How I Made It: Melinda Lee
The gig: Host of the “Food News With Melinda Lee” radio program on KNX-AM (1070), the CBS flagship station in Los Angeles, on weekends from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Since 1986, Lee has been dishing on -- and deconstructing -- virtually any topic related to food, cooking, kitchen equipment, health and safety issues, history and folklore, entertaining and the like.
The result: “Car Talk” meets foodie expertise. Listeners call in to the broadcast with their questions -- there’s a lot of problem solving and “why that dish works the way it does” conversation -- and Lee helps them figure out what’s going wrong in the kitchen. The show is simulcast on KFWB-AM (980) every Saturday.
Getting started: Lee, who gave her age as somewhere in her 50s, grew up in Brentwood and studied writing at UCLA. She got married, left school and moved to New York. She started her career not in the kitchen but in corporate America: She was a headhunter for business credit reporting firm Dun & Bradstreet Corp. and on the marketing team at Telecredit.
But Lee always enjoyed cooking. When she divorced and found herself a single mother, spending time in the kitchen became both practical and a pleasure. So although she spent her days in an office, she used her free time to scour bookshops for cookbooks and honed her skills. Slowly, word spread that Lee had an elegant touch in the kitchen and at decorating a room. “You have to understand, it wasn’t like today where there are all of these cooking schools,” she said. As a working mom, “even if there were, I couldn’t have gone.”
Spotting an opportunity: By the mid-1970s, Lee’s catering business -- the Perfect Setting -- was growing. She realized she had to choose between staying in the corporate world and following her passion for cooking. “I thought I could keep one job while I got another started,” Lee said. “I was wrong. There weren’t enough hours in the day to do both.”
Lesson learned: Don’t get bogged down in workplace frustrations or fears of the unknown. Use those feelings, she said, to focus your determination to seek out change. “I decided to jump into it full time,” she recalled. “Looking back now, it seems like a huge risk. But it just made sense at the time.”
Reading the masses: Lee learned that what customers wanted to serve in their homes could tell her what was important to them. Once she understood what drove people, she said, she could figure out how her catering business could meet their needs. “To them, it’s not only a plate,” Lee said. “Who do they want to impress? What are they afraid might go wrong? What message are they trying to send? You’re a therapist to your client.”
Getting on the radio: It happened by equal parts accident and persistence. By 1986, Lee had remarried and was living in Malibu. When a family friend mentioned that a job to host a food show had unexpectedly opened up at KNX and encouraged her to apply, she sent in a resume.
For weeks, she heard nothing. So she called up the news director, regaled him with her food-oriented experience and announced that she was perfect for the job because “it should be obvious to you that I can talk.”
Toughest challenge: Learning that she needs silence and downtime. It can be difficult, she said, to always be “downright joyous” when she’s on the air. After all, everyone has a bad day. “Some days it’s a little more of a struggle. I cannot be ‘on’ all the time,” Lee said. “I had difficulty having a houseguest over because you have to be up all the time. I learned that the thing for me to do was to go run errands, which gave me a couple hours of silence.” She takes the same approach after work. “At night, at home, I am quiet. I don’t talk.”
Best advice she’s been given: Don’t ever give up. “Find what you love and do what you love, and supposedly the money should follow. I was lucky, and it did. But if it doesn’t, then you have to come at your goal in another way.”
Mantra she never forgets: Life is what happens while you’re making other plans. She tells friends and her listeners not to be too fixed on any one path, or they’ll miss opportunities.
Lee advises people -- whether seeking kitchen work or exploring a business idea outside the culinary world -- to put away charts and graphs and pay attention to what’s happening around them. “If you’re too focused on what should be happening, you won’t see the good things standing right in front of you.”
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