Cooking Couple Turns to Comedy, Personal TrainingApr 10, 2009
by Susan Crandell
photo by Michel Grolet
Michael and Ellen Albertson found fame together as The Cooking Couple but abandoned that lucrative career to pursue their separate dreams.
Michael and Ellen’s Lesson: One of the pieces of wisdom that midlife brings is realizing that being successful isn’t the same thing as being happy. A career that sounds perfect on paper may not feel that way. Sometimes you have to gamble on happiness.
Michael and Ellen Albertson had a career many people dream of. Authors of a successful cookbook, they hosted their own syndicated radio show and traveled around the country giving speeches and appearing on TV. It was glamorous, it was exciting, there was plenty of money coming in. Then one day they turned their back on the limousines and the cameras. In the most grown-up decision they’d ever made, they set their lives on a risky new course.
Food As Foreplay
Their story begins, appropriately enough, with a romantic encounter over food. “Michael picked me up in a grocery store,” Ellen says, laughing. When they married in 1993, Michael, a former chef, was staging concerts and corporate events for a Boston company, and Ellen worked as a hospital dietitian. One night, Ellen mentioned that she’d like to write a cookbook. She knew nutrition; Michael knew media and marketing. “So we just did it,” Michael says. “Remember the old Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney movies—‘Hey kids, let’s put on a show’? That was us.” They came up with a great title—Food as Foreplay—and wrote a lighthearted book backed by serious science, celebrating the crossroads of cuisine and romance. They published the book themselves, contracting with a distributor and filling orders from a sea of cartons in the basement of their suburban Boston home. “To our shock, the book was a big success,” Michael says. In the first year, Food as Foreplay sold 100,000 copies, sparking 300 radio interviews and dozens of TV appearances. Ellen and Michael quit their jobs to launch a joint career, billing themselves as The Cooking Couple. “It wasn’t scary at all,” Ellen remembers, “because I could feel the universe pulling us in this very exciting direction.” They started a Boston radio show, which multiplied among Massachusetts stations, then went national.
When the media blitz struck, Ellen was pregnant with their first child, and her swelling belly became part of the schtick. “See,” Michael would say when they appeared on TV. “Food as foreplay: It works.” Several major publishers took notice of all the excitement, and the Albertsons signed a six-figure deal for a second book. It would be a crash project to produce the book in time for Valentine’s Day 2002. Once again, amid all the hubbub, Ellen and Michael decided to have a child. After giving birth to their son, Ellen took four days off, then returned to a punishing schedule creating the book. “I was breast-feeding, writing, breast-feeding, writing,” she says. “The entire summer was a blur.”
If the timing was ideal for Food as Foreplay, it couldn’t have been worse for Temptations: Igniting the Pleasure and Power of Aphrodisiacs. Between spring 2001 when they signed the deal and the following February when Temptations was released, al-Qaeda attacked the United States and the stock market bottomed out. “It changed the whole mood of the country,” Michael says. “People were no longer asking ‘What’s going to happen to my orgasm?’ They were asking ‘What’s going to happen to my life?’” Temptations fell short of sales goals, and the publisher didn’t renew their contract.
The Cooking Couple were far from washed up. “Our radio show was going gangbusters in over a hundred markets,” Michael says, and they were picking up lucrative product endorsements, from companies as diverse as CorningWare, Glen Ellen wines, and Dunkin’ Donuts. They’d had overtures from production companies to create a TV series starring The Cooking Couple. But signing a deal meant giving up ownership of the trademark. “Ellen was 40, I was older than that, and we’re no fools,” Michael says. “I always felt the agenda was to make us executive producers and hire some blonde and a hot young stud to go on air.”
Searching For Balance
The golden life was beginning to lose its luster. Ellen and Michael were always on the go, crisscrossing the country to appear at product promotions and wedding shows. The turning point came on the return from a 10-day trip. When Ellen reached down to pick up her baby son, he crawled backward into the nanny’s lap. “It was heartbreaking,” Ellen says. “I thought, What are we doing, leaving our kids with strangers, and my son is scared of me?” Michael adds, “That’s when we both knew we had to get off the bicycle we’d been madly pedaling for eight years.
“Would we have quit The Cooking Couple at 32? Absolutely not,” he continues. “It takes the experience of another decade to ask yourself whether this is the roller coaster you want to be on. When you’re 32, any roller coaster is a good one. But we had become windup toys; everybody wanted The Cooking Couple schtick. We didn’t want to be telling people how to gum their aphrodisiacs 20 years from now.”
Ellen and Michael shut down the radio show, cut way back on their appearances, and began envisioning the next chapter of their lives. “We spent a lot of time visualizing where we wanted to be in five years and then backing up into how we’d get there,” Ellen recalls. Michael had always wanted to accomplish two things: write a novel and do stand-up comedy. Ellen didn’t want to work as a dietitian anymore. One day she got a postcard in the mail advertising a home-study course to become a personal trainer. “It was just a little three-by-five card, but it changed my life, she says. “I’d always been a jock. I ran competitively in high school, and in college I was a dancer.” Ellen got accredited as a trainer, figuring she’d have the extra thunder of advising her clients on nutrition. It proved to be a winning combination, and soon her calendar was filled with appointments. The work is fulfilling. “I’m training a 40-year-old schizophrenic who’s lost 35 pounds and doesn’t suffer from sleep apnea anymore. It’s turned his life around.”
Her clients appreciate not just the depth of her knowledge but the maturity of her outlook as well. “Baby boomers want someone who’s educated and can talk about a variety of subjects—museums, books, raising kids. And they like my philosophy: feeding your body to be healthy, not denying it to lose weight.”
A year ago, Ellen added the title of Reiki Master to her credentials. “It’s a form of energy healing. When you touch someone, you’re a funnel for universal life force energy. It’s my spiritual practice; I tune myself up every day with Reiki.”
Right now, Ellen’s earnings pay the bills, and they live frugally while Michael builds his future. Most mornings, he gets up at five a.m. and heads down to the basement, which is no longer packed with cartons of Food as Foreplay, to work on a completely different kind of book. He’s writing a romantic spy thriller about a down-and-out rock star who’s trying to resurrect his career. Rock Spy has been two years in the making. The manuscript will go to his agent in two months. Sure, there are dark days when the work isn’t going well. “After I finished the first draft, I bought a book on how to write a best-selling novel. When I realized how many problems my manuscript had, that was a black day. A black week,” he says. “Then you realize the only way out of the blues is to set the alarm, make a pot of coffee, go down to the office, and get to work.”
When he isn’t plotting Rock Spy’s future, he’s plotting his own. For six months, Michael has been polishing his stand-up routine at Boston comedy clubs, putting together material for larger sets he can take to New York. “So far, the response has been excellent,” Michael says. “My angle is ‘bad dad’ humor. My audience is people like me, boomer dads.” The common wisdom may call comedy a young man’s game, but Michael sees virtue in his seniority. “The club owners look down on the kids with their baseball caps on backward, doing dick jokes and gay bashing. I’m a professional. I show up on time, make their clubs look good, and attract a better class of customer.
“Why am I trying something only one in a million people succeed at? I don’t know. But my new hero is Rodney Dangerfield. He started doing stand-up at 48, and became one of the biggest stars in comedy,” says Michael, who’s now 47. “Even as a child, I always believed that whatever I do, I’m going to succeed.” Some of his humor draws on his mixed-race heritage. His mother was half black and worked as a bookkeeper. His father was Jewish and a union organizer in New York. “The FBI would camp outside our door, and our house was firebombed when I was eight. My father went to work in a bulletproof vest. Maybe I’m so confident because I survived that stuff.”
It was tough at times, straddling two races, but the sense of humor that would fuel Michael’s stand-up career was already serving him well. “My freshman year of high school, the black kids were beating me up. When they walked up, I’d say, ‘Why don’t I just stuff myself in my locker and save you the trouble.’ I’d start to do it and they’d laugh.” Within a year, the guys on the football team had become friends and protectors.
The Simple Life
These days, neither Ellen nor Michael is afraid to dream big—really big. “My goal is to be one of the best trainers and holistic health counselors in the country, the Jack La Lanne for the new millennium,” Ellen says. “I want to write books and have a large enough media presence to reach a lot of people. Michael joked that I should try out for Survivor, and I’m going to.” Michael’s dream for stand-up is 8,000 people at Carnegie Hall, or a slot on Letterman; if Rock Spy finds a readership, it will become a series, maybe a movie. Meanwhile, Ellen and Michael don’t mind living the simple life. “People who aren’t satisfied fill their lives with stuff,” Ellen says. “Struggling to be happy, they get into this standard of living where they need a bigger house, a second van.” Ellen and Michael’s idea of a hot date is a home-cooked dinner and a DVD. They’re working their schedules so that they don’t need a nanny; one of them is always available to take care of the kids, who are now eight and four. They are confident that their financial future will work out, and that if either of them hits it big, the kids will be older and it’ll be okay to climb back on the media merry-go-round. As Ellen puts it, “You throw your kids out of the nest, then you jump out yourself.”
Susan Crandell, the former editor of More magazine, is the author of the book Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.
Republished with permission of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2007 Susan Crandell. All rights reserved.