but refuse to cook at home because I want my home to be a temple of healthy cooking. I will not cook burgers at home because they’re my favorite food and if I get good at making them I know I’ll start opting for ground meat too often. Home is for healthy.

How do you define beauty?
Beauty is vigorous self-love. It’s the confidence to embrace one’s natural self. You have to feed beauty from the inside with nourishing foods, lots of water and as much fun as possible. And on the outside, just like food, you should enhance or complement your beauty with simple treatments that don’t obscure your natural flavor.

(Photo credit: Robyn Andrea Burgess and Sadé Clacken Joseph)
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