We were just as intrigued. Turns out Hassner’s job as the chef for parent company Purina does not involve whipping up plates of kibble. Instead, she cooks for the people who develop pet foods, inspiring them with fresh flavors and presentations and keeping them abreast of (human) food trends that influence their work.
We talked to her about the cookbook, her job, and eating with (and like) our animals.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q. First, I have to tell you I am a cat person. There is literally a cat in my lap as we speak. Which is part of why I was so fascinated by the cookbook. So tell me a little about yourself and your background.
A. I got a bachelor’s degree in English from Bryn Mawr, but I was spending more time working in the dining hall than I was in class. And in college, I was cooking in a professional kitchen doing catering. After I graduated, I started working in restaurants in a sort of self-designed internship, and I finally did go to culinary school. Then I started with Nestle helping to design Lean Cuisine, Stouffer’s and Hot Pockets — maybe you’ve heard of them?
Q. I’ve heard the Jim Gaffigan jokes.
A. As fun as that was, when I had the chance to work with the folks from Purina, I jumped at the chance. I’m a dog and cat person and the thought of applying cooking skills and my love for food to pet food — I just jumped right in.
Purina has this great knack of knowing not just dogs and cats but dog and cat owners and applying culinary and food trends to that, and it makes it so much more rich. I do more work for Fancy Feast than any other brand. It really is a nutrition company. I’ve been here for 10 years and it doesn’t seem like it, which I guess means I’m in the right place.
Q. I get that a pet food company would focus on nutrition, because I think of pet food as being very functional. Is the culinary focus more for the pet owners?
A. Well, if it doesn’t taste good, then all that good nutrition doesn’t get to do what it’s intended to do. So yes, it’s important for owners to see their pet enjoying their meal, but that’s nutrition going in.
Q. What do we know about cat’s palates and what they like?
A. Have you ever just sat there and watched a cat eat? They’ve got a limited way of eating, and they have to pick food up, or lick it up. I’ve actually challenged people here to do that. My role is to cook human food for the humans who make dog and cat food. So I’ll bring people into my culinary center and make them sit on their hands and eat, and you start to understand, oh, the size of the food really matters.
Q. So you literally make people eat like animals?
A. You should try it! It’s mind-opening. You take it for granted, having forks, knives, thumbs, a tongue that moves in all directions. Experiencing it is better than me telling you.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge of your job?
A. People are always looking for the newest thing, and we know that cats like new things. It’s always, okay, what are people eating, and how do we translate that? Because we love coming up with new products for cats. At home, I have to arrange my Fancy Feast to make sure that no two of the same are in the rotation and there’s always something new. So it’s being aware of what’s going on — that’s the challenge and that’s what makes it great.
Q. Tell me about how the idea for the Fancy Feast cookbook came about.
A. We were really excited about Petites being launched, and we wanted to share that. Somebody brilliant had the idea: Why don’t we create a cookbook, to basically do what I do, which is to create food for humans to celebrate the elevated experience of Petites?
So I took the trend of small plates and tasting menus. And just like we are with Fancy Feast, we were very conscientious about aromas and textures. I wanted to do it so people would actually use it and make the recipes, so they’re simple, and there are no crazy, I-can’t-find-this-kind of ingredients. People can use it on a weeknight, because you should have a wonderful food experience any day of the week.
Q. I still remember the Fancy Feast ads from when I was growing up, where the cat is eating out of a crystal bowl. How did that ethos of an ‘elevated experience’ translate in the cookbook, and how did you think about pairing the cat and human foods?
A. The philosophy we used in taking the pictures says it. You have a white plate on the white background. Sometimes elevated food is not about what you put in, but what you leave out.
We took the main proteins from the Petites — the chicken, salmon and whitefish — those were my boundaries. Other than that, I just wanted a good experience, for people to go, “I made this?” There’s a joy in making something yourself.
Q. Did the pandemic inspire the cookbook? I mean, we are eating with our pets a lot more, since we’ve been eating most of our meals in our homes.
A. We might have done the cookbook anyway, but it is a good time for it, because people are spending more time in the kitchen and will be more apt to try the recipes.
And could we love our cats more? I know for me, the extra time spent with my pets is something I’ve been really grateful for in a strange way. We were moving toward that anyway, that idea of humanizing our pets. Actually ‘humanizing’ really doesn’t give cats and dogs enough credit. I think as we go along, our relationships have been getting stronger with our pets.
Q. What is appealing about the idea of eating with our pets — I mean, obviously the experience is different, since we’re eating different things, and we usually use utensils — but the idea of having an analogous experience?
A. Just sharing our love of food has a lot to do with eating with our pets. When we serve them, we are expressing our love for them. So even if it isn’t across the table from them, having a “how was your day?” kind of moment, when your cat is eating and you’re watching them, you are sharing in that experience. Sharing food is incredibly powerful.
Q. Weird question: When you’re working on the things that inspire a product, like the Petites, do you actually ... taste the cat food?
A. As a chef, I experience my world through tasting. Cats’ palates are very different. But I pretty much try anything that I’m going to feed my pets.
(A Fancy Feast representative later emailed to clarify that that is not something the company recommends. Duly noted.)
More from Voraciously: