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Debra Shigley JD

Debra Shigley J.D.

From Bakery Owner to Editor to Gluten-Free Guru

Vision (and a devil-may-care attitude) helps when switching careers

Photo credit: Stephen Scott Gross

"I've never stayed in a job just for the paycheck," says author and former magazine editor Silvana Nardone. "If the passion is gone, I'll leave and try something else." Nardone says her low tolerance for corporate politicking and craving for adrenaline have earned her a reputation as somewhat of a "loose cannon" in the publishing industry.

During her career, she walked away from magazines to open an Italian bakery, then returned to become the founding editor of Every Day with Rachael Ray. Now, she's left again to focus on writing books. Her cookbook, Cooking for Isaiah, is on shelves now and was inspired by her son's diagnosis with gluten intolerance. What does it take to continually transition between careers? "Whatever I do, I throw myself in 100 percent. You have to go for yours and fully embrace it," she says. Nardone shared a bit about her journey to her current role as a gluten-free guru.

What got you interested in food journalism?

I grew up in an Italian-Jewish household. Food was part of every meal. At breakfast, we were talking about what's for lunch. All we did was talk about food or eat food. With my husband, I joke that I could never have married him if he didn't want to eat as much as I did!

You were Special Projects Editor at Saveur magazine, but left shortly after 9/11 to start an Italian bakery, Fanciulla. Why?

I guess I was on the verge of leaving for a while. I love being an editor and writer, and I'm good at it--but I don't need all the politics that go around it. I always wondered, ‘Can't I just do my job and do it well?' Well, no, you cant!

After 9/11, I wanted to work in Brooklyn, where I live, and be closer to my son Isaiah's school. I thought I'd write an Italian cookbook and in the process of developing recipes, my friends started suggesting I open a bakery. I thought, ‘yeah, sure.' I had no training and knew nothing about owning my own business. But I put an email out to all my food friends to see if anyone knew of a [shared kitchen space], and found one that was surprisingly cheap. Then it was a steep learning curve. My list of things to do was like 20 pages long--where do you get the ingredients? Health inspection? Liability insurance? But it worked out. My first customer was Dean & Deluca.

That sounds like it was unusually easy to get the business off the ground.

It was easy, but I feel like it had very little to do with anything I did personally. With everything I do, the product has to speak for itself. I want you to experience the best I have to offer. The cookies sold themselves.

I did have a vision of what I wanted to happen, in terms of the bakery's success. Before I opened, I had a vision of what the bakery looked like, how it will grow, who are the buyers, what type of cooking they like or don't like. It's good to know who you are--and aren't--going to attract. Some people will hate your product. You can't have everyone love you; you just need a few.

Then out of the blue, you got a call from an editorial director at Reader's Digest, asking if you'd be interested in a new project.

Yes, at first I said I wasn't interested, but I agreed to meet him for lunch. When I learned it would be a magazine for Rachael Ray, I thought, 'hmm, she's cool and laid-back...we're both Italian Americans.' (Keep in mind this was five years ago, when she hadn't quite propelled to a household name yet!)

I liked the idea of starting a food magazine from scratch and thought it could be fun. It was a crazy summer working day and night getting the magazine launched. Then I got pregnant with my daughter. With the magazine, bakery, and pregnancy, I figured I couldn't do all three really well. So, I closed the bakery.

What's your take on the idea that women can ‘have it all'?

I don't think I know my four-year-old daughter Chiara as well as I know my son. When he was little, I had this great gig: working 3 days a week in the office, two at home with him. As an editor-in-chief, I never got home before 7 o'clock at night--just in time to put Chiara to bed. That started bothering me.

There have also been times when I didn't think I was being a good wife. I joke that I took advantage of the fact that my husband Stephen is in love with me! Here was my thought process: if I don't feed the kids, they'll starve. If I don't edit this article, I'll get fired. But my husband? If I don't give him attention right now, he'll still be there--and he can feed himself! I've learned that wasn't fair to him. Marriage requires maintenance.

When your son was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance, you embarked on a new mission to make him foods he wanted to eat. How did you get started?

I researched on the Web, read all the gluten-free cookbooks and about other people's [flour] blends, and tasted all the gluten-free products. Then, I just started playing around. I lost myself in the process. My husband says he didn't see me for two months! One thing you learn when you have your own bakery: you're going to have a lot of successes and failures in the kitchen. For example, Isaiah wanted cornbread. My first attempt crumbled into a million pieces. It took me three tries to get it right.

In general, my turning point was perfecting the flour blend. Once I had that, I got "unstuck" and was able to build off the base to create recipes.

Any quick tips for others that are trying to cook gluten-free?

It can be very overwhelming at first! Start small, with maybe a cookie or brownie, so you get to know the process.


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About the Author

Debra Shigley JD

Debra Shigley, J.D., is a journalist based in Atlanta.