Cooking With Alex Hill: A Lesson in Food & Finding Your Way on Your Terms
Alex and I met working in NYC. We were “entertainment publicists in the best city in the world” as one of our mutual friends drunkenly reiterated to us all every time we were hating life from being broke and overworked. It’s been a few years since then but I always remember Alex having the best outfits, full of energy and with a smile. Always genuine, honest and confident.
Alex turned her passion for cooking into a blog, Just Add Hot Sauce, and in 2019 she took it a step further and introduced Cooking With Friends. Through Cooking with Friends, Alex aims to not only share her love for cooking, but also show us all that cooking is fun, affordable and something ANYONE can do.
My recent conversation with Alex quickly took me back to our time together, the many cubicle chats, around what was next for our careers and as individuals. I’m not surprised to hear that through the years she has been able to forge her own path, allowing herself to create a productive place for her dreams to become a reality on her own terms. She talks about her journey with such ease and grace, it’s easy to overlook the admirable amount of courage, drive, conviction and confidence it took to get here.
As we chatted she was washing dishes, prepping to make a delicious Jamaican dish I can’t even pronounce. Again reminding me of her beautiful authenticity and how that perhaps is one of her biggest gifts to us all. Alex has channelled her authenticity into creating a safe and relatable space where food and cooking are not complicated, intimidating or cumbersome but rather a labor of love and friendship meant to nourish not only our belly but also our soul.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Adri - How did you start Cooking with Friends? I feel you've always done it but then all of a sudden it was something formal that you were doing.
Alex - I always cooked, my mom taught me how to cook when I was younger. I remember being 12 and really getting into it. I was gonna go to culinary school but my mom was like, “bitch, you're going to college,” she wanted me to do the college thing and I did. I kept cooking in college, then I moved to New York and the idea of going to culinary school came back up. I kind of always toyed with it, ‘cuz it's what I love, but it's $40,000 to go to culinary school, and I already had $40,000 in debt from college...so NO. Also, I knew I didn't want to be a chef, I did not want to work in a kitchen and do the whole line cook thing.
After a few years working in the city, I moved to DC for a bit, then came back to NYC and got an apartment, that's when I really got back into it. I had the time, and felt more settled. But it kicked into high gear this summer, I found myself really wanting to encourage people to cook more. People think it's so hard and are intimidated so I decided to do Cooking with Friends to help get rid of that, I really think people can cook anything. That started the IGTV thing.
Then this past February, before the world came crashing down, I expanded it with in-person cooking classes. I went to a cooking class in December at the Institute of Culinary Education, and it was super, super fucking informal. There was no introduction, no icebreaker, not really meeting people at their level. I came home and I told my boyfriend, I want to start teaching cooking classes and it just went from there. I'll be back when the world opens back up!
Quarantine has honestly also taken it to the next level, I just started cooking all the time, it was my way of finding a release from all the shit that's going on. I just tuned out everything and started cooking literally every day!
This honestly has really taught me what I actually love and what I don't love. Life is precious, its too fucking short to not be doing what you want and love.
Adri -You are finding your own outlet and also forming this community, which is amazing.
Alex - Yeah, I feel especially for people of color, we don't have a person. Either you know, a big time chef, or your grandmother who has been cooking for 50 years, but we don't know anyone in between. No, you don't need to have a Michelin Star to get in the kitchen, or be on Chopped or Top Chef just get in and try anything! if it doesn't work out, try it again tomorrow or in a week.
For me, I do more informal cooking, I love cooking with people. Samin Nosrat from Salt Fat Acid Heat said something at the end of her documentary I really like, she was like there's something amazing about working with people in the kitchen and knowing someone knows how to properly toss a salad, or they know how to cut an onion, or can taste there is too much acid in a salad dressing. For me that's so gratifying, I'm teaching people how things should taste, training their taste buds.
Adri - I've never thought about that, do you think culturally, through a POC lens we are more intimidated to cook?
Alex - I think so, there's so many dishes and traditions that are passed down that I do think we get intimidated. I'm half black and half Puerto Rican so I got the Spanish food on one side, and then we got the soul sided. That’s a lot I'm not going to get right on the first try.
We constantly fear we are not going to get it all right so we don’t cook, “oh I don't know how to make collard greens so I'm not going to try” but you can put your own spin on it. One of my friends at work she's Caribbean and she has told me, “I'm not really good at making rice, I just know so many people that make rice perfectly so I'm intimidated to make it.” So yeah I do, I feel there's a lot of pressure around the idea of grandma did it this way, or my dad did it this way and if you don't do it exactly their way it’s not going to be good.
I feel with people of color, there is some cooking ingrained in us all. You either were in the kitchen with your grandmother, grandfather, or parents and you learned how to do something, it might not be perfect but you got something.
And half the battle is just getting in the kitchen and actually trying it. “Does that taste right? Do I like the flavor of it ? Is it too much salt, do I need more onion?” Just taste it.
Adri - Do you have a ritual when you get into the kitchen?
Alex - I have to have my favorite wooden spoon and my favorite knife. It's so random but if I have those things, and my kitchen is clean before I start cooking I’m good. Oh, and I cannot be wasted while cooking, other than a drunk meal, like a bacon, egg and cheese. Since I've been in quarantine I've done a couple of dishes where I've had too many glasses of wine and it always comes out very weird, because I wasn't paying attention to it. Your food knows when you are paying attention to it. So yes, I cannot I cannot be drunk and my kitchen has to be clean.
Adri - When you're cooking with people, what are some of your pet peeves?
Alex- If you cannot chop an onion, that is my pet peeve. It drives me nuts, I think because I cry with onion so you have to be able to move fast and chop it properly so we can get it over with.
Adri - Do you have any really strong memories of cooking with your family?
Alex - Honestly, cooking was THE time where I could spend time with my mom. I don't think she was that great of a cook until she divorced my dad, when my brother and I were young she had to feed us on her own. She didn't want to feed us the same things that all the other families would eat so she used Sunday dinners to try out dishes and hopefully we liked them. My mom was in the kitchen all day on Sunday, and I would either help her, or be her taste tester and I loved every second of it, I really did. For my mom it was a means to feed her kids but also she didn't want to eat the same thing so she forced herself to try different things. I remember she bought a Patty LaBelle cookbook and really wanted to master it.
My dad also likes to cook, he's more of a one trick pony. He'll do chili and ribs which are really good but my mom was the person that tried everything. My mom is a rock star in the kitchen.
Adri -When you're cooking all these recipes from your family do different recipes bring up different emotions? I know at least for me, there are some dishes that are just so tied to home, the level of comfort is fucking unexplainable.
Alex - Oh yes! My grandfather was Puerto Rican and the master of roasted pork. When he passed, I couldn't eat it for a while because every time I ate it didn't taste like his. Around Easter or any of the big holidays, he would always make it. You would walk into his apartment in Spanish Harlem, and all you smelled was the aroma of garlic and you knew he was cooking it. Easter 2018, a couple months after he passed I cooked it and my whole family and I were crying because we smelled the aroma, that garlic and thought of him. That's one dish that brings up so many emotions for me and my family because he was so great at making that dish.
Adri - Did you make it this Easter?
Alex - No, I didn't make it. I made lobster tails.
Adri - Oh you went fancy!
Alex - Very fancy, it’s quarantine let's push it!
Adri - I hear you, living your best life during quarantine, that's what’s up. I have one last question for you. If you were a recipe what recipe would you be?
Alex - Oh shit. Oh my god.Okay. I'm jerk chicken and a side of plantains because it's like, it gives you the sweet and spicy. It has a kick, I'm spicy in general.
Adri - I lied here is the last question… What is the main thing you want people to take away from your classes? How do you want them to feel when they leave?
Alex - I want them to walk away feeling confident that they can honestly cook anything. Cooking should not be intimidating. It should be affordable for everyone, especially to get fresh produce and good ingredients. I want them to walk away feeling confident that's it! Cooking is about time, patience & feeling and even if you mess up (it’s ok if you do..it happens), you can try again tomorrow.