The Assistant Files, Vol. 43: Amiel Stanek, Bon Appetit's Adam Rapoport
(NEW YORK) Your Daily popped by Bon Appetit’s 4 Times Square digs for “The Assistant Files” back in 2011, so we were certainly overdue for a visit to EIC Adam Rapoport’s handsomely-appointed office to grill his current righthand man. In Amiel Stanek‘s year and a half at the food glossy, he’s become the office guinea pig for (nearly) OD-ing on Sriracha and boozing in the name of road-testing a slew of hangover “cures”. Oh, and he also hangs in the mag’s test kitchen, rings up chefs to “nerd out”, and pens online and print items. As for the swag, forget cupcakes, lipgloss, or other mainstays of fash mag loot: Stanek’s been known to lug away a gratis veal breast from the office. But does Stanek want his boss’ gig one day? The answer might surprise you…
BY ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV
Way before Bon Appetit, what were your early foodie experiences like?
Food was something I was always interested in, and I love to eat. My dad is always cooking, and he’s obsessed with his grill. He’s always calling me like, “Amiel! I’m smoking 15 pounds of brisket overnight!” I went to Oberlin, and they had live-in dining co-ops. That was one of the reasons I wanted to go there, as a kind of anchoring experience that wasn’t academic. It was this totally crazy opportunity to cook. I was 17 years old, I’d never worked in an industrial kitchen before, and I was cooking food for 80 to 100 people once a week as a head cook. Sometimes you went to a meal and it was awesome. Other times, it was all tofu and nutritional yeast. I learned that cooking is an incredible process—you’re creating something and giving it to other people.
What did you do post-college?
I’d been an English major, and I wrote a food column. I’d had part-time restaurant jobs to make money in the summers, and for ‘beer money’ during the school year. When I graduated in 2010, I was like, “Well, the job market sucks.” I could have moved to New York without a job, and try really hard to find someone who will let you work for no money—or, move to Philadelphia and get a restaurant job. No matter what happens, cooking is always something I can do. There’s never a glut of people willing to cook. There will always be a demand.
I had a few friends moving there, and it seemed cheap. There’s an honesty and a grittiness to the city that I love. I spent most of my time working in a smokey basement bar called 12 Steps Down. It was super small; there were seven people, I was one of two people in the kitchen, and we never worked on the same days. When I was there, I felt like the kitchen was mine. The specials board was my baby: I could put up whatever I wanted. It wasn’t a fancy restaurant by any stretch, but our regulars were in there four or five nights a week and ate whatever I put on the specials board.
What prompted you to bid adieu to the City of Brotherly Love?
The vampire hours, living in a cloud of second-hand smoke, and drinking too much. After a certain point, I couldn’t do it anymore. Something had to change. I was either going to keep cooking, or figure out a different way to work in food. I’ve always written—it’s something I love to do, and can do. So, I quit my job at 12 Steps Down and travelled.
How did Bon Appetit come into the picture in October 2012?
When I was back in Philly, a friend forwarded me an email from [Adam Rapoport’s former assistant] Rachel, saying she was leaving her job at Bon Appetit. The email had been sent to me four weeks before—I thought there was no way the job was still available. I emailed her, she got back to me in three minutes before I’d left my computer. At that point, I was working part-time three days a week making ice cream at Little Baby’s Ice Cream. I came up to New York, interviewed with Rachel, came back the next week to interview with Adam, then came back again to interview with HR.
How did you end up scoring the gig?
It was completely psychedelic. I did not think I was going to get hired. They told me to hang out with Rachel for a couple of hours, then HR was like, “Congratulations, you got the job, Rachel’s last day is on Friday, can you start Monday?” It was a Wednesday.
Quick moves! How’d you acclimate to the new gig?
I went from checking my email once every three months to checking it every day. It was a big shift. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I just felt like I needed to jump on it. I was living in a different city, sleeping on my friend’s couch. I’d always worked nights, and suddenly I was getting off at 6:30 p.m. It’s not exactly 9-5, but I can meet friends for dinner or go home and cook.
How was your first day on the job?
Completely insane. I came in sweating through my shirt and the only jacket I had. I’d never had an internship, and I’d never worked in an office. I’d never worked in any sort of environment where I got to sit down! I’d trained with Rachel for two hours—I had two sheets of paper with passwords. I didn’t know how to transfer a call or how to use Outlook.
What was your relationship with BA like before working there?
I hadn’t read Bon Appetit in a while. When Gourmet folded in 2009, I was devastated; I loved that magazine. I loved everything about it. I loved that it was a magazine about aspirational cooking—it was about living a life that revolved around food. When BA became Conde’s marquee food publication, I was little bit terrified because Bon Appetit of the 2000s and prior had the “30-minute meals” kind of vibe. I was crestfallen. When I picked up the magazine later on, it was a completely different animal. It made me excited about food; it made me hungry.
How did your rapport with Mr. Rapoport develop?
When I met Adam, it was like, “Holy sh*t, this guy is the magazine!” The magazine’s voice is his voice. This guy is Bon Appetit. We just vibed really well: He’s from D.C., I’m from Maryland. He worked at a bar when he graduated from college, too. There were little “bro” commonalities. Initially, when I was trying to figure out all of the assistant stuff, I was kind of terrified.
What got you past the fear?
Pretty quickly, I was like “Oh, I’m not working for Anna Wintour. Sometimes I’m such a Conde Nast executive assistant: I’m calling cars, scheduling things, and emailing Chuck Townsend’s assistant. But I rarely feel like that’s my role in an intense way. Sometimes I go get Adam coffee—more often than not, we walk to the coffee shop together. There are times when I feel we have a roommate relationship.
We’re both sitting at computers, yelling at each other from across the room. It feels good! He’ll say, “OK, you’ve got Sriracha in your desk, I’ve got bubbly water in my fridge.” I appreciate working with him because he’s a f*cking great magazine editor. He really knows what he’s doing. He’ll ask me what I think of a cover, or have me read a story and ask what I think about it. That’s totally crazy—and it’s what’s awesome about Adam. He actually cares. He wants to hear everybody’s opinions. With him, the worst thing you could do is not have an opinion, and not ask questions.
Since I haven’t worked in an office before, there are certain boundaries I didn’t understand. It didn’t occur to me that it’d be weird for an assistant to share opinions on a story. It’s important to have a mentor/mentee relationship that isn’t based on fear.
How much of your daily grind is admin work? And how much are you writing?
It’s a 50/50 split; I think that’s a pretty good ratio. There are certainly days where it’s 95 percent is spent at my desk sending emails and scheduling stuff. Then, there are days where I I’m not doing that at all—instead, I might be in Brooklyn at The Meat Hook [butchery] doing research for a story.
So, Adam doesn’t need you on call all the time?
No. I don’t feel like I’m chained to my desk. I talked to assistants who will say, “Why aren’t you at your desk?!” Sometimes I’ll have somebody else sit at my desk to man the phone when I’m doing something else.
What activities pull you away from your desk, aside from field trips to the butcher?
I’m doing stuff in the test kitchen, helping cross-test [recipes], which is awesome. One day, Adam and I went to his house and got the keg that was leftover from his holiday party and then went back to office. I really proved myself the first week when I managed to plan a going away party for somebody on staff. I had to get tons of beer; I used my working-at-a-bar mentality. I know how to haul a bunch of beer around and how to properly pack beer in a cooler.
How do you score writing assignments?
Every day we have a web meeting at 10:30 a.m., where we shoot ideas around. I do a lot of writing for print too. It’s totally crazy to sit in an ideas meeting with a ton of really smart, talented magazine people and say, “I think we should write a story about fish sauce!” and somebody tells me to write it. It’s totally surreal. It’s crazy to see my name attached to a feature in Bon Appetit. Rarely are there 400 words strung together in the magazine, so sometimes it’s research and talking to chefs. Early on, editors knew that since I worked in restaurants, I could talk to food people.
What do you think the trick is to talking to food people?
It’s just about having a shared passion—getting on the phone with, say, Andy Ricker [of Pok Pok Ny] and nerd out about food. That’s an instant connection. That’s what music nerds must feel like when they talk to each other. You have common ground, and you don’t have to worry about being too effusive or weird.
Do you write more than your job description entails?
Most definitely. I didn’t really know what the job description is. I’d imagined it’d be a much longer process involving me being a more stereotypical assistant for a long time, and then, maybe, somebody would throw me a bone.
You were prominently featured in a recent Editor’s Letter. Discuss.
I didn’t know that’s what Adam was writing about until someone in the research department called me in with some questions about Adam’s editor’s letter, which never happens. It was flattering and kind of embarrassing. Mostly I felt great about it—I realized Adam really is interested in what I’m doing. I showed my parents, of course.
How did you become Bon Appetit’s resident “guinea pig”?
It was really early on like the first month on the job, maybe. We get crazy, insane amounts of samples, some of which are awesome and some are not. All these weird cockamamie hangover cures came into the office. Our web editor thought it’d be fun if somebody tested them all. I thought it sounded fun. At the BA holiday party, I put a hangover patch on and drank way too much, in the name of research, of course. I woke up incredibly hungover and wrote about it. Once every couple of months I’ll do something. I’m kind of a ham; I’m into bizarre exhibitionism. I used to do improv theater when I was in high school.
Is there anything you would not do in the name being the BA guinea pig?
There have definitely been ideas that have been tossed out, like eating a pound of apple seeds to see if they’re actually poisonous. There was talk about testing how to get bad smells off of your body, involving a bathtub of tomato juice.
Did you have any weight gain concerns when taking this gig?
Honestly, I did gain some weight when I started. I think it had everything to do with sitting down for a living. It was a little distressing. If you look around the office, though, everyone’s pretty fit. When you’re surrounded by food all the time, you get a little bit pickier—it’s hard to feel super hungry. When you do, it’s a cherished, hard-won feeling! Just because there are a ton of cookie samples sitting on the free table doesn’t mean that I have to taste them.
How good is the swag?
I’m a firm believer that a job is only as good as its perks. As someone who’s always worked in food, and someone who’s always had that as a perk, it’s a dream to be able to be the guy that comes home with free liquor and free wine. In the test kitchen, they’ll have to get rid of certain things. At the end of the week they might have couple of ribeyes that won’t last until Monday. Of course I want them! I am so that guy. Other people are like, “What am I going to do with a 15-pound veal breast?” My response is, “Give me the 15-pound veal breast! Everybody, come to my house on Sunday, we’re having a roast.”
What’s your typical lunch?
Sometimes it’s leftovers from home. Sometimes we’ll order ramen or Thai. During the summer I go to the Union Square farmer’s market 8 a.m.—it’s quiet, and just chefs are there. I’ll come into work with bags of produce, slice up gorgeous tomatoes, add some olive oil I have stashed in my desk, and sprinkle with flaky salt.
Do you ever fetch Adam’s lunch?
Yeah, sometimes. Or I’ll order lunch into the office on his behalf, or make reservations, more often for dinner than lunch. He’s pretty independent, though.
Bon Appetit purportedly has a sort of bro-y culture. Any truth to that?
I’d say that’s accurate. It’s funny to me, coming from working with seven men, then coming here and it’s pretty bro-y here too. I did not expect it to be quite so pronounced. I think everyone at the magazine, regardless of gender, is bro-y about food, if what that means is having strong opinions and being very effusive about them. That’s the attitude of the magazine!
How do you describe the Bon Appetit look?
I’m the worst person to ask that. [Laughs] There’s such a range, from hippie chic to Pacific Northwest to Adam’s GQ thing to Christine Muhlke’s high-end fashion.
The mag scored a Magazine of the Year ASME nomination…and four other noms! Were eds popping bottles for the occasion?
A few of our editors weren’t in, Adam wasn’t in, and there was a photo shoot going on the day it was announced, so it was a lot more quiet and subdued than I thought it’d be. It was a little anti-climactic, but I think we’ll be drinking champagne and whiskey at the end of the week.
Where you do see yourself career-wise next?
I don’t know. When I hear Adam talk to groups of students coming in, he’s like, “Don’t worry about what you’re doing in five years. Worry about what you’re doing right now. Do what you’re doing, do it well, and everything will work out”. I share that sentiment! If I spent all of my time figuring out what I was going to do next, I’d miss out on all the things I’m doing now. Maybe I’ll keep working in magazines, maybe I’ll go back to working in restaurants. I don’t know—and it doesn’t seem that important right now.
Do you want Adam’s job one day?
I don’t know that I’d be good at it! Adam has a thousand concerns outside of what’s in the magazine. He has to deal with advertising and sales, he goes to corporate meetings—and he’s super involved with every aspect of the magazine. That doesn’t interest me as much. I wouldn’t work at a magazine that isn’t about food. I’m interested in food, first and foremost.