How I Get It Done: Bon Appétit’s Food Director Gets Super Competitive at the Gym

Illustration: by Lauren Tamaki

As the food director of Bon Appétit, Carla Lalli Music has described her job in the simplest terms: “I’m in charge of food at a food magazine.” Of course, it’s much more involved than that. In addition to overseeing the development and editing of Bon Appétit’s recipes, she also makes a series of videos called Back to Back Chef (our colleague Rachel Handler at Vulture wrote a moving ode to it) in which she stands back to back with celebrities like Natalie Portman, Shangela, and Ellie Kemper, and calmly coaches them through making various dishes using only her voice. Last week, she released her first cookbook, Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook, which features her laid-back kitchen techniques. Lalli Music and her husband live with their two sons, aged 15 and 9, in Brooklyn. Here’s how she gets it done.

On her morning routine:
Our alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m. Usually, I’m the snoozer, so my husband is the one who will get out of bed first, and he goes and makes coffee. I always joke that he can’t even make coffee until he’s had coffee. So he makes coffee for him, and he almost always makes tea for me. Sometimes, not every day, he’ll come back into the room before I’m done snoozing, with my Zojirushi thermos of tea and a cup. On those days, I will stay in bed for an extra ten minutes and drink that first cup of tea in bed, which is the ultimate luxury.

After that, the next 45 minutes is making sure both of our sons are up. I have a 15-year-old who really doesn’t want to eat breakfast anymore and once he’s up, he’s on cruise-control. He’s self-sufficient. The other one is 9, and that’s still a little bit of a longer process, making sure he’s up, that he brushes his teeth and doesn’t wear the clothes he wore yesterday, which he also slept in, and getting him breakfast. Then we leave the house at about 8. When I get to work, the first thing I do is make myself coffee and find some kind of breakfast from the test kitchen.

On not packing a lunch:
Depending on the day I might be having more of an office, desk-y day and I’ll forget again about eating until 2. The good news is, there’s always food here. Usually there’s family meal for lunch. Food editors will put on the rice cooker, somebody will throw a salad together. There’s usually eggs or some leftover protein, and then there could be a snack for stand-around time in the test kitchen. It could be a very heavy recipe development day, in which case you’re eating for the second or third passes of a dish that’s in development. But it just really depends. If I’m shooting video, the production team will always order craft service. They might get Made Nice, or Westville.

On motivating herself to go to the gym:
I go to the gym a lot now, and I’m trying to have a very consistent routine. I NEVER wanna go. If I go out to the gym four or five times a week, I want to go zero times.

Exercise has become a thing that I never want to do but I’m always glad I did it. I have been doing a lot of strength training, dumbbells, and kettlebells. I work out with a trainer one day a week, and the rest of the days I’m on my own. I used to be a group class person and really liked it because you would just go for 45 minutes, and it’s engineered to be a good workout. But that wasn’t good for me because I’m an intensely competitive person, and I became a nightmare. In a workout class I would try to find the best, strongest, fittest person, which might be like, a 28-year-old man, and I would be like, “I’m going to beat you!” in my head. It was so bad for me. So now I work out on my own and listen to music, and it’s just better. Even if I’m looking in the mirror and I’m like, “I’m going to beat you!” to myself.

On thinking of work as “school”:
You want to go work for people who are doing quality work. And you want to treat work like a continued education. People talk about how if you do your passion, you’ll feel like you’re not working a day in your life. And, like, I do my passion, but work still feels like work. Thinking about work as a way that you go to school and get paid at the same time has been how I like to frame my jobs. And I think that’s why I’ve taken jobs where I’m like, I actually don’t fucking know what I’m doing. Because if you put yourself in that kind of risky situation, but you’re surrounded by people you trust and think are good at what they do, then you’re going to get good at that thing, because you’re going to learn good habits, you’re going to be surrounded by people who do good quality work.

On the secret to her calming nighttime routine:
I think this comes from being a parent, but at a certain point in your life the bathroom is the place in the house where you can have total privacy, because hypothetically no one can bother you while you’re in there. (Although, having children, they will walk in and just not give a shit.) I don’t know what the fuck I do in there, actually. I take a hot shower. The phone is there. I might be listening to a podcast. I moisturize my face. There’s a whole wind down that happens with the steaming shower, and the idea that I could stay in there for 40 minutes and tweeze my eyebrows, and do whatever I want, and nobody can bother me.

On an easy way to be a better cook:
I think giving people permission to change your mind based on what you find when you get to the store is one of the most important steps in making food that you’re excited about eating. You could do nothing to something that is in great shape, and it’ll taste amazing, versus having something that isn’t excellent and then doing a lot of things to compensate for the fact that it wasn’t super high-quality.

On her weekend ritual:
We really like to see friends. Especially as it gets warmer, I try to dedicate at least one of the weekend days to having plans with friends, and doing it at home. Meeting up with people and going to a restaurant, you get this very limited amount of time, and it’s not always copacetic to being with kids, staying at the table longer, or really having conversations. So we try to have one day every weekend where we have an extended hang with friends.

Bon Appétit’s Food Director Is Super Competitive at the Gym