By Vanessa Packer
Photography By Libby Gray
“EATING A CERTAIN WAY MAKES YOU FEEL BETTER, ONCE YOU GET THAT IT’S PRETTY SIMPLE”, Carol Han explains as she brushes a filet of salmon with her homemade Sriracha sauce. When the creative consultant isn’t working with major fashion brands at her company CA Creative, she’s sharing her cooking and travel adventures on Milk & Mode, the popular food blog she started five years ago. “I feel like there has been a movement in the last year where people are more educated about what they are putting into their bodies, so I’ve made it a point to educate myself on food and nutrition and the way your body works as well as what it needs,” Han discloses over stovetop popcorn seasoned with sea salt and coconut oil. The Hawaii native takes cues from her time growing up in her mother’s restaurant and time spent in her kitchen bonding over classic Korean dishes and homemade specialties by regularly cooking and entertaining for friends in her Brooklyn apartment. Recently, the adventurous foodie has been exploring recipes on the lighter side since she recently came off eating red meat and processed sugar. Over a bonberi approved dinner of oven-baked salmon, brown rice and sautéed broccoli rabe, we caught up with Han to discuss all things travel and food, her inspirations and her recent European discovery.
What orginally inspired you to start cooking?
My mom is the most fantastic cook. Growing up in Hawaii, we spent a lot of time in the kitchen. It extended all the way out into our backyard. It was so beautiful, we had papaya trees and mango trees. We’d pick fruit and eat it for breakfast. Our kitchen was a really nice room to be in. So filled with light. She was always cooking something on the stove, so I would sit at the table, do my homework and chat with her about the day. It was our way of bonding.
Did she have a signature dish?
She owned a restaurant where she would make everything. It was called Carol’s, named after me. At home she stuck to basics. She would make foil-baked salmon and a lot of Korean stuff too, more so than at the restaurant. .
You mentioned she cooked a lot of local stuff, was she very particular about what she cooked?
Not in a specific way but Hawaii is kind of like Europe in the sense that everything is fresh. The food, the fish, the veggies are so fresh. It’s just a really nice lifestyle. There isn’t necessarily a standard there, but in general people are outside, they’re sporty and they need good food to keep their energy going.
Is there anything you crave that your mom makes, something that you tried to recreate?
My mom and I are such different cooks. She makes everything up and naturally formulates her recipes and I tediously stick to recipes and follow every step. When I go home I really treat myself because it’s always my childhood favorites. She makes a really good steak. There is a Korean dish with these small rice cakes, Momofuku does one, and she created her own version off of David Chang’s recipe.
Do you make up your own recipes on your site?
I take inspiration from a lot of different recipes and tweak them. Whether it’s an ingredient or cooking time, I add my own twist.
On your site, you talk about good food and good life being synonymous, what are some guidelines you follow to achieve that?
I’ve always loved food, and I’m always thinking about where I’m going to eat or what I’m going to cook for dinner. I’ve tried to bring that to other parts of my life as well. One of my favorite things to do is cook up a big brunch and have a ton of friends over.
When did you launch Milk and Mode?
A few years ago, I was at StyleCaster at the time. I was getting ready to leave to start my agency and it was going to be my first time not in the editorial work environment, so I was a little bit nervous. I wanted to have something where I could put out some sort of editorial content even if it was just a blog. It was in 2009 that’s when I started cooking a lot and I just wanted to share what I was doing.
How have you tastes change from when you started to now?
I’ve gotten healthier in the last year. I’ve never been one to watch what I eat, I just eat what I want to eat, I don’t deny my cravings, but in the last year I’ve made it a point to educate myself on food and nutrition and the way your body works when it gets what it needs. I think that has affected my eating habits and the way I cook. I devour articles written about nutrition and different chemicals to stay away from, which is why I like to make my own sriracha. I also make popcorn on the stovetop rather then use a microwave. My diet changes as I cut things out and adjust what I pick up at the grocery store. It’s just getting healthier and healthier.
Carol’s homemade baked kale chips Carol’s stovetop popcorn
Where are you now in your diet?
Well I had got a bad stomach flu a few months ago and I couldn’t keep anything down for almost two weeks. When I started reintroducing solid food into my diet, I had red meat and I immediately felt awful again, which was interesting because I had never cut out red meat. It was a bit of a wake up call. So for now, I’ve cut out red meat and processed sugar.
What is your philosophy on living a healthy and balanced lifestyle?
I think that word balance is what it’s about. I don’t believe in depriving yourself, I personally have never been able to do that for the sake of vanity. Eating a certain way makes you feel better, once you get that it’s pretty simple. Let yourself have what you want but be smart about what you are putting into your body.
What are some of your indulgences?
Popcorn. I make it on the stove top with two tablespoons of coconut oil over medium heat. Add a few kernels in and wait for them to pop, then you know the oil is hot enough. Pour half a cup of corn kernels in and cover so the lid is ajar. Wait until it finishes popping and season with sea salt. Super simple.
You have a lot of classic dishes on your site, does that come from wanting to eliminate the processed foods out of your diet?
When you make classics like roast chicken at home, it’s healthier than if you go out to eat. There is one recipe that uses a whole stick of butter but if you want one that’s healthier there’s one that uses two tablespoons of olive oil.
How often do you cook?
Probably three times a week.
You travel a lot too, how has traveling affected your cooking?
It inspires me. Recently, spending time in Italy, places like Rome and Lake Como. When I’m in Europe I feel like you can indulge and it doesn’t feel quite as heavy as it does when you do it here. Not that people here don’t use fresh ingredients but people there do on such a regular basis. It feels like everything is natural, organic and fresh.
You’ve been going to Switzerland a lot too, what type of food have you experimented with there?
The food in Switzerland is really good. Their produce is so fresh. Their normal grocery store, akin to our Key Foods, is bursting with fresh produce. People naturally eat a bit healthier without getting into food crazes. There isn’t a raw food or juice movement, people don’t do that. As an American and a New Yorker, when I want to be healthier I order from Juice Press. When you are there, you don’t apply the same tactics. People there eat in a lot. Even eating out the food is so good, you eat a lot, but it’s just different, it’s lighter.
Is there anything you discovered there that you haven’t found here?
My boyfriend and I traveled to the Alps. There is this amazing resort called Guarda Val in the small hamlet of Sportz. It’s a collection of nine old barns that have been converted into this incredible resort. There are two restaurants, one traditional Swiss restaurant and one Michelin star super fancy one. There’s a spa and a library where you look out over the snowy mountains. They have board games and cards set up for you. It’s incredible. You sit and play cards and drink wine. It’s so relaxing. We went to the casual Swiss restaurant one night, I don’t remember what the dish was called, but it was basically small potato gnocchi in a sea of cheese with bits of meat. In the mountains, the traditional dishes tend to be heavier. It was like having the most amazing version of mac and cheese. The fondue is so good too!
Whats your favorite go-to recipe when you are entertaining?
For brunch, I will always do a breakfast casserole. It always has an element of egg in it. I made Shakshuka recently and it was amazing. For dinner, I like doing stuff that can sit on the stove or the oven. Braised short ribs is a go-to, but I haven’t been eating red meat as much. A chicken stew with green olives and lemon. I love a classic roast chicken, it’s just so homey.
Whats an easy recipe you whip up for yourself, or for your boyfriend?
Fish is always really easy. When I was young, my mom would make foil wrapped fish. I do that a lot. Season a piece of fish, add lemon and herbs, salt and pepper and wrap it in foil and roast it for about 20 minutes. The foil traps in the moisture, and there’s no clean up. It’s super easy and always turns out perfect.
Is there anything your boyfriend requests you to make?
There’s a kale Portuguese soup I make that he really likes. It’s my favorite soup to make. It’s water based, I add in a few slices of chorizo or Portuguese sausage, onions, potatoes and kale. Let it simmer, and it tuns into this delicious amazing soup. I love soups and stews. In the summer it’s all about assembly.