When Jamie Mendelovici Geller was in the fourth grade, her mom, Goldie, contemplated building a new family home in Philadelphia — one without a kitchen. Goldie came to her senses and instead instructed the architect to place the kitchen off to the side of the house, near the garage, so she would never have to walk through the kitchen if she didn’t have to.
Little would Goldie have guessed that years later, her daughter would gain a following as the “kosher Rachael Ray.” Equally unlikely was the fact that Jamie would become observant, marry, and plop a couch into her Monsey kitchen, which has since morphed into a happening hub of family life. There, her three children hang out and play – while Jamie cooks the extravagant (yet easy! simple!) seven-course meals she used to ogle at in amazement.
This didn’t happen overnight, admits Geller, whose best-selling cookbook “Quick and Kosher: Recipes From the Bride Who Knew Nothing” is on its second printing. In fact, she still can’t bear to call herself a “chef.”
Cooking certainly wasn’t a favored pastime growing up. “My mother never cooked,” she says. “We would order in and put everything on a platter. My mom was adamant about having ‘no cartons on the table’ — not even milk or juice.”
Although the cooking gene existed — Geller’s paternal grandfather was a butcher who made a mean potato kugel and was nicknamed “chef,” and her maternal grandparents owned several successful restaurants — it was deeply buried. Geller still laughs when recalling an unfortunate incident from her high school days, when she put a bagel into the microwave for five minutes and it began smoking.
When she went off to NYU for college, Geller continued the family tradition of take-out. Despite being bogged down by coursework, she landed an internship with CNN’s entertainment show “Showbiz Today,” which she hightailed into a full-time assistant producer gig upon graduation. “I wanted to be Barbara Walters,” she says. “I got swept up in Hollywood, premiers, and red-carpet interviews with celebrities.” Soon, she was working 14-hour days and thought little about cooking when she regularly returned home from work at 3 a.m. “My friends thought I was the coolest person in the world,” she says. “I’d bring them to after-parties.” She shoved a microphone in front of top-tier celebrities, among them Angelina Jolie, Kate Hudson, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Around this time, she began attending Torah lectures disguised as Jewish single events, and occasionally showing up to Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis’ shiurim. “I was so enamored by her,” she says. Yet it was Shabbat meals with observant families that got her hooked on Judaism – and, later, on cooking. “I never before saw a husband announce to the table of guests, ‘Thank you to my amazing wife who cooked this delicious meal,’” she says.
Geller decided that December to become shomer Shabbat. She quit her 24/7 job and, after spending three weeks learning about Jewish law and philosophy at a seminary in Israel, she joined HBO. There she produced promo campaigns gearing up to the new season for TV shows like “The Wire” and “Entourage.” At the same time, she began dating for marriage. By the time she was 25, she had gone out with more than 60 men.
Then a matchmaker set her up with her future husband, Nachum Geller. They were engaged after just six dates, and married two months later, in March 2004.
Soon after they married, she experienced the “chicken soup incident.” “I didn’t cut any of the vegetables,” she says. “I had whole parsnips the size of my forearm. The carrots still had their green leaves. There was so much parsley, you couldn’t see the broth,” she says.
Thankfully, her husband, a financial advisor whose family is in catering, came to the rescue. “We cooked together for the first year of marriage,” she says. “It was a great bonding experience.”
After much practice and many tips from Nachum, Geller began to grow more comfortable in the kitchen. So while on maternity leave, she decided to write the cookbook she sorely needed when she had just gotten married; The one with the quick recipes, where quick means 15 minutes, not an hour. She describes it as a “chick-lit/autobiographical/self-help kosher cookbook.”
Geller spent several months on the project, then shopped the idea to ArtScroll, who turned her down because of its exclusive contract with “Kosher by Design” author Susie Fishbein. So Geller sold the cookbook to Feldheim. She insisted that it be professional looking, and with the help of her husband, formed her own corporation, Geller Creative, and raised more than half of the $140,000 needed to cover publishing, photography, publicity and testing costs. “I didn’t want a Jewish-type of cookbook,” she says. She even contacted companies like Osem whose products she uses, and persuaded them to pay for mentions in the cookbook.
Part of Geller’s appeal is her disheveled apron (figuratively speaking). She’s honest enough to admit that she’s no Martha Stewart. In fact, she advocates shortcuts like frozen vegetables and soup mix.
“I’m exactly like you and your next-door neighbor,” she says. “I still get nervous in the kitchen. I’m allergic to measuring. I just dip, taste, mix, and swirl.”
Geller hopes to broaden the brand by creating a Web site devoted to quick and kosher cooking. Within the next few weeks, eight cooking shows that she produced will appear on the Orthodox Union’s Web site, as part of its “Simply Kosher!” downloadable cooking shows.
Her goal, however, isn’t to keep women chained to the kitchen. “Some recipes, you have to be in the kitchen for a week,” she says. “But there’s no reason you can’t make duck sauce chicken — just clean the chicken, pour the duck sauce, and cook. Something so simple can be so delicious. I always get so many compliments.”
Profit Motive is an occasional series profiling Jewish entrepreneurs who are making their mark here in a variety of business ventures.