From Botanical Gardens Intern to Anthony Bourdain’s Assistant
by Laurie Woolever
Intern, Brooklyn Botanic Garden
In 1996, when I was 22, I started a paid internship at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, making $245 a week and paying $350 a month for a charmless basement apartment in a house occupied by its owners. I’d just graduated from Cornell with a BS in Natural Resources, and I had a mere $6,250 in student loan debt. I’d interviewed for the internship in person, over spring break, and was hired, I guess, because I’d worked on farms and interned with Green Guerillas, a community gardening non-profit. As an intern, I had to mow lawns and pick up trash. I also did some focused work with master gardeners. I could have taken free classes that would have moved me along in my career, had I wanted to make a career of urban gardening, which I soon realized I didn’t. I wanted to write, but I knew then, as I know now, that writing would not pay the bills.
I packed my own lunch, usually a damp, tragic hummus pita and an apple. My budget allowed for two subway tokens each day, but many evenings, driven crazy by my awful apartment and my shitty-yet-suburban-seeming neighborhood that bore no resemblance to the New York I wanted to inhabit, I borrowed against the future and took the round-trip subway to Manhattan, where I spent more money on beer and falafel and movies and nail polish.
I started applying for editorial and administrative jobs, at a time when the New York Times Sunday job listings were so plentiful as to comprise two separate sections of the newspaper. My resume included the busgirl job I started when I was 14, and the fact that I’d been named “cook of the week” in my hometown newspaper, after my mother nominated me. I used stacks of quarters to check my answering machine from the pay phone at work and went on interviews in the late afternoon. My interview wardrobe consisted of one ill-fitting navy blue pant suit that greedily absorbed all the complicated smells of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden employee locker room.
On these interviews, there were typing tests and unanswerable questions about goals. One guy at a temp agency told me I looked like a “complete fucking hayseed.” I got an offer to be a receptionist at a financial recruiting firm, but it was contingent on my “joining a gym” (code for “losing weight”), so I passed. I had two interviews for a private cook job which I really wanted but did not get. It was all quite excruciating, especially the part where I still had to weed-whack along Flatbush Avenue as people drove by and threw diapers and cans out their car windows.
Administrative Assistant, Food PR firm
After about six weeks, during which time my apartment flooded and then filled with mildew, and during which time I ran into my landlord, early one morning, in the front doorway, naked except for flip-flops, casually slipping the collar and leash onto his dog, I accepted an administrative assistant job at a small food PR firm, making a salary of $21,000, with insurance after 6 months. I moved to Manhattan, splitting the $950 rent on a 2-bedroom East Village apartment with my friend Javier.
The PR firm had clients like the Delaware Bologna Council and Southeast Rutabaga Farmers Association (not their real names). I answered phones and did busy work. One afternoon the copywriter let me try writing headlines for an article about cooking pork with blueberries that she placed in syndicated newspapers around the country. I used the phrases “jazzed-up” and “low-cost meats” and she was like, “Hmmm,” and kept her door closed for the rest of the day.
I didn’t dress appropriately for work, a point made plain when one of the partners called me into her office, looked in frank disgust at my chunky clogs — a cheaper version of the ones they called “fat girl shoes” in Wolf of Wall Street — and gigantic sloppy sundress under which my bra was visible, and said, “You need to dress neater. There’s a GAP two blocks from here. Go get yourself some cute separates.”
Private cook/household assistant
Before I could buy any printed blouses or fun slacks, I got a call from the family who’d passed me over for the cook job. They’d just fired their first choice, a classically-trained chef who wouldn’t take direction. I was a decent-at-best home cook, having picked up a few tricks while volunteering in a soup kitchen, but that was what they wanted: someone without any training or original ideas or Gallic hauteur about the necessity of butter to cook very basic, very low-fat food, which I could do. I quit the PR assistant job after three weeks, and my dad said, “You should probably stop quitting jobs for a while.”
My salary was $34,000, with insurance right away. It was a super-organized, optimal health-focused household, run in accordance with a lengthy manual that specified, for example, the ideal position of the waste paper baskets, relative to the bedside, and forbid the use of Ziploc bags, which were too time-consuming to open and close. The employees, all Ivy League graduates with creative ambitions, outnumbered family members three to one. I did laundry, maintained the in-home periodicals library, shopped every day, and cooked simple, portion-controlled dinners: whole wheat pasta with steamed vegetables, grilled chicken breasts, broiled tofu, brown rice.
I knew a handful of rich kids at college, but save for the obvious tells (BMWs, breaks spent in Gstaad, Clarins beauty products in the dorm shower), they were indistinguishable from the merely well-off. This job was my first hands-on experience with real wealth: the massive, beautiful home, the glorious food shops, the extra apartments for nannies, the home gym. Oh, and the high-end hoarding: I had to make sure there were 12 extra pairs of Wolford stockings, say, or 8 bottles of organic fat-free tomato sauce.
I started carrying hundreds of dollars of (their) cash in my wallet; when I was pick-pocketed, my employers replaced the stolen money without a thought. I started to feel that I, too, was wealthy, and began to indulge in dinners and taxis and expensive haircuts and new hardcover books and stupid clothes, like a $150 Prada bra that offered zero support. I gave not a single thought to saving money.
Once, I got to cook my employers and some business associates a regular, full-fat dinner: seared salmon with sun-dried tomatoes, cheesy potato gratins, little pound cakes with whipped cream. The looks on their faces when they tasted that food, made with oil and butter and sugar, after years of Snackwells and plain chicken, were heartbreaking.
With my dad’s help, I took out a loan and did a 6-month professional course at the French Culinary Institute, while continuing to work part-time for the family for a few months. I soon learned that I was poorly-equipped to be restaurant cook. I’m rather lazy, I loathe noise, heat, and teamwork, bore easily, and crack under pressure. Months before starting school, I’d read that chefs could make up to $85,000 a year, but it became clear that I’d be lucky to make $25,000, working miserable 60-hour weeks. Having taken on a $24,000 debt (plus interest) on this professional training I suddenly didn’t want, while getting cash advances on my credit card to pay my rent, was stressful. I started breaking out in what I thought were hives, but later turned out to be bedbug bites.
Maybe I’d become a food writer.
The school’s career counselor urged me to try professional cooking, for six months, to build credibility as a food writer, so I took an $8/hour appetizer cook job in a new restaurant. When I arrived for my first shift, two days before opening, the chef-owner had just found the sous chef in the basement, injecting heroin into his arm like a total fucking cliché. She fired him, creating a vacuum and promoting everyone.
“Congratulations,” she barked. “You’re the pastry chef.” I’d be supervising two employees, responsible for eight plated desserts, plus several types of bread and muffins.
Pastry work takes a level of skill, precision and rigor that I lacked in spades. I could’ve maybe become a decent pastry cook, with months of practice and a patient boss, but I was in no way qualified to be a pastry chef. I gave it my best effort, for three days, until the chef-owner realized her mistake and fired me. The place closed in less than 6 months. I never got paid.
The career counselor sent me on an interview with Mario Batali. He’d just opened his second restaurant, Babbo, about which I’d read a laudatory article in New York magazine. (At that point I could barely afford to eat at Meat Deli, a place on Avenue C that shared the building with a needle exchange and served a delicious $2 burger.) Mario had a show on the nascent Food Network that I’d never seen, because I couldn’t afford cable. I think I was the only one who applied for the job — most people still went to cooking school to become cooks back then — but I’d say I was hired because of cooking school, my experience with the rich family, and the facts that I had read M.F.K Fisher and knew who Ruth Reichl was. My salary was $26,500 and I waited six months for insurance. Mario took me to lunch at Gray’s Papaya on my first day and said I could order anything I wanted.
For three and a half super-fun, deeply educational years, I handled phone calls and messages, of course, and for a while I hand-wrote postcards to everyone who filled out a comment card. I arranged reservations for “important people,” covered the phones if a reservationist didn’t show up, and did coat-check shifts for cash. I filled in as a cook for about a month. I helped write recipes, planned parties, and came up with the name “Mario Eats Italy” for that short-lived TV show. Mario was generous in introducing me to editors, including one who threw me some lucrative advertorial work. I started freelancing for Time Out New York. I cooked with Mario in Australia, Atlantic City, Miami, Seattle, and a random contest-winner’s rural Pennsylvania home. I flew (first class!) to accept an award at a Napa Valley winery on his behalf, managed cookbook sales at the restaurants, and, early on, flicked a live bedbug off my jacket just before shaking Martha Stewart’s hand in her Connecticut TV studio. I took recipe editing, HTML and Italian language classes. I learned to drink rivers of grappa and still show up on time the next day. I loved that job.
Catering Cook/Private Cook / Freelance Writer
I loved that job, and 12 years later it continues to open doors for me, but: I was craving more normalcy than was possible working in — or, really, adjacent to — the restaurant business, and wanted more time to write. I gave a long notice, helped hire and train my replacement, then took the summer off to get good and broke while going on a bunch of Nerve.com dates, the last of which was with my now-husband.
I started getting assignments, via pitches, for the Times dining section and the Post, and continued writing for TONY. I worked prep and service shifts for a few different catering companies, and found a family of five, via the culinary school job board, who wanted dinner cooked two nights a week. They paid $150/week, plus reimbursement for ingredients. Sometimes the husband would have me cook with stuff that he’d bought, like a slightly warm bag of mixed seafood from Chinatown, or half-price and bruised to the point of brutalized tomatoes from Stew Leonard.
This family referred me to their friends: Two busy doctors, a teenage son who would hang out in the kitchen, defending the policies of George W. Bush (they had a portrait of him in their dining room) and honing his R. Kelly impression, and an aging grandmother, who’d lost her job as family cook when they hired me. I shopped at the late, great Jefferson Market and made big Italian meals, which they always seemed to enjoy.
Mario Batali’s new assistant connected me with a successful actress who was looking for a last-minute caterer. I went to her massive, lovely apartment and she chatted amiably about the menu for her boyfriend’s birthday party. Then she stopped smiling and said, “I don’t like when people overcharge me because I’m famous and make a lot of money.” We agreed on a (too-low) price. A few hours later, the big northeast blackout happened and the party was cancelled.
A few weeks later, her assistant called to see if I’d start stocking her fridge with healthy cooked food twice a week. I charged $20 an hour. Soon she got engaged and I cooked nothing but South Beach Diet (phase 1) meals until the wedding.
After her honeymoon, she said, “Now that I’m married and ready to start a family, I’m hiring a Thai housekeeper to cook and clean and take care of my babies. But I wanted to give you a parting gift.” I wiped down my knives and wrapped them up for the last time. “I know you like food, but I think you need to lose some weight.” This was technically accurate — I recall I was wearing an enormous black t-shirt that said “Bush is a war criminal” and size 16 cargo pants — but sort of a dick move anyway. “I’m giving you a month’s worth of Herbalife, to get you started. Talk to my assistant to get the details sorted out,” she said as I stepped into the elevator. I didn’t follow up.
Recipe editor and tester
During my two years as a private cook / freelance writer, I also edited and tested all the recipes for Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, for which Mario Batali had recommended me. I made $50 per recipe, plus reimbursement for ingredients. I did all the cooking in my home kitchen and hosted a number of very good small dinner parties. I learned what a messy pain in the ass it is to make country paté and French fries at home, and how much fun it is to let a cat interact with a live lobster.
Executive Editor, Art Culinaire
With my patchwork of jobs and health insurance through Freelancers Union, I was working a lot but not saving money or even making a dent in my credit card debt. I applied for the executive editor job at the quarterly food magazine Art Culinaire, an ad for which I’d found in the Times. I didn’t feel qualified to be an editor at any level, but I got an interview and was hired, based on my experience with Mario, my clips, I guess, and my culinary experience. The office was in Morristown, NJ, which was probably a deal-breaker for many people, but not me. The salary was $48,000, plus insurance. It took me two hours to get to work each day, via subway, commuter train, and almost two miles of walking each way.
The publisher, a sadistic former chef, ruled the small staff through passive-aggressive terror. He’d burned through several dozen writers, editors and art directors in the 18 years he’d been publishing the magazine to that point, treating each one as a golden child for a while, then either abruptly firing them over extremely minor errors (writing “stalk of celery” when he preferred “rib,” for example) or creating an increasingly hostile work environment until they quit. A talented art director won an award for her photography, and he soon decided she was no longer qualified to shoot anything without his abusive micro-management. An editor had to cancel oral surgery after they’d already numbed her up and begun cutting, because he’d cancelled her dental insurance without informing her.
It was, despite all this, a great job in which I wrote, ate, and traveled a lot, but after two years, the commute and the sadism got me looking for something new.
Associate editor, Wine Spectator
I saw a food-related editorial job in the Times (again!), and after interviewing with a headhunter and a few staff, I was hired at Wine Spectator, because of Mario Batali, no doubt, plus my experience and clips. My salary was $50,000, plus insurance, 401K contributions, two weeks’ vacation and a free basic wine tasting and evaluation class. I mostly worked for the website, with occasional magazine assignments. I played (badly) on the company softball team.
I spent just over two years as full-timer, during which time I got married, bought an apartment in Queens, and got pregnant. I took a 12-week maternity leave, half of which was paid, then put the baby in daycare ($175/week) and returned as a part-timer, working four days a week, giving up 20% of my salary and going on my husband’s health insurance. I did basically all the work I’d been doing as a full-timer, and would often check in from home on my day off.
After a few months, one of my colleagues got pregnant, and, in trying to strategize her own post-maternity leave return, asked for the part-time deal that I had, at which point management pulled the plug on my deal and said I could either work full-time or not at all.
Assistant to Anthony Bourdain
I returned to a full-time schedule, but immediately began looking for part-time work, because I hated putting my kid in daycare for 50 hours/week; hated running for and missing and being squashed into and stuck on and generally beaten down by the subway while breast milk sometimes leaked out of a sour-smelling freezer bag strapped to my body; hated having to come up with five non-yoga pants outfits a week. I was often so tired by the end of each work day that I’d forget which traffic light meant you could safely cross the street. One time I called a locksmith in a panic, because I couldn’t get my keys to work, and the baby was wailing. At 6:05 pm, technically “after hours,” a guy came and sprayed some WD-40 in the lock and opened the door with my keys and I realized that I’d been turning them in the wrong direction. That cost me $200.
I emailed everyone I knew, offering to work as an editor, writer, assistant, cook, pretzel alphabetizer, general ass-wiper — anything as long as it was part-time. One of these people was Anthony Bourdain, whom I hoped would remember me from the cookbook project. He offered me a part-time job as his assistant, which he said would involve scheduling, email gatekeeping, and setting up the occasional dinner reservation. We agreed on a weekly rate of $400. (I gave my notice at Wine Spectator, but continue to write for them as a freelancer.)
It’s now five years later and I’m still working for him. I’ve taken on more responsibilities and my pay has increased accordingly. Almost all business is conducted by email; we interact in person maybe twice a year. I’ve edited two books for his imprint, and accompanied him and his crew on a recent TV shoot in Vietnam. I feel extraordinarily lucky.
I still have no idea how anyone supports themselves as a writer in New York.
Laurie Woolever is a writer and editor with a side hustle that pays the bills. She lives, works and tweets about food (and sometimes TV) in New York, and feels good about having just shut down her LinkedIn profile.
Photo: Neeta Lind
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