Building Block

Building Block

Betty Hallock

Photography by Ye Rin Mok

Betty Hallock is a journalist, cookbook author, and the former deputy Food Editor for the LA Times. Over the years we've gotten to know her through a mutual appreciation for the transformative qualities of food and cooking. Among her many accomplishments, Betty has co-authored notable cookbooks including "Baco" and "Baking at Republique". She also hosts an occasional tea service at Orsa & Winston—a Japanese Italian restaurant concept in downtown Los Angeles named after the dogs she shares with her partner Josef Centeno, and which was also recently named LA Times restaurant of the year.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, in her spare time Betty is a gifted maker and aesthete of herbal teas, scents and soaps. She dives deep into her interests—traveling to Bulgaria for rose oil, Hangzhou for Longjing tea, Kyoto for Gyokuro tea. In a culture that is quick to over-brand, quick to hype, Betty instead approaches her projects with a mindful presence and professionalism, devoting herself to the quiet nature of sensory pleasures. Whether or not she thinks of herself as one, to us she is a role model on how to actualize one's varied passions.

One of the things we find most admirable is that you always seem to make space for a new pursuit. Can you tell us a little bit about each? 

As a longtime food writer, I was naturally drawn to the world of scent—especially through spices, flowers and other plant materials that are used for perfumery. I’ve been studying scent for years now, after having met two really inspiring women, separately and around the same time—the pioneering natural perfumer Mandy Aftel and Saskia Wilson-Brown, who founded the Institute for Art & Olfaction. One thing led to another and I went to the Grasse Institute of Perfumery and traveled to a lot of fragrance distilleries and flower-growing regions—in France, Italy, Bulgaria, China and Japan—to study and to write about them.

It’s the same with teas. I’ve also traveled to tea-growing areas because I love the smell of green tea. In the before times I occasionally held a tea service based on a Japanese incense game that I learned to play in Kyoto. I once ended up at a class in Tokyo that was about steeping green tea or roasted green tea with fruit and vegetables, and the flavors and aromas left such a big impression on me—I still think about them. Not long after lockdown, the local lilacs were blooming and every year I try to pick unsprayed flowers (one by one—it’s tedious) to put them in an oil-based infusion to preserve their scent. This spring I had a lot more time, so I picked a lot more flowers, dried them, and used them for blending my own teas. I dried peach blossoms and roses and lemon verbena and mint. I just had a lot of kitchen projects going—like umeboshi (lactofermented, dried plums) and umeshu (plum wine) and preserved citrus and random pickles.

I started making soap at first as a distraction but then found I loved it as a medium for scent. My partner asked me if I wanted to sell any on his website, and so he and I collaborated on a set. He’s a natural dyer and we have a few indigo vats fermenting behind the house — so he made indigo-dyed linen bags inspired by traditional Japanese furoshiki and we’ve been selling those with the soaps, teas and/or oil blends I make. Sometimes I make candles too.

You and your partner Josef seem to have a wonderful symbiosis with life and work. Is there anything the both of you are collaborating on soon? 

We are always bouncing ideas off each other or asking for feedback. We collaborated on home goods for his clothing and dye project Prospect Pine. He made pot holders and kitchen gloves for me that he now sells. And he designed and is sewing a washcloth that I asked for and will be available on his site soon.

Personally, we were feeling a creative rush at the outset of the LA lockdown, attempting to channel stress into something immediate and productive. How are you finding motivation these days and is there any bit of advice that you can share about staying creatively motivated? 

With more time at home, I was determined not to spend it (or not all of it, anyway) online, so that has been a big motivator. And staying connected to the natural world is an important motivator for me—even if it’s tangentially, through tea or fragrance materials or plant dyes. I try to be careful about what materials I use and how I use them and how much I use. Keeping nature in mind is what makes humans happy (from having recently read “A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses”—I love moss and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s world view), and I think it’s ultimately what drives creativity for me—that and sensory pleasure.

As a food writer and someone who is intimate with culture around food, do you foresee any positive changes that the food industry could make post-pandemic? 

We’ve become even more aware of the connection between the way we eat and our environment during the pandemic and California’s fires. The choices we make as consumers and voters will drive the industry. And how we address the cost and value of food production is inextricably linked to so many other issues we’re facing now. A couple of good articles I read during the pandemic: a piece by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer on a poultry plant tycoon who is one of Trump’s biggest campaign contributors and an editorial on restaurants in the New York Times by Priya Krishna.

What’s your comfort activity? 

I think it has been short drives within the city. We had to figure out things to do since everything was closed up and one of our dogs can’t hike very well. So we did a sort of L.A. tour. Sometimes it would be a Case Study house or somewhere like Franklin Canyon Reservoir or a lookout on Mulholland Drive. We’d just get in the car with the dogs and get away for a couple of hours. That, or there’s always watercolor.

What do you carry with you in your Building Block pouch?

Definitely wallet and keys, a notebook and pen. But also some stuff to smell, like a couple of hydrosols. One is a hydrosol that comes from the distillation of jasmine sambac extract (the flowers themselves aren’t commercially distilled). The other is an apple mint hydrosol that makes me really happy.

What's your favorite thing about being your age right now?

I’m not sure about right now, it all seems fluid to me—time and what I think of as my strengths or weaknesses. But one thing that definitely comes with age is perspective. I increasingly have a better vantage point to see what I’ve overcome.

Shop The Style