Join me today in getting better acquainted with my longtime friend, Sandy Hu. We first met in the ‘80s when we were both working in Ketchum’s food practice. Sandy’s professional expertise and practice is unparalleled. Like many of us she is also a mom, wife and now grandparent. Read more about her remarkable career and secrets to life, balance and grandparenting.
What is your role in the food industry?
I’m a food marketing communications consultant providing strategic counsel, product positioning advice, and messaging direction. I’m also a blogger for my new site, “Call me Grandma,” which will include ideas for cooking with kids, as well as other fun activities for adults to do with or for children.
How did you first get involved in the food industry?
I had absolutely no interest in food, although my mother and sister were wonderful cooks. Luckily, I fell into a job as food editor of Co-Ed, a Scholastic teen magazine based in New York City. At the time, I was clothing and textiles editor of a sister publication for teachers, called Forecast. I was 24 and wanted to write for a younger audience. I had ideas, but not the food knowledge so I hired an assistant with complementary skills. My next job was as food and fashion editor at the Honolulu Advertiser, and moving to San Francisco, I established my career in food PR.
What/who inspired your current role in the food industry?
I was an SVP at Ketchum but I was never meant for the corporate life. What I really enjoyed was doing the fun PR work that was routinely relegated to junior staff. I was at a conference of Les Dames d’Escoffier International in Seattle where I heard a life-changing talk by a vibrant motivational speaker who advised that we should rethink our life every 10 years.
She said that, contrary to popular belief, life is long. So, you needed to find the work that would give you joy because you would be doing it over more years than you might imagine.
Excited and energized by her message (at that point, I had been at Ketchum exactly 10 years in my third stint at the agency), I determined to quit my job and start my own small business, enabling me to choose the work I wanted to do, which soon included the Kerrygold brand of butter and cheeses from Ireland.
What is the most significant change you’ve seen in the food industry?
There has been a seismic shift in consumer attitudes about food in this country. Chefs went from cooks quietly toiling in kitchens, to rock stars, to fierce competitors on reality TV shows. Consumer tastes have evolved from bland to adventurous—embracing everything from bitter greens, to pungent cheeses, to harissa. Food influencers are chasing photogenic food to post to social media—the more exotic the better. This exposure has challenged heritage American brands that were our pantry staples, like canned soup and American cheese, as consumers shop the perimeter of the supermarket (or Costco, Trader Joe’s, Target or Wal-Mart), looking for fresh, organic ingredients and more sophisticated food offerings. Today, food is also fashion and art, and the lexicon of the culinary world has entered the mainstream.
Describe a food fad/trend you would love to start.
I would bring back culinary education to public schools. Cooking is a life skill that goes hand-in-hand with eating better, leading to better health, and greater self-sufficiency. The meal kit companies are having sustainability issues because of cost, excess packaging and distribution challenges. While you can buy pre-made meals in every supermarket, and takeout and home delivery are widespread, the best way to appreciate food is to learn to cook it.
My son and I tried to promote home cooking with a narrowly focused, mobile website of 30-minute recipes, quick food ideas and easy cooking tips, to be accessed on the go, on your smartphone. We finally closed the site after nine years because we lacked major funding to stay competitive with big players. The site is still visible at about.specialfork.com, but is not updated. I still turn to that site when I need to cook dinner in a hurry.
My new blog, “Call me Grandma,” will enable me to maintain a voice in food and cooking on the Internet; this time directed toward grandparents and grandchildren. I have lots of great ideas—from how you can make kid-pleasing bento lunches for school-age kids, to tips for making pizza with three-year-olds.
What keeps you motivated as a food professional?
I love the energy surrounding food—how we think about food continues to change and evolve and there are so many different facets of food to explore—from nutrition to technology, agriculture, lifestyle, economics, culture, food politics and more.
What do you view as your greatest achievement to-date as a food professional?
In 1994, when Katie Couric asked, “What is the internet, anyway?” on the Today Show, I was busy building recipe.com for Ketchum. It was one of the first food websites and reached a wide audience in its five-year run, garnering kudos for the agency for being tech-savvy and leading the PR industry into a brave new world. At this point, other agencies were just beginning to get their feet wet by digitizing their capabilities brochures on static websites, and communications professionals were wondering if the internet would be a fad or a trend.
Instead, we were up and running with a rich site that was interactive, updated weekly, and provided us with a conduit to reach the consumer audience directly, bypassing the usual media gatekeepers—this was groundbreaking at the time.
We led our clients onto the “information superhighway” by giving them their first presence on the internet by posting their recipes, along with our own original content. We featured interviews with chefs, cookbook authors and food personalities; and answers to consumer cooking questions in a “Dear Sandy” section.
I presented recipe.com to New York magazine food editors at the launch, giving most of the editors their first experience online. One of the prescient questions they asked was whether I thought websites would replace magazines one day. Recipe.com was featured in newspapers, consumer magazine columns, and tech and PR industry publications. The website won a Bronze Anvil in 1996 for Application of Technology, “Home Pages”—launching, I believe, the first PRSA award into the digital age.
What’s your favorite food to make at home?
I was on a business trip in Ireland for my client, Kerrygold, where I met a woman from China, also on the trip, who asked me what I cooked at home. When I said we cook and eat a variety of foods—from pastas to pizzas, daubes to mac and cheese—she said she was sorry for my children because they had lost their food heritage. I think of myself and my children as global citizens and I loved that I was able to expose them to the world through food. My favorite food to make is the new recipe I’ve yet to try.
Tell us about a memorable meal you’ve had.
In Menton, France, on the sun-kissed Cote d’Azur is a three-star Michelin restaurant with a view of the Mediterranean where I had one of the best meals, ever. Mirazur was ranked fourth place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017 and held two Michelin stars the year I dined there. The food was inventive, exquisitely plated and utterly delicious. Instead of one amuse-bouche to start the meal, there were three separate courses before the meal actually began and lovely mignardises after the dessert. Aside from the food and ambiance, and the generosity of the extra offerings, the warm welcome from the maître’d and the whole staff set the tone for gracious dining and capped off a stellar performance.
What food or meal makes you happiest? Why?
What truly makes me happy is when I go to a restaurant and the food is really good and cooked perfectly. When fried foods are light, crisp and not greasy; the soup isn’t over-salted; and the vegetables are cooked to perfection. It brings me inexpressible joy. I don’t care if it’s a burger, paella or pho—it’s not about the type of restaurant or the cost of the food; it’s about mastery in the kitchen.
Tell us about a food or ingredient you would never use or eat.
Funnily enough, raw fish. My family emigrated from Japan more than a century ago and one would expect that eating sashimi and sushi would be ingrained in my DNA. I can manage carpaccio, gravlax and raw oysters, but not raw fish. This is extremely embarrassing in Japan at kaiseki restaurants, which consist of a single, flawless, seasonal, set-menu meal, almost always including sushi or sashimi as one of the courses. Restaurants will make an accommodation if you let them know in advance, but I feel extremely culinarily deficient to have to ask.
What cookbooks or cooking classes are most important to you? Why?
I’ve been a judge of the James Beard Cookbook Awards numerous times, most recently two years ago, and you get to keep the carton of books you are judging. Along with my own purchases over many years, I must have nearly a thousand cookbooks in my library. I tend to gravitate to older books: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, and Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cook Book. These books are basic, introductory cookbooks that I reference often and cook from, when I want to make a classic dish. My more current favorites are cookbooks about the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Korea, and other countries that open my kitchen to the world.
Where would you most like to live? Why?
When I was a little girl growing up in the small town of Hilo, Hawaii, I used to tell my mother that one day, I would move to New York City. In that time and place, it seemed like a child’s dream. However, I did exactly that, living and working in Manhattan for five years right after college. And I have been on many trips to New York since, planning and hosting media events for clients. I love the vibrancy and pace of New York City, the cultural offerings, and the infinite variety of cuisines of this metropolitan melting pot. It will always feel like a second home to me.
Tell us about your favorite vacation destination.
It may be because I’m of Japanese ancestry that I never cared to go to Japan. It’s the same reason why, after college, I moved to New York rather than the West Coast, where there would be more people from Hawaii like me. However, as I’ve gotten older, it seemed important to trace my roots for myself. What I discovered was a beautiful country that’s pristine and relatively crime-free. From the pulsing energy of Tokyo, to the contemplative serenity of temples in Kyoto, to the invigorating mountain air of picturesque small towns like Takayama, Japan is a land of boundless variety. I love the culture, the art and the fabulous food. I love the attention to detail in every aspect of life, and the keen appreciation and sensitivity to the changing seasons.
Connect with Sandy
Website: Call Me Grandma
LinkedIn: Sandy Hu