Setting Intentions: “Everyone’s Welcome” Was 28 Years in the Making
Not only am I elated that Everyone’s Welcome officially comes out today because it’s a project that myself, my agent, my publisher, designer, and (more recently) PR team worked on for over two years, but because I’ve been working towards and looking forward to this moment my whole life.
I strongly believe that if you set a personal intention, put it out there for the world to know, and hold yourself accountable, you can achieve it. Creating a collection of delicious, beautiful recipes for others like myself to enjoy has always been a goal of mine, and one that I have been shouting loud and clear to everyone I meet for as long as I can remember.
90’s allergy life
This is a snippet from my mom’s “allergy file”, a monstrous case of articles, photocopied information, pamphlets, school letters, and recipes. I was born in 1990, before the internet was available in every home, so this was the equivalent of her Pinterest board or bookmarks bar. My mom would filter through newspapers and magazines for recipes she thought we’d enjoy, then mark up the substitutions in the margins. Baking and cooking with my parents was an activity that I absolutely loved. We always talked about how awesome it would be if I wrote my own cookbook for people with food allergies.
Food is my greatest passion; I found myself inspired at every turn. If my dad was cleaning sardines, I was at his side cleaning them too. If my mom was at the grocery store, I was diligently by her side picking out ingredients. And when mom fell asleep during our Friday movie nights, I’d wander into the kitchen and sneakily experiment with chocolate confections. That’s actually how I got one of my first cooking burns. Removing a shallow bowl of hot raspberries from the microwave while standing on a dining chair was a lesson in kitchen safety, and probably gave my sleeping parents a heart attack.
[pictured above] The first time I “entertained” was after reading a picture book about a bunny who threw a Valentine’s Day party for her friends. I had to do the same! Not yet permitted to use the stove at that age, I assembled a heart-themed brunch for my family and left paper hearts trailing down the stairs, leading to the kitchen. Seeing how much everyone enjoyed this special meal made me feel so wonderful inside. It felt good to make others feel good through food. That emotion is what still drives me to this day; I like to make people feel welcome and taken care of.
My older brother was my most adamant and supportive taste tester. We’d wake up on Saturday mornings and pursue our ritual of cartoons and breakfast. I had a penchant for making quick pickled vegetables, stuffed tomatoes, and things with tuna. Our sibling specialty, “tree in a forest tuna” (a leafy celery heart with tuna packed in olive oil, and quick pickled veggies with herbs), was something we always looked forward to, and thought the name was hilariously appropriate.
Around that age (8 - 10) I was starting to have difficulty with eczema on my face, and noticing that my allergies made me different than the other kids. But when I was in the kitchen none of that mattered; I was in my happy place.
My Grandma bought me a blank cookbook so that I could organize my recipes which up until that point had been scrawled on slips of paper and sticky notes. I asked for recipes that I loved from family members, like this recipe for pound cake that I got from my Nonna.
When we finally got The Food Network, my life was changed. I could now watch cooking shows all the time, and not just when they were on PBS. I was glued to the TV, as “stand and stir” cooking shows filled the daily roster back then. Every plate that left the kitchen had a rim of dried parsley flakes. Iron Chef was still the original version from Japan (I loved it), and there weren’t really any other cooking game shows aside from the campy Ready Set Cook. Because of the format of shows at that time, I was able to learn so many kitchen skills, terms, and techniques from each different host. And I loved them all, but Emeril was one of my favorites. My mom, best friend, and brother lined up patiently with me for three hours to meet him at Indigo Richmond Hill when I was in the third grade.
Soon I was making my own whole wheat and type 00 pizza dough, and making stacks of pancakes for family brunch on the weekends. My parents took pictures of my meals because they were determined that one day I would indeed write a cookbook! We even filmed a few cooking segments on our video camera.
When I moved into residence for university, cooking was how I made friends. Brewing big pots of sauce and platters of pasta was how I connected with other people, despite being a bit nervous to cook for unfamiliar faces. But learning about other people’s food preferences only helped to expand my way of thinking about food. Not everyone was from the same place as me, or liked the same flavors or spice levels as my family. It was a new challenge!
One thing I had wanted to do since high school was learn photography. For my convocation present, my parents rewarded me with a Canon DSLR T6. I remember my dad telling me that I had better find a way to make some money with it (jokingly, but not really). I started a Tumblr blog and began practicing food photography every single day. Even if it was just one quick snapshot, I made sure I used my camera daily. I am really lucky to have some close friends who are stars at photography and offered me so much help and advice, like buying studio lights, a flash diffuser, and white boards.
Later that year, I found myself working at Scholastic, where I was able to learn a lot about the publishing process and where to begin. In 2013, I was signed by an agent and a publisher was interested, but needed to see my food photography skills. Immediately I began planning my portfolio shots and called in sick to work the next day so I could make it happen. Karrie came over to show me how to use a photo editing program on the fly, and the portfolio was only 4 final photos! These heart cookies were one of them.
My first book came out in 2015. It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my career. Not only as a creative, but in terms of communication, finding my style, and knowing my identity.
I already had many recipes written, but maintaining consistency and quality through 100+ photos was a totally new endeavor for me. I didn’t even own any photography props! It was literally like starting from scratch.
These are the first few of 100+ photos in Allergen-Free Desserts.
And these are the last few photos I took for that book. I knew my skills and understanding of photography had improved greatly, and I felt proud of the fact that I could see my progression as I flipped through its pages.
When I signed with K2 Literary and Touchwood Editions a couple years ago, I knew I was joining an incredible team. We worked so hard on this book, together. We had a shared vision, and knew the book was going to look wild and quirky and bold. I poured my soul into it, and a lot of sweat. I ate so much avocado in order to narrow down my top “9 Ways To Eat an Avocado”. We developed something that goes beyond recipes, it’s a window into the lifestyle of a person with food allergy. The emotional and social aspects, how to prepare for travel, restaurants, how to shop, how to approach cooking without feeling completely overwhelmed. It’s the kind of book that I would have devoured as a kid growing up with food allergy.
Ultimately, it’s a book about making food inclusive for everyone.
I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed working on it. It’s a labor of love and a gesture of giving, from my kitchen to yours.