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Alum of the Month – May

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Maria Zizka ’06 Creates a Recipe for Professional Success

When Maria Zizka ’06 began co-authoring a column on food and culture for U.C. Berkeley’s The Daily Californian, she couldn’t have imagined how the experience would change her life trajectory.

A Biology major, Zizka was taking pre-med classes and contemplating becoming a doctor.

Today, Zizka is a cookbook writer and recipe developer who has collaborated with California’s leading chefs, including Elisabeth Prueitt, Jessica Koslow and Suzanne Goin. She has co-authored numerous award-winning cookbooks, such as Tartine All Day, Everything I Want to Eat, and This Is Camino, has contributed to 12 published books and developed over 1,000 recipes. Her first solo cookbook will be published by Artisan in early 2019.

Her professional accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. Zizka made the 2018 edition of the Forbes 30 Under 30: Food & Drink listing. “It’s the greatest honor I’ve ever received for my work,” she said. “I still almost can’t believe it’s really true. I was totally surprised and I feel so grateful.”

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Zizka recalled the evening that she and her now husband, graphic designer Graham Bradley, were walking home from the library during her second year of college.

“Graham said that he heard the school newspaper was hiring a columnist and suggested I write about food,” she said. “I had been cooking a lot, but I had no experience writing and I didn’t think anyone would hire me to do that.”

Bradley, an experienced writer, offered an intriguing option – “we can co-author it.” The couple applied for the position and was hired. Zizka subsequently joined the Cal cooking club, and began to consider a leap into a very unusual career – cookbook writing and recipe developing.

“I didn’t really have a model for what it might look like, but when I thought about writing about food my heart just pounded in my chest,” she said. “It scared me in a good way.”

Collecting the Ingredients for a Career

After graduating from UC Berkeley, Zizka moved to Manhattan – a place she had never even visited before – to take an internship with Slow Food USA. This non-profit organization, founded by Carlo Petrini – stands against the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.

At Slow Food, Zizka worked on the Ark of Taste – a project that catalogues delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction – writing about heritage apple varieties that once grew in New York State.

Zizka subsequently attended L’Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche in Italy, where she earned a master’s degree in food culture and communications. She wrote her master’s thesis on American cookbooks in the 20th century and how the introduction of eBooks changed the market.

A requirement of the master’s program was to complete a three-month internship. So Zizka wrote to a chef and author she admired – Suzanne Goin – and asked to work with her. Much to Zizka’s delight, Goin offered her the opportunity collaborate on a cookbook, heading up recipe testing.

“Suzanne became my mentor and has always been the biggest supporter of me and my career,” Zizka said. “And Graham and I got married at one of her restaurants – A.O.C. in Los Angeles.”

A Quirky Kind of Writing

“It’s such a particular style of writing, and there is a style guide that each publishing house follows,” she explained. “I love how you can get a sense of someone’s personality and voice through a recipe. I’m really attracted to recipes that are unique and packed with verbs that a person would actually use.”

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Zizka started work on her solo cookbook about 18 months ago. “The cookbook-making process isn’t quick. It takes years to develop and test more than one hundred recipes, edit the manuscript, design the layout, and photograph all the dishes. Then of course there’s the printing and bookbinding,” she said. “The really sweet thread through this is my husband is doing all the design.”

The idea to develop her own cookbook came shortly after Zizka got engaged and was perusing cookbooks intended for newlyweds.

“Even though they were recently published they felt outdated and they didn’t reflect my reality. They were often about a wife cooking for her husband, and so I had this idea to write a modern, updated version of a newlywed cookbook where the couple is a team and they work together. It’s about cooking for each other and other people,” she said.

Zizka says one of the most challenging aspects of her work – recipe development in particular – is being comfortable with feelings of frustration. “If a dish doesn’t turn out well, I have to be able to just try again and again,” she said. “That takes a certain drive.”

With years of cooking under her belt, Zizka doesn’t have too many mishaps in the kitchen these days. “I can see when things are headed down a bad path and I can make adjustments in real time to prevent any major disasters. But I’ve certainly had my fair share,” she said.


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