A Food Writer's Home Office: Olga Massov

A Food Writer's Home Office: Olga Massov

Gregory Han
Oct 10, 2012

Olga Massov, food writer, recipe developer, and co-author of the soon-to-be-released The Kimchi Cookbook, may have a cheerful compact nook neatly tucked into the corner of the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her husband, but her kitchen is just as much her office, too. Find out how she manages to balance it all in this tour and interview with the Russian expat (by way of New England).

How long have you worked from home? What lead to this decision? I've been working from home since February 2011. I came out of college with a business degree and worked on Wall Street for about ten years. I felt like, as an immigrant, it was the sensible, practical thing to do. But it wasn't something I loved. Until my last job, when I wound up with a pretty amazing boss and worked with incredibly talented people, it was rather unexciting. I spent all my free time, however little there was of it, cooking and writing. I started a food blog which made me feel much more alive than any work project I ever had to do. All I wanted to do was hang out in my kitchen, learn various cooking techniques and dishes and write about it.

At work I was pretty unfulfilled; but when I came home and made dinner, no matter how simple it was, I would come alive. In 2008, after the markets tanked and the economy fell apart, I really started to ask myself what I wanted out of my life, but I was too timid to leave. Around February of 2011 an opportunity presented itself to try to do food writing/recipes full time, and so I took the plunge. I got to work with amazing folks like Melissa Clark and Andrew Scrivani of the New York Times (I still work for Andrew), and Melissa introduced me to Lauryn Chun, with whom I wrote my first cookbook, The Kimchi Cookbook. I'm now working on my second cookbook with a famous chef, trying to freelance, and spend a lot of time at my desk writing, researching, and everything in between. I practically live at my desk in my office chair.

What do you like and dislike about working from home? I've been working from home for more than a year now, but some of my work takes me to other people's houses. For example when I work for Andrew, I'm at the photo studio where we cook, style, and shoot food. When I was working for Melissa, I was at her house. But when I work on my blog, on freelance assignments, or on the books, I am in the living room, at my desk. I've always joked that I'd do my best work from 7am until 1pm in my pajamas. Sometimes, that actually happens. I'll be up since 6am and by the mid-afternoon realize I need to shower, but I've been writing and working non-stop. What I like about it is that my home is cozy and comfortable. If I'm working on recipes and need some reference, I've all my cookbooks around me so it's incredibly helpful.

Our cat Forrest provides ample entertainment and is a pretty outsized personality and he loves it when we work from home. When my husband Andrew works from home (he's a climate science writer), we sit back to back at our respective desks and for most of the time, all you hear is just a bunch of typing noises. Sometimes I make a mad dash for the kitchen to test a recipe. If it works -- we have a delicious lunch. Otherwise, we have an okay lunch. It's also nice to have a little bit more freedom with your time. If I can fit my work into a 10-hour day, I can go for a run or a workout at a time that's convenient to me. I can run out and meet a colleague for a coffee and just exchange ideas and thoughts. It's nice to be your own boss especially when you're pretty disciplined about setting your own schedule and meeting deadlines. I've always been a very dedicated worker and if my former employers trusted me and let me have a bit more wiggle room, I might have been more motivated.

Our kitchen is pretty amazing, considering it's a rental, and the space is very intelligently laid out with quite a bit of storage. I initially took the apartment because I'd never seen a rental with a kitchen like this. That, in and of itself, is a glimpse into my decision-making!

What I don't like about working from home is that sometimes, you realize you're still in your pajamas and it's 2 in the afternoon! That it's too quiet, and that it's a little lonely at times. You really can get lost in your work and realize that you've become a tiny bit hermit-like. Writers are introverted to begin with, so in some ways it's great to have that time to be in your head, but it can also not be great, too.

Basically, the stuff that you love can also become the stuff that drives you crazy.

The last piece of working from home that I dislike is this: you can never leave work at work. It's here, with you, because you also happen to live here. And if something is messy and out of place, you focus on that and have to fix it before you can focus on work again. I'm a total neat freak and I feel like I spend my days sweeping, dusting, putting things away, when I'd rather be in a quiet room, just writing.

Tell us about what you're passionate about, what inspires you, and where you're going. I'm a food writer/blogger. I create/test recipes for my blog and freelance assignments. I love the process of testing a recipe. When I'm on a very tight deadline and the recipe refuses to work it drives me crazy, but I also love the process of learning. You always walk away from a new recipe having learned something new -- and it's an incredibly empowering feeling. I am constantly humbled by other talented bloggers and food writers. There's a discipline, a drive for excellence, that's a great source of inspiration. It keeps you from getting stagnant.

The first book I worked on as a co-author, The Kimchi Cookbook, I walked away with such better understanding of fermentation, Korean food, how similar agrarian societies are to one another (Russian vs Korean), how the intimidation factor of making your own kimchi is really just in your head. I learned a lot from Lauryn (Chun) and I'm learning a lot from the chef I'm writing my second book with. He has worked so hard to get to where he is and he is an incredibly focused, driven, nice person.

I am hoping to write many more cookbooks with other chefs/personalities. I really like the process of collaboration and I am pretty good at taking on the voice of the person who is writing the book. I'm a bit of a chameleon that way. My best reward is hearing from the person, "This really sounds like me!" Then I know I'm doing my job.

I think down the road I want to write my own cookbooks and stories. I love writing and I think I have some good stories to tell and great food/techniques to share. But right now, I am eager to be learning from people who have years' more experience and wisdom than me. I'd love to do a stage at some restaurants and just keep my head low and learn from anyone who is willing to teach me. It's like my culinary school.

Tell us about your space. How would you define your aesthetic? Any special considerations that influenced its setup? I love my desk. I recently splurged on it because I realized I needed an older desk to work at. I have a pretty short torso and most desks are too high for me, which results in really awful shoulder pain. When I was finishing up the manuscript for the second book, I wound up writing the last two weeks of it at a friend's home office near by. She had this old secretary desk, and I realized that because it was made for shorter people, it was perfect for someone like me. I happened to spy one the next day at a local antique shop and it was a mint-condition mahogany secretary desk. My aesthetic is eclectic. I don't like matching pieces and I really like to mix old and new. Our dining room table is something I got on sale at Crate and Barrel and the grey chairs around it were hand-me-downs from one of my best friends. And then, since I needed a fourth chair, I splurged on an orange Eames molded plastic chair, and it's one of my favorite items in the house.

Our coffee table is a Danish mid-century modern elongated table. I'm told they're quite rare. It's been somewhat beaten up in the last year or so, but I am hoping to, someday, restore it to its old glory. I also hate clutter, and always fight to get rid of it. This can be hard because as a writer, I am surrounded by paper, paper, and more paper. And also kitchen items take up room! So while it's clutter with purpose, I wish there was a bit more room for it.

I'm not much for flower prints, so a lot of the colors in the apartment are mid-century modern. My desk is a Chippendale mahogany secretary desk and my SAYL chair is a bright apple green. I totally love the juxtaposition. It very much reflects my personality. I love that I have a work space and that my heart delights in seeing it every day. But I wish that I had a small room where all I did was work. It's hard to have work in your living room, especially when you have visitors or when you want to say, "I'm done for the night." Because literally a few inches away is our couch.

Why did you choose the SAYL chair? I love the SAYL for so many reasons. I think its price point is excellent. I also think it looks terrific in a small space, particularly if you have to make it part of your living room or bedroom. It can be a very cool accent piece. People who come over to the apartment always ask me about where I got such a cool-looking office chair. If I knew about the lumbar option, I would have gotten that on top of the chair. But I didn't realize there was that option. Now I put a pillow behind my back (because I have a small torso/frame on top). But the chair is awesome and I love it. And even though our neighbors' kitten sort of did a little damage to it, I love it even more.

(Images: Olga Massov)

lifework2012-02-22 at 2.10.00 PM.jpgRepublished in partnership with Herman Miller Lifework. Originally posted by Amy Feezor.

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