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How I Got My Job: Cookbook Author Julia Turshen

Julia Turshen is first and foremost a cookbook writer, but she’s holding down several gigs at once

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In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Julia Turshen.

Julia Turshen doesn’t just have one job. She’s holding down several gigs at once — and crushing them all. Turshen is first and foremost an accomplished cookbook writer. In 2017, her book Feed the Resistance, filled with recipes and resources for political activists, was named Eater’s Cookbook of the Year; then, in 2018, Amazon named Now & Again, Turshen’s guide to reinventing leftovers, the best cookbook of the year. She’s also a noted cookbook collaborator: She’s teamed up with the likes of Dana Cowin and Jody Williams and has worked with Gwyneth Paltrow several times.

Beyond cookbooks, Turshen writes for publications like Food & Wine, hosts the Keep Calm and Cook On podcast, sits on the Kitchen Cabinet advisory board for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and founded Equity at the Table (EATT), a database of women and nonbinary people in food that addresses the inequities in the industry.

How did Turshen make it all happen? Here, she discusses the challenges she faced breaking into the industry, the turning points that led to where she is now, and what advice she would give to aspiring cookbook authors.

Eater: What does your job involve?

Julia Turshen: Oh gosh, I do a lot of things. For my cookbooks, it involves a lot of recipe development and testing, writing (which involves a lot of procrastination), organizing photoshoots, editing, organizing promotion, showing up for promotion, and also maintaining relationships with editors, booksellers, and readers. This goes for cookbooks that are just my own and also ones I work on collaboratively.

For my work keeping Equity at the Table running, I upload new members’ profiles every week and send out a biweekly(ish) newsletter. And for my podcast, Keep Calm and Cook On, I schedule interviews with my guests, research them and prepare my questions, record the interviews, edit the final show, and then try and get the word out. And secure sponsors. I also do some freelance writing and I volunteer a lot. Mostly I think about food and what it means and get to write about it and talk about it and cook it, and I send and answer a lot of emails.

What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

Write cookbooks.

Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?

I did not go to culinary school, but I did go to a liberal arts college and I was an English major who wrote a lot of very earnest poetry about food. I don’t think you need to go to culinary school to write or talk about food, but I do think you should know how to cook. This can be learned in all sorts of ways. I do recommend studying writing to some degree if you want to be a writer, even if it means participating in a local writers group or something like that. Most importantly, you need to read a lot and write a lot.

What would you have done differently at school or paid more attention to?

I would have taken one or two business classes so I could have better understood how to establish myself as a small business early on and how to better keep track of certain things. But overall I feel really grateful for my education, especially because I went to a women’s college and not only got to be in class with so many amazing women, I also got to be taught primarily by women. This was invaluable and helped me know early on the value of who is telling the story.

What was your first job? What did it involve?

In between high school and college I worked the counter at the Kneaded Bread Bakery in Port Chester, New York, and it taught me so much about interacting with customers, answering questions, and the joy of having people not only show up, but return for more. I think about this all of the time when I get to talk to people who cook from my cookbooks and listen to my podcast.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?

Knowing the financial worth of writing and project managing, and knowing how to charge for it. Also, knowing how to set boundaries in an industry where the professional and the personal are very blurry.

When was the first time you felt successful?

One summer when I was maybe 13 or so I sent my parents a postcard from camp that said, “I came in the Top 5, I was sixth.” Which is to say I don’t think believing in myself has ever been an issue, for better or worse.

Julia Turshen, Shakirah Simley, and Meghan McCarron sit on stage, smiling.
Julia Turshen, Shakirah Simley, and Meghan McCarron at the Eater Young Guns Summit.
Alyssa Ringler

What was the turning point that led to where you are now?

Oh, I’ve had a few. One was figuring out my own voice and learning what I could say that was particular to me. That took time. The other was getting a literary agent after working for a long time without one — taking myself professionally helped others treat me professionally. I didn’t quite understand that I had to do that first. Another major one was meeting my wife. Feeling happy and fulfilled personally has realigned what I seek professionally.

What were the most important skills that got you there?

Introspection and communication. They are two of the most important tools in my toolbox, and I work on keeping them sharp all of the time.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

For cookbooks, hitting send on that first draft! Also, holding the first copy of your book is pretty surreal and doesn’t get old. I also love making the photos for my cookbooks since it’s the moment the book goes from a black-and-white document on the screen to something that feels real and alive. For my podcast, I love interviewing people. I feel so present when I do, and it’s such a gift to have people tell you what’s meaningful to them.

What would surprise people, or what’s something you didn’t realize going into your job? Why?

In interviewing lots of people over the years and doing my best to be in touch with myself, I’d say one thing I know for sure is that few people feel like they 100 percent know what they’re doing. We’re all just figuring it out as we go along.

What’s one of the coolest things you’ve gotten to do?

Launch Equity at the Table and have so many awesome people join it from all over the country and the world.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

Maybe just choose one of them! Ha! But my career advice in general is to think about how you want to spend your day-to-day life as much as you think about what your goals are. If achieving your goals means spending your days miserable, are they really worth it?

Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Photo of Julia Turshen by Neal Santos.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.