Scott DeSimon is a writer and editor who grew up in Cumberland Center with an appreciation for cooking and eating.
An editor at Bon Appetit magazine for five years, until 2016, he’ll return to Maine from New York next month to be a judge in the World’s Best Lobster Roll competition at the new Down East Lobster Roll Festival in Portland on July 8.
We picked his brains in the meantime on lobster, red hot dogs, food writing and the dish that made him say no way.
Name: Scott DeSimon
Lives: Brooklyn, New York
What was the career path that got you into magazine writing and to Bon Appetit? I was a musician and occasional film/video production assistant until I moved to New York with no clear purpose and fell into magazines completely by accident, first at Spin and then eventually as part of the launch team for ESPN Magazine. At the same time, I discovered that you could write food and drink pieces as a freelancer and people would pay you. I ended up contributing to magazines as diverse as GQ (I killed a chicken) and Mr. Food’s Easy Cooking. I landed at Bon Appetit for the relaunch of the magazine in 2011 and stayed there for five years, editing, writing and producing video.
The farthest you’ve traveled for a food-related story or review? Not that far, actually. I think London and Mexico City are the farthest I’ve gone for a story, both about six hours, but Mexico City was really special because we got to work and shoot in this incredible Modernist masterpiece of a house — a museum, really — called Casa Barragan. We had the place to ourselves all day to cook and poke around and then put on a big dinner party on the roof. Kind of magical.
The funkiest or most “never again” cuisine you’ve ever written about? I’m not a big “adventure foods” guy. You won’t find me ordering the live cobra heart or whatever. I will say that while I’ve never written about it, I just cannot get down with natto, the fermented Japanese tofu. I’m OK with extreme flavors, but flavors off of the spectrum like this are not my thing.
How about a classic Maine food rapid-fire? Your thoughts on:
Lobster: So long as it’s not overcooked, I’m all in. Generally the simpler, the better. It’s definitely become less “special” an ingredient, though, compared to when I was a kid. And I’m not on board with throwing lobster into dishes it has no reason being in. I’m looking at you lobster mac n’ cheese. If there is any sign that the lobster harvest is too high, it’s the existence of that. I will say, however, that if I have a little bit of meat left over, I will chop it and fold into the yolk mixture for deviled eggs in the summer.
Blueberries: Obviously the purplish, low-bush BB-sized ones from Maine barrens are a superior product to those massive, flavorless orbs that come out of Jersey and Michigan. Definitely worth picking through the stems and leaves to use. Love the blueberry cake recipe in Marjorie Standish’s “Cooking Downeast,” still.
Red hot dogs: I’ll admit I haven’t had these in a while, but until I was probably 10, I didn’t know hot dogs were any other color. Ideally served sliced and baked on top of a pot of Jacob’s cattle beans.
It’s your first time judging a lobster roll competition. What will make the winner stand out? For me, the ideal roll is all about the perfect mix of mayo to perfectly cooked meat, with very little in the way of other ingredients or seasonings. And the bun needs to be hot and buttery, with a touch of crispness from the flat top. Simple, but so many people screw it up. Of course, if someone does some brilliant take on a lobster banh mi, I could be swayed.
Any lobster or lobster roll don’ts you’ve encountered? Most important: Don’t overcook it. As for a roll? Don’t mix sriracha into your mayo and don’t serve the actual bun cold; the juxtaposition between the hot buttery roll and the cold lobster mixture is key.
You collect cookbooks. Is there a must-have for any Mainer? Not to repeat myself, but we had Marjorie Standish’s “Cooking Downeast” growing up, and while there is a bit of the “add a can of cream of mushroom soup” vibe at times, it’s still a great look into how people ate in Maine in the middle of the 20th century. And if you can find a copy of Robert Peter Tristam Coffin’s book, “Mainstays of Maine,” it’s a fantastic read. That said, I know there are cookbooks in the works from a number of new Portland chefs and restaurateurs who have redefined Maine food in the past decade — I’m thinking the folks from Hunt & Alpine Club as well as the team from Eventide Oyster Company — and I’m really excited to see what they do.