Y’all, I am SO flipping excited about this interview. The sass factor in this Creative Genius profile is high, people. Get yourselves ready, and then meet Hilah Johnson, who is brilliant and often hilarious in her videos on her site, Hilah Cooking, as well as her first ULIVE series, Hilah Cooking With Kids. Hilah just debuted a new series, Lunch Lady, on ULIVE, and I cannot wait to watch every single second of every single episode. Hilah’s videos are easily the most watchable cooking demos I’ve ever seen — I laughed, giggled and snorted my way through each. Hilah has just the right blend of dry wit, straight faced sarcasm, and outright bawdy humor to make cooking up a dish with her a rocking good time. No more delays — read this profile and then go watch all of Hilah’s videos. And buy her cookbooks. And sign up for her newsletter. She’s that awesome, mmm-kay?
1. Thanks for spending a little time with Made + Remade, Hilah! For readers who haven’t yet met you, tell us a little about yourself!
Oh, let’s see. I’m 35. I’m a Gemini (not that I take that stuff very seriously). I’m expecting my first child in November! My husband and I are super excited and starting to get nervous. We also have two dogs, one of whom is an angel and the other is … a little bit of a butthole, really. But he’s a cute b-hole and he’s getting better. He’s just a youngster right now.
2. You launched your site, Hilah Cooking, in January 2010. What was the motivating factor? What were you doing before launching an online cooking show?
In 2009, my husband (we were friends at the time; we met through a ragtag team of online comedy video makers) was directing a movie that he’d written and secured funding for. He cast me as one of the leads. Like many an independent film, this one did not make it to completion due to, well basically due to a producer who didn’t really want to produce a movie after all and caused the loss of several shoot locations. Anyway, Chris was devastated. And destitute since he’d quit his job to make this movie and later refused a paycheck so that no one else could use the footage we did capture.
Chris moved in with his mom. I went back to my job as a dental assistant.
But Chris is anything but lazy and while he was camping out at his mom’s house, he taught himself website design and SEO. He moved back to Austin after about 6 months and was staying in my guest room while he looked for a new job. We spent most nights hanging out drinking whiskey on the porch and yakkin’ after eating a home-cooked meal by yours truly. He pitched the idea to make a cooking web series, thinking it would be a good test of his new-found web/SEO skills and also an easy, manageable and cheap video project. I said yes, mainly because I liked hanging out with him, but it was clear from the start that he had lofty goals for our little project. We shot our first videos in January of 2010 and then spent every weekend of the next 2 1/2 years shooting more. Then we started dating and moved in together and quit our day jobs and got married and now we have our weekends back again!
3. You have five cookbooks out so far. Please tell me you’re going to continue cranking out the awesome, despite how intense it is to publish a cookbook. (Or any book, for that matter…) How did you choose the topics for your books, and do you have an idea for a sixth?
I really enjoy writing them, especially “Learn to Cook.” The first book was the “Breakfast Taco Book” that we gave away for free as a promotional for the website. Breakfast tacos are HUGE in Austin, but little known outside of Texas so we thought a little book on that would be fun for people. After handing out free PDFs for two years we finally got it formatted for Kindle and in print-on-demand format. After that was “Learn to Cook,” which is like a fun version of “Joy of Cooking” written for the large population of young adults who never learned to cook. Our first 100 episodes of the show also tied into the theme of teaching adult beginners the basics. Those are the two most popular books.
The hardest part of writing a cookbook is the recipe testing. Especially with just two of us in the house, we’d end up with a TON of food in the fridge. Like, 300 gallons of spaghetti sauce and 80 pounds of mac and cheese or whatever. I’d give a lot of it away and freeze the rest for later. But even still, it’s tedious. The most recent book I did, the “Slow Cooker Book,” I actually reached out to a handful of super-fans and asked for help testing recipes. That was a lifesaver. So yes, I would like to write more books. Chris has said he never wants to design another book, though, and I can’t blame him. It’s a pain. Also, the promotion of a book. That kind of sucks, too. Neither of us is very good at self-promotion. So for the next book, I’d like to work with a publisher who would handle the design and help with promotion. I’ve got several ideas for future books, so if any publishers or book agents are reading this, hit me up!
4. Tell us about being one of the YouTube Next Chef winners. How crazy bonkers was that and how did it change life for you?
I still remember how surprised I was that our channel won! The best part of that was getting to know fellow YouTube cooks. Most of them, we are still in contact with, and that’s great because when you have an unusual career like this, it’s really hard to find other people you can talk to about ideas or problems you’re having.
5. You live in Austin. (On a side note, Texas food holds a soft spot in my heart – I lived in Galveston for three years and STILL miss really good Tex Mex.) What would you say is the hallmark of the Austin cooking/food scene?
You already mentioned Tex-Mex and we have that in spades and you will never catch me complaining about it. I live and breathe for queso and margaritas and that’s one of the first things I’m going to gorge myself on after I have this baby. Austin restaurants and home cooks both focus heavily on using locally grown produce, even meat and dairy. Also, fancy cocktails. Every new restaurant now has a big, huge fancy cocktail menu. I like a fancy cocktail sometimes, but I usually slip back into a comfy margarita for the summer and whiskey-soda in the winter.
6. Your videos are a multicultural food odyssey. How do you decide which recipe to tackle in each video? Are they recipes that are close to your heart, or do you find recipes that just get you going and you MUST find a way to teach them to others?
Deciding on what recipe to make is the bane of my existence. Seriously, it is the most stressful part of my job. And I know that sounds like I’m making a big deal out of nothing, but for real there are so many things to take into account! I try to keep all my recipes pretty simple, using limited ingredients in new combinations to keep people from having to buy a bunch of stuff to make one recipe, and I’m sensitive to how much time a recipe takes. I want every recipe to be something that people will actually make for themselves and their family. And I try to keep a healthy balance between junk food recipes and real food recipes, so I don’t do a lot of sweets and desserts, even though they are really popular. I feel (overly) responsible for people’s health. But everything needs to also be really tasty and somewhat flexible. Those attributes are critical to separate the “okay” recipes from the “great.” Sometimes I take requests, especially if I get the same one more than once. Sometimes it’s a recipe that I personally have always wanted to learn, even though it’s way more complicated than I would normally make, like tourtiere or Guatemalan tamales.
7. You are more than halfway through your pregnancy. (Wahooo!) Any crazy cravings or wacked out food aversions? (I craved crisp, cold watermelon. And cherry Slush Puppies. Go figure.)
I am a simple pregnant woman. Give me cheese and bread! So, grilled cheese, bagels and cream cheese, pizza, quesadillas. But recently, chocolate has been giving me heartburn. Boohoo. I hope that is temporary. I can still eat spicy food with abandon, though, so that’s a winner.
8. Your first ULIVE series, Hilah Cooking with Kids, is, without a doubt, my favorite “cooking with kids” show. What’s one piece of advice you’d give parents who may be apprehensive about teaching their kids to cook? I’m not going to lie — as much as I love cooking with my kiddo, there are some days I just don’t have it in me to clean the ENTIRE kitchen from top to bottom in the wake of her mess making. How can I bite off more manageable cooking lessons?
Great question! This was a really fun series to make, probably in part because I hadn’t ever cooked with children before and they weren’t my kids so I think I was able to let them be a little more “dangerous” in the kitchen than their parents would have felt comfortable with. But they were all really intuitive about when to back up and when to stop and let me take over. They seemed to know their own limits and were okay with letting me help when they needed. Something that made clean up easier was having everything measured out before we started. It seems like a great exercise in numbers and fractions to allow the little kids to measure the flour or whatever, but they are going to spill most of it. It’s much safer to have it measured already and let them just dump stuff into a big bowl and mix it around. But DO let the kids crack the eggs, it’s adorable when they smash it too hard and get egg everywhere. Totally worth the clean up. Plus, if you have dogs, they will clean the floor for you!
9. Your second series on ULIVE, Lunch Lady, just debuted. Will you give the Made + Remade readers an insider look at the series? What’s it all about?
This was something that came about just because Chris and I liked the name, Lunch Lady. It’s got a nice ring to it, and everyone remembers their school lunch lady. The series is designed for busy adults who want to save money by bringing a lunch to work. I get asked for bag lunch ideas a lot from my regular viewers, enough that it made sense to do a whole focused series on it. Make-ahead main-dish salads and sandwiches are the crux of the series, but I also included a few ideas for kid-friendly lunches.
10. As the parent of a preschooler, I am so excited for Lunch Lady to debut. Packed lunches make my brain hurt. When I do get creative, it’s like a circus in a lunchbox, requiring entirely too much energy and too many specialized, temperature controlled containers. How do you come up with fast, easy and kid-friendly recipes for a successful lunch?
I think it’s easy to get bogged down with cute, colorful containers and want to buy them all and fill them each with a handmade delicacy for a five-course luncheon in a box. But after working with 10 different school-age kids on the last project, I realized that most kids don’t want or need a whole lot of variety. I’d say once you find a few things your kid likes and will eat for lunch, just stick with that to make your morning easier. They can get more exposure to new foods at dinner time. Of course, not being a parent yet, it’s possible I have no idea what I’m talking about!
11. OK, last question: if you had to pick one – spicy, salty or sweet?
Thanks so much, Hilah! See what I mean about Hilah? Don’t you wish Hilah could be in your kitchen, walking you through each recipe with her trademark wit and sass? Cooking would be SO much more entertaining …
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