Nadine Khalaf Aldridge is worth getting to know.
She’s a bright, charming, generous foodie who plates damned sexy food. It’s tempting to shorten this bio and let her work speak for itself, because it’s that good. “Go forth, fellow foodies, and admire her gorgeous creations on Instagram or on Facebook, or her cookbook-worthy recipes at foodienada.com. Peace out, we’re done here.”
But if you enjoy her work as much as I do, you might be curious about her personality, journey, or inspirations. I had the privilege of spending over an hour with her on the phone and came away smiling, thinking, “Gosh, I’d like to be friends with her. It’s like we’ve always known each other.” She’s engaging, genuine, down to earth, and fun. When she’s not at home making culinary magic, she’s at work as a communication and marketing analyst. Her education wasn’t in the culinary arts, though. It was in biology and chemistry in undergrad, and then French literature for her master’s.
I wondered how her degrees influenced her food blog. Perhaps her writing is better because of the French lit, but I get the feeling it’s her personal qualities that have had the biggest impact. She was born in Achrafieh, Lebanon and grew up during the civil war there. She wanted to help by becoming a soldier or a doctor, so it’s no surprise that when we fast-forward to when she started instagraming her beautiful food and her followers asked a couple times a week, “how did you make this?!”, that underlying caring quality expressed itself again: she wanted to help, so she volunteered her recipes.
She’s a giver. I love givers.
We should thank Nadine’s parents for raising this giving, wonderful daughter, but can we credit them with inspiring her to cook, too? I think so. When her mother was bedridden, eight-year-old Nadine would make her dad salad, potatoes, and steak in a pan. Seeing his reactions made her want to learn how to be a good housewife/cook who could take care of her family. She would continue to take instruction and learn from mom.
At twelve years old, her family immigrated to Virginia, then moved to San Diego, and finally settled in the great state of Texas. Nadine’s favorite part of the state is Dallas because it’s full of national and international transplants. There’s enough diversity and academia there to keep it interesting. Did her cuisine yearn to be Texan too? After reflecting, she says no; her mom and her Lebanese upbringing were the biggest influences, along with trips to Europe and France in particular, where she refined her palate. California’s style of cooking—using tons of fresh produce—was also crucial.
Being a huge fan of Alton Brown and Jacques Pépin, I had to ask Nadine who her favorite celebrity chefs were. It turns out we both love Mr. Pépin. Also on her list are Mario Batali, Michael Symon who’s very talented, Ina Garten who never went to culinary school, and Joël Robuchon, who’s an amazing French chef. When asked “why Joël?”, Nadine’s reply: “I would love to eat at one of his restaurants. His mashed potato is equal parts butter and potato; you just want to swim in it!” Her favorite kind of cooking show is one where they’re cooking something complex or difficult, not just peeling carrots. I apologize to all the expert carrot peelers for our lack of appreciation of your skills. There’s irony here, because—and I’m blushing/giggling/shaking-my-head as I admit this—I actually enjoy peeling carrots quickly and perfectly, with minimal waste.
At this point, we’re beginning to understand Nadine, the person: what she values; what she likes. What about the story behind the blog? How did she go from posting photos on Instagram to having an elegant presentation of the underlying recipes? At first, with around 15 followers, it wasn’t hard to share recipes. As the number grew (today at over 2000), more people asked for them and retyping became difficult. It was also hard to share when she’d never really measured the ingredients. The natural next step was: be deliberate about documenting the recipe (and measuring!) and centralize the result in a blog. But she didn’t stop there.
She did extensive research about blogs and about photography. Hints like, “take photos in natural sunlight,” and details about blog layout and how to best convey her passion. And that’s what it became: a passion. In her words, “sharing something I love with someone else, whether I know them or not.” But it’s still more than that. Eventually, when she has hundreds of recipes, she’d like to leave it to her daughter as a keepsake. May the d’awwing commence. She reminded me of Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture which is similarly inspiring.
After hearing about all this cooking and blogging, my thoughts went to the only place they could go: who eats all that gorgeous food?
Most of the posts are made for brunches of about 10-12 people. A small number are for occasional things like Father’s Day or her husband’s birthday and about a third are done on the weekends, when she cooks for her family and has time for the extra effort of measuring.
She has a few go-to ingredients, starting with the simplest (yet one of the hardest to measure, because it gets added gradually): salt. She uses extra virgin olive oil for pretty much everything (even Tex-Mex!), lemon juice/zest, fresh herbs as often as possible, and organic tomato paste, which is one of the few things she’ll buy jarred. Her absolute favorite ingredient to use on potatoes or French fries is Piment d’Espelette. It’s like a sweet pepper, but a little spicy. Mostly delicate. I can’t wait to try it.
One of her favorite things to make is flank steak. I’m drooling at her photo even though I’ve never tasted her cooking because her plating is so exceptional. She can’t possibly cook all these amazing things for every meal though, right? So I asked her what she cooks most often, day-to-day. “It’s a lot more Lebanese food than anything else. More Mediterranean. Tabbouleh maybe 3-4 times a week, hummus a few times a week, salads for dinner, lots of stews.” On the weekends is when she goes all out. And this is a working mom, remember. Respect.
I had to put my admiration aside to ask what she’s planning for the future. In the short term, she wants to learn more about how to make the blog look better. She’s not ashamed of the work she’s done—she did it all herself—but, for example, she wishes she’d taken photos in better lighting. She might want to learn more about the technical details of blogging, including HTML/CSS, how to market it, and this whole “trendy social media thing” (my words, not hers). Longer term, she dreams of going to a farmer’s market, making something, inviting friends or strangers over for taste testing, then writing cookbooks. Maybe full time. Maybe sneak off to culinary school too. How cool would that be?! I kind of want to ask Gordon Ramsay for help. Let’s make an episode with Nadine for one of his shows and dedicate it to plating. Best food porn wins.
I feel fortunate to have met Nadine. She invited me to dine with her someday, and I look forward to that day gleefully (flank steak, I’m looking at you). My only regret about this interview is that I didn’t ask her husband for any juicy tidbits that she “forgot” to mention. Like maybe a secret love of eating plain mayonnaise out of the jar at 3AM while watching Married With Children reruns. There’s still time. I’ll call him as soon as I can. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed reading about Nadine as much as I enjoyed interviewing her.
—Mark Feghali (MFF)