By Sharon Shaked
Have you ever considered working as a professional
recipe tester? Greg Epstein of Shape Magazine
offers a glimpse into this fascinating role.
His job is to make sure every recipe is foolproof
for Shape’s readers. With a background
in culinary arts, hotel management, food science,
and food styling, Epstein shows that there is
no set path to this culinary career.
What experiences do you feel have helped prepare you
for your career as a recipe tester?
Greg Epstein: In different kitchens
I have been yelled at, even had a pan thrown at me
by one Chef, but I always took away an important lesson
(do not throw pans…especially if they are hot!).
Tuck away the pride, be open and aware, and you can
gather lessons from every walk of life. This has helped
me attain a “problem solver” attitude
as well as network.
SS: Your educational background
consists of culinary arts, hotel management, food
science, and food styling. What are the necessary
qualifications and skills required for pursuing a
career as a recipe tester?
GE: Start off with a good accredited
culinary program. You benefit from a strong food foundation
as well as real life experiences. As a recipe tester,
you have to communicate and listen to the people involved
in the magazine (Editors, Creative Directors, etc.)
and be able to relay this information to the readers.
SS: What were some of the difficulties
you encountered when searching for a job?
GE: I came to California for a
food styling internship. My family thought I was crazy
to move so far for an intern’s wage. Networking
was probably the most difficult.
SS: What personal qualities
would you say are required for this job?
GE: You have to be the kind of
person who can roll with the punches. Never take yourself
SS: How did you find yourself
at Shape magazine?
GE: Originally I was referred to
Weider Publications to work on a magazine called Shape
Cooks Magazine by another food stylist, Janet Miller
(who is very talented). I never left. I’ve been
working with Weider since 1998. I am grateful to Barbara
Harris, Editor-In-Chief, for keeping me on this long.
SS: Prior to Shape, you had
done a lot of food styling. How has this affected
your position as a recipe tester?
GE: In food styling it’s
all about how the food looks; in recipe testing it’s
all about how the food tastes. But you really have
to have a grasp of both to be effective. I have made
many connections through food styling, and it has
allowed me to make suggestions as to what would make
a photo look better during a tasting—this way
they are ready for the shoot.
SS: You have worked as a line
cook in a production kitchen. How does your experience
at Shape differ from that of a restaurant environment?
GE: I test out all my recipes from
home, which I love because I can cook anytime I want
(generally at night). I do miss the interaction of
working with a team, but it is a lot less stressful
without having pans thrown at your head. The most
stressful thing here is when I am running late to
get to the magazine due to traffic.
SS: What is a typical day like
GE: A typical day for me in recipe
testing first starts with putting together my shopping
list. I personally enjoy going to the grocery store.
There are times that I spend hours in the grocer’s,
so if being in the grocery store is not for you, then
this is definitely not the right profession for you.
I prepare the recipes and then pack everything up
and head to the magazine. I present the recipes, and
then along with the editor, creative director and
others involved in the decision process, we decide
what looks pretty for potential photos. If the recipe
didn’t work, I offer suggestions for a different
preparation or ingredients that might make it taste
SS: What do you like most about
your job? Least?
GE: My favorite part of the job
is that I work from my comfort zone of home and make
my own hours. I’m a night bird so it’s
not uncommon for me to be cooking at 1:00 in the morning.
The thing I like least about my job is the clean up—I
start to miss my stewards (dishwashers) at this point.
SS: Where do the recipes you
use come from?
GE: Typically they come from an
editor working on the story. We talk over the phone
about any potential concerns, and then I go to work.
Also, when a reader sees a recipe that they want to
make, my responsibility is to make sure it works every
time and tastes terrific. The recipes are developed
from current event stories such as new health fads
or trends. They come from contract dietitians, local
and celebrity chefs. And sometimes they come from
SS: What is your most rewarding/challenging
experience within this field?
GE: Most rewarding to me is when
a recipe works just the way it is supposed to. Sometimes
it is not documented correctly, and I end up offering
a suggestion that makes a real difference—this
makes me feel terrific. I know the time it takes to
prepare a recipe, and when it does not work out, it
is quite disappointing.
SS: What type of compensation
can someone expect going into this career?
GE: You should not expect to get
rich being a food stylist or recipe tester, but if
you are looking for really rewarding work, it’s
worth a go. Generally, large test kitchens pay hourly—about
$15 an hour, or they may pay per recipe ranging from
$20-$40. Sometimes they pay for development per recipe
rather than testing, and this ranges from $50-$200.
SS: What is your advice to people
looking to go into this as a career?
GE: Don’t do it! Then I won’t
have a job. Just kidding. Start local. Call up magazines
and newspapers and see if they want to give you a
shot. Send out résumés, but if you can
meet people in person, it would be more beneficial.