Alumnae and Food: It’s a Recipe for Success

by Brenda Bolinger

Elizabeth LaBau

The world over, many Scripps alumnae are restaurateurs, chefs, vintners, and bakers; they write about food, photograph it, grow it, harvest it, and compost it. They educate, litigate, and legislate about food-related issues. Some handle food every day, all day; others talk about it, analyze it, examine its implications for the earth, the community, the individual. How each alumna embarked on her unique career in the food world varies, each compiling a list of life ingredients that, when blended, brought them to where they are now.

Some, like Allison Hodges ’86 and Shiyuan Deng ’08, took a circuitous path.

“Life has gone in a direction I never anticipated, and I’m not sure I would have gotten here if it weren’t for Scripps,” said Deng, who almost went to law school but, instead, opened Double Dutch Sweets, a wholesale and retail candy bar company using only local and organic ingredients.

An international relations and politics major at Scripps, Deng knew she wanted to establish a business to have opportunities to think outside the box, “solve problems with grace and polish,” and challenge her capabilities. More than she ever thought possible, her business has granted these wishes: 80 percent of her day, every day, is spent solving operational problems, most of them extremely challenging and some of them wildly surprising. How could she have known that candy-making would force her to consider a bovine’s diet?

“When we change dairy vendors, and the cows are eating a different kind of grass, it changes the humidity in the butter we use. Small changes in the supply chain mean big changes in the final product,” Deng explained. “You learn to roll with the punches and make changes on the fly.”

Inexperienced in “making a grilled cheese sandwich” before launching Double Dutch Sweets, many people thought Deng was crazy to think she’d succeed: “Maybe I was young and naïve, but I never thought I couldn’t do it.”

Hodges, on the other hand, felt crazy for her radical career choice. After 20 years climbing the ladder in corporate PR and marketing, she upended her career to please palates and appetites as a personal chef. But the quick success of her business brought affirmation that her nonlinear shift was, in fact, quite sane.

Of a generation in which women were looking to get out of the kitchen, Hodges wanted in. She always liked to cook, but says she “never thought I’d actually do it because that’s not what intelligent, strong-minded women did.” The world has changed; and so has Hodges — abandoning corporate to-do lists in favor of grocery lists, tailored precisely to her clients’ wishes, has brought her deep satisfaction. Every customer, every kitchen, every menu is different, and the thrill of encountering newness every day makes her feel like “the luckiest person in the world.”

“One day I’ll make Ossobuco (a veal dish) and banana cream pie, and the next day vegan Indian chickpeas with shredded cauliflower because my client doesn’t eat rice,” said Hodges. “I’m doing something I truly love.”

American studies graduates Anne Garten Lichtig ’80 and Elizabeth Payne LaBau ’03 also found their food niche indirectly, sharing the same major as well as a professional common denominator: previously, they held one job while mentally enjoying another. Ultimately, where their attention strayed, their careers followed.

“I was spending all my time reading food blogs instead of working,” said LaBau.

Now, LaBau writes her own blog, SugarHero!,which she describes as a “lighthearted celebration of sugar and the sweet things in life.” Indeed, in prose and in practice, she champions eating “reckless amounts of sugar” (and is unapologetically “pro-butter”).

Working from home, LaBau creates and blogs about such delicacies as grapefruit marshmallows and red velvet fudge and serves as the candy guide for About.com, an online division of The New York Times Company. In this capacity, she develops original recipes, produces and films recipe tutorials, and writes a weekly newsletter. Also a culinary photographer and author, LaBau is completing her second candy cookbook, a companion to her first: The Sweet Book of Candy Making. Whether desk or kitchen, computer or electric mixer, pen or spatula, LaBau loves the sweet life she’s cooked up for herself.

“My work requires so many different aspects of myself. Scripps emphasized a well-rounded education, and I have a well-rounded career: art, photography, and English; even, reluctantly, programming and accounting. It really uses every part of me and forces me to grow,” she said.

For Lichtig, it was writing about the best restaurants in the cities she visited while traveling for a financial industry sales job that prefaced her entre into the food world. The dawning realization, “I love food. I should do something in food,” prompted her to parlay her sales expertise into becoming the territory sales manager for Swiss Chalet Fine Foods.

Lichtig drives 500 miles a week between Malibu and downtown L.A., selling premium gourmet food from Europe to chefs in luxury hotels, five-star restaurants, and country clubs. Despite the time on the road, she loves her job: “I can see doing this until I retire at 75.”

Allie Sack ’08 took a more direct path to working with food. As a child, she marveled at her restaurateur grandmother who taught her how to make a perfect pie crust. As a Scripps student, she baked gluten-free pumpkin bread to sell at the Motley Coffeehouse and wove her interest in food and food policy into her double-major track: French studies and politics.

“It was a big part of my life, and then I realized I could make it a job,” she said.

Steeped in a bourgeoning food-exploration culture while at Scripps, Sack hungered for a breadth and depth of food knowledge. What followed graduation was policy work at the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco, farming with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, farmers market cooking demonstrations, restaurant jobs, and her current position as the lead chef and kitchen manager at Jessica Lasky Catering in Oakland, California. On every varied step of her journey, Sack has tried to incorporate education, periodically recalling a professor who suggested she’d be an excellent food ethics educator.

“I’ve thought about that through this entire path, asking myself, ‘Am I doing that?’ I try to educate people wherever I can without being obnoxious about it,” she said.

Education is the heart-and-soul of Marguerite Manela’s unique job. In contrast to her food-prepping fellow alumnae, Manela works with food on the other side of the meal — the scraps left behind. The 2010 mathematics graduate serves as the project manager for the NYC Compost Project, funded and managed by NYC Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse, and Recycling and hosted by Queens Botanical Garden. Manela teaches workshops, runs the Master Composter Certificate Program, consults with school administrators to develop on-campus composting programs, and talks all-thingscompost at environmentally-focused events.

“Waste management has always been at the forefront of my mind, and how can I make the world a better place? I’ve always wanted to talk to people about these issues,” she said. “I can’t believe my job is talking to people about composting. That’s what I was doing anyway.”

Talking — and listening — is the crux of Dr. Dana Udall-Weiner’s career. The former psychology major, Udall- Weiner ’97 specializes in eating disorders as a private-practice psychologist. She also runs a consulting company, ED Educate, through which she supports and advises families affected by eating disorders.

“Eating disorders are not only very complex, they are the most lethal of all psychiatric illnesses, so treatment is intense and extensive,” Udall-Weiner said.

And she knows this firsthand.

“Part of going into the field had to do with the fact that I’d struggled with my own food issues and had been treated for an eating disorder. Through that process, I learned about therapy and how helpful it can be to people — in particular, how helpful it was to me,” she said.

Udall-Weiner explained that as a student, Scripps’ motto, Incipit Vita Nova, “here begins new life,” inspired and comforted her, having transferred to the College during her recovery process. Now, helping others to start anew, the words continue to be meaningful.

“Today, many of my clients are young women about the same age I was then. My work with them consists of breaking habits and forging new paths, and I often think of the Scripps motto when I sit with them,” she said. “Recovering from an eating disorder is excruciating at times, but the pain is eased by hope and a firm belief in the power to change.”

Starting anew for Linda Johnson-Bell ’87 meant breaking from what she calls “a very ugly time” of material and monetary pursuit while working for an L.A. law firm to follow where her passion led: Paris and the merging of two lifelong loves — writing and wine.

“I knew I wanted a writing career, and that was a realistic goal, but I never expected that to be in wine,” said Johnson-Bell, who studied international relations and political science at Scripps.

Johnson-Bell has built a thriving wine-writing career in France, getting her start as the Burgundy correspondent for the U.K. edition of the French magazine, Vintage, but not until she proved herself to the editor. After four hours of sipping, swirling, and sniffing, the verdict arrived: “Elle l’a,” said the editor, “She has it.” And having “it” has made all the difference. Johnson-Bell prolifically writes on her website,The Wine Lady; serves as an expert wine judge; authors award-winning books on wine (with one on wine and climate change coming soon); and she is a consultant to wineries and grape-growers.

“I can happily spend days in my writing cottage, unbathed, wearing the same black leggings and holey sweater, and then find myself in a cocktail dress on the terrace of a palazzo on the shores of Lake Garda with a glass of Prosecco,” she said.

Reflecting on her time at Scripps, Johnson-Bell noted that there is one thing she would change: “There was no access to wine or wine enjoyment. Here in the U.K., universities have wine cellars and wine clubs.”

In spite of the absence of wine culture at Scripps, Johnson- Bell remembers the splendor of the College’s “thick, glutinous, creamy macaroni and cheese.” And she is not the only foodie alumna to recall a campus favorite: For Udall-Weiner, it’s the lemon squares served at Tea: “I think of them still.” For sweets-guru LaBau, it is, of course, the warm chocolate chip cookies: “They’re legendary.”

Their food fondness may differ, but the commonality that binds these women is the Scripps education, regardless of major, that told them they could do anything and empowered them to do it. Studied mathematics? Sure, you can manage a compost program. International relations? Yes, you can be a candy entrepreneur. French and politics? Absolutely, you can be a chef.

“At Scripps, we were taught to open our minds and look at things in a whole different way,” Lichtig said.

“Scripps taught me how to learn, how to think, and how to go out into the world and live with confidence and courage,” said Johnson-Bell.

“The whole experience made me feel like there is no limit to what a person can do,” said Deng. “Scripps also taught me that there will never be a right time to do anything hard. If it feels like the right thing to do, you just have to do it.”

 

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