Life Lessons from Manischewitz

Life Lessons from Manischewitz

While I was secretly hoping that Kate and William might need a keynote speaker for their big day, I was not surprised that my invitation to the royal wedding never arrived. I can also say that, as a cheerful and frequent host of many Shabbat dinners, I am far from astounded when my family gets invited out to usher in the Sabbath around someone else’s dining room table.

But when I was invited to attend the 5th Annual Man-O-Manischewitz $25,000 Grand Prize Cook-off hosted by legendary chef Jacques Pepin, I was flabbergasted. And thrilled. And chuzpadik enough to ask if I could get a second ticket for my ten-year old son Jacob.

While other pre-teen boys are out scoring touchdowns or mastering the latest X-Box game, Jacob has found his special gift: cooking. I think it emanated from an earlier talent (eating) and has morphed from pastime to passion. The Iron Chefs are his superheros, the latest Bobby Flay cookbook is his bedtime reading, and his favorite Chanukah gifts this past year? Two, count ’em, two chefs jackets in just his size.

There’s no question that cooking is educational. You need to know how to measure and calculate, prepare and plan ahead, read and follow directions. Of course, Jacob is a smart cookie and he knew how to do all of that before he ever held his first immersion blender. His biggest transformation, though, was much more significant. As a bright, energetic and affable student ("delicious" his Hebrew teacher called him at the last parent-teacher conference) Jacob manages to do just fine in school by choosing the path of least resistance.

If his book report calls for a page of writing, he will write as little (content) and as big (font) as he can get away with. If an art project requires coloring, he will choose the three colors of whatever markers are closest by. So when Jacob and I watched two contestants on Gordon Ramsey’s "Masterchef" show duel it out with battling soufflés, he stunned me by saying, "Wow, that looks hard. I want to try it." And two hours plus two dozen eggs later, Jacob had done it. Deliciously.

Cooking has given Jacob fame among friends and family, confidence beyond the kitchen, and a palate beyond his age. So when I made the decision that he could skip school for this "alternative educational experience" sponsored by Manischewitz, I knew that there would be lessons for him to learn. And while I do mince onions, I do not mince words: "You’re going to be missing a day of school and there will be lessons to learn." I announced. "Be ready to report back."

So here are three lessons that Jacob took away from the day:

1) Express your wants and expectations clearly and politely to increase your chances of success.

The Manischewitz Cook-Off was both big food news and big Jewish news (two of my favorite categories). Jewish media were omnipresent at the event. At one point, I was interviewed for The Jewish Channel, and was asked to give my opinion about the competition. When I returned to my seat, Jacob whispered to me, "I want to be interviewed, too." Rather than asking on Jacob’s behalf, I told him the name of the reporter, Rebecca, and suggested that he make the request himself. He walked right up to Rebecca, flashed his winning smile, and said, "I’d like to be interviewed for your show. Would you do that, please?" Within a minute, Jacob was speaking into the microphone with a TV camera capturing every moment – a moment that he made happen himself. The next time he wants to make something important to him happen, he’ll remember that he doesn’t need mom – he’s got the confidence and competence to do it himself.

2) There’s more than one way to reach your goal.

As Jacob and I walked the competition floor, we took the time to speak with each of the contestants. When we asked competitor Suzanne Banfield how she got involved in this event, she shared her journey with us. As an avid eater and amateur cook, she began to wonder if she could make a living doing what she loved by writing a cookbook. While considering her publishing options, she entered a "Build a Better Burger" Contest and won the $50,000 grand prize. In that moment, the chef-and-math-whiz quickly calculated that she’d need to sell a whole lot of cookbooks to make that kind of money, so she chose a new approach to reach her professional goal: start cooking to win! The following year, she won the Junior’s Cheesecake competition – proving that she is master of both milk and meat. While she didn’t win the Manischewitz contest, she has triumphed in finding a way to make her passion her profession – a way that looked quite a bit different from how she had pictured it at the onset.

3) Don’t count yourself out – ever.

While the other four finalists had been selected to vie for the title by a panel of judges, Stuart Davis won the right to compete through an online vote on Manischewitz’s web site. By counting on votes from friends and family from as close as his hometown of Cherry Hill, NJ to as far away as Israel, Canada, Vienna and Japan, Davis rallied his fans and made the cut. Having a seat at the table – or a knife on the cutting board – could have been his "dayenu" moment. However, with his delectable Chicken and Egg Donburi, Davis ruled the range, winning the $25,000 Man-O-Manischewitz Grand Prize. It was a triumph of the heart, the hand, the community, the chicken, and the egg – no matter which came first.

Jacob returned to school the next day, ready for Social Studies and Language Arts and Judaics and Science. And like his top-notch day school education, the life lessons he learned from Manischewitz will last him a lifetime.

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at or Read previous ‘Success’ columns here.

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