Test Kitchen intern Arianna Navarro is photographed in the studio with… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
In the course of testing and developing recipes for an article, we may make a recipe dozens of times, fine-tuning it to perfection and testing for consistent results. We are a test kitchen, and this is what we do. Of course, when we're done testing, sometimes we also like to play with our food ...
At the L.A. Times, we not only test (and routinely retest) every recipe that runs in the paper, we also then re-create and style those recipes for food shoots to appear both online and in print, coordinate and shoot step-by-step demonstrations and videos of various cooking techniques, and prepare for recipe demonstrations that air online and on television.
When we're not actually working with food, we're tracking down reader email requests for the Food section's popular Culinary SOS column.
In addition to our full-time staff, we host interns from culinary schools all over the United States, including international students. These students receive hands-on training as they learn the finer points of recipe testing and development. The students also learn tips for food styling and interact with chefs, writers and food professionals of all kinds.
PHOTO GALLERY: Curious about working in a test kitchen? Meet some of our interns
Here I introduce Arianna Navarro, on loan from the Culinary Institute of America campus in St. Helena, Calif.
I have lived my entire life surrounded by sugar. In the early 1990s, anyone who walked into Porto's Bakery might find my brother in his doorway bouncer and me in my playpen, right next to the decorating table where my mother, Margarita, and grandmother, Rosa, created all kinds of sugary masterpieces.
My uncle, Raul, manned the ovens in the next room and my aunt, Betty, and grandfather, Raul Sr., helped the customers in front. Our family business has been growing for over 50 years, and we have gone through our fair share of sugar.
I’m sure my mother wasn’t too surprised when I decided to go to culinary school. The signs have been there my whole life.
I've always been fascinated by the everything going on in the kitchen. As I grew up, I would spend my weekends “helping” out at the bakery. I would cut samples of cake that were almost bigger than the slices we sold, I would make our bakery's potato balls by hand, and I would crack and separate eggs for the flan.
As a reward, my mom would give me a piece of Styrofoam and a bowl of meringue icing so I could practice decorating. I would slather my “cake” with a layer of icing maybe 2 inches thick, then stick as many toy decorations as I could fit on the top.
For special occasions, my mom would give me real cake and I would decorate it for my cousins’ birthdays. By the time I was 11, I was making lasagna for my entire family, and by the time I was 15, I was entering cooking competitions at school.
I had a pretty sweet childhood. Perhaps I didn't notice it at the time, but I was falling in love with the business more and more each day.
I was a teenager when I realized that if I wasn’t going to be an actress, I could only picture myself at the bakery. Eventually I decided I wanted to step up and take over the business one day, with the help of my brothers and cousins, though I wasn't quite sure yet what my role might be.
I knew I would have a chance to explore all of my options when I started culinary school, and I focused on baking and pastries.
When it was time to select a site to fulfill my externship, one name jumped out from the list: The L.A. Times Test Kitchen. The thought gave me butterflies, and I knew instantly that’s where I wanted to go.
Within a week I emailed my resume and landed a phone interview. Before I knew it, my first day of work had come. I was nervous, I expected to learn a lot, but I didn’t expect to have so much fun and do so many things.
The skills I learned at the Culinary Institute of America helped me easily adapt to test the recipes that passed through my hands. I made cookies, cakes, pasta and steaks, and worked with other interns and staff, chefs and writers to perfect each dish. I might make a standard recipe -- such as pecan pie -- one day, and something totally different and unusual -- such as a horseradish panna cotta -- the next.
But nothing I did could have prepared me for my last week at The Times.
I would have never guessed that water, sugar, gelatin and vanilla extract could be so time consuming. Noelle was working on an article about homemade marshmallow "peeps." That Monday, she handed me a rough recipe and told me to measure out 12 batches; secretly, I thought that was a bit excessive.
Little did I know I would eventually be measuring out at least another half-dozen batches as we tested and retested the recipe. Noelle worked with us on the first batch so we could determine how we would need to approach our testing.