Kitchen emergencies come in all shapes and sizes: From dinner party deficiencies to weeknight dinner woes, cooking can stump the best of us. Bon Appétit's new podcast Dinner SOS, hosted by one of our favourite BA chefs, Chris Morocco, has come to the rescue with solutions for everything from cooking for fussy eaters to creating that perfect crumb on the mac and cheese of our dreams. 

Ahead of the festive season, we chat with Morocco about everything from tips for training up our palates to why we need to take the pressure off hosting — and the importance of having a personal cheese plate on hand while cooking dinner. Plus, hot off of the live recording of his podcast at Toronto's Hot Docs earlier in the year, Morocco shares his favourite spots to grab a bite in Toronto. 

We pick the Bon Appétit test kitchen director's brain to find out how he got into cooking, his fave guests on the show and how he honed his ability to reverse engineer recipes from famous celebrity chefs by taste, touch and smell alone.

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What are you working on at Bon Appétit right now?

"These days, it's always busy. It's funny — 13 years ago, all we did is make a magazine. And we were like, 'Wow, another issue out the door!' Now, if you're not working on print, you're working on your digital slate for the first half of the following year or your social video strategy. I'm working on the podcast [Dinner SOS]. Every week, I'm doing multiple sessions and tapings with callers at different stages. I'm participating in video. In media, we have to be so many different things to different audiences these days. So, all that amounts to great opportunities, but not a lot of downtime."

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How did your podcast, Dinner SOS come about?

"For me, Dinner SOS is the most tangible way that I talk to our audience. It's this really direct channel of communication; you're talking to people one-on-one. Now that we are a digital-first company, everything has metrics behind it. You can analyze the performance of every bit of content you do. But it's easy to lose sight of the fact that behind every click, behind every view, there's a person who's looking for a solution to something.

"There's a person with a problem, and they're trying to fix it. Sometimes, you want solutions that go viral and reach millions of people. But other times, you're fighting that battle on a person-to-person basis. And that's really where Dinner SOS comes in. Because I think a lot of the issues that come up for folks in the kitchen are very relevant to many other people.

"I'm from the Boston Area, and there was this very famous radio show called Car Talk with just these two Boston-area guys, taking calls from people trying to diagnose what was wrong with their cars over the phone. But then they would call them back at some point later to find out, 'Were we actually right? 'Was it the alternator? Was it the rear hubs? What happened?' It was an institution. [Dinner SOS] is really that framework. Here's a solution, you know, and how did it work? I think closing that conversation, closing the loop and finding out how it went is so vital."

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Yes! It's so refreshing. Especially in a world of Instagram recipes...

"Yeah, there are people coming to you with all different skill sets and levels of ability. And sometimes, you just miss the mark. You realize, 'Oh my gosh, I literally just coached you on making beef Wellington, but it turns out you didn't even own salt.' Let's scale it back a bit and establish the foundations."

What was your favourite dilemma on the podcast?

"This guy Blake — I loved the way that he described how he wanted to achieve mac and cheese perfection. The way he described it was like onomatopoeia, but instead of words, he described the sound that the mac and cheese should make in the pot as it sort of slurps and slaps around. You know exactly what he's talking about, like it should be gooey and cheesy and viscous enough to create this kind of tension in this matrix."

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The way you recreate a dish that you taste blindfolded on Reverse Engineering is so impressive. What advice would you give to someone looking to train up their palate?

"I don't know that I'm a super-taster. I think I'm an okay-taster, but you can't build a show around somebody being okay at tasting. I've had the luxury — through working in test kitchens for a number of brands over the years — of having tried and been exposed to so many foods that I have a pretty good sense of how a lot of different types of dishes come together. I have a good sense of looking for signposts and markers in terms of how things taste. It's not some supernatural ability. You literally need to stop and just taste your food.

"You're looking to establish some kind of baseline for yourself of what salt, fat, acid and heat truly mean. Put some olive oil in a bowl and taste that. Put a little lemon juice on top of it, mix it and taste it again. Now put in a pinch of salt and taste it again. Put in another pinch of salt. Now see what happens when you add a little dash of honey or maple syrup or a pinch of sugar. See how the flavours change. You just need to know how to gamify a little bit of your cooking process."

"And I've been stumped [on Reverse Engineering]. I've looked like such an idiot. And listen, sometimes, it's just that the ravioli was green."

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You recently visited Toronto for a Hot Docs event. Was it your first visit?

"I had not been [to Toronto] since I was a teenager when my aunt and uncle lived there. I have like zero memory from that time, but suffice to say, this recent trip made an incredible impression. I was so lucky to be connected with a couple of local food media folks like Suresh Doss, who created basically 48 hours worth of programmed food tourism. Eden Grinshpan, the host of Top Chef Canada and a cookbook author, was also on the panel for the live taping of Dinner SOS and was just a wonderful person to be able to connect with.

Bon Appétit host and test kitchen director Chris Morocco ate at Mimi Chinese in Toronto

Where did you eat?

"The Tuck Shop, a hole in the wall bakery, which is phenomenal. Beast Pizza, which does a lot of whole-animal cooking, in addition to a wonderful pizza program. The bread that they do is like a four- or five-day sourdough ferment. It's sort of shaped like a baguette, but it becomes the airiest experience of bread you've ever had ... Sunny's Chinese and Mimi Chinese, both from the same chef, David Schwartz. Phenomenal cooking, wonderful restaurants. I went to Matty Matheson's place, Prime Seafood Palace. It was wonderful, and it was one of the nicest dining rooms I've ever been to — soft edges with a little bit of gray stone accents.  

"Bakerrae, which is this Filipino bakery in Scarborough. Kunafa's make the best knafeh I've ever had in my life ... It's not something I've eaten a ton of, but it was wild. The level of commitment to making multiple rounds each day of multiple styles of knafeh and other related pastries. Badiali Pizza is another great one. It's just really amazing to have superlative iterations of so many different types of food, like Sri Lankan cuisine and eating hoppers for the first time in my life."

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Do you believe in drinking while cooking, or do you need to focus?

"I mean, I don't believe in drinking at work. In the early days [of Bon Appétit], there was a lot of 'It's 7 p.m., we're closing an issue, people are having a whisky' kind of vibes to the place. But cooking at home, honestly, I get my little cheese plate going, little pieces of salami, maybe some pistachios. I have a very ambitious cheese program. Cheese is where I invest a healthy chunk of our grocery budget. A little white wine while you cook. I mean, it just helps it not feel like work."

I like the concept of a personal cheese plate while cooking. I'm stealing that!

"Yeah, I might need to get my cholesterol checked. But honestly, I'm hoping for the best because I friggin' love that cheese plate."

Bon Appétit host and test kitchen director Chris Morocco has a personal cheese plate when he cooks

Are you a cocktail person?

"I love cocktails, but I don't drink them ... I love them because you're able to express such a wide range of flavours ... the bitterness, the sharpness, the sweetness, the complexity, the roundness. All of these flavours are able to exist in this really wide spectrum that I think is so compelling. There are few other foods where you're ever able to achieve that level of complexity. I love a margarita. The simple balance. Three ingredients with just perfect tension.

"But ever since we had kids, I just don't sleep in enough to process the alcohol. Now, a cocktail for me is like a glass of white wine with an ice cube in it, if I forgot to put a bottle in [the fridge] the day before."

What are some of your best hosting tips?

"I cannot stand the insistence of framing hosting as a question of needing to impress people. I think it's impressive that I don't lose my mind every week, you know, shopping and cooking 'ordinary' meals. I'm grateful that people put this huge emphasis on food around so many holidays. I think that's a wonderful imperative, but this notion that we have to impress each other, that I need to somehow channel every last ounce of culinary creativity and hosting prowess? I think it's enough to just invite people into your home.

"Scale your ambitions in a reasonable way. Don't think you're going to suddenly be this different person. I think just like having, again, a strong cheese game, a strong snack game. Frankly, get people out of the kitchen and at the snack table in the living area, even if there are consequences for your carpet. Get them out of the kitchen and give yourself the headspace and physical space to prepare this meal. Don't feel like you have to overdo it."

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You have a lot of celebrity visits in the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen. Who were some of your favourites?

"This is going way back, but we did this spoof video, for April Fool's. We were pretending that Bobby Flay had taken over as editor-in-chief. And he was just on camera, roaming around the kitchen, pointing out mistakes people were making. [Another time] Emeril Lagasse came in and they followed him around on the editorial floors of the building. He hopped into people's offices, threw salt at them, and said, 'Bam!'

There have been so many people who come through, but honestly,  the people who I get the most, [Morocco pulls an expression of awe] around are pretty random. Like Jancis Robinson, the wine writer. Like wow, you are so freakin' smart. I feel really intimidated by people who are just super elated about their craft."

Any non-chefs who weren't so talented in the kitchen?

"We had this comedian Maria Bamford, on Dinner SOS a few weeks ago, and I mean, she's hilarious. She's a well-known stand-up comic who's done a lot of TV and you're just like, 'Wow, you're hopeless in the kitchen.' It just makes you wonder. We put these halos around people, and yet, can they scramble an egg? It's not any kind of reflection on them if they can't, but I'm just curious. I saw Diane Kruger shopping in the food market at Beaumarchais in Paris and I was like, 'What's in her cart?!' Like, can Madonna bake? Let's investigate. I'm fascinated by those kinds of questions.

What inspired you to become a chef? Did you have an Anthony Bourdain first oyster a-ha moment?

"Well, it certainly wasn't the first oyster that did anything for me! Since then, my palate has become a little bit more adventurous. It was precisely the fact that I was working as a photo producer at Vogue in the same building as the old Gourmet test kitchens in Times Square — the smells coming out of that space. I was always so captivated by the question of what went on behind the kitchen door, in restaurants and in people's homes. It was the presence of the Gourmet test kitchen that really led me to go to culinary school at night. It ultimately propelled me to quit Vogue and go and work in restaurants and really pivot my career. 

"I always just knew that I loved magazines, and I've been very fortunate to have such a long career in them. I remember a lot of things coming together and realizing that I was working for the wrong magazine! I had surrounded myself with cookbooks and had been seeking culinary knowledge for a long time before I ever thought about becoming a professional in that space."

Bon Appétit host and test kitchen director Chris Morocco's cookbook recommendations: "Cooking by Hand," "The Joy of Cooking" and "The New Basics"

What cookbooks really influenced you?

"Conceptually, I would say Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli; that was one that my dad had. Those were some of the first cookbooks that I picked up and thumbed through. Just his description of how to make a meat sugo, like a long-cooked meat ragu of sorts. It was really the manifestation of the craft of cooking, not just recipes. The Joy of Cooking [by Irma S. Rombauer] and The New Basics [by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins] where it's less about the craft of cooking and more about how do you get really maximally flavourful food ... and how do you get people to recreate these things easily at home?"

What's an underrated dish that you love to make?

"Of all these questions, this one completely stumps me! I don't even know, I love such basic things sometimes. Oh my god, recently I made a scrambled egg sandwich — I had American cheese around it ... I didn't grow up with American cheese. My parents were so shirty about it, but then you're reintroduced to it, from like a culinary perspective ... Sometimes the best solutions are the easiest."