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.