Serena Wolf Tells All About The Dude's Diet, French Dining, And Martha Stewart - Exclusive Interview

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Nobody expected Serena Wolf to become a famous chef and internet sensation, including herself. She wasn't much of a cook — burnt grilled cheese was her specialty — and she always wanted to be a writer. After graduating college with a smattering of French under belt, she flew off to Paris, and on a whim, enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy. Wolf had no idea what she was getting into, and although it was incredibly challenging for her, she graduated. In Paris, she fell in love with cooking, along with her boyfriend, Logan, who shortly thereafter became her husband. 

The couple moved to New York, and amusedly horrified by Logan's eating habits, she began a blog and wrote about "The Dude's Diet." Wolf's blog steadily grew, and she expanded it into her first cookbook, "The Dude's Diet." Wolf soon wrote a sequel, "The Dude's Diet Dinnertime," and through patience and perseverance, she's steadily expanded her online empire to include lifestyle guides, beauty and fashion tips, and wellness advice. In our exclusive interview, the effervescent yet impressively professional Wolf filled us in on how she started out, how she became the ambassador for Rao's Homemade, and what it was like to work with Martha Stewart.

Serena Wolf never imagined she'd be a chef

How did you become a chef?

Well, first of all, it is still deeply hilarious to my friends and family that I am, in fact, a chef because nobody in my family cooks. I did not grow up in a household that was very enthusiastic about food. I, myself, was a wildly picky eater for most of my life. Prior to attending culinary school, I had basically made burnt grilled cheese [and] unscrambled eggs. I had wanted to be a writer, at least that's what I thought I wanted to be, and I also minored in French in college. In the midst of [an] existential crisis, I also graduated in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis, [wanting] to try something new. I had moved to Paris thinking that I could pursue a writing career and also enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu Paris meaning to do the three-month program before I came home and started my real life.

I had, as I mentioned, no culinary background, and I also really didn't know ... I thought I spoke very good French. I also thought I had a basic understanding of how culinary school worked, which is very hilarious. I had seen "Julie & Julia," thought I'd be chopping onions very quickly and perhaps roasting chickens and drinking wine. Anybody who attended culinary school knows that is the opposite of what you do there, especially at Le Cordon Bleu. It's a very rigorous, intense program. Most of the people attending had wanted to be chefs their entire lives, or were already working in restaurants and wanted to upgrade their status in the kitchen, and I had a very rude awakening. Trial by fire, quite literally.

Serena Wolf almost quit Le Cordon Bleu

Tell us about your experience at Le Cordon Bleu.

I was terrified at first, and I wish I could pinpoint a specific moment, but it was about two-and-a-half months into this three-month program where I really fell in love with cooking. I have always really thrived in school. I love an academic environment. I really enjoyed the teaching style at Cordon Bleu. You would spend these three hours in the kitchen executing these recipes that you learned. You could hear a pin drop in there, the focus was so intense, and I really fell in love with the cooking process. I found it very calming. I am a highly anxious person. It was very soothing to my nervous system to spend these hours executing these recipes and creating really beautiful meals.

I signed on to do the full diploma program. It took me a little over a year and a half because I also did a term of pastry, [which] was not for me. [They require] very different skillsets, cooking and baking. Some people do them both beautifully. I am not one of those people. I love the creativity of cooking. Baking is a lot less flexible. It does involve a lot of creativity, but it's slightly different. I was struggling to make marzipan flowers and eventually was like, "Enough. I cannot do this."

I graduated and it was a tough decision knowing that I didn't want to be in a restaurant kitchen, but as I mentioned before, I had always really loved writing, and I had started a blog, which, at the time, this was pre-Instagram, they were sort of blowing up. It allowed me to explore the storytelling aspect of food. It allowed me to express myself in a way that was easy for me to connect with other people who didn't know a lot about food because that's who I was at the time, and I still really connect with people who want to be able to create meals, but feel very intimidated by cooking because that truly was me before culinary school. I started my blog in 2011 and that's where I began.

Paris deeply influenced Serena Wolf's career

Did Paris influence you?

Yes. For me, French cooking, while French food is not necessarily something that I love, it's a little bit rich for me. I grew up in California, [and] I think French technique is the backbone of really fantastic cooking, so I think being trained in French cooking by old-school French chefs who really had a lot of respect for technique and really drilled that into me as a student, I always look to the French as the epitome of great cuisine.

Honestly, you never have a bad meal in Paris. It's the truth. I was really inspired by the passion, not just of the chefs at Le Cordon Bleu, but for the food scene in Paris. Food was such a central component of the lifestyle while I was in France. It's different than it is here in America. We had slower meals. The people that I became friends with, a lot of our socialization was centered around food, and going to a market and finding the best baguette and having a picnic in the park, or having a two-hour lunch at an outdoor café and really appreciating the meals that we had. It's hugely inspirational to me, still, to recreate the feelings that I had while eating meals in France.

How long were you in Paris?

I was there for almost two years — yeah, about 20 months. I am always trying, that is my long-term goal is to get back there more permanently in some capacity. I've lost a lot of my French, but I'm hoping it would come back.

Serena Wolf created The Dude Diet because of her husband

When you left Paris, where did you go from there?

I moved to New York City. I had met my now husband, then boyfriend, while I was at school in Paris. We had been dating long distance. I moved back to New York. As I mentioned, no, I didn't want to be in the restaurant world, but wasn't making any real income from my blog at that point. I had started it to keep in touch with friends and family at home. While I was building that up, I had a lot of odd food jobs. I was hostessing at a restaurant, I was going to people's apartments and teaching them how to make a piece of salmon and some quinoa, [and] I was doing some freelance recipe development.

Ultimately, I started a column on the blog that was based on my husband's semi-ridiculous eating habits meant to be a one-off post, called it "The Dude Diet" [because] he wanted to eat slightly healthier, but had a very terrifying view of health food, and thought he would have to be torturing himself until he died in order to be healthy. The only way I could convince him to eat more healthily was to make meals that were delicious and happened to also incorporate more vegetables, some leaner meats, [and] some whole grains in a way that he really didn't even notice.

I was not actively trying to trick him. I was making this food that happened to go over really well, and then I would be like, "Oh, this happens to have X, Y, Z vegetable," or, "It's chicken and not beef," and all of these things, and he would be like, "Oh, I knew something was different," after he had already said how much he loved it and been showering me with compliments. I said, "This doesn't have to be a torturous thing. Eating healthily can be really fun and exciting and illicit the same extreme enthusiasm as unhealthier foods," and he started eating better and then started feeling better. It was this wonderful snowball effect that motivated him to continue eating healthily.

"The Dude Diet" got Serena Wolf's career off to a big start

So "The Dude Diet" got your career going?

People had such a wonderful response to th[e] initial post. I looked back, and I thought I had made it. Ten people had emailed me about this one blog post. Pre-social media, that felt like a windfall of enthusiasm, and I started this weekly column. There were a lot of men who were asking if there were more recipes, but it was also a ton of women who were saying things like, "I love comfort food. I've been told as [a woman], I'm not allowed to eat these things," which is ridiculous, obviously, and a result of the diet culture that runs rampant in this country, but they were really enthusiastic about these meals.

This type of food is the food that I personally love to eat. It's not your five-star gourmet French-inspired meals. It's like lasagna, chicken fingers, meatballs, comfort foods, things that we all like that aren't overly complex, [using] day-to-day ingredients. I loved that people were making these meals for their whole family. They were getting excited about eating healthily.

Through that problem, I had been connected with the nutritionist for the New York Giants, who was looking for a private chef to cook for some of the players who were looking for exactly this type of food, for healthier comfort food. They wanted to have all of their players adhering, not to strict diets, but observing any food allergies they might have, keeping inflammation down, making sure that they were having their nutritional needs met, and so I became the private chef for two players. 

I had one per season over the course of two years, which was a wonderful experience for me, a really incredible learning experience, a great way to practice and refine my cooking style, which is pretty low-brow, and I used to think there was something wrong with that, and I now think it's my greatest strong suit is knowing what a lot of people really want to eat and doing it in a way that also makes you feel good and makes you feel like you're actually having to sacrifice anything that you love. That experience led to my first cookbook, "The Dude Diet," and then the subsequent sequel, "The Dude Diet Dinnertime," because at the end of the day, dinner is the meal that we're cooking the most.

Serena Wolf explains The Dude Diet

What exactly is "The Dude Diet"?

"The Dude Diet", despite its title, was a very apt description of my husband who is sort of the consummate dude, but I am also from Southern California, and grew up calling everyone "dude," and it's really more of a mentality to me. "The Dude Diet" is not for men, it's for people who really do want to eat these traditional happy foods. It's happy food, it's feel-good food for anyone of all ages. The great thing is it's turned out to be very popular amongst children as well, so it's really just accessible, healthy eating.

Is "The Dude Diet Dinnertime" just dinner recipes?

Yes, exactly. The original Dude Diet, it's broken down. We do have breakfast, cocktails, and desserts in there, in addition to foods that could be served for lunch, or dinner, but the original Dude Diet also covers all the basic comfort foods that you really think of. I know I mentioned lasagna, meatballs, but things like cheesesteaks, chicken parm, cheeseburgers, and ... mac and cheese, these standard comfort foods [are] really covered in "The Dude Diet."

There are a lot of foundational techniques in there — how to make an easy frittata, how to cook a perfect chicken breast — things that you can then build on because that's always my goal is to help people build this culinary confidence so they feel better about experimenting with different types of techniques, different flavors, being able to take a couple of foundational techniques, and create their own nutritious meals.

"The Dude Diet Dinnertime" is basically broken down by types of dinners. You have one-pot dinners, you have dinner salads. There's a meat chapter and a fish chapter and a sides chapter, so you can mix and match to create different meals, and then there also is a breakfast for dinner chapter in there in case you do want to work in some breakfast. I know that is a lot of people's favorite meals, so that's in there, too, but yes, it is very much dinner-focused. I do make sure in "Dinnertime" to highlight recipes that are 30 minutes or less because I don't include recipe prep and cook times in my books, which tends to upset a lot of people, but also, I've never found a cookbook that has accurate prep times because I would rather note recipes that are 30 minutes or less by anyone of any level. That's how we go about it in "Dinnertime."

Serena Wolf shares her thoughts about Martha Stewart

You worked at a fundraiser with Martha Stewart?

I did. It was a fundraiser for Mount Desert Island Hospital. Mount Desert Island, which is actually where Arcadia National Park is, is a place where my family and I have spent a lot of time. I grew up going there every summer. Both my parents spent time there growing up and the hospital's a really wonderful hospital, but Martha Stewart has a house in Seal Harbor as well, and we worked on this fundraiser. I did the appetizer and she did dessert and then we had a local chef who did the main course and it was a really lovely giant dinner party.

Did you have much interaction with her?

Yeah, I've had great interactions with her over the years. I did her radio show. We see each other from time to time in the broader social scene. I think Martha's a powerhouse. I have so much respect for the empire that she's built. I think that she has a very understated sense of humor and is the gold standard, I feel like, for a lot of people in the culinary world and outside of it, who have watched her build what is now so much more than a food brand. She has a lifestyle empire and doing everything, from cooking with Snoop Dogg to creating her recipes. Everybody's made a Martha Stewart recipe at some point and I feel like she's been part of the cultural conversation for decades now, which is quite impressive.

Your website has a lifestyle section and guides for wellness and beauty. Are you feeling a bit Martha-esque yourself?

I definitely aspire to being able to pursue all of my different passions that ultimately at the end of the day do tie back into food, because for me, I want to make taking care of one's self in a really holistic way feel accessible and fun. You're never going to find me telling you to work out seven days a week for an hour and you have to do a 50-step skincare routine and dress this way and be perfect all the time because I do think that part of being human, we have moved on a bit from the perfection of the Martha Stewart entertaining era. I think there is a lot more honesty and transparency in the lifestyle space thanks to social media.

Serena Wolf credits social media for her success

Has social media played a big part in your success?

I do recognize that we all view things like Instagram as the highlight reel, but I do my very best when it comes to all things to make people understand that the way that we live our lives, whether that's what we're cooking, we choose to cook and eat how we dress, how we move in the world, all of it's very personal. My life philosophy that I talk about a lot in cooking but applies to everything, is you do you. I think that what really makes life fun is expressing and embracing our individuality. Nothing homogenous is interesting.

I think that what's really, really great is for me, I have been able, thanks to social media, to reach a lot of people just by being myself, and I think that you can build a community that is filled with, not necessarily like-minded individuals, but people who are enthusiastic about similar things. What is interesting to me is that I have people who are reading my website or follow me on Instagram or listening to my podcast or taking my cooking classes. Some of them just follow me because they're like, "I'm really interested in your skincare routine," and some people follow along and they're like, "I just love your travel tips," and other people, people are like, "Well, I'm just here for the food, but I appreciate that you have other interests."

I think that is what is really cool about building a brand this day and age is that maybe not all content is for everyone, but you can build whatever you want in a variety of spaces and expand your personal brand beyond being in a single box. I think Martha Stewart really did pioneer that in a way and we have even more flexibility now to be doing our individual things.

Serena Wolf is the ambassador for Rao's Homemade

You're the ambassador for Rao's Homemade. How did that come about?

I have been using their products for as long as I can remember it. Their store-bought sauces are truly the best store-bought sauces. The flavor, in my opinion, is incomparable. I reached out to them. I cannot tell you how many emails I sent them over the years talking about how much I love their products and how much I would love to work together and I remember, probably four years ago, I finally got a response, and it said, "We're not actively working with ambassadors or doing any paid partnerships. We'd love to send you some sauce," and I [said], "Great, wonderful. Send it along." 

I finally had this inroad. Then right before the pandemic, late 2019, they reached out and they're like, "We're finally at the point where we are looking to work with chefs and recipe developers on some paid partnerships and you were the first person that came to mind."

I tell people this all the of time because I work with a very small collection of brands and I'm really proud of the partnerships I have because the products that I endorse are products that I actively have been using and I would say of the consistent partnerships that I've had the past four or five years, 80% of them I actively pitched...starting with cold emails and I was ignored for quite a while. I tell people this all the time who are looking to get into, whether it's the influencer space, the freelance recipe-development space, the private chef business, the cookbook-writing business. I always tell them that nothing bad can come from a cold email and persistent follow-ups. The worst result is that you will get a no. 

At least you tried because at the end of the day, I do think so many more people are becoming solopreneurs and nobody is going to put your name out there for you, and certainly nobody is going to believe in your potential, or your products more than you do, hopefully. I mean, honestly, hopefully you are your own biggest cheerleader. [P]atience and persistence is the name of the game. The best advice I ever got was that it takes ten years to be an overnight success.

Serena Wolf reveals her favorite chef and go-to junk food

Is there a chef that you would love to cook a dinner for you?

Oh, my gosh. So many ... I would've loved for Julia Child to cook dinner for me.

Is there any kind of junk food that you like, or a place that you go when you're just like, "Oh, I've got to have..."?

I'm a big pizza person, and every single Sunday night, barring travel or illness, I am at the bar at Ruby Rosa, which is a restaurant in Soho. Best pizza in New York, in my opinion.

What ingredient could you not live without?

Extra virgin olive oil. Boring, but I couldn't do anything without it.

Any new project you're working on?

I currently am building out my cooking class subscription. It's a monthly subscription. I teach a weekly public class. The subscription is called Serena's Cooking Club. I'm not sure when this is coming out, but I am launching my first clothing product in collaboration with my friends at CCH Collection. It's called the Serena Shirt. It's the perfect everyday button-down for any type of woman, universally flattering, closet staples, so I'm hoping this is my first foray into the fashion world as well.

Ever thought about "The Dude Diet Cocktail Party" book?

Yes. Hopefully, one day. Everybody loves cocktails and snacks. I do a Friday cocktail series on Instagram and it cracks me up that [it] remains the most popular content on my social media.

Find out more about Serena Wolf on her website and follow her on Instagram. "The Dude Diet" and "The Dude Diet Dinnertime" are available on Amazon.