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Milk Street’s Culinary Director Talks New Cookbook and Thanksgiving Tips for Overwhelmed Holiday Cooks

Daniel Hautzinger
Wes Martin smiles in front of jars and a Milk Street sign
Thanksgiving is Wes Martin's favorite holiday, because “it is the one day that people stop, they sit at a table, and they talk to each other." Credit: Joe Murphy

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Wes Martin, the culinary director of Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, doesn’t cook on Thanksgiving. When it comes to the biggest culinary holiday of the American year, he lets friends prepare the meal while he provides charcuterie. 

“It’s actually kind of nice to not have to cook the whole meal,” he said on a recent trip to Chicago. 

Given that he has spent much of his professional life working in food, he can be forgiven for enjoying the occasional break from the kitchen. He oversees the culinary staff at Milk Street, helping turn out recipes in magazine, digital, video, social media, and book form – including the new cookbook Milk Street Simple – ensuring they are both well-tested and visually enticing. 

But he still has tips for overwhelmed holiday cooks. Thanksgiving is “the hardest meal,” he said, so “you want to get as much done ahead of time as you can.” For instance, you can make your mashed potatoes two days in advance and store them in a glass bowl covered with plastic wrap in the fridge. To reheat them for the meal, place the bowl over a pan of simmering water a la a double boiler and let the potatoes warm, stirring every now and then.

“They’re hot and creamy, and it’s a much easier and better way to heat them up than putting them in a pan and drying them out,” Martin said. 

Other advice for the holiday meal, from someone who’s well-versed in managing numerous cooks in a bustling kitchen? 

“Don’t be afraid to ask people to bring stuff, but be sure that you communicate with them so you don’t have four Caesar salads show up at the door, or someone asking to use your oven” when you’re already roasting a turkey in it. Speaking of appliances, Martin encourages people to use any and all that they have – instant pots, air fryers – to spread around the cooking and free up the oven and stove.

Simplifying meals without reducing their quality or deliciousness is a large part of what Milk Street aims to do – one of their tenets is “Good cooking shouldn’t take hours.” Hence Milk Street Simple, which offers recipes with few ingredients but maximal flavor thanks to techniques such as browning tomato paste, oven-frying vegetables, or topping dishes with flavor-infused oils. (Try a recipe from Simple for Brussels Sprouts with Apples and Bacon that enlivens the dish with a quick vinaigrette.) Those techniques can then be turned towards whatever you have in your house, whether or not you have a recipe for it. 

“What I would really love to be able to teach people to do is how to cook more intuitively,” Martin said. “When I cook at home, that’s how I cook. I pilfer through what’s in the refrigerator.” The confidence and ability to do that “comes from just cooking and cooking and cooking.”

Martin has been cooking and cooking and cooking for most of his professional life. He grew up on a farm in Colorado with a mother who is “an amazing cook.” She would make kraut burgers in a roll similar to a runza, yeasted raised doughnuts that she still sells at church bake sales, and streuselkuchen, among other dishes from her German heritage. 

After studying music in college, Martin ended up waiting tables and working at restaurants in San Francisco, eventually deciding to go to pastry school. A colleague at a restaurant who was also a food photographer asked him to assist her on shoots, and he found he had a knack for food styling – making dishes look good on camera. It was a boom time for food magazines and cookbooks, so he found plenty of work, and eventually moved into recipe testing and development as well. 

He later relocated to New York to start working in TV and was at the Food Network for four years. He has worked with Rachael Ray, Martha Stewart, Jamie Oliver, and Nigella Lawson, among other on-air stars. 

Around eight years ago, he decided to take a “sabbatical” and work for some friends in a restaurant and kitchen store on Cape Cod, then took over from them when they retired. But he missed city life, and so found his way to Milk Street.

“What’s really fun here is to zero in and dive deep on classic stuff, like cacio e pepe,” he said, “to play with all the different techniques and different ways that people might make that dish.”  

Part of Milk Street’s creed is that “You’re never finished learning how to cook,” and Martin has continued to pick up new techniques and ideas and flavors while working there – like always keeping some gochujang on hand to punch up a dish or salad dressing. 

“No one knows everything,” he said. “You’re always going to have something to learn, but you have to be open to it, and you can’t be pigheaded about it. Ego and food are a dangerous mix. Everyone is going to taste food differently. No one is in the right; it’s a subjective thing.”  

Everyone comes to food with their own palates, experiences, and memories: an aversion to garlic, an unforgettable meal you had when you were abroad, dishes your grandmother made. “You can emotionally connect with food,” Martin said. 

Because of its ability to foster connections, Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday. 

“It is the one day that people stop, they sit at a table, and they talk to each other – and it’s over a meal. That to me is really what I love about food,” he said.