You don’t get in life what you want. You get what you are.
I recently stumbled upon this quote, and in a time when personal reflection is often the name of the game, it became very relevant. This past year, while certainly challenging, frustrating, and confusing, if not many more things, helped me to remember who I am. Is that partially because I moved back home with my parents for 14 months to spend every day surrounded by aspects of my childhood? Of course. The tangibility of pictures, videos, mementos, and conversations served as continuous reminders for what I was currently missing from my life, and this is exactly what I needed to clarify what I wanted to accomplish for myself.
But my time in quarantine did not start like this. Having recently quit a very stressful job, I could not have been more grateful to have so much time to just relax and get lost in the idea that time no longer seemed to matter. Being a restaurant chef, my job and industry was pretty much traumatized by what was happening in the world, and knowing that in-person culinary interactions were not going to exist for quite a long time, I pretty much just isolated myself from the food world for a bit. I could not get a handle on the fact that I had no idea what the next step in my career would be anymore, so I chose to avoid thinking about it and busied myself in the part-time job I had as a backup source of income instead – resume writing. Money was on my mind as well, and it seemed like the right choice to take advantage of this work since it could be done from home and could actually give me some financial security if I put enough hours in.
I was paying a great deal of attention to my rational mind. I decided that I did not need to prioritize my enthusiasm for cooking, dancing, or playing the drums when I could maintain a steady income. Plus, whatever I was doing before I would just tap into when the world was back – those characteristics were ingrained in me, and if I could not do it full out, why would I waste time now? This job I could do full out since it was always remote, so I was just going to keep doing it for as long as I could.
Well, as long as I could lasted about three months, for I missed being truly emotionally invested in what I was doing. I did enjoy the people with whom I was working and the dynamic pace. But I could feel myself clamoring every time I had to remain seated and on my computer for six to eight hours a day. For the past five years, my job was always on my feet, and my mind, body, and soul were completely immersed in every task – I craved the physical stimulation of my more artistic interests and longed for the opportunity to express what I was feeling inside me. Less than a year ago, I started to really define my brand as a chef, calling it Syncopated to represent my love of cooking, dancing, and drumming, all with a rhythmical flair. This was where my true passion lied. Just because I could not be where I wanted to be did not mean I had to stop being who I was. As Maya Angelou said, ‘nothing can dim the light which shines from within.’ So I knew I could find a way to keep all of this as my profession, I just might need take a new path to get there.
I started by cooking again, and I had a crazy idea to incorporate another one of my hobbies – several years back, I learned numerous Israeli dances, many of which pulled from other cultures – and I absolutely adore them. The steps are fun, the music is catchy, and I am always in a good mood when performing them. I figured, why not use the dances to travel around the world? Each dance could inspire a new dish! And I could call it ‘This Kitchen is for Dancing!’
I was reinvigorated with a new purpose –introducing these dances to so many new people, along with developing and offering inventive ways to explore regional foods in more depth, was a blast. But while this was a great way for me to demonstrate what my brand was about, it was not profitable. I needed another idea.
My best thinking tends to happen in the shower. So one night last October, I had an idea that I should make an e-cookbook. This would be something that could keep me going for a little while and eventually have a worthwhile payoff. Plus, it did not seem that hard, and the financial investment on my end would be minimal – I essentially just had to pay for the food. Overall, it sounded like a solid project to take on, I was only missing a theme.
I figured this would be in the back of my mind for some time. Well, the next night, I was in the shower again and a lightbulb went off. Winter was coming soon, and my all-time favorite ballet is The Nutcracker…I should make an e-cookbook about The Nutcracker! I loved this ballet growing up, and ever since I stopped performing in it 11 years ago, I always wanted to bring it back into my life. December was not for seven weeks, that was certainly enough time to pull it together.
And that was all the thinking I did before getting started! Maybe not enough for such an ambitious project, but I did not want to talk myself out of it. In reality, seven weeks was completely unrealistic – most cookbooks are published over a year’s time, with a whole team of people, and somehow, I believed I could do it on my own, with no prior publishing experience, and without leaving my house. Well, I am glad I let out my inner child who is not afraid to act on any thought that comes to mind, because somehow, I managed to get it all done, and turn it into a physical copy too!
But let us backtrack a little. Why did I think this cookbook would matter? Well, with a typical holiday and Nutcracker season impossible this past year, I figured I would not be the only one missing out on this tradition. I also knew that there were tons of other dancers in the world who, like me, might not have performed in one for many years but still held on to the cherished memories of their childhood. And this was not just about dancers. The Nutcracker is a part of so many different people’s lives as seen by the wide-ranging audiences it attracts – it really creates a worldwide community. This idea of togetherness was most important to me. When all of us are spending so much time alone, I did not want to lose the universal individuality of this particular ballet at this time of year.
So how would a cookbook come into play? Just like a live show, food brings people together, especially during the holidays, so I would tell the story of The Nutcracker through the different dishes. And because the theme was The Nutcracker, I would make the dishes nut-based. But this would not be enough to really bring The Nutcracker into everyone’s homes. With the food not being an exact replica of every scene, I wanted to include illustrations as well. Live theater is such a visual experience, and I had to translate the beautiful imagery evoked by this story in a more tangible way.
But even this was not enough. While I mentioned before that The Nutcracker is a beloved ballet, it is to a point. The story of The Nutcracker is actually extremely outdated, being written in 1816, and does not present a very relatable family from the beginning or best highlight diversity amongst different cultures. It is slightly limiting in its inclusivity, and while many of us have just accepted it because of the epic tradition that is this ballet, I desired to expand the plot to better connect with kids of every background. So I included a progressive story about reflection at the end of the year in addition to the familiar characters from the ballet, pulling out new concepts to consider based on the same themes already present in The Nutcracker, only showcased in a completely different light.
Now I was satisfied. This is the book I wanted to produce, something that was for the people and for myself. The hospitality industry is all about serving others, and I truly believed that this book in this form could bring so much to families during the holiday season. There would be scrumptious food, delightful pictures, meaningful conversation topics that spark personal and familial growth, and kid-friendly recipe steps highlighted throughout as well – a great experience for both children and adults!
So how did I make this seemingly impossible project come to life? Well, I had to put on A LOT of different hats during this time. I was no longer just the chef. I was the publisher and business manager, directing the vision, understanding the finances, and securing a contract. I was the author, writing the recipes, the descriptions, and the storyline for the whole book. I was the food stylist, searching my house for the perfect decorative items for each dish and finding numerous settings inside and out. I was the photographer, capturing every shot when the light was just right. I was the book and cover designer, determining the best way to lay out all the content so that it would be easily digestible. I was the editor, double-checking that I spelled everything properly and did not forget any ingredients. Then I was the advertiser, marketing my book through every channel possible. I was also the outreach coordinator, seeking out a charity to support with a donation. And lastly, I was the consumer, because I had to make sure it came out exactly as I wanted.
If someone were to ask me what I desired the subject of my first cookbook to be a year ago, there is no way I would have said The Nutcracker. I also probably would have said that I was not even thinking about publishing a cookbook for a few years – I did not think I had anything worthwhile to share yet as my first and foremost goal was to get enough experience and make enough connections to open a restaurant. But that is because my mind was fixated on what I wanted, not what I already was. I was not remembering all the time I spent as a child defining my interests, going after them, and creating my own unique story. I was formulating memories, building foundations that would shape who I wanted to be when I was older, and allowing my passions to truly drive my actions, but then I was getting lost in the grind thinking that achievement yields happiness when it really is the other way around.
All of us have our purpose and our own essence that makes us who we are – if we forget about that as we get older, forget about the fact that we are in charge of our own destinies and our own joy, than we miss out on the opportunity to reach our true potential and get the most out of our time and efforts. I know that I had not been invested in a project as much as I was for this cookbook, or my initial Israeli dance series, in a very long time, and moving forward, I am not about to change who I am or do something I do not love just because there is more recognition or wealth from it. Being authentic is key to establishing the ideal journey for ourselves, and the more we hold onto this principle, the more fulfilled we will be. Plus, when food is prepared with love, diners do not just taste it, but they feel it too– being able to share a literal piece of myself and connect with others on this deeper level is a gratification that will never get old, just like The Nutcracker.
To learn more about Alexis Sicklick and how she was inspired by The Nutcracker visit https://www.syncopatednyc.com/a-taste-of-the-nutcracker-cookbook