I had always wanted to live in New York, and by 1995, I was managing gourmet markets at Macy’s, back when that meant something. I was getting paid $100,000, which felt like millions. I thought I had arrived. I thought I could finally move out of Queens.
I’d work from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., and at night my boss and his wife would drive me home. One night, a kid followed me to my apartment and tried to mug me. He stuck a gun in my back, and I freaked out and sprayed him with this little pop-top of pepper spray. His friend dragged him away, but a few days later the same guy mugged me again.
I couldn’t go back to that apartment. I thought, that’s it, I have to quit: I can be happy living on $35,000 a year. But leaving Manhattan was the hardest decision I ever made. I took a job at a market in Albany, N.Y., which is where I grew up. The women who ran the market asked if I would also do a cooking class, so I went into the kitchen to help out. I was earning $60,000.
Around the same time, Domino’s was running an advertisement that offered a free pizza if their delivery took more than 30 minutes. I figured if people would wait 30 minutes for a mediocre pizza, they’d spend 30 minutes to make a great meal for themselves. So I started teaching the 30-minute meal. I loved my job, and I eventually got a story on the local news, which led to a cookbook we sold in the market.
Someone gave a copy of my book to Al Roker, who happens to be from Syracuse. The Today show called, and I thought it was a joke. But New York was expecting an all-time great storm and all their guests had canceled—so they wanted me on the show the next day. My mom and I got up at 4 o’clock to get to the set, and I made a 30-minute meal for Al. The Food Network called immediately after that. We had a meeting, and they asked me to do a pilot for a 30-minute-meal show.
Five years later, I had a syndicated show and shows on the Food Network. All because I decided to go back home to start all over again. All because a guy was bad at mugging people. — As told to Ronald Grover