Writing Examples

Where Are Your Keys?


My daughter has asked me to “tell the story of the night of the fires” hundreds of times. Not sure why. Maybe she takes comfort in the before and after. 

I am no stranger to gale force winds. I grew up knowing what heavy winds are all about. Hurricane season and Nor’easters were a regular part of East coast beach town weather patterns and my family’s life. I can still shudder thinking about the two-block walk to my childhood home’s front porch in the winter straight into the easterly wind off of the ocean from where the bus left me off. The Northern California winds that picked up during the later evening hours of October 8, 2017 were strangely familiar and intense, but with one huge difference. The winds that hurled into Sonoma County were bone dry.

Our family visited with friends for dinner. It was a terrific fall afternoon that leisurely made its way to nightfall. We all sat outside, ate and drank with our kids playing and running around. After a great time, we went in the house to help tidy up and collect our things to go home. It was Sunday, a school night. As we headed out, we all commented on the wind. My husband, Rocky, hollered at me. “Get in the truck!” My reaction was, what the heck is wrong with him?! But, once we got in, I could see what was worrying him. The power lines were swinging and arching overhead, uncomfortably quick and high. He was concerned one was going to break free and land either on us or in front of us. We sped home and made our way in the house.

Our daughter, Aurora, was over-stimulated to say the least. And the wind was understandably disconcerting to her. It took some doing but she went to sleep. We went to bed not too long after and watched a video on my iPad. Totally restless too, I think we both sort of slept, but in and out. I couldn’t help looking out the windows from our bed. The trees looked like the palms you see on The Weather Channel during a tropical storm coming in through Florida. At one point, I was sure I saw one of my daughter’s flip-flops caught up in a mini wind tunnel.

The phone rang sometime after 11:00 pm. Our friend Sarah called to let us know there was fire glow on the horizon, and wanted to know if we could see it more clearly since we were closer. Rocky got in his truck to try to find out what was going on. I got out the candles. At this point the thought of leaving seemed like overkill to me. The power was still on. I went to the front window and saw the orange glow. I stood looking for Rocky’s truck to pull back in the driveway. Another neighbor’s truck went by, seemingly to see what was up too. Some worry crept in.

When Rocky came back he said there was a huge fire rolling through Kenwood just a few blocks away. He also said we needed to get some things together and be prepared to leave as he put his laptop and camera by the front door. We went through a quick list of people I would call to make sure they were awake. Most friends I left messages for. He was off and running again to go wake up our neighbor’s directly across the street. I saw the lights go on and them teetering around. They are in their eighties and do not do anything quickly. I couldn’t stop thinking about other family friends we had in the general area as I lit the candles and quickly gathered some things. Rocky called Sarah back to let her know we were packing up to be ready to go, and they should do the same.

The power went out, but I had lit the candles. I pulled out the lockbox with important papers and some flash drives. The box was a wedding gift from my very practical father. Otherwise I’m not sure they would have all been together. I then went back and got my laptop, iPad, and bag with wallet and glasses before heading into Aurora’s room to grab her a spare outfit. Deacon, our one in a million dog, was on the floor at the foot of her bed. A notable first. As much as he loves her, he always slept on his own bed in his own happy corner of the house. He knew something was different, and the visual of him near her would be a continuous theme during our time away from Kenwood. I whispered in her ear that I needed to get her dressed and that we might need to leave. She was annoyed, but let me wrestle her into clothes. She fell back asleep.

I pulled on a sweatshirt and changed from boxer shorts to a pair of yoga pants. Didn’t even think to put on underwear or a bra. I met my husband at the door. He went to get my car keys off of their hook. They weren’t there. Seriously? I couldn’t find them anywhere. Thankfully there was an easy to find spare. “OK, we have to go.” Rocky said. “You get Deacon. I’ll get Aurora, then the stuff. Once I do, you pull in across the street to load up Skip and Bev. I’m going to make sure people are awake down the street. And, I’ll meet you at the strawberry field. There aren’t any trees there.”  I didn’t freak out, but my heart was definitely racing. I have always been able to focus and stay clear-headed when I have to. And, there is no question Rocky is the guy you want around in a time of a crisis. He is a force to be reckoned with and takes charge without even needing to ask. It’s one of the qualities I love the most about him. It can also drive me a little crazy, but tonight, I was glad for the clearly identified path, and knew there was no arguing with him. That was the plan.

Aurora was very upset, but followed direction. We got the eighty-somethings and their necessities loaded up. I sat with my hands on the wheel, took a deep breath, and gave Rocky a kiss through my window. I needed a second’s pause. Cars of our neighbors were passing by. A sheriff’s car turned the corner, bullhorn bellowing, “This is a mandatory evacuation.”  I remember very clearly putting my foot on the brake and shifting the car into drive. I pulled out, turned a few corners and made our way up to Highway 12 and the strawberry field. It was a good idea, but no surprise the chains that are always there after hours were across the driveways. Now what?

I pulled in and around in the Kunde Family driveway and tried to call Rocky. No answer. All eyes were on me. Aurora steadily and quietly sobbing, but Bev holding her hand. It was either go right or left. Right into Santa Rosa or left into Sonoma, fire glow visible in both directions. I will never be sure why, but I chose left. When we went by Beltane Ranch there was fire on both sides of 12. Aurora knew where we were and whimpered, “Mommy that’s where Carlos’s house is. I hope he and Drakey are OK.” There was no way of telling what was burning, the smoke had completely engulfed the property. I just kept driving.

A text from Sarah’s husband said, “we are in Sonoma and all are welcome”. I replied with the rundown of who was in my car and “are you sure”. “Yes”. That was all I needed. We had a destination. Rocky called and I texted him the address. When we arrived, Deacon was allowed in without a blink and we all found spots. Aurora needed some serious soothing to get back to sleep. Deacon curled next to the couch, keeping watch on his girl. The television was on in the other room. Everyone huddled and eyes were glued. There were continuous headshakes and small gasps. As the night progressed we learned there were more than just our fires. Sonoma and Napa counties were ablaze in so many locations. New evacuations kept being posted. Would this area in Sonoma be next?

The texts came in throughout the night and early morning hours. Gratefully, fairly early on we learned that the guests and kids made it off the ranch at Beltane while others stayed to fight the fire, and that most of the historic buildings had been spared. But, the damage was extensive and they were still hard at work. Friends were all reporting in on where they were. Some already knew their homes were lost. Then there were the rumors. Chateau St. Jean was gone, the Kenwood gas station had blown up, and the elementary school, which is a block from our home, was on fire. Rocky said he needed to go back and check things out in Kenwood. I knew he would be smart. He had been a fire fighter. I also knew he wouldn’t leave again, unless he absolutely had to. And, he didn’t. He felt like he had a bigger job to do in town and I respected that, but I had resentment for being separated. All decisions about what to do outside of our home were now mine.

Our hosts could not have been more gracious. We invaded their home. Yet, I watched the grandfather walk with his cane to steal away for a little while and fall asleep sitting up in a chair. He gave up his bed, all beds, and the couches to guests. They went out early in the morning to get coffees and made us all breakfast. They genuinely meant it when they said we could stay as long as we needed to, but I knew we had to go. If the fires kept coming, I did not want to be sitting on Broadway waiting to get out of Sonoma. I talked to Skip and Bev and told them my plan was to go stay with my cousin and her family in Oakland. I suggested they choose if they wanted to go to Petaluma or San Rafael to be with their family. I would drive them there on our way to the east bay. Decision made and it felt right. We were in my car within the hour.

Skip treated us to In-N-Out. I brought them to where they belonged with family, and me and my most precious cargo, Aurora and Deacon, were back on the road. For the majority of the ten days we were evacuated we were in Oakland. Another almost indescribable level of gratitude goes to my family (and Rocky’s in Santa Cruz) who opened up their home, hearts, and refrigerators to us. Ten days of Target runs for clothes and toiletries, way more screen time than I ever allow, filling up our days with activities that should have been fun, but weren’t, and wondering about Daddy. We talked to him occasionally, but not as often as we would have liked.

We were all on high alert. For me it was emotionally consuming. Keeping it together for a very confused and sad 5-year old while I had my own inner turmoil was taxing. I have never been so conflicted and had a very short fuse. I was immeasurably proud of Rocky for helping to save a friend’s home in neighboring Glen Ellen, doing what needed to be done in Kenwood, including clearing debris and watering down many yards and roofs, working tirelessly in the schoolyard, feeding our neighbor’s chickens and the bunny locked in the hutch at school. Priority number one for him was the school. He knew if the school went that would be a devastating blow to the kids and our entire community. I was happy he had gone back and had the opportunity to gather some more of our belongings. I knew he would leave if the fire got too close.  And I was OK knowing we had our most important material possessions, but that felt less and less important with each passing day. I had waves of anger. Angry for being the one who had to manage it all, listen to her cry in her sleep, and explain sometimes hourly why he wasn’t with us. But, in the end, I know we all did exactly what we should have done during that time.

Nine days later the mandatory evacuation from our neighborhood was lifted. With the fires still visible up the street on the hills we decided to give it one more night. I drove us back to Kenwood the next afternoon. So much had changed in the landscape and we hadn’t even gone through some of the worst areas. There was still police presence all over, even an armored car and fatigue-clad officer standing guard into one of the neighborhoods a few blocks from us. When we were reunited, there were tears and kisses, and the biggest group hug our little unit has ever had.

The next day, Thursday, October 19 was my birthday. We were home. I found my keys on the coffee table. Right where Aurora had left them after she made me a new key chain. The wind was gone, and even though it was only a light sprinkling, it rained.



In Our House We Call It A Riff


Yes, my husband is a drummer and we can hear him in his practice during the off hours not being an engineer. But in our house we have kitchen riffs too. Open the refrigerator, survey the contents, and weave them together to make harmony. Sometimes it works exceptionally well and occasionally we get a drag. It starts with the random assortment of produce, maybe there is a cup or so of beans, and then a little pasta or possibly rice. The majority of the time it ends up as soup. Carrot, celery, and onion are almost always a part of it. I learned the terrific trio underpinning of soup from my mom and grandma long before I knew it was mirepoix.

I‘ve been lucky to have a portion of my working life include recipe testing. And along with the specifics of the testing process itself, I have become a skilled grocery shopper. Knowing how to cut down on the number of trips to the store, optimize what is bought, without having too much leftover. But, even despite my best efforts, there are weeks that I have a random assortment of things unused, usually an abundance of an ingredient or two.

Depending on the projects I am working on, the amount of meat we eat varies the most. Generally, we are a highly plant-based family. However, with only a few exceptions, for now, I don’t say no to the traditional proteins. I aim to balance our diets. If we have a day or two with more meat than usual, then we have more meat free days to follow. The concept of meat-free Mondays is sort of the opposite for us. Some weeks it is meat only Monday.

This last week the highlights of what was leftover in the fridge were 1 pound of ground turkey thigh meat and almost 2 pounds of parsnips. The byproduct of a recipe I thought would be tricky, so I bought enough to make it three times and I nailed it on the first take. Also available was celery root, almost a full head of cauliflower, miscellaneous peppers, a big piece of ginger, garlic I had previously peeled, some fresh turmeric, and a couple of lemons. No surprise, there were also onions, carrots, celery and a couple of potatoes to work with.

Based on some dog eared magazine pages, a little internet searching, and a desire to make something out of my newest cookbook purchase Masala & Meatballs by Asha Shivakumar, I came up with our Sunday supper, something for the pantry, and something to give me a head start on the week.

Ginger Garlic Paste
Ginger Turmeric Tonic
Parsnip, Celery Root, and Cauliflower Soup
Mashed Curried Parsnip and Potatoes
Turkey Meatballs with Indian Spice

The Turtle

This is an adapted version of my eulogy for my father, Barry Walter Burlaga, given in February 2017.

As a way to remember our nation’s Bicentennial a Philadelphia radio station asked listeners to write in with stories of how they had celebrated it. This one was written by our dad and was read on the air.

A Most Memorable Summer

Amy and Sally, taken by Barry, summer of 1976

Amy and Sally, taken by Barry, summer of 1976

Like many I recall the bicentennial summer in my own special way. We lived with two smaller daughters on a tiny cobblestoned street in a colonial rowhouse we remodeled. Our block was home to “young urban professionals”, not yet so labeled, who really liked each other. Philadelphia had a delightfully liveable center city.

My company’s purge like most, was badly timed, and hurt our hard earned economic momentum and our spirit. But, that memorable summer my wife began a new career, while my two small sidekicks hiked me around the city so we could get acquainted and grow together. The city looks different sitting on the ground enjoying a puppet show, rather than from a lofty office. Block party food is as good as executive dining room fare. Real queens are as impressive in humility, as corporate royalty and would be kings.

Our lives changed in Philadelphia that summer because we learned a family needs inner direction, community and freedom. We became one of an endangered species, the American family. Philadelphia was a terrific place to live, and must be reclaimed from spoilers, manipulators and exploiters in high places and at sidewalk level, and returned with freedom from anxiety to families and communities.


A lot had changed for our family that summer. My dad left banking, my mom went back to work, and sister Sally and I needed to be taken care of with not a whole lot of money.

I don’t think it was one conscious decision, but rather a series of events that brought us to Dad realizing what his family really needed. Him. Specifically for him to actively participate in taking care of us. My parents bought a store in center city Philadelphia, and my dad framed pictures. We were there after school up until we moved to Beach Haven, New Jersey.

Barry was a big believer in things happening for a reason and listening to your gut.

When we moved, I was in sixth grade at Beach Haven Elementary School. It was a bit of a tough entry for me coming into such a tight knit class, but by the spring I had definitely made friends. Then softball season happened. All of my Beach Haven friends played for the Village Pub team. I signed up and was excited to play. Unfortunately the league decided they could not take one more sixth grade player because they were full. I was told I could play for the North Beach Haven team Sink R’ Swim. I didn’t want to, but my dad encouraged me multiple times, with a lot of tears. I am sure he said something about fate or something like that... I also heard him in his booming voice arguing with the coach about the ridiculousness of them not letting me play, and then trying to appeal to her by saying that the move hadn’t been so easy on me. Either way, it didn’t matter they wouldn’t budge and I went to play for Sink R’ Swim.

All things do happen for a reason. I met the girl that would be one of my best friends all through high school. Meeting her brought a whole new group of friends. Friends I probably never would have become so close with.

Years later, the same softball friend, having moved to the Florida Keys, was working on a scuba boat. She was making small talk with a pregnant passenger on the charter boat where she was working. Next thing I know I am sending her my resume and on my way to my first job in New York.  Dad only asked me once if I was sure I wanted to do it. And when I was said yes he said he would drive me to Queens where I would crash on a friend of a friend’s couch. When we got there, he gave me a hug and a kiss, told me to “THINK”, a very Barry thing to do. There I was starting one of the biggest adventures of my life.

Barry was not a quick guy. He thought about things A LOT. He deliberated. He weighed out his options. And always wanted to look at all possibilities. Honestly, it often drove me crazy. And we did butt heads. But, there was one day in particular that I really appreciated these qualities in my dad.

We were at a family event in Bucks County Pennsylvania. When it was over, and I don’t recall why, Sally and Mom went one way and Dad and I went the other. We ended up riding through Upper Black Eddy where he grew up. He started telling me stories about riding his bike through the hills with his friends, outdoor adventures, stuff I had never heard. It struck me as being very “Stand By Me” and I was totally into it. Because as honest and open with us as he was about a lot of things, he didn’t talk much about his childhood.

So here we are riding on a winding road and we both see something. He slows down, and crossing the road is the biggest land turtle I have ever seen. His shell had to have been at least 2-feet across! We were completely mesmerized watching this old timer cross the road. When another car was coming up, Dad flashed his lights, and they slowed down. So now there were two cars watching the very slow, very deliberate moves of this turtle crossing the road. It was one of the coolest things I ever watched. I talked with Dad about the path of the turtle, the fact that he was heading for a creek Dad knew was down below where we were riding, and speculating on just how old that turtle was.

The turtle wasn’t in a hurry. We weren’t in a hurry. This was now totally our turtle. We were completely invested in his journey and success. When he finally crossed the road, we had huge smiles. I think we even cheered a bit. Dad slowly started up the car and we were on our journey again. We stopped for ice cream, listened to the radio, and talked about his grandparent’s farm. That turtle really was so Barry. Slow and steady finishes the race. I gave him a little stuffed turtle for his birthday and it rode in his car until the stuffing came out.

A few years after that, I came home and announced at Thanksgiving I was moving to San Francisco. Again, he only asked once if I was sure I wanted to do it. On the day the movers showed up in Brooklyn, he drove up and gave me one of my most prized possessions. It was his childhood wagon. He completely restored it. New paint job and working lights. He made sure the movers got it on the truck and then sat with me on the front stoop while the rest of my possessions were loaded in.

Of course, there are many more stories and moments in time I will hold onto when I think about our dad, but these are some important ones for me. Sally wrote perfectly in the obituary that to remember our dad invest in your retirement and plant a garden. I would like to add one more. Look at some of my dad’s choices as examples of how to raise thoughtful and strong girls. And, likewise raise thoughtful and strong boys. Those two things don’t have to be independent of each other.

Barry, the gentle giant, was both thoughtful and strong and he taught Sally and I to do our best to be that way too.




All Roads Lead to Facendini Lane

This story was originally published on spoiledtoperfection.com, August 30, 2015


“Nobody really grows apples anymore.” These were the words my often crotchety, but very likeable 82-year-old Italian neighbor, Skip, barked at me when I recounted part of my morning visit with Ellen Cavalli of Tilted Shed. “There was a time I could tell ya who owned every orchard, and probably even who planted most of the god damned trees in Occidental and Sebastopol. Now, there’s nothing but (expletive) grapes.” (This, coming from the man who has at least one glass of wine, usually local, every night with dinner and afterwards with his biscotti.) When I told him I was going to Facendini Lane his grimace turned into a huge smile. I knew the mention of Facendini would lighten his mood from past stories he had shared with us. The lane was named for the two brothers that had lived there, who were also the father and uncle of his best friend.

With eighty plus years of living, about sixty-five of them right in the center of what were apple orchards, I can only imagine the changes he has seen, and understand and appreciate the sentiment about the overabundance of grapes. I love living in Sonoma County and am grateful, pretty much every day for finding such a special spot in the world to call home. But I can’t help echoing some of his feelings. Wine is everywhere, and the scale seems unfairly tipped in favor of the grapes when it comes to biodiversity.

I think this is part of the reason I was so taken by both of my meetings with Ellen. Her story resonated and inspired me. When she recounted the decision she and her husband made to leave New York City and live on a farm in New Mexico, but still maintain ties to the mainstream world, part of me wanted to run home and plan a trip to New Mexico. Somehow their decision to get away from the grind gave my own path some justification. Could it be possible to have an emotionally and financially viable career path that still keeps you honest, available to your family, and somehow connect with the land around you? Absolutely.

The golden ring of this merry-go-round is balance, something my Libran sensibility could definitely get behind. The thing to keep in mind, and I think what Ellen exemplifies, is balance can mean different things to different people, and even to the same person at different points during the year, or even their life. Sometimes it is seamless, but on most days it is a bumpy ride. And on most days you get tired, even wrung out. For Ellen, it could be having a bumper crop of apples, holding her son on one hip with one arm and chucking apples into the hopper of the press with the other. It could mean staying up until 2:00 am to meet an editing deadline in order to be ready to get in the car way too early to drive to an event. An event where you have to put on your best face and talk cider.

The morning I drove to Windsor to taste cider, Ellen looked tired, but she rallied and shared her cider knowledge and led me through a terrific tasting. We talked a bit about ourselves and among other things I told her about Skip. As we talked and tasted, we decided a wonderful way to showcase their ciders on the Spoiled to Perfection show was to have the final segment be a food pairing featuring some local products. This would exemplify Ellen’s philosophy of “what grows together goes together.” I went home and wrote up our ideas and passed them onto the team. They were all in! The director and producer decided we would shoot the pairing on the second day of the two day shoot at a communal table beautifully set up in the orchard of one of Tilted Shed’s growers.

When that second day of shooting arrived, I woke up invigorated. The conversation between Garrett, our host, and Ellen couldn’t have gone better the day before. So now it was all about a bit more conversation, a stroll through the orchard, and then the pairing. At my house, lunches were made, dinner was in the slow-cooker, and there was a new batch of homemade play dough ready for my daughter and her sitter for the day. Dare I say, I was feeling a bit cocky. As my family worked our way through the morning routine, things went south and I ended up leaving my very upset three-year-old daughter sobbing at the front door. She was in very capable hands, but I was conflicted as I drove west.

By the time I pulled into the preapproved crew parking spot on Facendini Lane a text revealed my girl was playing happily at home. Things were looking up, and I walked up the lane back on track. Pretty soon after I arrived, I met Laura the owner who had graciously agreed to share her orchard with us for the better part of the day. Apparently, Ellen had told her my Skip connection and Laura was very interested in knowing more about the history of her property and Facendini Lane. I didn’t know much, but I told her about Skip and his wife, and promised if I found out more I would pass it along.

Shooting began very well, but the unfamiliar sight in a drought-stricken California, of rain clouds overhead loomed. Are you kidding me? Rain? I know we need rain, but today of all days! The first bottle of cider was opened and the pairing was perfect. But, there was no question the rain was coming and the decision was made to cut the rest of the pairing segment short. (I would be remiss to not give a rundown of what had been planned. It follows this story.)

I drove home content and was met in the garage by my smiling girl. After dinner we pulled up chairs and visited with Skip in his driveway. I told him about my day on Facendini Lane and described the houses and properties I saw. When I told him about Laura’s orchard he told me, “That was always an orchard. In the 1950’s it was cherries, but the trees ended up diseased and they all came out." Skip was pretty sure that his friend Dino probably planted the majority of the apples on Laura’s property, some in the 50’s and some later. He said, “Old Dino use to make the holes for the trees with dynamite. We nicknamed him short fuse because he always ended up with stuff all over his face, and probably damn near blew himself up more than once.”

I love Skip’s old stories, and loved even more that once my daughter was in bed, I would email Laura to share with her. Just like balance, being connected is something we need to work at every day. Staying connected to our neighbors, our families, and our land takes work, but helps with balance and gives back ten fold when you let it.

The Rained out Pairing

Ellen and Scott have a wonderful network of local purveyors and friends. So it was a given that we highlight some of them in our pairing.

Gravival Semidry Cider

“The Gravenstein [apple] sparkles in this bright, crisp cider. The refreshing acidity is balanced with a touch of sweetness and barnyard funk… This is Sonoma County heritage in a bottle.”

This is the sweetest of Tilted Shed’s ciders, but is far from sweet. It pairs well with just about anything, from cheeses, to oysters, to Indian Food.

Cured salmon with fresh locally grown dill and black bread

Weirauch Farm & Creamery’s sheep’s milk cheese plate; Saint Rose, Mi-Ewe, and Primo Fresco

Inclinado Sidra-Style Cider

“California twist on a Basque sidra… bottle conditioned using fresh juice… to approximate the spritz made by the traditional long pour… dry, deliciously tangy yet restrained.”

This cider has a definite saline hit and pairs well with salty.

Pan seared padron peppers with Maldon salt           

Zazu’s assorted charcuterie plate; Sardegna, Sanguinacio, and Proscuito

Zaz u’s Rodeo Jax, bacon caramel popcorn

January Barbecue Smoked Cider

“… smoked… apples from our farm over oak, pear, and apple wood, then fermented and aged them with a base blend of fresh-pressed Sonoma County-grown traditional cider and heirloom apples… dry, astringent, slightly austere cider with a mellow smoky finish.”

Don’t let smoked in this fool you. Like all of Tilted Shed’s ciders, the flavors are definitely present, but balanced and subtle.

Marcona almonds

Homemade pickles by Joanna Badano (who also set the beautiful table) and Zazu

Gypsy Rose’s washed rind raw goat cheese

Barred Rock Barrel-Aged Cider

“A savory sipper… aged… in Tennessee bourbon barrels. Heady butterscotch on the nose… clove, amaretto, and vanilla notes.”

This cider is the perfect finish to a meal all on its own, but it pairs well with a variety of fruit desserts.

Fig tart

Assorted fresh fruits

* All descriptions written by Ellen Cavalli and appear on their website.

Leap of Faith, Kathleen Weber


My meeting with Kathleen Weber was set for a Friday morning. I had a two and a half month old daughter, and was sleep deprived and anxious. Why was I even doing this? My first real outing a week earlier (without my daughter in tow) to the grocery store had been a disaster. I backed my car into a pole in the parking lot. Now, there was the added stress of driving an unfamiliar rental car. I felt like I had no business even leaving the house, let alone trying to have a legitimate meeting. I was convinced there was no way I could do this job now, but my husband encouraged me to meet her and hear what she had to say. He reminded me that I had made great bread before, but I think he just wanted me to get out of the house for a while.

The café (Della Fattoria Downtown) was busy, but I picked Kathleen out right away. She was saying hello to guests and peeking at plates as they went by. The communal buzz of the room was infectious. There was a hug to a friend’s granddaughter, who then climbed on our table with a crust of bread for a few minutes. But never once did I feel like Kathleen wasn’t paying attention to me or that she didn’t appreciate my coming to see her. Within minutes there was a genuine connection between us and I knew I was in for it. I went from thinking no way to OK, maybe I could do a little for her over a couple of months.

Somehow by the time our second meeting was on the calendar, I decided one way or another I was going to take on this project, and still be home full-time with our daughter. When I pulled in the driveway of the Weber ranch, an industrial fork-lift of some sort was backing up to one of the freight containers. A pack of dogs came to greet me, and then were off running and barking at each other and the chickens.

I stood for a few minutes at my car, not quite sure where I was supposed to go. There are a bunch of different buildings on the property, and multiple walkways. I went through an arch with gourds hanging from it and made my way down a small slope by a funky circa 1970’s fireplace. Kathleen’s daughter was carrying a stack of stuff including what looked to be a cord to a power tool, but she still had enough of a free hand to warmly greet me and point me in the right direction.

Up the porch steps I went. There were a couple of crates with fresh vegetables in them, an antique hutch holding plates and a few books, a restaurant-style sink, and a stack of egg cartons. There were two screen doors. The one to my left clearly went into the bakery as I watched for a couple of minutes from a few paces back. When I turned towards the door to my right, I could see Kathleen’s big smile, looking at me out of the window.

Walking through that porch door reminded me of my childhood. The smell of good things happening in the kitchen. It looked like we were on track to work on a few loaves of bread together. That day I pretty much watched, all the while there were interruptions, dogs barking, and countless swinging of the two porch doors. Kathleen’s husband Ed was definitely working out a mental list of what was needed in town when he came in the room. Sea salt and some concoction for the goats that he had heard about from a nearby woman, who I took to be the local goat expert. He gave a brief, but very sincere welcome to me. Kathleen’s son asked about the menu for a ranch dinner, talked about his son’s baseball practice, and reached out his hand to shake mine, practically in one breath.

I stayed for about six hours, the longest stretch to date being away from my daughter. Even though I knew she was in good hands with her father that was all I was ready for. Kathleen understood why I was semi-distracted, but didn’t mind. I think at that point she had more confidence in me than I did. I drove home with two 50-pound sacks of flour, a borrowed clay pot, and some proofing baskets. I was thinking, love, life, food, and family are in constant motion at the Weber ranch. And as I drove over the hill, it became increasingly apparent that the Weber family and their business grew out of the bond of family, and quite literally out of their home. What life throws at them, they field, throw back to each other, and then out into their community.

Over the next year, I worked primarily at home, but made trips to the ranch to pick up supplies and to learn from Kathleen. We traded pictures back and forth. On average, I baked four days a week. The combination of working and being a new mom with no family nearby was challenging, and was the ultimate exercise in time management.

Bleary eyed, I weighed out all of the ingredients before I went to bed. Once the baby slept through the night, I started mixing the dough a few minutes before I knew she would wake up. The sponge could sit, while I gave her a bottle. As she grew, I got it down so that I could put her on the floor with some toys, and make a fold or shape the dough before she crawled, and eventually walked over to me. We both ended up with flour on our clothes and there were usually handprints on our black dog. I let her touch the starters and the dough, and every time she laughed. Eventually, I was able to time it so that the breads were going in the oven when she went down for a nap.

But not all days went according to plan. In fact, most in the beginning were more wrong than right. My kitchen was chaotic. I was holding my daughter on one hip with one arm and moving the countertop high-chair to make room for the flour bins with the other. The sponge sat longer. There was definitely more than one over-proofed bowl of dough as I tried to console a teething girl. But I rolled with it. Sometimes I had to fold the dough a few minutes early to make it out the door to get to the pediatrician. My quick-handed baby knew just when to maneuver and squeeze the end of the bâtard I thought was really well shaped. Soon enough the stretch of a toddler arm could reach and pull the linen and the shaped loaves down to the floor. But at the end of the day we still had homemade bread, albeit misshapen or overdone. I learned by repetition and as much from my mistakes as from my successes. And, during this special year of being able to work from home with my daughter, I became a bread baker. 

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.

How did you get here? Part Two, San Francisco


“We are all OK, but you have to get up.” Those are the words I heard through the phone on the morning of September 11, 2001. It was my sister.

Like so many, there are parts of that day that will replay over and over for the rest of my life. Thankfully, my dear friend I couldn’t find for the better part of that day was able to walk away, down the West Side Highway, until he was far enough away to cross town. He made it back to the apartment we shared for years. He will have memories and sadness from what he saw from his office window. The second plane crashing into the tower, I’m sure people jumping, other things he just won’t talk about. Yet somehow he is still in New York and back to work steps away from where the towers once were.

Part of me had guilt. It was the saddest time in so many people’s lives, but personally, I was happy, really happy. I wasn’t in New York, I had met my now husband, and soon after that day he proposed. He had already planned a different type of proposal that involved a trip to NJ with my family around. When 9/11 happened he was away working. He came home early, told me a lot of things I’m not going to share, and asked me to marry him. Nobody has ever loved me like that.

My working life had also taken a dramatic turn. The job I moved to San Francisco for lasted about a year. The writing was on the wall almost immediately, but the problems of the office principal aren’t worth recounting. I did try to show the New York office what was happening without completely spelling out someone else’s personal issues. I tried to present things in a matter of fact, dollar and cents, scenario. They weren’t ready to listen and did not have my back. And, if I am honest about it now, I didn’t have the kind of fight in me anymore to make it work. So I let it go. The office closed, and no, I wouldn’t be coming back to New York.

I believe with all my heart that job helped me. I made it to the West Coast, decided to take a part-time baking and pastry program at a small cooking school as an alternative to going to the bars to try to meet people. I didn’t like San Francisco when I first got here. I was lonely and I started my exit plan. One option was going to a full-time cooking school, and in order to do that, I would need current practical work experience. I took a weekend job delivering wedding cakes all over the city and in the surrounding Bay Area. It helped me get to know the region and slowly learn to love my new address.

After 6 months in San Francisco, I was a little less sad. I called a childhood friend. Our mothers had always kept in touch and we knew a lot about each other through them. We talked for a really long time and it felt good to know I had him nearby. A couple weeks later he had a birthday party. I wasn’t going to go, but thankfully I got out of my own head and decided not to be selfish. Going out that night wasn’t about me. I needed to figure out how to get there and celebrate my friend. So I picked out an outfit around my casual sneakers I could walk in; pair of corduroy Capri pants and my favorite China town ice cream factory T-shirt.

The party was a lot of fun. I planned to stay an hour or two and ended up being there all night. His former band mate, the drummer, gave me a ride home. After that ride home we talked on the phone every night for two weeks to try to coordinate a night to get together. Neither of us like the phone that much, but yet, here we were talking for at least an hour at a time. Finally, one awesome date finally came about before we both then went out of town. He made a ship to shore call from his family’s cruise. He told me he thought it was great that I could show up at a party in sweat pants. Meanwhile, they were so not sweat pants, and had been a splurge from a Manhattan boutique store. Didn’t matter, I was hooked. Yes, he is the one that eventually came home early to propose. But after the first date all I knew was I really liked him and maybe San Francisco was shaping up after all. As the months went on, he would be the someone who helped me talk through my next moves so I could gather the courage to change my life. 

How did you get here? Part One, New York

Yes, I had another career.

It had exciting elements, but all in all, still a pretty conventional career. For nearly a decade, I was all consumed by post-production editing houses. (We worked with advertising folks to put together their commercials.) I began by answering the phones for an office in midtown Manhattan on a totally historic block that had the Algonquin Hotel, the Harvard Club, and the headquarters of the New York Yacht Club. Then, about nine years later, I was the managing producer of a small San Francisco office that from its functioning roof deck had a view of the Transamerica building.

I started like many twenty-something’s of that time (early ‘90s). Moved away from home fairly impulsively not long after college, in my case to New York. I was working in Manhattan, but living in the outer borough of Queens, and taking a long subway to and from work. My hours were pretty much endless, and I made so little money starting out that I took a cash advance on my credit card to get going. I was lucky enough to be staying on the couch of friends of a friend for free, but I still needed to make money.

This first apartment was in the flight path of the airports, and the two cats that lived there always seemed to be in heat, but the woman who gave me a place to live I still remember as the most kind-hearted, benevolent woman I have ever met. A teacher who was always volunteering, speaking out for what she believed in and for those that needed a strong voice. She was truly a gentle, but powerful force. Someone I wish in hindsight I had spent more time with.

My second apartment was a two bedroom shared with seven flight attendants. One of them took 2 ½ hours to get ready, no matter what time she had to leave for her flight. She literally separated her eyelashes with a safety pin after applying mascara. Most of the time I had the place to myself. It did motivate me to get to the gym that came with the rent a few times. I hardly went. The bulk of my life revolved around “the office”.

Where I lived really didn’t matter much. One way the higher ups kept us happy and productive was to supply all food. Big baskets of bagels and muffins were put out in the morning. Lunch orders were taken for clients, and staff tagged theirs on to the restaurant(s) of choice for the day. There were countless snacks on the shelves in the kitchen and an entire refrigerator designated to beverages. If you worked late there was no over-time, unless you were an assistant, about three steps up from where you started out. The added carrot to working late then was dinner was paid for, and if it was past 10:00 you got a car service home. Sort of like college all over again with trying to avoid the freshman fifteen, but this time there was the addition of little to no sunlight.

As I moved up in the ranks, I changed offices, and moved into Manhattan with a great friend, but I started to really dislike advertising. Don’t get me wrong, for a while there were things about it that were very cool. Famous people came in to do voice-overs and the commercials were all over the popular television shows, including the Super Bowl. Most of my friends were the people I worked with and I was starting to make money. I could pay off my credit cards, buy nicer clothes and shoes, and eventually even get my own apartment. There were waves of happy times, but after about five years, there was a daily thought of, how do I get out of this? Or what will I do next? I remember sitting in a meeting thinking if I had to ooh and ah over one more cheese pull (that’s what you call that stretch of cheese when a piece of pizza is lifted from the full pie.), I might run screaming from the room.

There were Friday announcements of all hands on deck. The ad agency that brought us the majority of their work needed to do the preliminary pitches for a new campaign. For me that meant another weekend of doing anything from multiple estimates of costs to running to a steak house to pick up dinner, because it had to be that steak and they didn’t deliver. I was far enough up the ladder that I could certainly send an apprentice, but I was happy to get out. I think it kept me from losing it. The truth was I had already lost it. The “it” was me. It would be great if I could now say that I recognized all of this back then, had that ah ha moment, and made a move at this point. But, I wasn’t strong enough to have that Working Girl moment. At least, not yet.

In 1999, I was dealt a life-changing card and I knew it. I am a big believer that in life we are presented with opportunities, call them lucky breaks, fate, the universe, whatever. The point is, you have to be tuned in enough to notice when it happens, and more importantly be ready to act on it. Then once you have it, work, work, work, and then work even harder to pull it off. If you don’t there are a handful, sometimes a truck load full, of people behind you that will.

The high-profile office where I was working was known for its Super Bowl spot prowess. They had expanded past New York, to Los Angeles, and then to San Francisco. The partners were planning a visit to hire a manager for the San Francisco office. They had hopes of growing the office and capitalizing on the then booming .com and biotech companies that were everywhere in advertising. Interviews were lined up with local producers in the Bay Area. The night before they were set to leave, I called each of the three partners to tell them I wanted to be considered for the job. I only spoke to two of them, but I knew it would be discussed on the way out before they met any other candidates, probably giving me an unfair advantage. It really wasn’t a calculated move, but once I made the calls, it was out there. This was in mid November.

I broke the news that I was moving to San Francisco to my family over Thanksgiving and I was there by January. It was 2000, a new millennium, and the beginning of the new, well, really, the “me” that was always there, just waiting to come out.

What is it you do?


It doesn’t take long when you meet someone new to get to the inevitable question, “What is it that you do?” For me, there is not a simple answer and for pretty silly reasons, usually makes me feel anxious. Partially, it is because I don’t like talking about myself. But, primarily, it is because I do a lot of different things depending on what path my freelance life has taken in a given week. Trying to explain this to someone I have just met usually results in me running my hand through my hair, a nervous habit pointed out to me years ago that I can’t help but notice, and now usually only adds to my nervousness. Then I say I work in food. Nine times out of ten the next question is, “are you a chef?”

My answer to that is a definite no. When I start to explain what I do, it can be hard to focus in. Often there are too many details and an inevitable jumbling of subjects. This is the point where I begin to get self-conscious. As I get older, I care less, but part of me still cares what people think. And, the thought of looking scattered and/or unfocussed, two things that I definitely am not, drives me nuts. I am organized to a fault when it comes to work, and I pride myself on my ability to put my head down and work harder than anyone else in the room on whatever is required to get the job done.

So, in a nutshell, I work in food media. Primarily, I do recipe testing, writing, and organizational work for cookbooks. But, I have been a line producer for a few TV cooking series and also do consulting work on other food related projects. Occasionally I do cook and bake for hire and I toy with the idea of a small shop. And, in the past few years I have had the awesome addition of being a stay at home mom. I slowed down a bit when my daughter was born, but I didn’t stop working.