With her third cookbook soon to hit shelves, we spoke to Victoria Dwek to learn how she turned her childhood passion into a successful career.
Kelly Jemal Massry
“I always tell people that you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do. Just be in the game and one opportunity will follow another. I did plan to be a writer, but I didn’t plan to be writing cookbooks.”
So says journalist-turned-cookbook author Victoria Dwek, who first began her career at this very magazine. While completing her graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College (where she went on to receive an MFA in Creative Writing) and her seminary course load in Judaic studies, Victoria freelanced for Community. It was the first of many fortuitous accidents.
From Community to Ami
“I never considered journalism,” says Victoria, who’s now written for several publications. ”Right after Community first launched, a friend gave them something I had written, and Jack Cohen [the magazine’s founding editor] gave me my first assignment.”
If her tone sounds brisk and matter-of-fact, it’s because that’s Victoria’s manner. She is a doer, a micro manager, ever-ambitious, and always thinking ahead. A freelancing position would never do permanently, and yet it had sparked something inside her. This was going to be her field.
After graduate school, Victoria landed her first full-time journalistic position. As the editor of The Angel Fund, she wrote, edited and solicited articles on a range of subjects. She later scaled back her work to start her own marketing company and a family. “Purple Brand” coincided with the birth of her first child, and involved content marketing for various businesses and organizations, work which occupied her from 2006 to 2010. She loved the creativity inherent in making brochures and advertising copy – but with time, even that venture got laid to rest. Through a maze of coincidence, another opportunity presented itself.
Rechy Frankfurter, her future employer, was working for HaModia, when one of its writers interviewed her father-in-law. “My daughter-in-law is a writer,” Rabbi Dwek said. “Make sure she reads it.” Read it she did, and then went on to dispute edits. Rechy was so impressed with her acumen and tenacity that, years later, while working for Mishpachamagazine, she called Victoria to try to convince her to write again. After having launched her own marketing company, she wasn’t sure she wanted to return to journalism. She agreed to try, and it was among the best decisions she ever made. In fact, it would transform her career and make way for everything that came after.
A few months into her tenure at Mishpacha, Rechy launched Ami Magazine and recruited Victoria to be managing editor. The position became an absolute dream when she asked her to specifically man the food pages – the section that became Whisk Magazine. Of course she said yes! What could be better than combining her hobby and career – her twin passions for food and writing?
A Job and a Hobby
Victoria is self-taught in the kitchen. “I never cooked before I got married,” she says. “Unlike other brides, I didn’t ask my mother for any recipes.” She decided early in her marriage that she didn’t want to simply replicate the dishes she grew up eating, and she also decided that she was going to make learning to cook a personal mission. “I needed to prove to myself that I could cook and entertain just as well as people who weren’t working. I wasn’t going to be less of a homemaker because I worked.”
Victoria took to the enterprise with her characteristic diligence and innovation. She scoured cookbooks, trying out new dishes during the week and saving the best for company. As she experimented, her repertoire grew – along with her confidence. “With every recipe you try there’s a new technique or flavor combination that becomes part of your culinary education,” she shares. Because she is a perpetual student, combing her resources in whatever form they come in, Victoria found her job and her hobby inevitably blending. “Once I became editor at Whisk I was interviewing tons of people, and learning something from each one,” she remarks. “I got to hang out in commercial kitchens and pick the brains of a lot of professional chefs. From writing about food, I learned about food.”
Indeed, as a contributing writer for Whisk – she writes the weekly feature column in addition to managing the recipe columnists – she’s had some remarkable adventures on assignment. “Recently, I ate gluten-free for a couple of weeks just so I could write about the experience,” she begins. “I visited Kitchen Arts and Letters on the Upper East Side and went into their basement to explore old, out-of-print cookbooks from the last century. I’ve been behind the scenes at a wedding, watching how caterers prepare [for guests]. I’ve been in each one of Pomegranate’s kitchens to see how every product they sell is prepared.” She continues, “I’ve gone to the Union Square Farmer’s Market with Chef Jeffrey Nathan to learn culinary secrets about every fruit and veggie. I organized and covered a ‘Holiday Wars’ competition between Prime Grill chefs. I visited the Tofutti Lab to see how the non-dairy products are created. This month, I’m going to the kitchen of a Southern Jew to learn the kosher versions of Southern cooking. Her family has lived in Memphis for generations and as wealthy landowners, they used to trade recipes with the slaves. The slaves didn’t soak their chicken in buttermilk before frying; they couldn’t afford it. The Jews adopted their secrets for getting crispy fried chicken without using any dairy.”
Victoria relishes her work as a food columnist and magazine editor. As a writer, she is more than just a scribe of experience – she forms deep relationships in the process. It’s no surprise, then, that she met her cookbook co-author, Leah Schapira, on the job. The founder of CookKosher.com, Leah is also one of the recipe columnists for Whisk, and the two foodies spent hours on the phone together brainstorming ideas for the magazine. It helped that Victoria edited Leah’s first cookbook, Fresh and Easy Kosher Cooking. One a Sephardic Jew of Syrian descent, the other an Ashkenazic Jew of the Hungarian Chassidic tradition,they struck a rapport, in spite of their differences. “The Hungarian ladies are very shaatra too,” Victoria acknowledges. “We have very different backgrounds, but the culture clash is what makes our writing interesting.”
Leah and Victoria use Google Docs to communicate – “You want to write a book with someone? Use Google Docs!” she advises – and designed a smooth, efficient system by which they work. They develop the recipes together, talking them through, trying them out and then coming together again to discuss. Once the recipes are ready to go to print, Victoria will do most of the writing and editing, leaving Leah to take care of logistics: scheduling the food photographer, dealing with the publicist, and working with the graphic designer. The two shop for photo props and prepare the food for the photo shoots together. .
Though she is an undeniable asset to their two-person team, Victoria will tell you that the “Made Easy” cookbooks were Leah’s brainchild. “She was always upset that people couldn’t afford her first cookbook,” she explains. “She wanted to make cookbooks that were accessible to everyone. Last year, she told me that ArtScroll wanted a Pesach cookbook and we would be writing it. If it was successful it would be the first in the series.”
Successful it was. Passover Made Easy, published last February, was followed this August by Starters and Sides Made Easy. Forthcoming are Kids Cooking Made Easy, which will be out in October in time for Hanukah, and Dairy Made Easy, which conveniently hits stores before Shavuot.
All the “Made Easy” cookbooks follow the same format: 60 kosher recipes comprised of readily available ingredients and explained in easy-to-follow steps. Each recipe is accompanied by full-color photos and helpful sidebars – plating and serving suggestions, an in-depth spice guide, even “ahead” tips to keep the reader organized. The recipes are triple-tested, cooked by Victoria and Leah over and over again – “it’s only natural, if we love them,” Victoria says. Most are original creations, with the only prevailing requirement being simplicity. “Good food doesn’t need a ton of ingredients,” Victoria claims. “That doesn’t make it gourmet. What does Made Easy mean? Something you can freeze or prepare in advance so you don’t have to worry about it that day. If you’re entertaining, you should not be stressed. But Made Easy also can mean a side dish you can prepare fresh in just five minutes. If it has to be fresh, you want it to be fast.”
For Victoria, cooking is a stress reliever. “It’s very therapeutic to begin chopping onions after a long day at the computer,” she quips. “I love to entertain. My favorite thing in the world to do is make a menu.” Pairing foods together, bringing it all to life, having people around her table to eat and enjoy…that’s what makes Victoria happiest.
But even then when the table is set and the food is out, even when the recipes are written, edited and set to print – she looks to improve. “Today my company has to work harder than they used to,” she jokes. “They used to be able to just come and eat. Now they have to come, eat and give constructive criticism. Guinea pigs have responsibilities!”
Along with Leah Schapira, Victoria has brought her commitment to good food and good writing to community stores. The Made Easy cookbook series can be purchased, with a list price of $15.00, at Mekor Judaica, Eichler’s, Kitchen Caboodles, and wherever Jewish books are sold. We at Community will continue to follow Victoria’s career and salute whatever she does next.