Technically, her job title isn’t “pastry scientist,” but it might as well be.
Stella Parks is a senior editor at Serious Eats, a website where culinary experts share (thoroughly tested) recipes and cooking techniques. She’s also the author of the New York Times best-selling cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.
Stella’s mouth-watering Instagram profile has nearly 70,000 followers, including yours truly. I’d been drooling over her culinary experiments and baking her chocolate chip cookies for about a year when I DM’d her to ask if she’d consider doing an interview. Much to my surprise and delight, she agreed! We talked about a lot, including how Twitter banter can catalyze a career change, how to make a gap in your resume work for you and why turning your hobby into a full-time job probably isn’t a great idea.
— Amy Madore
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up at 7:00 A.M. and spend the first two hours of my day responding to questions and comments on Twitter and Instagram.
Then I’ll come into the kitchen and start the day’s projects. I have between 12 and 24 recipes in development at any given point.
In the afternoon, I take some time to respond to comments on the Serious Eats website and start drafting articles. I usually write two articles for the site each week. Toward the end of the day, I take some photos for Instagram and wrap up my writing and cooking projects.
I work from my home in Lexington, Kentucky. Once a month, I spend a week at the Serious Eats test kitchen in Brooklyn, New York to coordinate photo shoots for my posts. When I’m not in Brooklyn, I use Slack to communicate with the team.
It’s still wild to me that Serious Eats is my full-time gig. I’d been working in restaurants since I was 14 and never imagined not working in one.
It looks like you respond to almost every comment you receive on Instagram, which is impressive given how many followers you have. Have you created any boundaries to ensure you’re not on social media all the time?
Social media is like my Sudoku. Even though it’s technically work, I find it soothing to answer questions and see people doing cool stuff.
Twitter is easy because I get 100 or fewer mentions per day. Instagram is harder — it’s really blown up for me since the book came out. I had about 6,000 followers when I started at Serious Eats three years ago, and I have almost 70,000 today. (The only reason I know that is my parents stalk my profile and text me when I hit new milestones.)
What question do you get asked most by your followers?
A common one is about problems related to pie dough. There are usually two issues: The first is that a lot of people think organic flour is better than conventional flour, but many organic flours are too hard or strong for pastries. The other issue is that a lot of people buy fancy, European-style butter to bake pies, but cheap butter is actually better for the job.
My general philosophy is you should save your money for high-quality vanilla and chocolate. It’s funny – people will buy all this expensive butter and flour and then use Hershey’s cocoa powder, which is objectively terrible.
Before writing your cookbook, you had a blog. As a fellow blogger, I’d love to know why you decided to create one.
A friend of mine wanted to create a food photography portfolio and asked if he could take pictures of the food I was making. He tried to pitch me on the idea of writing a cookbook with him, but I wasn’t interested or ready at the time. Instead, we decided to start a blog.
It was the blog, actually, that helped me land a restaurant job. The owner was looking online for Lexington pastry chefs when he came across my blog. I helped him open his restaurant and was the pastry chef there for three years.
So, how did you get a weekly column at Serious Eats?
I had been in that pastry chef role for about a year. I was following Kenji López-Alt and a few other Serious Eats writers on Twitter when, one day, I saw them tweeting about a goofy G.I. Joe PSA from the 80s. I recognized it and chimed in, and somehow that hit the right note for Kenji. I think he saw someone who got his sense of humor. A few hours later, he DM’d me saying he had checked out my blog and was wondering if I’d consider writing for Serious Eats. It was totally out of left field — I hadn’t been angling to get a job.
So, that was how it started — a short weekly column on the Serious Eats website called “BraveTart,” named after my blog. I got about $25 for every post. It wasn’t worth my time compensation-wise, but I was flattered that someone was interested in what I had to say about anything!
You mentioned that you never wanted to write a cookbook. What inspired you to finally do it?
I met Serious Eats Founder Ed Levine shortly after I started my column. He thought my voice and recipe style were accessible and fun, and he asked if I’d ever considered writing a cookbook. I told him I’d think about it, and he introduced me to his wife, Vicky Bijur, who’s a literary agent.
Vicky offered to be a resource and, if I was interested, my agent. I didn’t have enough personal motivation or energy to vet other people, so I went with her. Vicky is a wonderful and encouraging person, and she really helped me draft BraveTart into the book it is.
It’s kind of wild to say that the success of this book is based in large part on the encouragement and support of a near total stranger who saw some potential and wanted to mentor and encourage me in that way.
Given your blog- and book-writing success, I found it interesting that you went to culinary school after high school and don’t have any “formal” training as a writer. How have you honed your writing skills?
I’ve been writing my whole life. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. As a kid, I wrote ridiculous stories and fanciful stuff, and I was always reading. I read so much my parents wouldn’t allow me to buy books anymore. They were like, “This is a complete waste of everyone’s resources. Go to a library.” I would read a 400-page book during one of my brother’s softball tournaments.
I think people might be surprised to hear that you were unemployed for a few years between jobs. What was that like?
When I graduated from culinary school in New York, I came back to Lexington (where I’m from) for financial reasons and felt stuck. I had already worked at the best restaurants here, and I felt like I couldn’t progress further in my career. So for several years I didn’t work. I was just doing really advanced level housekeeping. I was making crazy dinners for my husband and me and going to the farmer’s market every day. Fortunately, we didn’t need two incomes in Kentucky to get by. It was frustrating, though, because I felt like I was wasting my time and my life, and there was an ever-growing gap on my resume.
After a few years, the owners of a bakery I’d worked for previously invited me to join their fine dining restaurant. I started working for them and that helped me get my mojo back.
Honestly, not working for a few years ended up being really good for my career because I had a chance to explore my own interests in food. I was able to take the time to hone my baking skills so that when a position did become available I wasn’t like, “Well, gee, I haven’t baked seriously in a couple of years.” I felt like I was still on top of my game.
Your professional plate is pretty full! What do you do to recharge?
My husband and I love to hike, and I play a lot of video games. By myself. Maybe it’s my very active presence on social media, but I want no part of interacting with anyone. Gaming gives me a place to be alone with my thoughts.
Right now I’m playing a game called Don’t Starve. It’s a resource management game that I find very soothing.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I really enjoy trying to figure out what makes a recipe tick. I don’t mind making the same thing 24 times. I take comfort in that kind of repetition, and it’s actually something that helps pastry chefs build the skills they need to succeed in that field. That’s how you’re able to roll dough to the exact thickness you need without checking with a ruler.
I also really enjoy answering questions. There’s a certain type of chef who feels threatened when someone says, “I made your thing and it didn’t work out.” But I enjoy figuring out what went wrong. Baking is a pretty closed system, so you can usually root out the problem.
I also like working for a company that appreciates me and has my back. If my employer didn’t appreciate the work I was doing or was taking advantage of me, I wouldn’t call that a successful endeavor.
As I’m thinking about this, “enjoy” is almost the wrong word because I’m not the kind of person who takes pleasure in work in that way. I’m not a very emotional person. I love my pets; I don’t love my job. That’s just not how I conceptualize work.
Are you building toward anything in particular career-wise?
I don’t think so. I’m not a very goal-oriented person and, like I said, I really love repetition.
I want to keep on doing what I’m doing. I’m content with my compensation level, and I find my work stimulating but not too mentally or physically taxing, so I’m just digging down deeper into that. There’s a lot of ladder climbing out there, but I’m more like a niche burrower.
That’s something I really like about Serious Eats — they let us do what we do, without trying to push us up a managerial ladder. I really appreciate that. I want to bake; I don’t want to be a manager.
What professional advice would you share with readers?
Find work that’s sustainable for you. I see it all the time — people who bake as a hobby are like, “I’m going to open a bakery,” which is very rarely a good idea. The average person who enjoys hobby baking isn’t going to enjoy baking 70 hours a week, which is what it takes to get a bakery off the ground, and those people usually don’t do the math to figure out how many cupcakes they have to sell every month to make rent, much less pay themselves or an employee. (It’s a lot of cupcakes.) They may be amazing bakers, but they’re not suited to managing a business. So, find a job you’re good at that suits your skill set as a human being and that can help you earn the income you need.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.