It’s a dream common to almost every avid home cook — start a blog, share your recipes, turn your passion into a community and a full-fledged career. Nagi Maehashi made it a reality, ditching her corporate job and going from two site visitors to millions all across the world. The secret? “A lot of hard work,” Maehashi told me from her home near Sydney, Australia. That, and going all in on “my number one love.”
Now, Maehashi brings the trademark blend of exuberance and meticulousness to her first cookbook, “Recipetin Eats Dinner,” creating “fast everyday meals” meant for real world kitchens. “I’m not a chef,” Maehashi said, “I’m a home cook.: A home cook with a flair for unlocking the secrets of crispy Chinese eggplant, crusty homemade bread, and a roast chicken she promises “blows my mind.”
Maehashi opened up on how she built RecipeTin Eats from the ground up, as well as the joy of embracing mistakes and fighting food waste, and whether she and dog Dozer ever have creative differences. Watch the “Salon Talks” episode with Nagi Maehashi here or read our conversation below.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You started it with two visitors, yourself and your mom, and now you’ve got millions. But this is not some fluke. You really had a plan. How did you make it happen?
A lot of hard work. There’s definitely no college that you can go to for this kind of thing. It’s quite interesting when I look at social media courses and things like that that I see cropping up online. It’s so difficult to say that that would actually apply to anything that I’ve done. It’s a new world out there, so a lot of it has just been testing the waters and figuring things out for myself and self-teaching as well.
“I always say, I’m not a chef, I’m a home cook.”
The main thing I say to people is that, when I went into this, I didn’t go into it as a hobby. It is my number one love, and I do adore everything about what I do. I definitely went into it as a business, and so I treated it like you would if you were starting a new business. I did a business plan and did my due diligence and figured out where my weaknesses were, which was everything, by the way, except the eating part. Very good at the eating part and cooking part already. But everything else, hopeless. Photography, videos, writing, what is a website? I didn’t know how to start a website.
When you asked yourself, “What am I going to bring to the table that nobody else does?” What was the answer?
There were two things. When I first started, I felt that there was a real lack of good recipes online for quick and easy Asian food. The Chinese takeaway favorites, think Panda Express, but a whole lot less oil and a whole lot less sugar and tastes nicer too. Just really good, quick and easy stir fries and Asian takeout favorites. The other thing was recipes that were actually properly tested and would work. I myself have fallen into the trap so many times of the perfect photo online, that photo that catches your eye when you’re searching for something, and then you make it only to find that the epic Easter centerpiece you were hoping for was a complete fail.
You’re also self-taught.
For everything. Even the cooking, because my mom didn’t even teach me to cook. Everything is self-taught: photography, videos, writing on the website, how to start a website, didn’t even know what a blog was when I first started.
And the cooking. And the baking. People go to school for any one of those things.
I know, but I always say, I’m not a chef, I’m a home cook. I think I’m a little more persistent than most home cooks. If I make a bread or any dish that I do, A, I want it to come out and taste right, but B, if it’s what I consider to be a bit of a trickier recipe or there’s a little trick to it to get something particularly right, then I’ll test it a lot to get it right.
What advice would you give to other people who want to do a new thing and are afraid of leaving their safety net?
“Raw kale is really dull, and that’s pretty much the only thing we don’t eat.”
It definitely was scary. I would say definitely do research beforehand and be honest with yourself about what your weaknesses are or areas of development are. You’ve got to have the passion because if you don’t have the passion, you just won’t have the drive to do it. Because for me, it was always about the food, so that was the fuel, if that makes sense. Everything else was around how I was going to get there.
So yeah, [you’ve] got to have the passion, but do the research. And you don’t need to go all in like I did. I was a little bit crazy. I left a good corporate job to do this full-time, but you don’t have to do it full-time. You can start small and see if there’s potential, and then gradually move into a full-time position.
Out of the hundreds and hundreds of recipes that you’ve already created, how did you curate this book?
That was the hardest part. There were so many. We were down to a final list of three hundred recipes or something, and it was trying to come down to that last 150. To be honest, I ended up actually turning to my audience. I said to them, “Help! What do you want this cookbook to be? I’m thinking of this angle.” It very much went down to my sweet spot, which is dinner, and I really wanted to make sure it was mainly the quick and easy, as well as just a handful of those special occasion dishes and a couple of unique sections, sort of master recipes. There’s a chapter called “What I Do With …”
It’s the basic, what I do with a piece of steak. Here’s how I cook it, and here are my ten go-to steak sauces. What I do with a piece of salmon. Here’s how I make crispy skin, and here is my favorite ways to serve it. It links back to master sauce recipes in the book.
One of the things I appreciate about your recipes is that you keep them accessible from ingredients to techniques to equipment. What are your absolute ride-or-die hero ingredients that you think somebody should always have in their kitchen as the foundations of a good dinner?
Those three in the pan is the best smell in the world.
Exactly. If you’ve got those three ingredients, no matter what you’ve got in the cupboard, whether you’ve just got mushrooms or you’ve got some dried noodles in the pantry, or a packet of pasta or a piece of chicken, whatever you’ve got, you can have dinner on the table if you’ve got butter, wine, and garlic, and that’s all you need.
I also really appreciate that this book talks about leftovers, because realistically, food doesn’t just magically, perfectly end in the meal. Tell me about about eliminating food waste and why that’s an important part of your food writing.
“Whatever you’ve got, you can have dinner on the table if you’ve got butter, wine, and garlic, and that’s all you need.”
Every single recipe, I was adamant we had to deal with leftovers and explain to people whether it was freezable or how long it would last in the fridge. That’s really important to me because food waste, it’s a bit of a gripe of mine. Most recipes are very accessible ingredients you can get from any everyday grocery store. But the ones where I do ask people to go to an Asian store and get a jar of something, there’ll be another recipe in there that says, I’ll use the leftovers for this recipe. In fact, there’s a handful of recipes in there that came about using leftover ingredients from another recipe in the cookbook. It was just this ongoing cycle of using the same ingredients over and over.
What do you recommend we do to put ourselves more at ease and feel more comfortable in the kitchen and more comfortable with the people we’re feeding?
Firstly, my response is just to laugh, because I bet I make way more mistakes than you, honestly. Most days, I have more failures than successes, and that’s just the nature of what I do. I always encourage people not to put too much pressure on themselves. And it’s great to, first, read a recipe from start to finish, but push yourself a little bit out of your comfort zone if that’s what you want to do. But don’t put so much pressure on yourself. For me, I can’t think of a single recipe where even if it doesn’t go right, it’s not going to be edible. It’ll still be nice. It might just not be exactly perfect, that we’re striving for, but they’re still tasty.
Here’s something really embarrassing. I had a big deal TV show here in Australia come to my house to film a segment here. The whole TV segment was about the hostess decorating this Easter cake. There was a lot of airtime on that, and we had so much fun decorating it, and then the big moment came to cut a slice. It was really dense, and I completely stuffed up the cake because I got the ingredient wrong.I pulled it out, and the camera’s there.
Maehashi’s “Juiciest, Easiest” roast chicken (ROB PALMER / COUNTRYMAN PRESS)
Everybody has advice on how to make the perfect roast chicken, and you promise the juiciest, easiest roast chicken. Nagi, what’s the secret?
It’s a very big call, isn’t it? Easiest, juiciest roast chicken without faffing around with brining the day before or all these fancy tricks. It’s really, really easy. It’s pot roasted because it just seals in the juices, so it’s semi-steamed. It’s an old-school chicken. It does sound a little bit nana-ish to say pot roasted chicken, so I just called it a roast chicken because really that’s what it is. You don’t braze it in liquid, so it’s roasting it inside a pot that’s covered, and then uncovering it to get some color on it.
Then the other thing is you stand it upright when you’re resting it. Resting any meat once you cook it is essential. But with the chicken, if you put it upright so the breast is facing down, then gravity takes care of all the juices in the chicken, settling in what is normally the dry breast. When you cut it open and you can watch me do it in the video in the QR code that’s on that recipe, you literally have chicken juices just squirting out of it. It’s so ridiculously juicy. Every time I make it, it blows my mind.
You’re such an ambitious cook, you have such beautiful recipes. Is there any recipe that you still feel like I just haven’t cracked it yet?
Oh, yes. And we have made it so many times. My team and I — I’ve even got a professional chef in my team and he hasn’t even been able to crack it — Portuguese tarts at home.
“Food waste, it’s a bit of a gripe of mine.”
I literally don’t know that it’s possible in a home oven. There’s so many recipes online that promise the perfect outcome, and I’ve probably made everything on Google pages one and two. I’ve got my chef working on it, I’ve had a pastry chef in France who’s my pastry teacher, she’s had a crack at it. I don’t know that it’s possible, but I’m determined because I love them and can’t afford to keep buying them to feed my obsession.
Is it the heat?
It’s the heat. It’s getting the pastry crispy without the custard overcooking and getting that beautiful brown spots on the surface. But that’s a really good example of even when say it’s a fail, it’s because the pastry’s not quite crispy enough, or the custards a bit overcooked, it’s still perfectly edible. And there are many people happy to take the leftovers of the Portuguese tarts.
Your whole mission in life is feeding people, teaching us to feed ourselves. You also are involved in feeding people who are dealing with food insecurity. Talk to me about that, because this is something that millions of us all around the world are facing, people who we may not think of and who may not look like they’re hungry.
“It’s definitely the thing I’m most proud of and something I secretly hoped I’d be able to do one day when I started my website.”
I have a food bank called RecipeTin Meals, which I started during the pandemic because it was very clearly an increasing amount of food insecurity in my area. A lot of the food banks around here rely on restaurants to provide leftover ingredients and meals. As you know, during the pandemic, most of the restaurants around the world shut down for a period, and that was certainly the case here.
I had an opportunity with a catering company that had shut down as a result of the pandemic to take over their kitchen, and so I decided to set up a food bank there. I have a team of three full-time chefs in there, and they make home-cooked meals every day, and we send them to a place that distributes them to people in need. It’s definitely the thing I’m most proud of and something I secretly hoped I’d be able to do one day when I started my website. Really excited that I can do it. Most important part of my business, as I always say.
If something happens in the kitchen, and we do have dramas like there’s a blackout or something, or a big grocery run wasn’t delivered, my team are very clear that no matter what else we have on in the business, everyone has to drop everything to get in there and help out if we need to to make sure we get the promised meals out every single day. We’ve never missed a delivery except one day when we had floods in Sydney so bad we literally couldn’t drive to do the delivery. We had a car full of hundreds of meals and couldn’t get the food to the people in need.
Maehashi’s dog, Dozer (ROB PALMER / COUNTRYMAN PRESS) When you talk about your team, a lot of us have a favorite member of your team.
The CED, Chief Executive Dog. Dozer is such a big part of your connection with your audience. Was that something that was always intentional?
Honestly, it was a very organic thing. I’m not a professional writer, so when I write and I put photos in of my life or whatever’s going on, it really has to be organic. It’s just my real life. I just can’t make it happen. So I started dropping in photos of him taste testing food, going, “Oh, I made this.” And yep, Dozer approves. It was a bit of a joke at first, but then people started getting really upset if there was a recipe I put out without a photo of him in there.
Then there was one day when I got more comments about him than I did on the recipe. I realized that, oh, okay, so Dozer’s become a bit of a thing. Then I even created a button on the website, so when you open a recipe, you can jump straight down to see him, because the number of comments I get saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m sure the recipe’s really nice, but I’ve got five minutes, so I just came here to see what Dozer is doing.”
Do you and he ever have creative differences?
Oh, no, because we both agree raw kale is really dull, and that’s pretty much the only thing we don’t eat.
“Salon Talks” with home cooks