Recently named one of the eight sexiest women on TV cooking shows, Aida Mollenkamp also happens to have a wealth of culinary expertise and knowledge in addition to being a hot TV food personality.
The host and co-creator of the television show “FoodCrafters” and “Ask Aida” she attended Cornell University and then the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris where she studied culinary AND pastry arts. She ended up in San Francisco when she became one of the editors of the online food magazine, CHOW. Currently, she’s working on her first cookbook, tentatively titled, “Keys to the Kitchen,” due out in 2012.
She recently took some time out of her hectic schedule to tell me about her love of food and the top spots in the Bay Area she'd recommend for food fiends like herself (that aren't restaurants).
Elaine: You call yourself a “long-time food fiend.” Where does your love of food come from?
Aida: Oh, that’s a hard one. It’s like asking me why I like to dance (she’s a former classical dancer) -- it’s just the way it is and always has been. My family showed me to respect food and through gardening and shopping with my mom, I also learned where my food came from. But, I guess there was this kismet moment in my teen years where I realized that food was like a cipher to understanding various cultures. From that moment on, I’ve looked at cooking as a means of traveling through my tastebuds.
Elaine: Where did the idea for your show “FoodCrafters” come from?
Aida: My friends would say the show is just an extension of how I naturally live as I’m constantly hunting down new tastes and food stories. The real story is that it is a creative collaboration with a producer I worked with on “Ask Aida.” We shared a passion for good quality food and would constantly trade stories about the latest tastes she hunted down in Brooklyn and those I had found in San Francisco. “FoodCrafters” became this natural fit of a show where my passions could be explored while giving the small guy the spotlight as we uncover foods, flavors, and stories from around the nation.
Elaine: You’ve lived in some of the best food areas in the world: Los Angeles, New York, Florence, Paris, and now San Francisco. How is the Bay Area different from all of them, food-wise?
Aida: Each city I’ve lived in has its own culture, and with it, its own food personality. San Francisco’s food scene is integrated into our daily lives in a way that I’ve only seen in Europe, but it’s also decidedly Californian as we’re simultaneously playful, respectful, and creative.
Elaine: What are the Top Eleven places in the Bay Area that you'd recommend for food lovers?
- The Pasta Shop -- 1784 Fourth St., Berkeley
I don’t remember the first time I went to The Pasta Shop, but I do recall that I liked the selection so much I considered convincing them to let me live there. Everything from 4505 Meats' chicarrones to sodas I’ve never seen this side of the Atlantic, they do a marked job curating their food and everyone on the staff is highly knowledgeable.
- Cheese Plus -- 2001 Polk St., S.F.
When I first moved to SF, I lived in Pacific Heights and would walk to work and quickly got in the habit of making a detour to Cheese Plus. As the name suggests, there’s not just cheese and I’ve also discovered instant favorites like crackers from The Fine Cheese Co. I’d spend the majority of my meager start-up salary on all the treats in there and have my friends laughing that instead of buying designer shoes, I was splurging on rare cheeses.
- Bi-Rite Market -- 3639-18th St., S.F.
It’s a 5-minute walk from my place to Bi-Rite Market, so I have become a regular there. In fact, I credit my many trips to Bi-Rite -- where I discovered new foods and their backstories -- as the source of my idea for FoodCrafters.
- Miette Confiserie -- 449 Octavia St., S.F.
With décor right out of the pages of a Roald Dahl book, Miette is as aesthetically pleasing as it is tasty. I lived in Hayes Valley when the confiserie opened and was immediately drawn to the carefully selected sweets, including chocolates from all over the world.
- City Beer Store -- 1168 Folsom St., S.F.
I arrived in San Francisco a wine drinker, but have been versed in the world of cocktails and beer thanks to knowledgeable places like City Beer Store, where there are always new beers to discover.
- Nest -- 2300 Fillmore St., S.F.
When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was over in Pacific Heights and would longingly walk by the eclectic boutique, Nest, everyday. When CHOW went from print to online, I treated myself by buying a set of hobnail glasses that I’ve kept to this day.
- Heritage Culinary Artifacts -- Oxbow Market, 610 First St., Napa
The Ferry Plaza is unparalleled -- except perhaps by downtown Napa’s Oxbow Market. There’s an antique store there, Heritage Artifacts, that I became addicted to when we filmed in the market for last fall’s FoodCrafters.
- Heath Factory Store -- 400 Gate 5 Rd., Sausalito
Heath has a cult following among the food and prop styling crowd, but it’s not all that affordable unless you go to the factory store. When I first found out about it, I headed over in an absurdly large van thinking there was no way I needed all that space. But a few dollars and a couple of hours later, I filled the van to the brim with boxes and boxes of discounted, yet still gorgeous plateware.
- McEvoy Olive Oil Ranch -- 5935 Red Hill Rd., Petaluma
There’s moments when you travel somewhere and the environment has just as much impact as the food. The McEvoy Olive Oil farm in Sonoma is one of those places. But be warned: by the end of their tour, you may be considering olive oil farming as a new career.
- The Marshall Store -- 19225 California 1, Marshall
Definitely the farthest I’ve ever driven for oysters, The Marshall Store is as out of the way as it comes but is worth the trek. Fresh oysters, tangy BBQ sauce, and cold beer -- need I say more?
- The Tourist Club -- 30 Ridge Ave., Mill Valley
It’s the hidden gems of the Bay Area that make it ever more interesting and Tourist Club is one of those very places. A few miles deep into the Muir Woods, the Tourist Club is a century-old German brauhaus that is closed to the public, except for a few hours each weekend. After an exhausting hike of Mt. Tam, there’s nothing better than pitchers of draft beer with friends on the Tourist Club’s sunny deck.
Aida: Here’s my list: