Maureen Petrosky should really be writing this story. After all, she published two books and writes regularly for consumer magazines and websites, like Cake & Whiskey magazine and thekitchn.com, imparting knowledge from her career as a television personality, professional chef, food stylist, and TV show producer. And Real Woman is right in her wheelhouse—she’s all about helping people—especially women—create real-life social networks. That’s the premise of her two books—The Wine Club (which sold 75,000 copies) and her latest book, The Cocktail Club (released last spring)—bringing people together socially, in this case around wine or cocktails, to break out of the vacuum of online networks and create meaningful relationships.
But her dance card is pretty full. The morning of this Real Woman photoshoot started with Petrosky getting her twin 10-year-old boys, Chris and Elliot, off to school, then stopping at the Colonial Farms bakery in Washington Crossing, Pa. to pick up treats for the crew before getting her kitchen photo ready. When the shoot wraps and once the chickens are fed and the boys finish their homework, she’s off to the Trenton Country Club to teach a group of women about cocktails. And she’s just warming up.
So while she may not be wearing her writer hat today, she could be sketching out ideas for a TV segment or crafting food, wine, beer, and cocktail menus for restaurants. Later in the week, she may appear on the NBC’s “TODAY” show, where she has a regular gig, showing millions of viewers how to throw the ultimate Halloween party or choreograph a kid-friendly New Year’s Eve. This weekend, she may be a guest judge for anything from the James Beard Awards to the Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay.”
Petrosky’s business card says she’s a lifestyle expert, but the 39-year-old from Yardley, Pa., has carved out a career taking advantage of her eclectic skill set related to food, drink, and entertaining on air, in print, and in person. She could never have imagined that what began as an afterschool job at the Colonial Farms bakery in her hometown would evolve into a high-profile career inhabiting diverse roles within the culinary media industry. After all, she hasn’t had much of a road map to follow, so her livelihood has mainly been fueled by hard work, a can-do attitude, and an intuition for food and entertainment.
Big, Bold Move
In 1997, after getting her liberal arts degree from Villanova University, Petrosky took a job in marketing for a pharmaceutical company and soon found it wasn’t what she wanted to do. “I would go to work at 9 o’clock, and by 9:15 I’d be looking at the clock, thinking, how do I get out of here,” Petrosky says. So a few months later, she followed her heart to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York. “I knew when I went to culinary school I didn’t necessarily want to be a chef in a restaurant. I always wanted to do something in the media related to food,” Petrosky says. “Martha Stewart was like a god to me. I loved everything she was doing.”
This was at least a decade before the tsunami of shows like “Top Chef,” “Chopped,” and “Hell’s Kitchen” flooded the networks. It was a time when most people went to culinary school to work in a kitchen and maybe even own a restaurant some day. It certainly wasn’t the path to becoming a media personality that it is today. “When I started out, the idea of being a TV chef was like a pipe dream. Now, it’s like every kid that goes to culinary school, that’s what they want to be,” Petrosky says. “I didn’t go into this wanting to be a celebrity. I wanted to do all the creative parts of it—television and writing—and then the on-air talent work came after.”
When Petrosky applied for an externship, Martha Stewart Living was on the short list. She got the interview, but what she found when she got there turned her off. In fact, she describes the experience as the most horrific interview of her life. “During the tour, the woman who was interviewing me ripped into somebody else who worked there right in front of me. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” she recalls.
Fortunately for Petrosky, her next interview proved to be the gateway to her career. She went to the Food Network, which was still in its infancy, and she had the opportunity to be on the ground floor as a food stylist and prep cook when the network was on the verge of exploding into the powerhouse it is today.
After her externship, the Food Network hired Petrosky to work on a variety of shows. “There are so many programs and needs in the culinary media industry, whether it’s recipe testing or writing script outlines or being on air as a judge,” she says. “I’ve done all of those things, and I still do. I like the variety.
“That’s what suits me, not doing the same thing every day. But it’s scary because I don’t always know what I’m going to be doing next. Some days there isn’t anything next—I have to create it.”
A Little bit of Everything
After completing a fellowship in front-of-the-house restaurant management, which involved training on buying, selling, and serving wine and eventually getting her sommelier certification, she married her college boyfriend, Michael Petrosky, who had moved down to Atlanta for chiropractic school. She got a job at a restaurant in Atlanta called Mumbo Jumbo, working long hours for a demanding chef. “I wanted to take a vacation, and he said no. I told him if I couldn’t go, I was going to quit. He said, ‘You’ll be back’ and threw the keys at me. I never went back—I still keep those keys in the console of my car,” Petrosky says. “From there, I had to cobble together a career because I didn’t want to go back into the restaurant kitchen. I have a skill set that ranges beyond one job. I wanted to put it all into play—test and write recipes, work on scripts, food style, teach, cook, and write.”
It was in Atlanta, with all of these different—but related—jobs in motion that Petrosky reached out to Alton Brown, who needed a producer for his Atlanta-based, long-format cooking show. “I met him in a Starbucks, and he hired me on the spot, and for 3 years I wrote for his show and was the culinary producer of ‘Good Eats,’” which focused on the history and science behind food.
Forming personal relationships has been the signature of Petrosky’s career and is the quintessential piece of advice she gives women who are looking to get started. “No matter what you want to get into, whether you want to switch your career and be an artist or get into pharmaceutical sales, you need to get face time with people,” she says. “For me, business is personal. All the relationships I have in my work are with people I would want to spend time with outside work.”
The Family Plan
The Petroskys moved to New York; Michael got a job as a chiropractor, and Maureen became contributing editor at Bon Appétit. She loved it but found she had an itch to write a book, which coincided with a desire to start a family. She sold her first book, The Wine Club, bought a house in Bucks County, Pa., and discovered she was pregnant with twins, all within a small window of time. Petrosky’s pregnancy was high-risk and plagued with a condition called hyperemesis gravidarum—extreme nausea—for 25 weeks, causing her to lose 11 pounds during her first trimester and landing her in the hospital multiple times for dehydration. Doctors put her on a medication called Zofran, typically used for chemo patients to control nausea, which proved to be her saving grace.
Although she started gaining weight again, and the babies were thriving, she had to be induced 6 weeks early because a condition called preeclampsia was causing extremely high blood pressure and kidney failure. She hemorrhaged during the delivery and again 3 weeks later, the second time requiring an aggressive dilation and curettage (D&C), which resulted in so much scarring on her uterus (a condition called Asherman’s syndrome), she could not conceive again.
Chris and Elliot were small (4.1 and 4.5 pounds at birth) and spent a few weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital in New York, but when they were ready to travel, the Petroskys moved to their home in Bucks County. Having already asked her publisher for an extension, she was up against a deadline and found herself nursing and typing in her home office in the early days of the babies’ lives.
When the twins were about 7 weeks old, Petrosky got a call from a producer at the Food Network, asking her to host her own cooking show in Hawaii—a dream assignment. For a moment, she
considered it, running through possible scenarios in her mind. “But I stood over their crib looking at them, and I cried and cried because I knew that was going to be the choice—to stay there with the kids or choose my job. I picked the kids, and I don’t regret that, but it was a hard thing,” Petrosky says. “You have this picture of your life in your head, and then the picture changes in a second. I still don’t think I have to give up my career, but it could have been different 10 years ago if I had made another choice.”
While she had to take a flyer on Hawaii, plenty of other opportunities came along, and Petrosky seized them. She taught, styled, cooked, produced, and wrote her way through a high-action career. But during the past decade, she’s also learned how to effectively manage both a vibrant career and her rich family life, although she admits it’s sometimes a high-wire act that looks easier than it is. “Lots of people my age will say, ‘You’re so lucky. You get to go to work, and you have this great job.’ But there is nothing lucky about it. I worked my butt off from the beginning, and I still do.”
While Petrosky’s life is sometimes a whirlwind, she tries to be selective about the jobs she takes on because she only wants to sacrifice her time with Chris, Elliot, and Michael for things she genuinely cares about. “I want to set the example for my kids that anything I do is going to be worth my time. You only have one shot on this earth. You should be doing something you love every single day. I know you might say it’s easier said than done. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”