The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
She’s a writer. He’s a photographer. Together, they’re a recipe developing pair of food bloggers from Indianapolis known as A Couple Cooks. Years ago, they discovered the joy of creating “real good food” and now share that joy through recipes they concoct, create, and capture in photos.
Since launching their blog in 2010, A Couple Cooks has been featured in several renowned resources, including Better Homes and Gardens, Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed. Locally, they’re regular contributors on IndyStyle on WISH-TV.
We recently met at their home to chat about the food they grew up consuming, their passion for healthy eating, and the current state of their adoption process—among other things.
Joe: Let’s start easy. What did you two eat for dinner tonight?
Sonja: Well, we’re testing recipes for a new project that comes out in the spring of 2018, so we were working on a red lentil curry with cilantro chutney tonight.
Joe: Sounds amazing! Can you say more about the project at this time or too soon to mention?
Sonja: Well, it isn’t public news yet, and we’ll probably officially announce it later this year. But I can say it involves mainly vegetarian recipes for people who aren’t vegetarian.
Joe: Very cool. But for now we know you really do eat what you post on your site and aren’t downing mac and cheese and hot dogs at home.
Alex: Though a lot of chefs eat that way. After cooking, they just eat frozen pizza when they get home.
Joe: That’s so funny. You’ve done that a few times?
Sonja: Well, sometimes when you’re testing so many recipes, you just get sick of it. And you’re like, “I just need grilled cheese or something.”
Joe: So when you’re testing, do you create and play with one version? Do you create five versions?How does that work?
Sonja: I’ve been working on this one for awhile. A couple of months ago, I did a bunch of takes on it that I didn’t like. I put it away for a little bit, and then just came back to it. I had done one take a couple days ago, and I was trying to hone it tonight. It’s still not quite there.
Sonja: Yeah, so you have to be good with food repetition, which we are. We don’t care if we eat the same thing every day.
Joe: I see. So I’m curious, what do you call yourselves? Food bloggers? Is that the right term, or is that derogatory?
Alex: We wouldn’t say it’s derogatory, but we feel maybe blogger is limiting. At least in the sense of the 2008 blogger, where it was a “what I just ate” journal. We like to say we do healthy living advocacy via online media.
Joe: I like that. It just doesn’t have the brevity of food blogger.
Alex: We are just truly passionate about healthy living in general, and not just sharing recipes.
Sonja: We do say we’re a writer and photographer. That’s our trades, and what we do. And we’re recipe developers as well. Then, we’re also creative entrepreneurs/influencers.
Sonja: Yeah, influencers is a big terms in the industry now, which is becoming a little more standard.
Joe: Let’s go back to the beginning and share some about your childhoods. Where’d you grow up? Any siblings? Talk about parents.
Sonja: Yeah, I’m from Burnsville, Minnesota. I have a younger sister. I was very into music—french horn—and decided I wanted to go to a school where I could pursue music pretty seriously, as well as writing—because I loved writing. It ended up that there are not many schools in the country that you can do that too easily. Indiana University was one of those where you can go to the same university and don’t have to commute between schools. I decided to study journalism and french horn performance. And that’s where I met Alex.
Alex: And I’m from a small town in Indiana—Decatur—outside of Fort Wayne. I grew up out in the country with my brother and a sister. I also ended up at IU, wanting to major in chemistry and art. Sonja and I ended up living on the same floor our freshmen year.
Joe: Did you stick with that degree?
Alex: No, five years later I got a sociology degree.
Sonja: Not really five, but close enough. We started dating when we were 19, and we’ve been together ever since then.
Joe: Nice! And the rest is history.
Joe: What were your dinner tables like growing up as kids?
Sonja: Cooking was a means to an end around my house. For the most part, it wasn’t a process to be enjoyed. But at the same time I think that my family has always really united around food. We encouraged community around the table, which is still a very important value to us today.
We ate pretty healthy, based on what healthy was at the time. My mom was a working mom, and so she did rely on processed foods, and breakfast cereal, and Hamburger helper. And I had a very tall glass of milk with every meal, because that was what you were supposed to do at the time. You were supposed to eat margarine. Back then everybody did it, and no one questioned it.
Joe: Yes, a tall glass of milk and a side of margarine. And for you, Alex?
Alex: My mom was a stay at home mom. She did a lot of gardening, canning, and making everything from scratch. It was a lot of your standard Midwestern meat and potatoes, pasta, mac and cheese—but all with a high value on eating around the dinner table.
Sonja: Then halfway through your high school years you…go on…
Alex: Yeah, in high school—once I had my own job, money, and a car—I ate fast food every day.
Sonja: How many tacos did you eat that one time?
Alex: I think you’re thinking of when I got two orders of two Whoppers for two dollars—so four Whoppers. But that wasn’t a contest, it was just normal.
Joe: That was a Tuesday. And then how did your palates change later in life?
Sonja: After we graduated from college, we got married and started our careers. And at one company, I ended up going to one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in Indy—R Bistro. I was just blown away by Regina [Mehallick]’s food and could not conceive that food could taste like that—while still being so artistic and beautiful. That’s when I started to realize that there were all these flavors out there that I didn’t even know existed—mainly because I was eating Lean Pockets.
Joe: So just even adding more to your palate helped you become more aware of the flavor nuances…
Alex: Yeah, we actually had a wine tasting party a few weeks ago with a sommelier. He was talking about how the only way to start noticing the nuances of wine is to practice. You just start drinking different brands of the same wine. Then, all of a sudden, you can taste these notes and differences that you couldn’t before, and it’s purely because you’re practicing. Your taste buds don’t know how to categorize things unless you regularly eat them.
Sonja: And they get confused if you eat a lot of high-sugar, high-fat processed foods. They get dulled, and you can’t taste as well as you could if you were eating more naturally.
Joe: Tell me more about your transition from eating fast food to making your own meals to journaling about it online.
Alex: I would say it was a confluence of different things. You have Sonja’s R Bistro experience where her palate was awakening. And we’re now married, so we’re cooking meals together. And with that, we’re naturally attempting to eat together, which brought out some need for growth. Then on top of that, we started having people over for dinner and would say, “Hey, we have some cookbooks, why don’t we try to use one?” I feel there was this intervening of those various things. We both have the personality, when we get into something we go headstrong into it. It was a combination.
Sonja: And around that time some friends invited us over for dinner and made us some great sushi. We were so impressed that they could make something like that. And we said, “Hey, let’s have them over, and make them something really good.” We viewed it a little competitively.
I decided we should do a French meal—because that sounded really fancy—so we went and got cookbooks. And that was the first time I was introduced to Julia Child. I started reading her cookbooks and saw her passionate, friendly personality, and I really fell in love with her. She made me feel like I could do anything in the kitchen.
And so we made this French dinner, and it actually went over pretty well. From there, it snowballed into a competition with these friends of who can make the fanciest meal. Then, we kept reading lots of cookbooks and started watching more cooking shows. It was a combination of all of those different sources. We just caught the fire through it all.
Alex: We were also reading food blogs.
Sonja: Right, and food blogs were just coming into being at that point. (This was 2007.) It was a great way to learn about seasonality of food, and what you cook when.
Joe: As a food blogger, is there some purpose that you’re trying to serve or some sense of responsibility in that role?
Sonja: Yeah, for sure. We view ourselves as healthy and sustainable food advocates, not just bloggers (or influencers). We’ve always had a mission to convey that through our blog.
Joe: From what I see on your blog, you try to make your recipes very approachable for most people.
Sonja: We’re really passionate about meals that you can make every day because that’s where we started. We really want to help other people make that transition too and discover that cooking can be fun and approachable. It can be part of your life that can bring you a huge amount of joy. We’ve made a very conscious effort to stay away from fancy foodie things.
Joe: And how do you develop that enjoyment in someone else?
Sonja: Yeah, that’s a good question. We try to make food that is beautiful, but still looks attainable. And we try to relate real stories about our lives, about how we’ve come to find the value in cooking and spending time with people that we love. We try to keep it really down to earth and not too flowery. There are lots of food blogs out there that are more flowery. And we love them! We think they’re beautiful art. But we’ve tried to balance the artistic with realism.
Joe: Who’s your audience? Who exactly are you trying to reach?
Sonja: I think everyday people who just want to know how to cook. It’s hard because, we want to get people who don’t have an interest in cooking to become interested. I think the nature of food blogs is that you have some interest already.
Alex: That, or people who are interested in eating and cooking more scratch, non-processed foods—but may not even know what that means yet.
Joe: Is there a specific demographic that you think about when creating new recipes?
Sonja: That’s always been hard for us, because we have a heart for serving all demographics—a heart for the more under-served demographics who mostly aren’t reached by blogs.
We would love to reach every demographic, but I think that the more people are interested in healthy, sustainable food—and find value in food—the more it’s going to trickle down. We’re already seeing that with a lot of efforts to get rid of a food deserts and things like that—where people are realizing the value of good food and realizing that we need to make sure this is available to for everyone.
Joe: Why is eating healthy, sustainable foods so important—not just to you personally but in sharing it with others?
Alex: We read a book by Mark Bittman called Food Matters. He basically lays out that there’s no need to be a vegetarian, just eat a little less meat. It’s good for your body. It’s good for the planet. It’s good for your wallet. He wasn’t trying to be super specific, or super “rules-ey.”
Good for the environment, good for your body, good for your wallet. I was just like, “Oh, this makes total sense.” We tried it for a month and really fell in love with the idea of trying to eat well. It didn’t have to be rule based. It didn’t need to be a diet. It wasn’t full of fear over eating the wrong things. And once we started, it just snowballed and we wanted to share it with everyone.
Joe: How would you describe the food blog now? Is it still a hobby? Is it a business venture?
Sonja: Yeah, it’s a business. I would say it became a business two years ago. And it’s funny to say that, but we feel lucky to have a passion that has turned into a business.
Joe: In the first year you started A Couple Cooks, the money you made went to a charity. Are you still connected with Center for Global Impact?
Sonja: Yes, I was hugely passionate about them and still am. In fact, I’m on their board of directors now. At the time of that article, I’d become really interested in the issue of human trafficking. And we had an opportunity to create a cookbook for this culinary training program which gives at-risk women a chance to learn culinary skills. It was a really amazing opportunity to take our passion for food and my passion for anti-human trafficking, and meld them into an opportunity to help women in Cambodia.
In 2012, we flew over there and spent a week with the girls. We taught a few of our recipes to them. And we brought back a bunch of the recipes that they make in their training restaurant and reworked them to be home-cooked friendly—versus restaurant-style recipes. And then photographed them and did the graphic design for the publishers. We were very involved in the entire process of creating that book. It was a really cool experience.
Joe: Help me better understand. How does learning those skills in the kitchen help protect them from human trafficking?
Sonja: There’s a lot of different ways that they can be pulled into it. A lot of it is just not having another option. Sometimes mothers will sell their girls away, because they have no other option for survival. The training center just provides a vocational training, so that they can have options through a career in that city or others.
Sonja: I have a rare form of leukemia and take a medication that it’s not safe to get pregnant on. Long story short, after a brief period of going off my medication and considering a wide range of options, we decided on adoption as our path forward for starting a family.
Joe: For my wife and me, we’re learning everyday about this nature versus nurture element with our son. We never know how much of what we see is his genetic makeup from his birthparents and how much is him in our environment. As you think and dream about your future family, what are some pieces of yourselves that you hope to instill in your adopted child?
Alex: I hope that our passion for creative outlets is something that our child will inherit.
Sonja: I think too, just fostering curiosity, and our insatiable desire to learn. I want our future child to have that as well.
Joe: Last question, what’s the recipe for how to best support somebody who’s waiting to be parents through the wild world of adoption?
Sonja: Before we became adoptive parents, I thought the way to support my friends who were adopting was to always make sure to ask them if they had any updates. But after being a part of the process and realizing how hard it is to keep everyone in the loop and be sensitive to all parties involved, perhaps it’s better to come alongside someone and state your solidarity, like “I’m thinking of you in the adoption process and hope and pray it is going well,” and then trusting that the adoptive couple will share updates when the time is right.
Alex: One big thing I learned from this is that adoption is a separate beautiful experience from being a natural birth parents. It’s not second place. It’s not the same either, it’s two totally separate situations, and they’re both beautiful, but it’s not second place.