Whenever my sweet tooth strikes, one of the first things I turn to is a really good cookie. Lucky for me, fellow entrepreneur and Santa Ynez Valley resident Rebecca Firth, creator of the Saveur-nominated blog DisplacedHousewife, knows a thing or two about cookies. In celebration of the launch of her first book The Cookie Book, I sat down with the food writer, photographer and mother-of-two for the 9th addition of our Pillow Talk series. We chatted about the cranberry appetizer that started it all, a second book that’s in the works and our mutual love for pillows.
When you were in school, what was your favorite subject and what did you want to “grow up” to be?
English was my favorite subject, always. I’ve always loved books and writing. I think I thought I would be (or wanted to be) a writer when I grew up. I have both my BA and MA in English Literature and there was also a secondary thought that I would go on to get my PhD and become a professor. It still sounds amazing, don’t you think?!
What contributed to you becoming the businesswoman that you are today?
I am pretty determined, and goal focused. I think those are the two things that keep driving things forward. I usually and often think, why not me? when I’m setting goals. Which I would be nowhere without goal setting…can I add that in here too? I set annual goals, monthly goals and then reevaluate both weekly when I’m making my schedule to make sure things are moving forward. On weeks where I don’t do this, I get significantly less work done.
Where did you grow up? And does cooking/baking run in the family?
I grew up in Long Beach, California. I love California. My mom is an AMAZING baker! We always had delicious cookies growing up and she makes the most amazing, beautiful pies!!
What was your inspiration behind starting DisplacedHousewife?
I came up with the name DisplacedHousewife a long time ago…my then-husband had just gotten a job in Beijing, pre-Olympics…it was right around the time of Desperate Housewives and I thought I would write a funny book about my experiences in China and call it DisplacedHousewife. Living in China was funny and I loved it…but the book never happened. When I moved home I bought the URL for DisplacedHousewife.com and just sat on it until one August, my mom saw that Sunset Magazine was looking for holiday recipes and she suggested that I submit my five-spice cranberry appetizer. I did and they bought it!! It still makes me so happy. That same month I decided to start putting recipes on DisplacedHousewife.com and here we are. That was four years ago.
What was your favorite part about writing your first book, The Cookie Book?
I really loved all of it! Coming up with the recipe concepts, testing them, refining them and making them look pretty. And styling the cookies and taking the photos for the book. I was nervous about this latter component, but I’m so happy with how it came out. I feel like from table of contents, to recipes, to photos it’s a true representation of my vision of what I would want a cookie cookbook to be.
Photos Courtesy of Rebecca Firth
Any favorite recipes that we should try first?
Well, I think any good day starts and ends with a really delicious chocolate chip cookie…so any of the recipes in the Hella Chocolate Chip Cookies chapter…but I can’t really pick just one—I love all of them!!!
Which female entrepreneurs do you admire?
Sheryl Sandberg. Just listening to her speak about anything and everything is inspiring. I also love listening to Christina Tosi of Milk Bar. She has so much to say about being a bad-ass entrepreneur. …I love podcasts, if you can’t tell!
What do you think is the single most important ingredient to success?
I can’t speak for other’s success, but for me, I would have to say tenacity and hard work. I think you have to put your head down and work 1000% harder than you ever imagined and stay completely focused on your goals and not listen to the noise. And trust your gut. We have the answers in us, we just have to listen. Know when to solicit the opinions of others and know when to only follow your own.
What’s the most challenging part of your professional life?
Right now I’m in one of those growth spurts business-wise which is amazing and wonderful, but also tricky to navigate. In addition to promoting my book, I work with brands in developing and photographing recipes. Then there is the business of my blog, which started everything, and it needs heaps of love with fresh recipes and pretty photos regularly. And then I already have the concept for my next book, which I’d like to start working on that proposal asap!!! To take my business to the next level, I need help with certain parts and its figuring out a way to do that without losing what I’ve created thus far. If that makes sense… I also want to start doing food-focused retreats. I have an idea for one I would love to do in Beijing and then an annual one I would like to start in the Santa Ynez Valley—a fully curated, beautiful, food-focused experience. So I would say for right now, it’s managing and growing all the different facets of my business—cookbooks, food blogging, brand work and retreats—and doing all of it in a really beautiful, thoughtful, meaningful way.
How to you try to manage your work/life balance?
I honestly, don’t know that I do that really well – if I’m being completely honest!!! I haven’t felt until recently that I have a moment to breath and maybe turn my computer off in the evening to just relax. I have started to schedule Pilates into my week and I treat it like a business meeting that can’t be missed or rescheduled. It sounds simple but it’s a paradigm shift for me. Before I was just pushing and not giving myself any breaks. But I think when you really love what you do and you feel passionate about it, it can be hard to put on the breaks. I started DisplacedHousewife so that I could do something creatively/mentally fulfilling and be with my kids (Stella, 15 and Gavin, 12) more…I think if they were younger, this would be much more difficult. But since they’re older and doing homework in the evenings, I’m usually doing work right beside them. Is that work/life balance?
What do you see yourself doing next to express yourself professionally?
I have such a fun idea for my next cookbook, like I just mentioned. I’m really excited to start working on it after the first of the year. And I’m also really excited about working on those retreats. I want the Beijing retreat to be a study of flour, where we learn how to make hand-pulled rice noodles, bao, and mooncakes, but also go on some market tours (the markets in China are BANANAS) and eat beautiful food. Both of these endeavors would be insanely fulfilling creatively.
Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Firth
How do you manage the fear and doubt that inevitably creeps in when you’re paving a less trodden path?
I started a Word doc the month I started DisplacedHousewife and I titled it: I started a food blog. Super creative, right? Whenever I would hit a milestone, achieve a goal or receive some type of accolade, I would write it in the doc. In the beginning a lot of people didn’t get what I was doing or where I was going with it, which is fine. But you hear that doubt when people talk to you. In those moments when I would question what I was doing, I would look at the document and see how far I had come and what I had achieved, and it would energize me to keep going. I HIGHLY recommend this no matter what you do in life. We’re ticking off our goal list without even realizing it sometimes, and it should be celebrated and remembered.
What have you been most afraid of trying in your career, but you did it anyway?
I think venturing out on my own to start DisplacedHousewife. I have two really amazing kids that I have to take care of…it’s a pretty big risk to say, I’m just gonna believe in my creativity and throw all of my eggs in that basket…which is exactly what I did. I believe I kept using the phrase: I’m going to create my own reality. Meaning, I knew it was kind of bonkers, not totally logical, but I was going to create a world where my vision worked and made sense. My uncle told me I was insane. But I love him and he bakes my recipes all the time, so he can call me insane!!
Was there any opportunity that you had in your life that you didn’t take?
Not in the sense of a job offer or anything like that, but when I was younger I really wanted to move to NY and be a writer. I think I was afraid of pursuing that…it all sounded so big and overwhelming that I never went after it. I actually went to grad school instead because it felt like a very productive way to delay adulthood. I did other great things not going on that path and have zero regrets, but if I could go back to 20-something me I would tell myself to fear not.
What is something you’ve accomplished personally or professionally that you never dreamed possible for yourself?
I always wanted to write a book, I was just never sure it was going to actually happen. I’m really glad it did…I think I would have been terribly disappointed in my 90s if I wasn’t somewhere in the Library of Congress.
Any sleep rituals that you use to help quiet the mind after a long day?
If I’m stressed out about work or things that need to get done, I will make a list of everything I need to take care of the following day and email it to myself…that just removes it from my brain. I can totally let it go. And I often like to mediate before bed. I love the guided meditations from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. I’ve been using them for years and they are the best way for me to relax and unwind. I want to fall asleep with as little stress in my body as possible.
What’s the biggest gift you give yourself to recharge?
Even if I’m crazy busy, if I squeeze in a lunch with a friend, a glass of wine with my sister and/or mom or wake up a little early with my kids and go get a coffee and hot chocolate before school, it uplifts me. It’s nothing glamorous or expensive, just making a bit of time to be with people I love.
What’s your favorite food to indulge in?
A really gorgeous, warm croissant can’t be beat.
What’s the first thing you do after you wake up?
I make myself a latte and then crawl back in bed to quietly enjoy it before everyone wakes up.
What’s the last thing you do before bed?
I like to either read or watch something funny. I’m usually so tired by this time (to be honest) that it’s never more than 30 minutes-ish…but something that will either make me laugh or put a smile on my face. There is zero late-night news in my house. My daughter Stella loves SVU, but I can’t do it past 6pm…I’d worry about the state of the world all night.
How do you make your bedroom a sacred space?
Ironically, lots of pillows!!! I need really cozy bedding, a big fluffy duvet and heaps of pillows everywhere. Those are all primary needs. Secondary is nice, dim lighting and candles.
Thank you Rebecca, it’s been such a treat to spend some time with you. I’ve admired you on Instagram for a long time and to be able to share your passions with my audience is really exciting. I’m thrilled that we’re partnering on an in-store event with you too! Here are the details…