Before we closed down the 9/11 non-profit in 2002 I weaseled my way into a gig at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. We'd had a meeting with them about collaborating and they'd offered me a position. The partnership never materialized. But I had no other job options. Post 9/11, the city was still not hiring. One friend stood in line with dozens of people just to interview for a bartender job.
I didn't have family in NYC or a trust fund. All I had were my hustling skills.
So I just showed up one day at the hospital and said that I had a job. And they gave it to me! Not my proudest moment but hell, I wasn't moving home. It was boring but the pay was good and the staff appreciated my organizing skills.
Eventually, I heard about a Culinary Director job opening at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. I'd already been hired to teach there so I was on the email list about the opening.
It was a position for someone with strong administrative and management skills (yes!) and experience teaching cooking classes (I'd been teaching for five years at that point!).
I remember practically climbing over the table to the woman interviewing me (who later ended up being my boss). With my arms wrapped across the table, I said "this job is meant for me. I have the exact skills you need and I'll work my butt off for you."
She later told me she hired me because of that little speech. She said knew I had the fire to turn the program into "something."
My boss at the hospital had grown so dependent on me that she burst out crying when I said I was leaving.
When I started my job as the Director of Culinary Arts at the JCC, inherited a barely year old culinary program, a few volunteers, some fantastic teachers and a kitchen that needed a lot of work. Nobody knew who we were. We had the stigma of the "kosher cooking school" on the UWS compared to the prestigious cooking schools downtown that had been around forever. I had almost no marketing money in my budget and I was new in town so I didn't have my own contacts to help get the word out.
My kind of odds. Fighting for the underdog is where I'm most comfortable.
I would get to work around 9:30/10am, work all day on the kitchen and computer. I'd spend the afternoon overseeing the kids classes and turning the kitchen around for the evening adult classes. I'd work while it was quiet, go upstairs to the gym and work out. Come back downstairs at 9:30 to eat, schmooze, clean up and walk home - and later when I lived in Brooklyn, I'd make the long commute home on the train.
I worked 10-12 hour days, often six days a week for the first couple of years.
I did this for half a decade. And loved it.
For the first couple of years, though, I felt like a fraud. I was hiring chefs with far more culinary experience than me. David trained in France. John worked in restaurants for twenty years. Lauren could develop stellar recipes for any cuisine. People LOVE to talk about restaurants in New York so they'd ask me where I liked to eat.
I was making 55k per year, I lost around 34% to taxes and my rent was around $1300. You don't need to do any math. I lived on practically nothing.
I felt so out of my league. All of the time. It was stressful and exhilarating.
But this was what I wanted. I needed the challenge. I wanted to stretch myself, find my true potential. See what I could accomplish if I went for it. Giving up was never an option.
Eventually, I decided it wasn't my job to be a great chef. I'd hire awesome people and give them the stage to shine. I'd find amazing menus for their skill set, write the best possible class descriptions and sell the hell out of their classes. I'd build a cool community of students and teachers, schmoozing with them after class like the friendly owner of a restaurant.
When people asked where I liked to eat, I said "work!" Which was true.
Meanwhile, the Food Network was blowing up and the culinary scene was booming. Over the next five years, the food scene went from old-school industry to a surreal Hollywood world.
People would stalk me - literally call me constantly and show up without an appointment begging for work. On the other end of the spectrum, I had temperamental asshole chefs who thought they could treat me like shit and still keep their teaching gig.
Meanwhile, I invested heavily into the kids cooking classes. I spent hours working with my teachers on menu ideas. I'd gather intel on our competitors by calling and pretending to be a parent asking about their cooking classes.
Everyone thought I was nuts. When I decided to teach a teen cooking camp in '03 or '04, people told me it would never run. I'd already taught that age group in Seattle and knew they dug it. I just shrugged and ran it anyway.
It ended up in the New York Times (Thank you Florence Fabricant! She was very good to us!). And I ended up with a wait list for the class which sold out every time I ran it.
Years later, a friend said to me "how did you know? How did you know kids and cooking would become a thing? How did you know food would be a good thing?"
I shook my head and said "I don't know. I just do what sounds interesting to me."
That job was always interesting to me. It gave me legitimacy in a super competitive city, in a super competitive field. It gave me a home with co-workers who became my NYC family. It gave me cooking skills. It gave me management experience. It gave me opportunities I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams.
It also took all my energy, my passion, the healthiest years of my life.
I remember chatting with one of my teachers, John. We were exactly the same age and often had philosophical discussions about life.
When I was shaking my head and said "where did all these years go?"
He said "you worked them away."
My eyes wide, I stared at him, realizing he was right.
It was easy to stay in a comfortable job where I had "prestige" but I knew I had to have an exit plan.
New York was dangerous that way. Not in the way that you're thinking.
In the way that people ended up staying at jobs they hated and in apartments they'd outgrown - because pivoting and changing in that city gets harder the longer you're there.
I started taking writing classes through work (for free!) and sketching out a kids cookbook idea.
So I'd be ready for the next leap when it arrived. Always looking for the next big thing, NYC style...
PHOTO #17. This post is part of a series celebrating my life before I lost four organs to three cancers in 2014. It is an “online memorial” honoring the person I was, in the hopes that I can make peace with the disabled person I’ve become. Every day for 30 days until my birthday, I will challenge myself to write a post inspired by the photo I’m sharing. I will not plan the topic or write ahead of time. I will merely look at the photo and write whatever it inspires. Thanks for reading! #julesfor30 #happyrebirth