She went from working long hours in the very demanding restaurant business in New York City & Chicago, to taking small, but deliberate steps towards building her personal brand.
She’s the author of 6 digital cookbooks. One of her books, DOLCI – Simply Delicious Italian Desserts is a visual onslaught on the senses, in a most delicious way! She’s been the resident chef on the nationally-syndicated radio show “On the House with the Carey Brothers”, creator and producer of her TV show Delicious Discoveries with Daniella Malfitano, and is a private chef with Top City Chefs & Hands on Gourmet in the Bay Area, leading culinary events at businesses like Google, Twitter & Facebook.
Daniella told me about her most vulnerable professional moment and how she turned it into an opportunity to take the first step towards building her personal brand. This one step led to a segment on a nationally-syndicated radio show! Cookbooks & a TV show followed. She also told me about the experience of writing her first digital book & the hardest part about working for yourself (and how she tackles this!).
Here’s the longer, audio version:
10 of the most interesting segments below:
What’s one thing you learned at The French Culinary Institute in New York (now The International Culinary Center) that you practice to this day?
There’s two things I remember. The first is about how to keep your food clean. I remember taking an onion and a cantaloupe, and putting it straight from the box onto the cutting board. One of my instructors said “Stop! What’re you doing?” You need to remember to wash the outside of your produce before you put it on the surface, otherwise the bacteria will get into the food you’re slicing into. For an onion, never chop right into it. Peel a little off the bottom, a little off the top and then slice it. That will keep the bacteria off the food.
Second, I learned grace. My very first instructor Chef Henry taught us how to receive compliments and criticism on our food, our art. He taught us how to own our talent.
You’ve worked at restaurants in Chicago and New York City. You told me about the long hours and the demands of working in the restaurant business.
Can you think of one particular day that was especially frustrating for you?
I could tell you a million times, a million moments where I felt like I wanted to quit.
At Thomas Keller’s restaurant Per Se in New York City, it’s all about service and getting things exactly right. You’re doing, what we call a dance in the dining room. Everyone is working together, to execute to perfection. One day I was having a hard time with foot placement. You have to place the food down at the exact right moment with everyone else who is serving with you. Eventually, I figured it out. But I remember feeling really bad about that, and feeling like I wasn’t ever going to be good enough.
What was one of the best days on the job?
While I was working at Per Se, I met Martha Stewart. I’m a huge Martha Stewart fan. She asked me for a glass of water & I couldn’t even speak, so that was hilarious!
But one of the best days for me was when I was working as a line cook at Prune restaurant in New York City. Gabrielle Hamilton, the owner of Prune, is an amazing chef and owner. One day, I had had a really long day. I was working late doing prep work for the next day. She needed this rare spice that she wanted me to go find. And I basically said to her – I don’t know if it’s possible. She said, no, no, go out and find it, see what you can do.
I spent two and a half hours on the streets, going in and out of little bodegas and spice shops, all over the Lower East Side. And I finally found it. When I arrived back, she had already left for the day. But she left me a note near my chef coat that said, “Good work today. XO, GH”. I was so amazed at her acknowledgement of my hard work, because it was even before I had bought her the thing she had asked for. It meant a lot to me, I still have that note. The spice was file. It’s a spice for gumbo.
After a few years of working as a line cook & server in the restaurant world, you made the decision to work independently. You looked for opportunities to build the Daniella Malfitano brand – with your books, your radio show & your TV show.
Tell me about the time you decided you were going to make this change. What was the first active step you took in that direction?
It was the most vulnerable moment in my career. I had been let go from a job I really loved. I thought then, that this job really defined me and I was depressed for a long time. After months of just being sad about it, I wanted something to change.
One day I was listening to the radio and thought to myself, I’ve always been interested in radio. And I had a hit, a moment where I said to myself – why don’t I go after it? My dad has known The Carey Brothers (who host the nationally-syndicated radio show “On the House”) for a long time. I called him up and said, “Can I call James Carey to have him answer some questions on how he got his start?”
I went in to do an informational interview with James Carey, who’s been a very successful radio host with his brother Morris, for over 30 years. I was doing this interview when suddenly he turned the “On Air” sign on! They are in every state across the United States! I couldn’t see it because my back was turned to it. He asked me to give him a recipe and something in me totally turned on. I spouted out this recipe and we were talking and laughing – it was an amazing moment! We went to commercial break and he said to me, “You’ve got it. Will you come back and be a part of our show?” It all started from that moment.
I became the resident chef on their nationally-syndicated radio show “On The House”. For a year I had my own segment “Delicious Discoveries.”
Tell me about the experience of writing your first cookbook.
I went to the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, with the whole team from the radio show. We bumped into the publisher for Cuilnart Media, Mr. Peter Dombrowski. James Carey introduced me to him and we really hit it off. I told him about my experiences working in Chicago and New York.
We stayed in touched and one day he called & asked me if I would be interested in testing out & authoring a cookbook for us? I said absolutely! This became my first book -“Cook Italian with Daniella Malfitano”. I call it the “angel of all work projects” because it was this opportunity that lead me to the next.
I worked on it for several months. I took a few hundred recipes and narrowed it down to the best 60. I went through each recipe and made sure that every word – the way we talked about certain preparation and technique – was exactly the way I wanted it to be. Once I got through the writing, I moved on to the video work. “Cook Italian with Daniella Malfitano” is an interactive, digital cookbook with recipes, awesome color photography, an interactive kitchen timer that pops up, as well as videos for certain recipes.
It came out in March of 2012. James Carey sent me a snapshot of what it looked like, the day it came out on the iTunes store. And he sent me a message that said – “You should remember this moment.” I was really proud.
That’s great. You started out with “Cook Italian with Daniella Malfitano”, and there are 5 more books that followed. Do you test out each recipe that goes into a cookbook?
We have a team of people that do most of the testing in a big commercial kitchen. If I find something funny while editing the recipes, then I go test it out too. Also, the cool thing about digital cookbooks is that if there’s anything that doesn’t quite work, we can easily change it. We’ve taken people’s feedback, edited a specific recipe and sent them an updated version of the book.
The digital books are priced at $4.99. If you compare it to similar print book that can be bought for $15-$30, these books are a lot more affordable. How do you determine the pricing?
Digital books are an opportunity to keep our prices low. Sometimes, you spend upwards of $50 on these really elegant cookbooks that have beautiful photography. They can cost a lot because of the paper, the ink and the production costs. We can cut those costs significantly with the digital format. But you will still get the same amazing photography. In addition, there are the videos, an interactive kitchen timer, the “informational i”s that you can press to get more information while you’re working on the recipe. For example, it will give you the culinary definition of “What is a kaffir lime leaf?” or “What is agave nectar?”
On your TV show “Delicious Discoveries with Daniella Malfitano” that aired on PBS, you showcased local farmers and growers in each episode.
What about locally grown foods excites you? Why is it important to you?
It really gives a voice and story to the people who are producing and growing our food. They very rarely get an opportunity to be in the spotlight. And people want to know: How is our rice grown? Who harvests it? Why did a whole family dedicate their life to growing blueberries?
Every episode we shot had an impact. It changed me, it changed the team. It changed everything about the way I cook and how I see food growers.
One specific episode, if I had to pick one, is the visit to Pedrozo Dairy & Cheese Co. which was an amazing story to tell. We got to sit with the cows, milk them, then take the milk to the Cheese Room and make cheese! Once you get your hands in there and do it yourself, it gives you a different perspective about why they do this work. It’s about love. They love being on the farm, they love their animals, they love producing food and seeing how much joy people get out of it.
You conduct private cooking lessons as well as organize cooking events for businesses in the Bay Area. One thing I’m curious about – how do you identify a topic for a cooking lesson?
It’s a great question. It really depends on what month we’re in, what holidays are around the corner. A lot of the times I do the “Farmer’s Market Finds” class, which is a concept that was created by Big City Chefs, a company that I work with. It’s a concept where I decide the menu after I’ve gone to a farmers market. I pick out products that are local and seasonal; I pick out locally-produced meat, bread, butter or cheese.
Sometimes, I have clients that want to know all about Italian cooking, or Vietnamese food or Thai food – some form of regional cooking. These are a big hit.
What would you say has been the most challenging thing about being an independent chef?
The hardest thing about working for yourself and developing your own brand, is the inconsistency. Some days there’s so much work, other days you feel like you’re in a barren desert. And then the very next day, you’re back on.
After Delicious Discoveries went on air and people had watched the episodes and loved them, things started to quiet down. I thought to myself, is this it? Will nobody ever hear of Delicious Discoveries again? Then one day, the Food Network contacted me and said, we want you on our show Guy’s Grocery Games, will you audition? It’s been 8 years since I’ve been cooking professionally, and each day has been a wild ride.
No matter what, I’m always teaching. At this stage in my career, I’m here to be of service to people in the form of educating people about where our food comes from, how to use it and enjoy it. If I had just kept my focus on the cookbook writing and the show, I would have lost my footing with my clients and my cooking.