By Haley Cullingham
You know that one girl, who can cook up a giant gourmet feast for 8 on a moment’s notice, always with a glass of wine in hand, a grin on her face, and using the random ingredients that were already stocked in the refrigerator? Amanda Garbutt is that girl. Now imagine if she had a media-savvy TV producing friend who worked at TV McGill, was always calling her for cooking tips, and came up with a little idea for a big cooking show. Enter April Engelberg. Together, Amanda and April have created The Hot Plate, a cooking show designed to help even the most kitchen-simple of us create delicious meals on a student budget. The Hot Plate started as a fun project, and has since expanded into an impressive enterprise, with episodes streaming on their brand-new website, a self-published cookbook that will be hot off the presses in September, and coverage from CTV, Toronto Life, and the Globe and Mail. The two recently upped the ante by moving the entire production to Toronto, and are excited about things to come. We sat down with them at Lit Espresso Bar on College to talk about just how two undergrad students wind up with a successful (and seriously entertaining) cooking show.
Where did the idea for The Hot Plate come from?
April: I came up with the idea at the end of second year. I was working at TV McGill, I was an arts producer and I was really into it. I wanted to produce a show and I came up with the idea based on Amanda’s passion for cooking. All my friends would be like ‘I just went to Amanda’s, and she didn’t just make me dinner, but she taught me how to make dinner, and then we made it together.’ I went over, and experienced this for myself, and then I asked Amanda, and she just laughed really hard for a while. She did not take me very seriously at all. In third year I started asking her again, and eventually, by probably like the 4th time that I asked Amanda, she realized that I was actually serious, and so she said ‘If you’re not joking about it, and you want to set up a meeting with the TV McGill execs, then yeah, I’ll take it seriously.”
Amanda: When my roommates and I all moved in together, it was the process of them wanting to learn how to cook but not
having the fundamentals, the basics. So we would buy the exact same groceries and I’d be on one half of the stove, and they’d be on the other half of the stove, and we’d make identical meals, and people would come, and sit on the barstools and watch us as I taught my roommates, so you would have this 3-4 people audience, and then eventually it turned into potlucks, and it turned into cocktail hour, it became everyone’s favourite form of entertainment, before going out at night.
Amanda, how did you learn to cook?
Amanda: No formal training, just formal interest. I’ve always loved food. I was the pickiest eater until the age of ten, and then I ate an oyster and never looked back. Not the most budget friendly food to turn you into a foodie, but all the same, delicious. I am where I am thanks to my mum, because while not an adventurous cook by any means, she is very methodical, and she’s very good at reading a recipe and following directions to the most minute detail. She taught me how to read a recipe, how to follow one, how to take the guesswork out of various instructions, like what’s the difference between blending and mixing. Funny, interesting things that aren’t the most practical things but if you’re going to be a teacher, you definitely need to know those. So when teen angst years hit, my mum and I just kind of thought, ‘Oh, wow, what are the odds the only place we get along is in my relatively small Ottawa kitchen?’ I helped her be adventurous, she helped me to follow the recipe. It was great, it was so much fun, and I get to do what I do now because of it.
April: When I actually had to cook for myself, in third year, I’d always call Amanda and be like ‘How do I make mashed potatoes like yours, what’s something easy?” Whenever I’d be over, I’d always observe other things and ask how to make this, or that, she’d just tell you a few easy tips and that’s how I got into it.
Amanda: A lot of people would say ‘I want to make something with this particular ingredient.’ And they search online, and there’s such a wealth of information. I have friends and family who will find the most difficult, complex dishes, so they’re either getting back from class or getting back from the office, and they’re trying to put together this really elaborate complicated process, and it’s really stressful. You sit down, and while you’ve probably made something delicious, you’re not at that zen state of being able to enjoy it. So when people call me, I tend to think, ‘what requires the least amount of ingredients? What requires ingredients you probably already have in your cupboard, and how can you make the most of what you already have?’ That’s something we really strive to do with the show, is streamline.
One of my favourite recipes from your show is the budget-friendly Mac and Cheese made with fondue cheese. How did you come up with it?
Amanda:I’m so glad you brought that up, we were just joking about it today. That recipe is my baby. There is nothing I love more than my grandmother’s mac and cheese. Who doesn’t say that, their grandmothers something? My little cousins even said to me, ‘I just don’t know if it’s gonna be Gran’s. Your ribs might beat my dad’s, but I don’t know about your Mac and Cheese.” I said, no, it’s not about beating Gran, you can’t beat the nostalgia of Grandma’s Mac and Cheese. What it’s about is that Mac and Cheese is one of those dishes where the sky is the limit in terms of how much it’s going to cost you to make. I can make a mac and cheese that’s four dollars a serving, or I can make one that’s 50 dollars a serving, and all you need is a truffle or something thrown in there. And you wind up with all these ingredients leftover, which is a big problem with over-shopping. So what is something that’s already melty and delicious and tastes good with carbs? Well, you can buy fondue packs, and it’s kind of the same consistency, and you end up getting nicer cheese, because it’s the gruyere and emmenthal mixes. So you get all that rich bold flavour in a much faster process, more streamlined, and you’re not going to have all that room for error. So that was my brainstorm. I was on an airplane when I thought of it, it hit me like lightning.
April, how did you get started with TV Production?
April: I learned everything that I know about camera and editing from TV McGill. McGIll had a really good club, and it’s also a service, for students. Anyone can just come, say ‘Hey, I want to come out on a shoot, I want to learn how to use a camera,” and the team will teach you, and it’s all student run. So I started tagging along to interviews so people could show me how to press record, zoom. And then I just went from there. You can see that it’s been a work in progress, we just kind of got gradual better, and for the last two episodes, we had some help from a small production company in Toronto, so those ones are really good quality.
Amanda: It’s all been a huge work in progress and April and I have really been able to segment our talents in our partnership, which is why we’ve been so successful. April handles the media, being the director, doing the editing process, whereas I get a lot of freedom on the food side. April will do all the market research like the good media girl she is, she understands having guests on, who should we have, what should we be making, what’s gonna pique someone’s interest, and she gives me a theme for the episode, and I actually don’t tell her what we’re going to make until the day she shows up to film. It’s nice to keep something a surprise. A big difference between us and other shows is that we don’t actually script anything. It’s really just rolling off my tongue as it hits my head. Everything just kind of builds through the experience.
Any kitchen disasters?
April: The very first episode that never made it to air due to footage problems, we had this guest and Amanda was teaching him how to cook for a date, and he sliced his finger into the sausage.
Amanda: There was near finger loss. When we had the burly rugby players slicing sweet potatoes, they weren’t quite cut out for the task. I was a little concerned that we were going to have to call 911.
April: Ever since then, we kind of give everyone the run down. Amanda teaches them how to no cut themselves.
Amanda: That, and taking a dainty bite during the tasting. It is a skill that I do not have, because I just want to stuff my face with what I just made. When we were filming the cookie episode, it was hilarious because Michelle kept taking an entire half bite of a cookie, and trying to swallow so she could do the outro afterwards. It took us about 9 tries. I accused her of trying to eat all the cookies.
What are your hopes for the future of The Hot Plate?
April: We’re really happy with the way everything’s gone so far. We started this entirely for fun, we weren’t expecting it to grow the way it did. Starting in January of this year, we really noticed a big change, getting a lot more attention, a lot more hits, a lot more everything, and we decided to go for it. We’re keeping it as a web series, we’re putting out about 25 5-minute episodes for the year, based in Toronto. One exciting thing that we have coming is we’re putting out our first cookbook in September. We’re really excited, Amanda’s been slaving away on the cookbook, I can brag for her. Every single recipe in the book Amanda has had to make, and then photograph, which is kind of an unappreciated skill, presenting food. Amanda’s standing on her parent’s kitchen table to get better lighting.
Amanda: It’s been a phenomenal process. My mother ate very well during the process. She was my last taste-tester that went through everything. When April finally gave me the go-ahead, I just went guns blazing the whole way. And while I’ve been doing that, April’s actually been working on our new website, which was launched this week. She’s been slaving away on that. It’s great. Our whole concept of bridging the gap between print and a viral culinary experience really comes full circle. we’re going to have the closed loop when this comes out. We’re starting to stream and embed more of our media files onto this website.
What are your favourite recipes from the show?
April: My favourite’s been the chicken dinner. That’s one I absolutely loved.
Amanda: It was great to because we had a whole bunch of people over, so we actually had the whole chicken dinner. Hands down, my favourite brainchild is the Mac and Cheese, because I love the idea, but by far, I think my favourite one in terms of taking the guesswork out of something is the risotto. The risotto one really helped teach people that it’s not that hard to get some friends, a good bottle of wine, and the stirring will do itself. But the funniest episode we’ve ever filmed, hand’s down, is the explosive curried chicken salad sandwich episode, which just came out. When we say they’re explosive sandwiches, we’re truly not kidding, we were covered head to toe with chicken salad sandwich when we took a bite. The laughter that ensued from that episode was just too much. We need to put out a blooper reel or something, because it’s just too funny.