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Reading Between the Lines with Chef Hope Cohen

April 23, 2013 By:
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For someone who isn’t a restaurateur, Hope Cohen sure has fed a lot of people. Through her cooking classes, television shows and consulting work, Cohen has become one of the most influential people in the local food world, with countless Philadelphians eating from restaurant menus she designed and recipes her students have brought home.

After beginning her culinary career as a teenager and starting her own catering company at 19, the 50-year-old Bryn Mawr resident left the food world because, as she puts it, “it wasn’t a real job.” Instead, she became a real estate broker, before leaving it all behind to become a mother of two.

Once her children reached school age, Cohen soon had to admit to herself that what the French call the feu sacré — the “sacred fire” that burns within those called to the professional kitchen — had never gone out. Since then, she has gone from working for free in Guillermo Pernot’s groundbreaking Manayunk restaurant Vega Grill to hosting more than episodes of The Chef’s Kitchen on CN8. She has consulted at numerous restaurants through her company, StrawberryBlonde, and has become a regular presence on QVC.

Her latest venture is her first cookbook, Fast Fresh and Simple, which focuses on seasonally driven bounty that can be quickly and simply prepared.

How did the cookbook come about?

I started the project about eight years ago, but the words just didn’t flow. I figured I wasn’t ready yet. Two years ago, I was ready. I got turned down by a couple publishers — they told me my platform wasn’t where it should be. I’m pretty confident that I would have found a publisher if I kept looking, but I decided to do it myself.

Wait, what?

I didn’t want to wait. When someone tells me I can’t do something, that makes me want to do it even more. Screw them.

What was it like to become your own publisher?

I thought, “This will be easy. I’ll write some recipes, take some photos, and I’ll have a book” — which turned out to be ridiculously false. For example, I thought the editor would do the index. Well, editors don’t do indexes! Publishers have indexing software — but I’m the publisher, so I had to hire someone to do it. I don’t know if I’ll recoup the money I spent — I didn’t do it to be a big moneymaker — but I would like to at least break even. 

Now that the cookbook is done, what else are you doing?

I give back a lot — I work with and sit on the boards of a few nonprofits. One is Mission Kids, a child advocacy center for sexually abused children in Montgomery County that was started by Risa Vetri Furman. I feel like I have to be involved — it was a big part of how my parents brought me up Jewishly. They were very giving to people who were less fortunate, and I want to do the same, to teach my kids.

You have spent almost your entire working life in the food industry, but you have never opened your own place. Why not?

I didn’t want to work that hard. I saw what it took to be successful in the business, and I often fantasized about it. I helped a lot of people do it, but I could never do that to myself. 

What if one of your kids came to you and said, “Mom, I want to follow in your footsteps. I’m getting into the restaurant business!”

I would say to them, “Are you kidding me?! Have a dinner party and get over it!” 

Are you ever invited over to other people’s dinner parties?

Not as often as I’d like. People are intimidated. I tell them, put a hot dog on the grill and I’ll be happy. I’m not particular, as long as it’s good.

At bookstores now and at www.fastfreshandsimple.com.

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