A Spiced Life

By Fabiana Santana

spiced2Even though the old saying goes, “a woman’s place is in the kitchen”, in the restaurant world this couldn’t be more untrue. Actually, a woman in a restaurant kitchen is about as welcome as rain on a summer Saturday. But Dalia Jurgensen didn’t let that stop her.

The career-changer decided to ditch her humdrum office job to follow her dream of becoming a chef. And what a chef she became! She is a highly acclaimed pastry chef who did time at NYC’s famed Nobu and even worked with Martha herself.

Her recently released memoir Spiced talks all about her journey from culinary school and through the kitchens of some of New York City’s best restaurants – with all the details from burns to bed hopping included.

What prompted you to change careers?

Office life made me feel stifled somehow. A freak accident with a dog actually made me start to reevaluate things and I had one of those cliché epiphany moments: “Life is too short – what am I doing with my life? I should be doing something I truly love.” I started thinking seriously about cooking school. After a conversation with my father in which he encouraged me to take risks and to be happy, I gave my two weeks notice. Admittedly, it was a rash decision – a lot of my friends thought I was crazy, some thought I was brave. I sort of knew that if I over-thought it too much, I might not ever bite the bullet.

In SPICED you talk about the sexism of male-dominated kitchens. What advice do you have for other women entering this world?

I chose to combat being underestimated by men in the kitchen by doing my job equal to or better than that men, no mater how hard it was. Even when I was scared (and whenever I moved up in the kitchen I was scared), I buckled down and met the challenge ahead of me. If I made a mistake, I didn’t let it ruin me, I just got back to work and tried to learn from it. There is nothing about cooking that makes men inherently better at it than women. I think once you realize that, hearing comments like there’s no way a woman could handle the heat in here,” or “whatever…she probably has her period” though infuriating, lose their power.

You worked for a time in Martha Stewart’s television studio kitchens. What did you learn from Martha?

In a practical sense, working in Martha Stewart’s test kitchen taught me to write everything down when testing and re-testing a recipe because as much as I think I’ll remember how much salt I used in one version of a cookie, after making it four or five times, I won’t. I also learned a lot about integrity and to what lengths we could go in the name of not compromising it. Thought a lot of things can be “faked” on television, Martha never allowed any short cuts. If she showed cookies coming out of the oven, they actually were just baked! When she talked about making jam from fruit she’d grown herself, the fruit actually had come from her private property. Whenever possible, eggs came from her chickens, and vegetables came from her gardens. The amount and breadth of her knowledge were impressive, as were the keen ways she used it to be super-successful. I have real respect for Martha.

What is the best meal you have ever had?

The best meals for me almost always happen outside of a restaurant, among friends and often in a foreign place. I was camping in the Sinai desert with a boyfriend, a guide and two camels. After a long day of riding though the expanse in the hot sun, our guide built a fire and made a stew of tomatoes, onion and potatoes and baked he simplest of bread in the ash from the fire. Topped off with sweet Egyptian tea, it was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve eve had.

What has been your proudest moment as a pastry chef?

Getting my first (and positive) reviews as the pastry chef for Scarabée. It was my first time being fully responsible for the desserts at a restaurant and the affirmation that I had it in me to be a successful pastry chef was incredible – and it was all there in black and white, written by respected critics such as Ruth Reichl and Gael Greene.

What was your most embarrassing failure?

In my first few weeks working in my very first restaurant job at Nobu, a highly respected restaurant in New York (owned by Robert DeNiro), I actually managed to burn a hole right through the bottom of a pot!

What is your first food memory?

Standing on a chair so I could reach the counter next to where my mother stood chopping vegetables for the Danish chicken soup she made (and still makes) every winter after saving up the bones from thanksgiving. the soup has parsnips, leeks, carrots, small dumpling and small meatballs and is one of my favorites.

What is in your fridge right now?

Lemons, garlic, parmesan, pecorino, broccoli rabe, organic milk, soy milk (for the husband), mango chutney, tapatio hot sauce, butter, whole grain bread, left over black beans

What is one thing you eat that you know you shouldn’t?

I don’t think there’s anything I shouldn’t eat, (though I do try and stay away from artificial ingredients, which is pretty easy). One of my favorite guilty pleasures of all time is a jersey shore hot dog and cheese fries, especially from the original windmill in Long Branch, NJ.

What’s for dinner tonight? And for dessert?

At home I keep things simple: sausage and broccoli rabe pasta, chicken stew with dumplings, beans and rice and guacamole. My kitchen is small and crappy-typical of NYC. I keep desserts even simpler and make them mostly for my husband’s insatiable sweet tooth: cobblers, brownies.

What is your favorite cook for yourself meal?

See #4. Though I will say that I still find cooking at home, when I have the time, very relaxing and satisfying. Spending a long Sunday afternoon making braised lamb shanks and cous cous, or a lentil soup, then having a few friends over to share it, is heaven.

Do you have any tips for single serving cookers?
Since it’s just as easy to make big batches, as it is small, and since I’m often short on time, I make larger batches of things that freeze well (soups, tomato sauce, pesto, stews, chili) then I save whatever I don’t eat for another time. Here’s my all time favorite brownie recipe.

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