This story begins in an ivy-covered garage in Costa Mesa, California: me on Zoom via an iPhone with Chef Daniella Malfitano walking the phone (and me) into her garage, her tiny dog Boo sitting on the sunlit driveway.
At first glance the garage looks like any other: bikes stacked near the front right corner, shelves lining the walls. But then I notice there is one spot devoid of typical garage miscellany; a giant foam rainbow hanging on the wall breaks through the mélange, and at the end of it there’s a fully decorated kitchen set replete with knives, a fridge, an oven, and an island counter just big enough to fit into the frame of the overhead camera above and the camera in front.
Daniella walks behind this well-lit set to finalize her mise en place (a culinary term for laying out all ingredients and tools needed for a recipe).
There’s bright green celery with the leaves chopped off, the stalks laying gently in a clear glass bowl. There’s also small glass bowls filled with things like chickpeas and cranberries, and there’s a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread off to the side.
She’s prepping everything for her daily live cooking show, which streams immediately after our interview ends.
When she’s finished her preparations, I ask her when she first knew she loved cooking.
I’m surprised by her answer.
She’s been obsessed with cooking shows since she was five years old, long before cooking shows were even “a thing.” Every Saturday morning while other kids were watching cartoons, Daniella was binging four hours of cooking shows on PBS: “I’d look forward to it all week.”
By first grade, she was reading cookbooks cover to cover.
My teacher said to my parents, “I think we're going to have an issue with Daniella because she doesn't want to read anything that's not food related.”
My parents were like, “We'll make sure she's reading other things, but we really want to nurture this.”
And they did.
Daniella’s parents encouraged her to make something every day to contribute to the family meal. By the age of six she was making peach pie from scratch.
Her Nano (her Sicilian grandpa on her dad’s side) also loved cooking, and Daniella fondly remembers brining olives and drying oregano with him in his garage. (He died a few years ago, but his oregano lives on; she still cooks with it today.)
The person who encouraged her cooking the most though was her big sister Angelina.
Daniella often enlisted Angelina’s help as a sous chef, and Angelina would also watch Food Network and PBS with Daniella. What she really loved though was tasting Daniella’s food and watching her sister do something she so clearly loved.
She was the one who helped Daniella see that the love she had for food was special, different, worth paying attention to:
She knew. She was like, “Sis, you love doing this. You love doing it.”
She saw me.
But after high school, when it was time for Daniella to choose a career path, she went to nursing school.
“I was scared to pursue it as a woman.”
Why didn’t she pursue a culinary career path?
I was scared to pursue it as a woman. I was really scared to pursue it because I'm a petite person too; I'm little and I didn't want to be pushed around in the kitchen. We have such a stereotype of [the kitchen] being a really chaotic, hard, stressful environment.
Instead, she looked to a career where she felt like she might fit in, something that felt safe, stable, necessary: nursing.
And while, “there was always this gnawing, nagging thing inside of my heart” – reminding her how much she loved to cook – the fear drowned it out.
Daniella focused on the practical road ahead, and also enjoyed working with people in the part time job she took caring for home-bound patients during nursing school, especially making and feeding them lunch, even when it differed from what she did in her own kitchen: “Sometimes I would have to put it in a blender and put it in their feed tube.”
She also didn’t think she could pursue food as a profession because it seemed frivolous; food was so fun growing up that it was almost impossible for her to see it as more than fun – to see it as something also necessary, nourishing, and essential.
“Sis, you love doing this.”
She also couldn’t imagine a future for herself where she could also make a good living from a passion.
But then she began to see food, and her passion, through her patients’ eyes.
She’ll never forget the patient with ALS she worked with during her 2nd year of nursing school. They talked farmer’s markets and vegetables with great joy; he loved food as much as she did. He was only able to speak through a robot-controlled panel system on his chair, but they were some of the best conversations of Daniella’s life; he was the reason she began to wonder if her love of food could really be worthy of pursuing:
It was like if he needs this, and if I get fulfilled by this, then everyone needs this.
Maybe food wouldn’t be her career, but maybe she could find a way to integrate it more into her nursing career?
But then she got the worst news.
On May 30, 2006, Daniella’s sister Angelina died suddenly in a car accident. She was 22, just about to graduate from UC Davis. The university’s celebration of life announcement read: “Those who attend the celebration are being asked to wear a solid color of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple) to create a vibrancy of colors in the room, like Ms. Malfitano did when she entered a room.”
I remember the moment I found out, for two reasons: one, obviously, because it was a shock, and it was the moment that my grief set in, the grief that will be with me for the rest of my life.
But the second thing, which I'll never forget, was this inner kind of knowing that there was no time to waste anymore.
I had to pursue my dream; life is too short to sit and think about something you wish you could have done.
My sister couldn't live, so I will.
A few months later at the graduation ceremony for the class of 2006, UC Davis awarded Angelina her degree; Daniella walked in her place.
“I knew something was missing.”
That summer Daniella dropped her nursing major and signed up for a study abroad trip to Argentina:
I decided I needed to travel and go somewhere to be with myself and be with this dream and be with my grief.
After that trip, where she became incredibly inspired by Argentinian food culture, she changed her major to International Studies with a self-designed, University approved, concentration in Food and Culture that Daniella created herself. After graduating with her Bachelor’s degree, she attended and graduated from the International Culinary Center in New York City with highest honors.
She immediately started working jobs in kitchens at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world, like Gabrielle Hamilton's famous East Village restaurant Prune, and Thomas Keller's fine dining restaurant Per Se.
She was in awe of the food and deeply admired the creators behind the restaurants. But eventually, she felt like something was off.
I remember thinking, “Okay, I can tell that there's an expiration date for this, for me to work in the kitchen.” Because it was so overwhelming to my system – 12, 13, 14-hour days. It was very low pay; it was really hard. And not that I can't do hard work, but I knew something was missing.
She missed connecting with people over food, like she did as a nursing student. She missed the conversations like the ones she had with her ALS patient, gushing over what was in season and talking about what they would make.
She loved her role as a Kitchen Server at Per Se where she worked as a liaison between the kitchen and the dining room, studying the new menu each day with the entire staff, bringing guests food and then telling them the behind-the-scenes stories: where the fruits and vegetables came from, and how it was all prepared.
It was a unique role, because the person doing it had to have culinary skill and be able to talk, connect, and teach.
Daniella thrived in that role and found herself loving the teaching part the most.
I kept thinking: I want to do this, but I want to make it my own.
She didn’t know how. But after five years in New York City she decided to move back home to California and try to explore her food interests outside of fine dining.
For the next five years she tried culinary consulting, catering, and doing cooking events for corporations. In everything she tried, teaching was always her favorite part.
After several years of doing it, I realized that my specialty is not just cooking itself, it's teaching people; it's being impassioned by it and sharing my passion with other people.
And making people feel like they too, can do it.
But in everything she was doing, teaching was still only a small part. She wanted to do more, but felt stuck. Around that same time, she got a call from her dad, who said:
How long are you going to do this consulting work for? Have you ever considered doing media? You love cooking television. You've been watching food TV and chefs on TV your entire life. Why don't you pursue that?
Her first response?
“No, dad, I can't do it. No one wants to see me on the screen.”
But as soon as I hung up I was like, “Oh, no, maybe he's right. I should pursue it; it makes perfect sense.”
“I kept getting more and more specific.”
Daniella went full force in this new direction. She’d let fear stop her once, and now, she wasn’t afraid to take risks; she already knew what it was like to lose one of the most precious things in her life – other fears paled in comparison.
So when a friend of a friend gave her the phone number for a guy who managed the PBS station in Northern California, she called him up right away and invited him to lunch to talk about their culinary content needs.
The station manager agreed, and during the lunch he said to her:
We're looking for culinary content…for a television host and a personality. Do you know anyone?
Well, I don't know anybody else. I know that I want to pursue it, and I have an idea for a show.
She came to the meeting with a show idea ready. She laid it all out for him and “within five minutes of sharing the idea, they signed me and gave me a contract for an opportunity.”
She was shocked, and couldn’t help but feel like her sister was still on her side somehow, cheering her on.
Daniella created and hosted Delicious Discoveries for PBS. Now kids and families could watch her cooking show every Saturday. What she loved most was the ability to reach more people with the things that inspired her, the things she wanted to teach:
I could reach 50,000 people every Saturday and Sunday when the show would air, as opposed to only reaching 30 people that would come to a class.
It fed right into what had become Daniella’s driving question: “How can I keep teaching more and get this information into the hands of every single person who wants it?”
By the time she got the PBS contract she’d been working in food for a decade. And with every new thing she tried in that decade, she also tried to better understand herself, hoping to hone in on exactly how she could become a creator in the food space.
I kept getting more and more specific; it’s really good to get really specific about what you want because you will start to attract the very things you're seeking.
One of the specific things that came up for her was to work for Disney as a creator. She wanted to consult with them or maybe produce her own food show in the parks. However:
I never had any real training in producing, stage hosting, or live entertainment.
She’d gone to culinary school, but all her teaching and hosting skills were self-taught; because of that, she didn’t really think the Disney dream would ever become a reality – but she dreamed it anyway.
Two years later, she got a LinkedIn message from the Disney culinary team; they’d seen her PBS show and wrote:
We love what you're doing, and we'd love for you to consider having a conversation with Team Disney to see what future opportunities could exist.
She was floored, thinking: “How in the world? Who am I? Why in the world?”
But before she could question it or herself, she messaged them back to set up a meeting. Soon after, Daniella became the producer of the Disney California Adventure Food and Wine Festival, hosting all of the Food Network stars and celebrity chefs from all over the United States on the Disney stage. She also wrote and produced her own in-park show about healthy living.
“It was quite literally a dream come true,” she shares, and when that festival ended and Disney immediately wanted to hire her for next year, she knew she could have a sustainable business as a creator.
When she wasn’t hosting for Disney, she edited cookbooks – and when the publisher asked if she could write a cookbook they needed to fulfill in their catalog within 30 days, she jumped at the chance and also became a cookbook author. Things were going great.
Until March 2020, when three weeks into the typical eight-week Food and Wine Festival, Disneyland shut down.
“I'm kind of starting my business over in a way.”
In April 2020, Daniella started an email list.
Partly because of the uncertainty of the future of client-based work, but mostly because she felt the need to find and connect directly with her audience, her favorite part of her work all along.
And that need was stronger than ever now, especially because she decided to become fully plant-based in both her own diet and in her business in the kitchen. While she knew this was right for her, it was a scary step to take because it also meant having to drop all of the clients and promotional partners who weren’t aligned with her new plant-based direction.
Her email list felt like her first attempt at connecting with the people on the other side of the TV and stage, her first time creating a community around what she loved. She was also looking for community as she went in this new direction.
I didn't want to do this alone. And I thought, I'm kind of starting my business over in a way.
And because of that, I wanted to really bring it right to the consumer. Instead of being the face of a brand or a company or a product, now I can just be my face and I can just live my values and my food philosophy – and then I can ask people to join me in the process on email and in my community.
Daniella started sending a newsletter and streaming live cooking shows (called Plant Based Made Easy) on social media. What grew her list the most though, was the monthly cookbooks she created and sold on ConvertKit Commerce. She demonstrates her recipes daily on her live cooking show, and then viewers can easily purchase the cookbook if they want to follow along or have it as a reference to cook from again and again.
Daniella’s favorite part of it all so far has been when people email her back:
I had no idea that if I'd send a general email to people, that people would actually respond.
And now I'm having conversations with our community, which happens to be from all over the world. I truly didn't think that it would be global; I always wanted it to be a global audience but I thought that was going to have to take years.
And that global audience is waiting for her right now: in just a few minutes her daily cooking show is supposed to start.
“How’s the weather in Trinidad today?”
I tell her I can let her go early, thinking she must need time between this interview and the show to regroup and get ready. But no, she is uber calm and says we can talk up until a few seconds before she goes live, when I’ll transition from interviewer to viewer and watch the show from my own laptop.
While she answers one of my last questions, she clips her lavalier mic onto her sequined shirt as she prepares the Stream Yard service on the two monitors that face her kitchen set (the set and setup she created in 2018 to make it easier to host her first show – My Choice Kitchen – without always having to keep her home kitchen camera-ready).
There is time for one last question, and I finally ask the one I’d been dying to ask:
What is the best way to peel broccoli stalks?
In one of her old shows I’d watched for research before the interview, Daniella made butter braised broccoli stalk “steaks” and they looked so good; but I’d always struggled to peel broccoli stalks and was sure I was doing it wrong (spoiler alert: I was).
Daniella was thrilled to answer, and immediately got a paring knife and demonstrated on an invisible broccoli stalk. A Y peeler, she explained, would also work (I bought one soon after).
I usually wouldn’t ask an interviewee for direct advice in their field, but in this case, Daniella’s teaching persona had its magical effect on me; her palpable joy makes you want to ask the questions you’d usually be afraid to ask for fear of looking dumb.
That fear disappears when you’re with Daniella. So much so that when, 30 seconds before the show starts, she asks me to be on the live show and I say “yes” without thinking.
The show begins, and I suddenly understand why Daniella didn’t need a break between our interview and her show: she is exactly who she is off camera as she is on, one of those rare people who doesn’t have to put on an “on-camera” self.
She talks to her audience the same way she talked to me, with a kind of ease, comfort, lightness, and joy so few can bring to the front of a camera.
While chopping the celery (she’s making cranberry walnut salad sandwiches today), she calls out one of her daily viewers by name and says “Glad you’re back! How’s the weather in Trinidad today?”
She talks to her global audience like she’s talking to someone leaning on the island of her own home kitchen: like a best friend, or a sister.