Alex Hill On Why Messing Up Matters
The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Alex Hill is a recipe developer, food instructor, and the force behind the Just Add Hot Sauce cooking platform. We spent the afternoon at her home in Brooklyn discussing how to build confidence in the kitchen while she made her family recipe for arroz con gandules.
I learned to cook when I was 12 years old. My mom was a single mom, and she always made sure we had a home-cooked meal on the table. I was interested when she was in the kitchen, so she started letting me cook one dish a week when I turned 12. My first dish was vanilla-lime flan. I was like, “Who am I, making flan at 12?” but it was actually really good!
I was more of a baker at first. My dad would have this huge Memorial Day cookout, and I would make the dessert every year. Back when printing was a thing, my mom would print out recipes from Food Network for me to follow. She would always be there to assist, but she would mostly let me run wild in the kitchen. One time, I made beef empanadas, and I eventually got more into savory cooking over time.
She would mostly let me run wild in the kitchen.
I have dyscalculia (sometimes called “math dyslexia”), and now that I’m older, I see why I moved away from baking and its exact measurements. I would get very confused, and I got more confident with savory cooking because it was more “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” It wasn’t an exact science.
For me, cooking is about showing love because that’s one of the ways my mom showed love to us. Food is how I show love to my friends and family, and that’s how communities come together. People have always gathered, through good times and bad, surrounded by food.
People have always gathered, through good times and bad, surrounded by food.
I worked in marketing full time and was running Just Add Hot Sauce on the side. In 2019, I went to some close friends' wedding in Italy. That was the first time I’d ever tasted homemade pasta, and I was obsessed. I didn’t even want to look at boxed pasta anymore! I wanted to take a class to learn more, so I signed up for one at the Culinary Institute of New York. I was very involved, and the instructor and a few other students kept validating that I was good at it. I got home one night and I said to my partner, “I think I want to teach a cooking class in real life.”
I kept putting myself out there through the fear.
I’d always given advice to my friends, and, through my cooking blog and Cooking with Friends (my digital cooking series), I’d been helping people cook for a while. So, in February 2020, I hosted my first IRL cooking class. I was so sure that 2020 was going to be my year for (in-person) cooking classes. Then the pandemic hit, so we had to go virtual. I kept putting myself out there through the fear. I think everyone should do that: feel the fear, and do it anyway. I like the end feeling for everyone after class — they feel like they accomplished something and they created the dish on their own with my instruction.
Messing up is what led to my confidence in the kitchen.
Messing up is what led to my confidence in the kitchen. Cooking is trial and error. It’s food — it’s going to be okay. If you mess up, you know how to adjust for next time. And I know that, even if I mess up, I can try again tomorrow. For example, I made some fish last night and I over salted it. It still tasted good to me, but for next time I know what to change. Cooking is time, temperature, and taste, so give yourself grace and patience to learn this.
My confidence in the kitchen definitely feeds into the rest of my life. This is my passion, and I know I’m good at it. Through cooking I learn that everything will be okay — there’s always a second time you can do something.
Through cooking I learn that everything will be okay.
It’s time for me to dive further into my passion. The past year has taught us that we don’t get our time back, and I know that I want to spend my time on food and cooking with people. Eventually I want to open a little mom-and-pop shop with food and small goods in D.C. (near where I’m from). That has been my dream for years. I am manifesting that from now, as well as a published cookbook and my own cooking show on an inclusive network — because we need some diversity.
I know that I am making my own mark because I am helping people through food.
I’m not a classically trained chef, so there is still that imposter syndrome of not having worked on a line. But I know that I am making my own mark because I am helping people through food. I hear back from them and they say, “I made this recipe for my mom or partner.” That makes me feel like I’m in someone else’s life in a helpful way.
I’m Black and Puerto Rican, and my audience is predominantly women over the age of 25. From what I can see, they’re Black women who are doing badass things in their lives and want to try different things in the kitchen. You don’t have to just be or cook one thing. I know that me putting myself (and whatever I want to cook) out into the world also encourages them to do the same. We’re helping each other.
You don’t have to just be or cook one thing.
I made arroz con gandules — this is my aunt’s famous recipe. I’m making it as a nod to my family and to my mom for making sure she instilled and passed down her culture. I hold Puerto Rican cuisine so near and dear to my heart because that’s how I learned how to taste.
I hold Puerto Rican cuisine so near and dear to my heart because that’s how I learned how to taste.
This is a traditional dish you have in any Hispanic household, and we often have it over Christmas and Thanksgiving. I made it in The Dutchess because it holds heat well, and if you are slow roasting anything, the meat comes out so tender. For me, it means so much to put my culture out there and see other people making the dishes. I definitely made my mom and titis proud! I made my own saźon, which I was really excited about. Other than the sofrito, saźon is what gives the dish its extra oomph and iconic color. From grounding the achiote seeds to adding various spices, it definitely made the dish extra special.
Photos by Michael Grant