My 20th Anniversary as a Pastry Chef

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In September 1997 I returned to Washington D.C. after spending four years as a diplomat in Geneva, Switzerland. I left D.C. a newlywed and environmental lawyer and returned as a pastry chef, caterer, cooking teacher and mother of 2 toddlers. Looking back at the beginning of a new Jewish year, I feel blessed to be where I am now in my career, but it certainly took a lot of hard work to get here.

Life in Geneva was pretty special due to its proximity to the Alps and Provence, and a short train ride to Paris. Daily life included views of mountains on the way to the supermarket, amazing pastries on every corner, more accessible kosher food than I had in downtown D.C., friends both in the U.S. Mission, local Jewish and expat communities. I smile when I recall smuggling kosher meat over the French/Swiss border with my diplomatic plates to help friends in the community prepare big meals for holidays, dropping baby Emily off at the Maison Juif preschool and driving straight to Megeve, France to ski until pickup and filling eight dessert orders a week out of an oven about twice the size of my Easy Bake version.

When I returned home I wanted to continue selling decorated birthday cakes here, only to learn that no one wanted to pay $125 for a cake that looked like a piano or Elmo and preferred the $15 birthday cakes from Giant. I started teaching cooking classes in my kitchen, a flexible job while raising 4 children under the age of 5. I did my share of 7 year-old girl birthday parties.

I was developing recipes for my classes when Susie Fishbein called and asked me to recipe test and edit Kosher by Design Entertains and her Kids in the Kitchen cookbooks.

While working for Susie I wondered why I wasn’t writing my own cookbook so I started working on what I called The Kosher Baker’s Bible, which became The Kosher Baker. I attended the Greenbrier Food Writer’s Conference and was intimidated by everyone’s success, yet the conference motivated me to keep working on my book.

A friend led me to an agent at a big agency, and my book proposal was promptly rejected by every single major publisher, who said, “there is no market for a kosher baking cookbook.” (I think at this point I proved them wrong.)

Some early mentors I salute here are Levana Kirschenbaum, Norene Gilletz and one friend who kept saying, “if you are doing something you love, something good will come of it.” I am grateful to all the women I met at IACP conferences who urged me on.

One day I was reading my Brandeis University alumni newsletter and saw that Brandeis has a publishing company. They were thrilled to publish my book and that led to The Lisa Ekus Group literary agency and Sterling Publishing and three more books. Publicists Trina Kaye in the U.S. and Stuart Schnee in Israel got my books media coverage everywhere. I booked events around the world, did three Jewish Book Council tours, competed on Food Network, have done 26 TV appearances, many freelance writing columns and more. I have won a few awards and I was once the centerfold in WebMD Magazine. Really.

I remember thinking when I returned from Geneva and got this crazy idea that I should write a cookbook, that I was the author fighting my way in. I heard “no” over and over. I have seen in recent years bloggers become celebrities seemingly overnight and I have to take a deep breath and remember that my long and winding road nurtured my professional resilience. Today the word “no” just means I have to work even harder or proceed down a different path.

At this time of year, I also reflect on the past 2 years during which much of my time was devoted to caring for both of my parents, now gone. Work had to take a back burner and I lost some ground while the online world was heating up. When I came up for air this past May, I didn’t know if I would be able to catch up. Yet within a few months, I started booking appearances for the new Healthy Jewish Kitchen cookbook tour. Friends Elizabeth Kurtz and Naomi Nachman gave me great ideas on how to move forward. Esti Berkowitz helped me find my social media voice. I got back in the kitchen and started creating again.

At this anniversary I am getting ready for the Healthy Jewish Kitchen release, and launching DIY baking kits that will soon be available everywhere, and I marvel at how blessed I am to do what I do: I get paid to spread the joy of great food far and wide.

On this Jewish New Year, take time to appreciate your blessings, especially the ones that came with effort, whether personal or professional. If during the coming year, you hit challenges that you cannot face alone, look around and find someone to help. Do what you love. And keep moving forward. Happy New Year.