Interning for Martha Stewart means perfect pink sauces and pepper pieces
By Suzanne Galloway
One is the loneliest number, or so it's been said.
But it may not be for Miss America, the MVP of the NBA or a Pulitzer Prize winner. And it's not for Tara Bench of Orem.
Bench, a culinary arts graduate from Utah State University, was the only person selected to be an intern for the Martha Stewart test kitchen in Manhattan last May.
Bench, who credits her mother for giving her a love of cooking -- "Yes, I was one of those girls with the Easy Bake Oven" -- aimed high when she sought a summer job.
"I knew I wanted to pursue food magazine work and Martha Stewart was at the top of my list, so I got the [phone] number from a friend for Stewart's main office in New York," Bench explained.
Bench called and expressed interest in being an intern in the test kitchen, where recipes are developed in order to be featured in the magazine Martha Stewart Living.
After being put on hold and playing a short game of telephone run-around, Bench was finally connected with Susan Sugarman, the person in charge of interns and free-lancers. Sugarman told Bench that even after reviewing a resume, Bench still would be required to meet with her in New York before she would be considered.
"So I jumped on the idea and told her I would fly myself out to meet her," Bench said.
In March, during Bench's spring break from Utah State University, she flew to New York.
On arriving at the offices, Bench learned that if the first interview went well, Sugarman would invite Bench to cook for her.
"The interview obviously went well because I went back a few days later and prepared a meal and dessert for her in the test kitchen," Bench said.
The meal she whipped together to prove she was up to par was nothing close to fish sticks and Tater Tots. It was more to the tune of honey-soy-glazed salmon with oriental rice and ginger butter sauce, served with sauteed leeks and garnished with soy-brown sugar reduction and chives.
The dessert matched the meal in extravagance. Bench prepared banana souffle with ginger molasses cookies and caramel sauce.
"I made several mistakes because I was unfamiliar with test kitchen work. It was pretty funny," Bench said.
Bench explained that deadlines are much more strict in test kitchens and she was unfamiliar with that.
Bench, 22, sensed that Sugarman was warming up to her although she had made several mistakes and still had a lot to learn.
"I don't want to make a decision just based on the fact that I think you're a nice person," Sugarman said to Bench.
With a few days for Sugarman to think about filling the position and after Bench returned to Utah, Bench received the news that she had got the internship.
Bench and a USU roommate decided to move to New York after graduation.
"Everything was just new and wonderful, hard and scary, dirty and beautiful," Bench said of her first impressions of New York.
The apartment they found was close to Bench's internship.
"It's about a 20-minute walk," Bench said.
Bench summed up her new responsibilies and opportunities with two words: "kitchen gopher."
"If someone needed an errand run, or some specialty item picked up, I would be pulled off what I was doing and put on that job," Bench said.
Aside from running errands, Bench tested recipes frequently. This entailed contacting the editor of the recipe and preparing a list of ingredients. Bench would either get up early the next morning and shop for the ingredients or she would order the items from a grocery delivery service.
Bench reports that although she had a budget, it was not uncommon to spend up to $400 on a single trip to the grocery store.
With a fresh stock of ingredients, Bench would spend the rest of the day testing a recipe.
"I would make each recipe once, twice or more, until it worked perfectly, just the way the editors wanted it," Bench said. "I've made certain recipes up to 10 times over, just changing one thing at a time."
A recipe must be tested so the person making it at home can follow the instructions and get the food to look exactly like the picture in the magazine. Bench emphasized the word exactly. For example, if a recipe instructs a person to dice a red pepper into one-fourth-inch pieces and the pepper in the picture looks as if it's in 1-inch pieces, then the recipe tester has to make an adjustment.
Along with her recipe-testing duties, Bench also had to determine the accuracy of the cooking temperature and time. She also made sure the recipe works in standard cooking pans. She recalled cooking spinach ricotta pie, and having to try the recipe with fresh spinach, frozen spinach, buttering the pan and not buttering the pan, to find out what worked best.
"Another time I had to figure out how to make a pink sauce using peaches. It was a trick because in the photo the pink sauce had been made out of plums," Bench said.
The "kitchen gopher" feeling faded as Bench was given additional opportunities.
"I was the only intern they ever allowed to develop recipes, and I love doing it," she said.
Bench was given two weeks to come up with a one-of-a-kind recipe for blueberries. The recipe will be featured in one of this summer's issues.
As the internship advanced, so did Bench.
Later in the internship, Bench was asked to take care of Martha Stewart's Tuesday morning executive management meetings -- the food, that is. She would go shopping in the morning for beautiful fruit and prepare a simple breakfast buffet for Stewart and about 10 others.
Bench rubbed shoulders with Stewart about once or twice a week. And when she did it was strictly about the matter at hand.
"Once I took the lunch I made for her to her office and she asked me for sardines. Other times she will ask me what I'm working on in the kitchen or tell me how to do things," Bench said.
"She likes things her way but she must have exquisite taste because she has gained popularity by sharing the things she likes and enjoys with everyone," Bench said.
Perfection and talent begin at the top an trickle down. Bench said Stewart demands perfection. "She is very talented and contributes, along with her staff, in producing everything featured in her magazine.
"I was amazed at how precise and perfect everything must be," Bench said. "I am so impressed with the talents and skills of the people I work with. They really create an amazing and beautiful magazine."
Bench also got to contribute to the magazine photo shoots. She would prepare a recipe two to three times before the shoot. Then the photo crew would pack all the food and equipment and head to the studio.
It is uncommon for Sugarman to select an intern from a school other than the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Bench's mother, Mary, explains that Tara's work ethic was very appealing to Sugarman and factors that into why her daughter was chosen.
The internship ended Sept. 30. Bench's brilliance made an impression on the office crew. Sugarman asked her to stay on board as a free-lancer. A free-lancer is a private contractor who gets paid by the day or job instead of by the hour, Bench said.
"Before my internship ended, Sugarman and the magazine food editor, Susan Spungan, asked me what my plans were for the future," Bench said. "I told them I would like to free-lance there and try to work at other magazines in the city."
Both Sugarman and Spungan told Bench she would be welcome as a free-lancer at their magazine.
Before Bench took off for a few weeks to visit home in Orem, Sugarman worked out a schedule for Bench's return.
When Bench returned to the Martha Stewart test kitchen, Sugarman asked again what her plans were and followed up with, "I think you should plan on working here every day."
Bench said it made her feel as if her work had been appreciated and it was nice knowing that the magazine crew liked having her around.
Bench is happy to have the security of working every day. it keeps down the stress of trying to find new jobs all the time.
Aside from work, Bench enjoys the sights of New York. She attends Broadway shows, concerts, visits the museums and Central Park. She pointed out that she only window shops on Fifth Avenue and that the subway is pure entertainment.
What of the future?
"I really have no future plans. I am enjoying what I'm doing and where
I am, so I'll see where life takes me," she said.