We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."
She’s a chef, a cookbook author and a self-described creative entrepreneur, but she didn't start out as a triple threat. Here's how the very charming Serena Wolf ( who wrote the "The Dude Diet" and "The Dude Diet Dinnertime") figured out her path from culinary school to the New York Giants to Zoom cooking classes for hundreds of subscribers every week taught from her own kitchen.
TMRW: Serena, at heart you're a trained chef. But what did that mean in the beginning of your career?
SW: So, I am formally trained in French cooking. I went to Le Cordon Bleu Paris and graduated with a degree in cuisine. I graduated from culinary school knowing that I didn't want to be in the restaurant industry and I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do, which was terrifying. Culinary school is not a place where you execute a recipe development component. You are learning and executing classic techniques and other people’s recipes. But I did have a blog!
TMRW: And this was in, like, 2008-ish?
SW: Yes. It had a pink background and terrible photos that I took on my Blackberry, which were grainy and ridiculous, and I would post recipes I’d learn at school and then host these small dinner parties in my Paris apartment. I realized as I was doing that, even though it was purely for fun at the time, I was learning something about cultivating an audience and building a brand.
Then I started auditioning for things on The Food Network. I got a talent agent and I’d go to these meetings. I wasn’t trying to be Ina (Garten), but I was a millennial! Being a millennial was a very big deal 10 years ago! (Laughs).
TMRW: Did you find a talent agent through a connection via your dad? (Note: Serena Wolf is the daughter of longtime TV producer and "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf.)
SW: Yes, absolutely. But then, I didn’t get the job! Both of my parents have always instilled the idea that someone can always open a door for you, but then you have to be the one to walk through it and prove you can stay in the room. I acknowledge the privilege of having that kind of access, the kind that gets you the meeting with the agency. And I know a lot of people can’t even get as far as that step, you know? But it doesn’t guarantee that the connection could carry me through and land me a cooking show on The Food Network at 24 years old — because it didn’t!
This was also when blogs were starting to take off. So I started hammering the blog consistently and started gaining a little bit of traction and I thinking like, 'Oh, maybe if I write a book...' but I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry or what kind of work that entailed. I just thought, I have all these recipes for millennials who are not having big dinner parties; they just want something that they can make quickly and easily on a budget in a small kitchen. I lived in New York City, I had the studio with the very small kitchen and I knew there were people who could benefit from this. So I wrote a book proposal, I did the research and for months and months it got shopped around as this book called "Food That Doesn’t Suck." And no publisher bought it.
I really thought it was happening at one point and when it fell through, it was this soul-crushing moment where I was like, 'OK, like, what now?' I had hung all my hopes on this!
TMRW: So you’re like, OK, no television, no book.
SW: And I’m back to the drawing board.
TMRW: At the time, you’re dating your now-husband Logan. What does he think of all of this?
SW: It was interesting. For fun I started blogging this column called The Dude Diet based on re-creating his favorite recipes and tweaking them to be just a little healthier. So I was trying to figure out, you know, healthier and more nourishing recipes for foods he loved, like nachos and burgers and wings. And that was fun, but I didn’t think it was anything. And then I got a bunch of emails from people — and I mean, like, five emails — saying they loved The Dude Diet posts. And I was like, 'Wow, I've made it.'
But again, the first recipe I posted? It wasn’t good. The photos weren’t good. I keep it up for posterity because I think it’s good to be able to remind myself of the growth. But that first recipe ... no one should make that first recipe (laughs). It was a pork osso buco and it wasn’t good.
But it really did work for Logan, which was really my whole mission at the time. He truly loves food more than anybody I’ve ever seen and I knew that the only way to get him to consistently eat healthier was to prove that A) it could be really, really delicious and B) once he started eating well, he would start feeling so much better.
While The Dude Diet recipes were taking off, a friend of mine heard that the New York Giants needed private chefs for some of the players. So all of a sudden my job is to pack up all of my kitchenware and tools and knives and go to Hoboken where I’d be cooking dinner for these football players based on the nutritionist’s recommendations. So it was another instance of using one thing as a jumping off point for something else; one thing opens one door and then another and another.
TMRW: Is being a private chef for an NFL team as glamorous as it sounds?
SW: It is so not glamorous, but it was a great job. The kind of food I was creating for Logan was similar to what I needed to cook for these football players. They didn’t want five-star Michelin meals; they wanted chicken fingers. So I got to figure out with their team nutritionist how many calories they’d need, what kind of dietary restrictions they had and then make them food they actually wanted to eat and would sustain them through games and practices.
I have to add that I was sort of the perfect candidate for this because I don’t follow football. So I had no idea who any of these guys were (laughs), and so I think they caught on that I wasn’t some crazy stalker or mega-fan. They told me who I’d be cooking for and I was like, who?
I did this for two seasons and kept up my blogging and The Dude Diet recipes, which were really improving — not just the food, but the photography and presentation— since the osso bucco beginnings.
TMRW: This was in 2013, 2014, right? What was happening in the personal blog world? Were you able to make money from blogging?
SW: I was able to monetize the blog at that point, and the blog was still growing. This is pre-Instagram influencing because there was no swipe up; the influencer industry had really just started booming. My blog traffic eight years ago was like five times the traffic of my current blog traffic. Now it’s more about Instagram so I have found that it’s important to learn how people are consuming and then also learn how to be flexible. At the same time, I was still going out for auditions and no one wanted me. And then a different book agent reached out to me to say that she had read everything I had written and the book she believed I would be able to sell was "The Dude Diet." So I worked on the proposal and in 2015 it sold to Harper Collins. Remember this was my second attempt to sell a book, so I was perhaps even more excited than I would have been if this had been my first try.
TMRW: Were you surprised at how different the publishing world was from the blogging world?
SW: I was so shocked when I found out that publishers are thrilled when a first-time author sells 10,000 copies of their book. I used my Instagram account to pull the curtain back on the book-writing process as I was learning the process myself. I was surprised that book tours are something lots of first-time authors don’t get a budget for.
I planned my own: I went to 18 cities and I stayed on friend’s couches and in creepy AirBnB basements, and some events there would be three people. And sometimes I would call Logan like "There are 30 people here and I don’t know any of them!” I also did local news wherever I went and I think that helped get people interested. I hate to glamorize the hustle but I think when people see me waving on Instagram from all these cities, they might not realize that it really was hard: a culmination of so many sleepless nights, stressing about being in the red, trying to making it work.
These are things that I talk about openly because I'm like, look, you're always seeing the finished product online. The shiny book launch, the pieces of press without the 200 ignored pitches and showing the "after," when there was so much that went into the "before." So I sort of committed to showing how the sausage is made because I don't think it actually benefits anyone to only see the finished product.
TMRW: What was the best part about having a book (and now two books) out in the world?
SW: Holding your book in your hands is so satisfying. Just the concept that you made something and then it's going to be in other people's homes. I think that's what I've always loved about what I do. It sounds so cliche and ridiculous but with Instagram and the internet and my books, it's like I am able to be in countless people's homes in a way that is really special because they're making my food, it becomes their own. And now there are people who feel comfortable reaching out to tell me that they made my rotisserie chicken the night the got engaged or that they’re having a baby and they’re making the quinoa bags for their freezer in preparation and I just never get tired of hearing those stories.
TMRW: Now in the pandemic, you’ve pivoted from being a private chef and teaching classes IRL or in people’s homes to hosting a subscription cooking class on Zoom to hundreds. What has that been like for you?
SW: In some ways it’s like hosting the cooking show I never landed back in my 20s!
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.