“When I was six years old, I would come home after school and watch Julia Child,” said Rebecca Hays ’92, who goes by the nickname Becky. “I would make my family menus for the week and go shopping for ingredients with my mom. I loved it.”
While at Fairfield, Hays found a few other interests and wound up double-majoring in economics and French, which landed her an assistant’s job at a French-owned securities firm on Wall Street. Talented and dedicated, she was soon offered a promotion. “And I had this internal panic,” said the Massachusetts native. “It just didn’t feel right.”
So, after a summer of soul searching, Hays decided to follow her heart: In 1997, she enrolled in the Natural Gourmet Institute, then an up-and-coming Manhattan cooking school focused on healthy, vegetarian cuisine. That pivotal decision opened a host of new doors leading to her current career doubling as managing editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and frequent on-air cook on its companion TV show, PBS’ America’s Test Kitchen.
“All of it, literally, kind of fell in my lap,” said Hays, who lives in the Boston area with her husband, Chris Dankulich ’93, and their son, two-year-old Nathan. “I always tell people if you follow your passion, things will really come to you.”
They certainly did for her. When it came time to complete a cooking school externship, Hays – knowing she didn’t want the grueling night and weekend shifts of a restaurant kitchen – quickly snapped up a position in Saveur magazine’s test kitchen. And, as luck would have it, she prepared the food for the cover photo her very first day there. “I was beside myself,” said Hays, who also taught adult education cooking classes wherever she could.
A friend who was a web designer for Cook’s Illustrated happened to mention the magazine – a kind of Consumer Reports for home cooks looking for well-tested recipes and honest ratings of ingredients and equipment – was looking for someone to teach online cooking classes. Enter Hays, who joined the magazine’s friendly-but-exacting staff in 2000.
In her first five years, she was a Jill-of-all-trades, working on the Web site, helping with cookbooks, even serving as a food runner for America’s Test Kitchen, hosted by bowtied-and-bespectacled Christopher Kimball. When the managing editor’s post opened, she had acquired the varied skills needed to shepherd the growing magazine and she took charge in 2004. “I am in love with this job, the company, the people who work here …. It’s great,” said Hays, who now works part-time while caring for her son.
Hays said it was at Fairfield that she learned to juggle many tasks at the same time, including cooking for her roommates in their townhouse. “I also learned how to look at the details and the big picture. In economics, there’s a micro view and a macro view.”
In the last few years, Hays has even stepped into the spotlight on America’s Test Kitchen. Unlike many other cooking shows, the program features real, trained cooks, who provide invaluable tips and tricks for the serious home foodie. They shoot 26, half-hour episodes each May, using recipes from the magazine that have been tested and tweaked from anywhere between six weeks to six months. Cooks developing recipes in the actual test kitchen make a single dish about 25 times before it is deemed up to Cook’s demanding criteria. Some require more than 100 attempts, Hays said. “We want people – anyone from a novice to an expert – to be able to have an A+ dish,” she said.
The precision comes from the top down, as Kimball, founder and editor, demands the very best. “He’s a good sport,” Hays said of her boss of 11 years. “He’s challenging, super smart, and an amazing businessman. He loves a good argument. He’s a great guy. I have a lot of respect for him.”
The good sport part comes in handy towards the end of shooting in May, when the cast and crew like to play practical jokes, mostly at Kimball’s expense. In one episode, Kimball was completing a taste test among different brands of butter when he picked up the last slice of bread slathered with it and popped it in his mouth. Little did he know there was a thick layer of hot sauce hidden underneath the butter. Still on camera, he bravely reached for a glass and took a big gulp of water. Make that vodka.
“We have had the same crew, the same makeup people, the same director for the whole 11 years,” Hays said. “It’s a well-oiled machine, but we love joking around, too.”