Stephanie Hersh defined her career goal of being a pastry chef at the age of 6 with the gift of a Betty Crocker Easy-Bake Oven.
It was simplistic cause and effect: She produced the sweet offerings from batters, and everyone fluttered around telling her she was “terrific.” She figured this could last her whole lifetime if she just kept on making cake. Her granny lived nearby and regularly let the diminutive yet determined youngster bake alongside her, making family desserts and good, sweet stuff.
Her parents were a harder nut to crack, insisting on scholastic accomplishment, first in her private high school, then in a four-year college. Looking back, she thinks it was the best for her because “I needed to grow up before going to culinary school.” She worked part-time in restaurants, both front of the house and back, making some headway in the cooking hierarchy as she became more experienced.
The work was everything she dreamed: It gave her pleasure, satisfaction, self-esteem, self-confidence. Her personality drove her to “always be the best,” and she knew that to be best she had to have professional training. The restaurant business was changing at that time, and she knew it would no longer be possible to work up in kitchens from dishwasher to executive chef.
Restaurant owners were hiring the applicant with the best culinary education. In 1985, Stephanie graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Her first professional job as a hotel pastry chef in Boston was a rude awakening. For the first time, pastries became work to do and get done, and it wasn’t fun. She still had her pastry shop dream, and to feed her savings faster she devised a dual plan, based on her new goals—“I just wanted to cook and enjoy it and make money.”
Stephanie took a job as a private chef, live-in, for a small family with two professional working parents and 2 children. With her daytimes freed up, she enrolled at Katharine Gibbs School, figuring she could still be a private chef and work days as a secretary, with almost no living expenses.
Then something happened.
Julia Child phoned the school asking if they had a graduate to recommend, commenting that it would be nice if the person knew something about cooking. When they described Stephanie’s culinary background, she turned her down, saying that she really wanted a secretary, not a chef. Stephanie was in the school office when it happened and asked permission to call Julia back so she could press her case for herself. There was serious persuasion involved on Stephanie’s part, but the statement was repeated: “I just want a secretary; I don’t need anyone to work in my kitchen.” Stephanie agreed that she just wanted to be a secretary.
The next morning, minutes after arriving at the Cambridge house, Stephanie was in the kitchen prepping three recipes for demonstration stages and cooking aromatic fish stew for serving. Julia had forgotten she had agreed to a television taping/interview and greeted Stephanie with a fistful of recipe copies and almost no instruction except “just wiggle a finger at me when you’ve got it all ready,” while she went back to the camera crew.
Suddenly Stephanie Hersh was an administrator, a facilitator, an essential sidekick, and accepted—smack, dab, in the center of the high-profile food industry. She loved her job. Her schooling continued, and, with Julia’s encouragement, Stephanie was the first graduate in Boston University’s master’s program in gastronomy.
She later ran her own business, Chef Steph, through which she sold cakes and pastries and organized cooking parties for children. An active member of IACP, Hersh lives and works in New Zealand.