I was a corporate lawyer. Please keep reading. After all, I write about food for a living now, so this story has a happy ending. Here's how I got from there-lawyer (misery incarnate)-to here-writer (bliss).
I can't say exactly how I came to be a lawyer. It seemed like one day I was in college, drinking, attending class in between keg parties, and then, I was in law school. I don't think I gave it that much thought. You see, I come from a family where it was made clear early on that my name would eventually be followed by punctuated capital letters: J.D., M.D., Ph.D, M.B.A. You get the idea. (I've been through lots of therapy, believe me.)
Since I couldn't fathom medical school (I saw chemistry as that indefinable spark between a man and a woman, not a class involving test-tubes and nitrogen), and I knew I could write well, I figured law school might be okay, and so I applied, got in, and then, there I was. And actually, it was great. I loved the intellectual challenge of it all, and I was hoping to work at legal services, to help the indigent, to do something that would make me feel as though my life had a higher purpose than finding that perfect pair of jeans. And when I somehow managed to graduate second in my class (who knew?), the offers started pouring in. Offers from big firms, with big money, and big prestige. I'll admit it: I was seduced. Jobs at legal services would barely cover my drinking budget, and I guess I just couldn't see turning down what I thought would be a great notch on my resume. I thought I would be able to write my ticket after a couple of years at a Big Firm.
And so I took a job as an associate in Mergers & Acquisitions at Shearman & Sterling, a big firm with a white shoe reputation that offered six-figure salaries to first year associates. From day one I knew it was the wrong decision. S&S was filled with misery. The work was D-U-L-L, dull. No one smiled. There were meetings about when to have more meetings. Women wore sensible shoes, and blouses with high collars. The men looked constipated and used phrases like "the fullest extent of the law" with alarming regularity. I was working crazy hours, questioning the meaning of life, and living on a steady diet of wine, bar snacks, and assorted emotionally unavailable men. After a year and a half of that overripe hell, I decided that rather than impale myself on a cluster of unwound paper clips, I would move to a smaller firm that I hoped would inspire a love of the law I had discovered in law school. It didn't. But what it did inspire was a love of food.
I figured I had a nice salary, so I might as well eat well. It seemed I could always find a talented chef to satisfy me with his cooking (and occasionally with more). But other than my ability to eat (and drink) well, I felt trapped by a degree, by a life I had somehow created for myself that was so far from what I wanted. I was close to hitting rock bottom. I was coasting, most of the time hungover, wondering how things would change; how I would find my way out of a career that was as satisfying as a rice cake after a day of fasting. I was in quick sand, spinning in butter, going nowhere fast.
And here's where our story gets better. I decided to join Share Our Strength, a national anti-hunger organization. I had attended a couple of their food and wine benefits-grand soirees with the hottest and most talented chefs feeding hoards of fabulous people to raise money to feed those who rarely have the opportunity to eat. Since practicing corporate law made me feel like a soul-free reptile most of the time, I figured the change would do me good. After all, I went to law school to try to change the world. All I had managed to change was my hair color (increasingly gray) and the circumference of the dark circles under my eyes (larger and rounder every week). With SOS, I'd be able to help the needy, and as a bonus I'd get to rub elbows with New York's most famous chefs and restaurateurs (nirvana).
And so I threw caution to the wind. On a cold, bright, New York winter night, I left my office earlier than I should have and headed to the first SOS event-planning meeting. I was alone and nervous, like a little kid on the first day of school with no one to sit with in the lunchroom. The room was filled with people. There was Danny Meyer, Michael Lomanaco, Drew Nieporent-restaurant industry big wigs I had read about but never met in the flesh. Milling about were about a dozen other people that looked a lot more important than me, but they welcomed me into the group. I signed up for the restaurant planning committee. I felt a hint of life stirring inside me. I knew something was happening. Maybe I would find a way out of nowhere and find a place somewhere.
In 1999, two years after joining SOS as a volunteer, I knew I had to make a change. I was becoming more enamored with food, dining, and the restaurant business and I was turning 30. Honestly, I was sick of listening to myself complain about my plight. I had gotten to know Drew Nieporent pretty well through SOS, and when I told him of my interest in working in the restaurant business, he offered me a job in management training at Tribeca Grill, and so I took a deep breath, quit my job, said goodbye to my six-figure salary, my windowed office and my amazing secretary. Soon, I was learning the ins and outs of customer service and front of house management. After six months, I got an offer to help open Isla, a Cuban restaurant my friend Beatrice Stein (a very talented restaurant consultant- beatricesteinconsulting.com) was opening. She brought me on and gave me a crash course in everything from payroll to inventory. It was official. I was in the business.
But, after a few months at Isla (there were issues), and year and a half at Miracle Grill, I was again unsettled. I loved food, wine, cooking, eating, drinking, dining, the whole bit, but I wasn't really doing much of it working 15 hours a day running a restaurant. I longed for a creative way to express my love for food. I thought about trying my hand at food writing, but I had no experience. I knew no editor in their right mind would hire someone without clips. I was starting to feel lost all over again.
And then I saw an ad in the New York Times . It was a contest seeking essays on "Why You Chose a Career in the Restaurant Business." I figured I could handle that. After all, I had a fun story, and I could write. So I told my story-the tale of a disenchanted young lawyer infatuated with food who left her job to work in the business-and sent it in. A few weeks later a certified letter arrived informing me that I had won second place. (Clearly only one other person entered the contest.)
And then, about a month later, I got a call from a woman named Paula Disbrowe. She said she was one of the judges of the contest, and was the Food Editor at Restaurant Business Magazine. She told me that she loved my story, and thought I wrote really well. She asked me if I might consider a position they had available for an Associate Food Editor. I asked her if she had the wrong number. I was in shock. An associate food editor? Me?
Well, as it turns out, yes.
And that is how a corporate lawyer becomes a food writer.
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