Born and raised in Rogers Park, Chicago, I developed a palate for tasty things early in life. As a latchkey kid of the seventies and eighties, I grew up on Kraft mac and cheese, frozen chicken Kiev (anyone else remember those loaf-shaped breaded butter bombs that spurt volcanically when you stabbed them in the center?), and pop tarts six days a week. On the seventh, my dad an ex-kibbutznik Israeli carpenter, would take me out—we’d hit the city, digging into Pakistani goat curries, Israeli shakshouka and salads with Roquefort dressing just to name a few. Dad told me his wild tales about being a concentration camp survivor, a paratrooper in the Israeli army, about life on a kibbutz in the 1960s, and how amazing his mother’s babka and rugelach were. I ate, listened, and learned, absorbing his passion and really, his hunger. That is where my love of food, food history, and culinary storytelling began. At the table, of course.
This early education in restaurant culture and dining out shaped my love of food diversity and honest, ethnic cuisine. That said, dad’s stories also romanticized home cooking and I fell in love with the idea of a family meal and traditions upheld through generations of dedicated home cooks. I say “idea” because there wasn’t any home cooking happening at my home (my mom was and is a horrible cook and manages to burn everything to ashes—including, one time, her kitchen) but at the home of my best friends and my grandparents and great-grandparents, well, it was a different story. Little did I know that attaining this feeling of warmth and security gleaned by sitting around a table and digging in to home-cooked foods would inspire my life path as a cook, writer and a parent.
It was during a college copywriting internship at a food ad agency that I realized my heart was in the kitchen. I spent more time chatting up the house chef rather than at my desk romancing the Keebler elf. A vegetarian at the time, there were only two schools that appealed to my “no eyes, no families” rule. One was in New York City where I knew no one, and the other in Boulder, Colorado where I had family. With my beat-up black Mazda pickup truck loaded to the brim, I moved to Colorado for a summer to learn about cooking healthful whole foods to sustain a vegetarian diet. I worked from five until nine in the morning in a local bagel shop and then biked to the cooking school that was in a church basement. I cooked with quinoa, kombu and miso way before anyone called them “superfoods” or “umami bombs.”
Upon my return to Chicago, I finished college and was hired at several bakeries, but was always too nervous to take the plunge. How could a $5 per hour minimum wage-paid baker payback a small mountain of school debt and support herself? So I took a job as an assistant editor at Consumers’ Digest Magazine where I wrote about health and travel. Every month or so I interviewed for a baking job. I was offered every job I applied for—and every time, I couldn’t work up the will to say yes.
I moved to Boston and landed a gig working as a healthcare writer for a small publisher in tony Marblehead, but I just couldn’t shake this romantic notion I had of becoming a baker. I quit my well-paying job as a managing editor and started pastry school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. I concurrently accepted my first bona fide baking position in 1997 at Rosie’s Bakery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of the “orgasm” brownie. Paid minimum wage and with mostly ex-cons to call as colleagues, I worked from six in the morning until noon every day and then drove to Rhode Island where I would go to class until seven each night. I fervently studied, cooked, and ate 20 hours a day and I was ridiculously happy.
A couple of years later, I started to feel that the kitchen path might not suit my demeanor (hiding in the bathroom for a good cry isn’t exactly what you should be doing during a dinner rush). I heard about a job opening at Cook’s Illustrated and figured, why not? Ten batches of tuna noodle casserole later (that was the interview process) and 1,000 word article describing the merits of every agonizing decision (bread crumbs or potato chips? Oil packed tuna or water-packed tuna? Egg noodles or semolina?), I was hired. For two years I cooked and wrote about my findings and crafted original recipes for the magazine. I headed the Tastings column (for which we tasted our way through a dozen balsamic vinegars or peanut butters to discover the best one), learned about food science, and how to test, develop, and write recipes that were as delicious as they were foolproof. It was the best foundation anyone who hopes to have a career as a cookbook author and recipe developer could hope for.
Then, in the summer of 2002, I moved to Brooklyn and dug into a freelance career. I never really intended to be a freelancer—it just kind of happened. Since I moved to NYC 13 years ago, I’ve co-authored 18 cookbooks including the James Beard Award winning Quick Recipe and the James Beard nominated DamGoodSweet and Masala Farm, and just wrote my first solo book, TOAST, for Phaidon. My recipe columns and articles about food and travel have been featured in Saveur, The Wall Street Journal, Fine Cooking, Everyday with Rachael Ray, Self, Shape, Edible Manhattan/Edible Brooklyn, Epicurious.com and so many other print and digital publications. I still even freelance for my alma mater, Cook’s Illustrated, on occasion. Oh, I also had two adorable little boys along the way.
After a solid decade of freelancing, I took on a the role as Senior Food Editor for Tasting Table, a digital food and lifestyle publication. It was like a whirlwind! Wow does the digital world move fast. But I missed making my kids dinner…so now I’m back to the freelance hustle, writing cookbooks, helping chefs find their words and define their recipe vision, and doing my own writing and cooking. In addition to TOAST, I’m working on Num Pang: The Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016), a cookbook with Uri Scheft of Breads Bakery in New York City and Tel Aviv, as well as a few other other top-secret projects that I’ll divulge in good time. Until then, I’m hanging in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, with my boys and always planning my next meal–whether it’s in Marrakesh or Manhattan.