Bonnie Stern’s mission is for people to find the joy in cooking—and to realize it’s not so hard.
For almost 50 years, Stern has devoted herself to teaching others about how they can enjoy making food. However, this wasn’t originally the plan for her career.
After graduating from the University of Toronto in English literature she took a year off before hoping to pursue librarian studies. During this break, Stern found that one of the only activities she liked to do besides read, was to eat and cook.
She looked into George Brown College’s culinary program, where there were only six other students enrolled, and decided to embark on her culinary journey.
In 1973 to 2011 she ran the Bonnie Stern School of Cooking, based in Toronto. Stern’s love for what she does has taken her around the world. She has authored 12 best selling cookbooks and hosted three national cooking shows.
Stern sat down with me to discuss her career, her passion for cooking, and some helpful tips for those who inevitably feel the stress of preparing for the High Holidays.
How did your parents take it when you decided to pursue a culinary career instead?
My parents had a nervous breakdown when I didn’t go back to university. I can understand it looking back but I couldn’t understand it then.
Overtime with your success, was that something that changed for them?
Oh yes, and they also saw how happy I was and they saw how the food industry was changing. My father was a chartered accountant and he had a lot of clients who had small businesses and he saw how hard they worked. He wanted an easier life for me than to have a small business and work constantly . . . but that’s exactly what did happen.
From that point, when did you realize you could really make a career from cooking?
I don’t think I ever realized it from that point of view as a career. I thought of it more as something that I loved to do. Back then, people didn’t look at cooking as fun, people looked at it as a chore. Also during the 70’s there weren’t that many restaurants in the city and not many fancy restaurants in Toronto. Because I was so excited about food, I think people caught that excitement from me. I was always very shy, but because I had something to share it got me out of it.
Was your joy for cooking what drove you to then start your own school of cooking and teaching others?
Certainly. I don’t know how I had the nerve to do it. But after I graduated, I could have never become a teacher of anything else.
What was it like when you first started the classes? Was it a slowly evolving process?
Very slow for the first few years, but it grew quickly after that from word-of-mouth because I couldn’t afford advertising, and there was no Internet or Instagram. But, I went along and did it for sometime and different people would come for the classes including people from magazines, which allowed me to start writing for Canadian Living, and I talked on radio shows, which really helped me.
In those difficult moments, how is it that you get yourself through? Is it the love of what you do that keeps you going?
In those days they said it takes three years to build a business so that kept me calm. Back then you didn’t need much money to start a business.
It was the fact that I was helping people that kept me going. It wasn’t just that I loved it. Because I would have loved being a librarian too, but I felt I was really helping people this way. I had tips on if people in your family are picky eaters and how to manage that. Food is such a big part of peoples’ lives, and it’s especially difficult if they don’t like to cook or if there are food restrictions in the family. I felt like I could give people more than just a recipe.
You’ve written so many successful cookbooks. Which are the ones that really stand out to you?
They all stand out for different reasons. The book I wrote for the Heart and Stroke Foundation was written to help people for health reasons. I know people were really scared if they had health concerns and had to cut back on certain foods—and Jewish food is very rich—could they make something so delicious without that? I felt I could really help them with that.
Teaching in person has also allowed me to get feedback directly on whether people liked something or found the recipe was easy to cook . . . I could put the feedback in my recipes and feel that people could be successful.
Speaking too of bringing in Jewish cooking, over the course of your career, how have you incorporated your Jewish identity and traditions with cooking?
Judaism was always a part of my work, it wasn’t a concerted effort. When I started going to Israel and leading culinary tours to Israel, I wrote Friday Night Dinners, and I think going to Israel made me more culturally Jewish and that book was more related to the holidays . . . I always talked about the holidays in other books but Friday Night Dinners was more pointed. The recipes were more of a Jewish style, more kosher recipes, but my last book was written 15 years ago and I closed the school 10 years ago. Now I have more Israeli content or recipes to put in the next book, but I don’t call myself an expert in Israeli cooking or Jewish cooking to be more truthful. It’s more just cooking and making people enthusiastic about food and different flavours and cuisines and how to lead them there.
Any advice for families cooking on the High Holidays?
First thing is to be very organized, and that’s just for cooking in general. The more organized you are the faster it will go and the easier it will be for you. Also, menu planning and planning dishes that won’t require a huge amount of time. To have a couple of favourite dishes or star dishes that you know people want is important. Whether it’s Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Friday night dinners, they want comfort and look forward to things that are familiar to them. Plan the menu according to your ability and time, and do a lot ahead of time so you can enjoy being with people. It can be hard, especially for certain diets—gluten-free, lactose-free, allergies—and then diets for those who are vegan and vegetarian, there should be a couple dishes for these needs. Maybe that means substituting chicken stock with vegetable stock, or making a pureed vegetable soup, or puting matzah balls in a vegetable soup.
What have you been up to during the pandemic? Do you have a new book in the works?
I’ve been working on a new cookbook with my daughter. It’s been an amazing experience creating, writing, and tasting recipes together . . . Many recipes are ones I have been making for years but some are new or are being perfected. My daughter is a wonderful writer, and she edits me well. It’s been very rewarding and beautiful.
But something I think that really came to the forefront in the pandemic is how important it is to teach cooking to kids. In the pandemic, people have realized cooking is a life skill. Choosing to cook with your kids when they’re young is really important. People will always go to restaurants and always do take-out but if you just have 10 quick recipes that you can pull out and love to make, then you realize, it’s not so hard and you can have a lot of fun doing it.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Header image photo courtesy of Bonnie Stern.