How did you get here? Part Three, Susie Heller

Before there were selfies, there was the Photo Booth on my Mac. Taken at Per Se, 2007.

Before there were selfies, there was the Photo Booth on my Mac. Taken at Per Se, 2007.

Sitting alone in our apartment while my husband of less than a year was working, I read the email over three times, then giggled out loud because I was smiling so much. She had written me back and asked when I could come over to meet her. Really? I’ve been hearing your name for the past two years and I sat on the floor of a Borders Bookstore for over an hour checking out The French Laundry Cookbook, and she actually wrote the words, “I look forward to meeting you.”

Rewind to two years earlier, when I walked away from my former career. I organized the office closure. Each of the partners got a package laying it all out to the last detail. The financial officer got the same packet along with my company credit card. I remember the day I dropped all of them off at FedEx. I got in my car, turned on the radio, and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge with a crystal clear conscience. I had no regrets. But, I also had no job. I was finishing up a baking and pastry program and had signed up for a writing seminar taught by an outstanding writer and television host. There was some money in my bank account, and even though I had no idea what I was going to do next my gut told me things were going to work out.

The one thing I knew for sure was that financially I had to take a major step back. No more regular paychecks. No more meals paid for. And, thankfully, no more bull shit! Everything was new and that made it very exciting. I worked on my first cookbook as a kitchen assistant. There was a lot of grocery shopping, herb and vegetable chopping, and dish washing. (I still do all of that, but that’s beside the point.). The two women producing the book were very good to me, but the project ended when their budget ran out, even though I think I made less than $10/hour.

I sent a real, on paper, cover letter and resume to a popular Marin county restaurant. Baking at home was easy for me. I had spent the bulk of my high school and college summers working primarily in a bakery, but also in a couple of restaurants and a grocery store. More than ten years had passed since then, so I decided I needed to be in a restaurant to get my chops up.

Having no idea what I was in for, I started in the pastry kitchen right after Thanksgiving and was there through Mother’s Day. The experience was invaluable, learning under fire when the pastry chef walked out one day and never came back. It taught me how to prioritize, organize, produce desserts in volume, and how to climb out from a backlog of dessert to get out of “the weeds.”  It also taught me I did not want to be in a restaurant kitchen.

Next stop Williams-Sonoma. Being practical I wanted to have a job that on a resume showed I worked in the cooking field, but wouldn’t be too hard to walk away from when the time came. The store manager was a little hard to take, but the other managers were wonderful. I surprised myself and was really quite good at selling housewares, especially when it came to the high-end cookware that offered an incentive contest twice a year. I beefed up my kitchen supplies, was able to take on a second book project, and still maintain a decent amount of hours at the store.

One day the writer of the cookbook and I were alone sorting through recipes. We had a heart to heart about the cookbook industry and my really getting into it. She was complimentary of the skill set, recognized my drive, and encouraged me to move forward. She gave me the email address for Susie Heller, and that quite literally would change my life.

The meeting was set. I drove out to Napa and was greeted at the partially ajar door by Marley, the labradoodle. He was my sidekick for the next hour plus. I knocked and someone I assumed was Susie stuck her head around the corner and waved me in. In retrospect my meeting was typical of so many I would later observe over the twelve years we have worked together. She was on the phone when I arrived, but when she waved me in she had a big smile, and quick hand over the receiver to tell me in a quiet voice to have a seat. We didn’t meet in her office. We sat on bar stools at her monstrous kitchen island. She made me a coffee before we got started and then asked me a lot of great questions. I actually talked about myself freely without much nervousness. The fact that Marley’s head was literally in my lap certainly didn’t hurt. The phone probably rang ten times. Every time a look at the caller ID and then a quick pick up with an explanation of why she would have to call back.

The Bouchon Cookbook was the project she was working on. She told me all about it and then let me know that she had an assistant working with her on it, but that she wanted to refer me to someone else to talk to. My heart sank, but I was happy for the referral. Next thing I knew I was giving her a ride down the road to pick up her new car.

When I got home, my husband, of course, asked how it went. I recounted the day to him. We both thought it was positive, but scratched our heads a bit as to what it all meant. I went on to meet the chef she referred me to. He hired me to work part-time with him and the writer on another high-profile Napa Valley chef’s book. The project turned out to be a volatile one, but the chef who hired me is still a friend and colleague and the writer would later give me a huge break in another area of the cookbook world. My gut was right. Things were clicking.

Probably about a month later, I got home from a sort of crappy day at Williams-Sonoma, and went upstairs and checked my email. This was pre iPhone, back in the days when I probably checked email 3 or 4 times a day. There sitting in my inbox was an email asking if I could come to help Susie and the chef one day next week. I had Tuesday off and it turned out that day would work for everyone.

Needless to say I went back to Napa and knocked it out of the park. No, I wasn’t a natural culinary genius, but I was a natural at knowing how to observe everything, assist, and be really good at cleaning up. And, that was enough to get things rolling. The rest, as they say, is history. I met my mentor. The woman who would open the door for me to a world of excellence in cookbooks and cooking television shows. We have done 9 books, 3 television series, and a few smaller video projects together.

Very few in this life have the charisma Susie Heller does. If she likes you, she will bring you into her world almost immediately. You’ll know about grandkids, kids, husband, friends, and dogs, but not necessarily in that order. You’ll probably also quickly hear stories about famous chefs she’s worked with that will make you green with envy. (Early on, I literally overheard her speaking to Julia Child on the phone.) She isn’t showy, but isn’t totally modest either. She is well aware of the fantastic run she has had. Her social circle is enormous and varied. But, this is not to say the relationships are at all false. Quite the contrary, her heart is bigger than big. Although at times we don’t work together as much as we initially did, that is just the natural progression of my career evolving and having a family. I am grateful for everything she has done for me professionally and personally. I love her like family and know just how lucky I am that she is part of my life, and that she will be a consistent presence in the life of my daughter.