Many of us dream of what might have been. What if we had, say, gone to veterinarian school, continued practicing piano, joined the Peace Corps, or opened an independent bookstore? Sometimes we're able to turn our passions into hobbies. For the fortunate few, however, a hobby or passion can become a vocation. To be able to love what you do for a living, well, that's amazing. I talked with three local passionate cooks, two of them currently operating small food businesses and the third, in her early teens, cultivating her cooking passion and setting her sights on culinary school.
From the time she was four, Andrea Reubin baked and cooked with her mother. Her mother was a great role model: health conscious and committed to making everything from scratch. After her mother died, her father started cooking, growing his own herbs and vegetables and preserving them. Her parents had a profound impact on Reubin, helping her realize that cooking from scratch was not just a labor of love, but also nurturing.
"For me," Reubin said, "eating good food not only tastes good. It feels good. I enjoy creating luxury desserts that are worth it in every sense. Sustainable luxury is my focus - sustainable for people, business, and the earth in the form of a luxurious dessert that satisfies your sensibilities and your sweet tooth. And, in the process, helps guarantee a living wage to the farmers committed to growing quality crops."
Armed with master's degrees in both social work and business administration as well as a commitment to wholesome and fair-trade organic ingredients, Reubin combined her knowledge of people and business with her love for baking. She began her venture baking in kitchen space rented from Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel in Richmond Heights and selling her products to retail coffee shops and at Washington University. In March of this year, she launched her online bakery, "Just Sweets."
"Just Sweets" offers from-scratch, traditional desserts, including chocolate and cinnamon babkas, chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon rolls, raspberry crisscross squares, and cream-filled chocolate cupcakes. In addition, it features seasonal baked goods each month. All products are made with fair-trade organic ingredients, when available. Customers can order online or by phone and can choose from a number of delivery options. For those who crave "Just Sweets" on a regular basis, there's the option to become a monthly subscriber.
"I would like to see this develop into a vibrant business that satisfies even the mightiest sweet tooth," she told me. "There's something to the texture, flavor, and soul of food that is quality, through and through. I also hope that my products will result in more people buying fair-trade ingredients. As more people ask for them, more stores will be motivated to carry them."
Sine Berhanu grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and came to the United States in 1966 on what was to be a summer assignment with the Peace Corps. Following her summer job, though, she was recruited to teach Amharic language to executives of a spice company preparing to expand business abroad. Berhanu moved to Kalamazoo, Mich. to begin her work. There, she met her husband. When he was offered a full scholarship from Washington University to earn a doctorate in mathematics, the couple moved to St. Louis.
Berhanu recalls as a child making pies out of mud, grass and leaves. Her mother would get excited about her creations and they would pretend to eat the pies together. Eventually, Berhanu cooked real food with her mother, learning the techniques and developing a love for cooking.
"My mother often cooked lentils," she told me, "because they were healthy and could be prepared so many ways."
She remembers one rainy day, in particular, when her family was hosting a big dinner party. "I watched as my mother stuffed countless banana peppers with azeefa, a uniquely seasoned lentil salad made with black lentils, the ‘beluga' of lentils."
Smiling, she recalled how enthusiastically the guests at that party long ago raved about those lentils.
Soon after moving to St. Louis, Berhanu was asked to prepare a traditional Ethiopian dish for the International Festival of Nations.
"I opened up my spice cabinet and knew right away that I would try to recreate my mother's azeefa salad. I prepared a huge vat for the festival, which disappeared so quickly that they asked me to please go home and make more."
After many years as an art teacher, Berhanu was determined to turn her passion into a business, starting with nine varieties of a lentil side dish she developed and called "Lentils Divine. " Soon after, she added her mother's azeefa. She designed her own labels, which are beautiful, and started cranking out her mother's famed lentil salad. She learned about the importance of trade marking her product's name and asked lawyer Jeffrey Kass to help.
Kass met with Berhanu and, of course, tasted her azeefa. He was wowed. He suggested that she consider making it kosher so that observant Jews could have a tasty alternative to hummus. Kass introduced Berhanu to Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis, which provides kosher certification and supervision to her company, Berhanu Organic.
"It made so much sense that my products be kosher," she said. "Felicia Wertz is my sister, my mother, and my very best friend, and she keeps kosher. I have Shabbat dinner every Friday night at her home, where my assignment is to recite the motzi. How nice for me that Felicia can also enjoy my products."
All Berhanu's products are vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free. Other than the olive oil and lime juice, all ingredients are organic.
"I grew up without additives and preservatives," Berhanu explained, "and I promote good, clean food with a commitment to quality, not quantity. I hope that my products will eventually be distributed all over the country and will become a favorite, especially among those with a gluten intolerance."
Reubin and Berhanu developed their passion for baking and cooking early in their lives. So has Merah Frank, the 13 year-old daughter of Marsha and Dr. Bennett Frank.
"My whole family enjoys cooking," Merah said. "I bake together with my mom and my two little sisters, and my dad likes to cook dinner. My brothers just enjoy eating what we cook.
"I'm pretty serious about it," she said. "My newest favorite thing to make is Hollandaise Sauce using the Julia Child method. I used it for the Eggs Benedict I made for my mom on Mother's Day. It's also great with asparagus and broccoli."
I asked Merah whether she improvises or prefers to follow recipes.
" I do some of both," she said. "For example, when I prepare guacamole, I look through our spice counter, smell the different spices, and decide what flavors appeal to me that day. The result can be different every time. Sometimes I substitute salsa for fresh tomatoes, or I might make it sweeter by adding a little sugar, just a little, very subtle. I usually make some type of guacamole to eat with challah at our Friday night Sabbath dinners."
For her school science experiment at Crossroads College Prep this year, Merah made her cheesecakes using three different methods: baking in the traditional method at 350 degrees; baking at a high temperature for a short time, then reducing the temperature, and finally letting the cake cool in the oven with the heat off; and baking in a water bath with the baking pan foil-wrapped and set in a larger pan of boiling water. And the verdict?
"It wasn't even close," Merah said. "The water bath method produced the best cheesecake. It was so light and delicious."
For someone so young, Merah has given a lot of thought to her future. "I want to go to cooking school and focus on cakes and pastries. I will eventually open my own restaurant and use Julia Child's recipes and techniques as my guide. I really like her style of cooking."
As Merah seems to understand already, turning a passion into a vocation can be challenging. Reuben and Berhanu sought help and guidance from the St. Louis Enterprise Center on Washington Avenue, a business incubator that offers entrepreneurs affordable office and warehouse space, shared support services, access to expert mentors, professional seminars, and networking opportunities. If their stories have inspired you, you can contact the Enterprise Center for additional information.
Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of three. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at email@example.com.
For more information about the businesses mentioned, see below:
• Just Sweets, www.justsweetsdesserts.com, (314) 750-7501, You can visit the Just Sweets booth at the Clayton Farmer's Market on Saturday, July 16 from 8:30-12:30, just west of Straub's on Forsyth Blvd.
• Berhanu Organics, www.berhanuorganic.com, (314) 533-7100, Berhanu Organic products, including four varieties of Ah! Zeefa, are available for purchase at Whole Foods Markets, and Natural Way, River City, and Local Harvest stores.
• St Louis Enterprise Center, www.slec.com, (314) 534-1818, 3830 Washington Blvd # 100, Saint Louis, Dennis Breite, Vice-President