Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Ekus/Cohen clan: ‘We family cook the family meal’

  • Sally Ekus (right) and her mother, Lisa Ekus (left), of The Lisa Ekus Group, LLC. Together they are reviewing book designs for publication in their Hatfield office spaces. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • Lisa Ekus and Sally Ekus review online recipes at their office spaces in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • Sally Ekus takes out an old Food Network hat. The mother-and-daughter duo, Sally and Lisa Ekus, work together in office spaces in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • Lisa Ekus her daughter Sally Ekus review online recipes at their office spaces in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • Sally and Lisa Ekus review book designs for publication in their Hatfield office spaces. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • Sally Ekus washes vegetables before a meal at her mother’s house. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gerald Cohen chops garlic as his granddaughter, Sally Ekus, looks on at the home of Lisa Ekus, Gerald’s daughter. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gerald Cohen chops onions at his daughter Lisa Ekus’ home in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gerald Cohen spoons a mustard he made into a serving bowl before a meal with his family at the home of his daughter, Lisa Ekus, in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gerald Cohen has fun with his daughter, Lisa Ekus, right, and her partner, Virginia Willis, at Lisa’s home in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Potatoes rest in a colander before dinner at the home of Lisa Ekus in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gerald Cohen, aka Poppy, in his daughter Lisa Ekus’ kitchen. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • From left: Sally Ekus, Diane Cohen, Gerald Cohen, Lisa Ekus and Virginia Willis toast at the start of meal at Lisa’s home in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gerald Cohen serves salad (even though he hates vegetables) during a meal at daughter Lisa Ekus’ home in Hatfield. From left: Lisa, Virginia Willis, Sally Ekus and Diane Cohen. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gerald Cohen serves salad during a meal at his daughter Lisa Ekus’ home in Hatfield. From left: Lisa Ekus, Virginia Willis, Sally Ekus and Diane Cohen. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gerald Cohen serves salad during a meal with Lisa Ekus (center), Virginia Willis, and others at Lisa’s home in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gerald Cohen shares a moment with his daughter, Lisa Ekus, during a meal at her home in Hatfield. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sally Ekus displays a tattoo of a fork on her right forearm. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lisa Ekus nd her daughter Sally Ekus, look at a cookbook from Lisa’s collection. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gerald Cohen’s memoir, “Beyond the Images.”

  • Sally Ekus was an early multitasker, cutting red peppers for a dinner salad while chatting on the phone.  Courtesy Lisa Ekus Courtesy Lisa Ekus

  • Sally Ekus, at age 4, holding “Good Old Food” by Irena Chalmers, one of the agency’s early PR clients and one of Lisa’s lifetime mentors.  Photo courtesy Lisa Ekus

  • Sally Ekus entertaining her Poppy.  Courtesy Lisa Ekus

For the Gazette/Hampshire Life 
Friday, March 02, 2018

One of the first things you notice upon walking into Lisa Ekus’ Hatfield home is the 20-foot-long, handcrafted cherry-wood dining room table with 22 chairs gathered around its polished surface. As founder and president of The Lisa Ekus Group, a culinary agency that represents chefs and food writers, Lisa has entertained countless culinary stars here, including big names like Emeril Lagasse, Susanna Foo, and even Julia Child. When world-renowned chefs aren’t eating at her dinner table, Lisa fills her chairs with friends and family. Sometimes, she brings her clients, friends and family together for meals. “It’s a big mix,” she said. 

On the rare nights when Lisa doesn’t have dinner guests, she and her partner, Southern chef and James Beard award-winning cookbook author Virginia Willis, eat with Lisa’s parents, Gerald and Diane Cohen, ages 87 and 82, who in 2017 moved into an apartment attached to Lisa’s house. “We family cook the family meal,” Gerald recently said of their ritual, sitting in a recliner in Lisa’s living room. Occasionally, the family is joined by Lisa’s oldest daughter, Sally Ekus, who lives in Florence and works as manager and literary agent at The Lisa Ekus Group. 

For the Ekus/Cohen clan, dinner is a family affair — cooked communally and enjoyed enthusiastically. The family’s favorite meals are collected in a large red binder labeled “Antiques” that oozes with recipes on yellowing paper, covered in food stains and penciled-in notes.

For this family, dinner is also a business affair. Lisa’s dining room is steps away from the renovated barn that houses The Lisa Ekus Group company offices and its small staff; in total, there are four full-time employees, including Lisa and Sally. The agency represents a roster of talent, in the Valley and beyond, including James Beard Award-winning chef Sanford (Sandy) D’Amato, who founded the Hatfield-based cooking school Good Stock Farm; tea aficionado Bob Heiss, who along with his wife, Mary Lou, founded Tea Trekker (they were dubbed the Professors of Tea by The New York Times); cookbook author Betty Rosbottom, who teaches at The Baker’s Pin in Northampton; and food writer and health educator Brittany Nickerson, who recently published her cookbook “Recipes from the Herbalist’s Kitchen.”

Recently, Lisa took on a new client: her father. Gerald Cohen, aka “Poppy,” is not a chef by training, nor is he the presence that Lisa remembers dominating the kitchen of her childhood — that would be her mother, Diane, who cooked for a constant stream of hungry teens and droves of doctors. Gerald is a retired radiologist — with a salty sense of humor. 

Gerald’s recently published memoir, “Beyond the Images,” chronicles, among other chapters, his life as a radiologist managing a private practice in Tarrytown, New York, and as a father to three spirited daughters, including the oldest, Lisa. Being the patriarch of such a prominent foodie family, it was only natural that he sprinkle his most beloved recipes into a chapter of the memoir titled “Food for Thought.” Among his specialties: Two Fork Tuna Salad (he swears tuna tastes better when mashed with two forks), latkes (potato pancakes), and baked beans, about which he writes, “A can of baked beans, Heinz or otherwise, is the start of an odyssey, if not a meal.”

“Beyond the Images,” edited by Lisa, sold by Sally and published by Echo Point Books & Media in Brattleboro, Vermont, is available for purchase at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley and for order online. The memoir is a permanent record of stories that Gerald’s family grew up hearing around the dinner table; they are all excited about his book. He proudly holds up his first check from book sales: 20 dollars and 73 cents. “You told me it was going to be thousands!” Gerald joked with Sally.

Raising their family in Tarrytown, Gerald and Diane helped cultivate Lisa’s love for food and for hosting. “My mother was the queen of dinner parties,” Lisa recalled. While Diane did the cooking, Gerald did the gathering, often inviting friends and colleagues to the table.

Now, Lisa juggles both acts: cooking and bringing people together. Recently, she served seafood étouffée and Mexican chocolate pudding — an ode to Mardi Gras — to longtime family friends. Lisa and Virginia are also preparing for Gerald’s 87th birthday, which will be celebrated with Diane’s brisket. “The food, of course, matters, but it’s also the conversation, the camaraderie, the learning, the discussion. Nothing was ever off the table when I was a kid,” said Lisa. “Everything happened around the table.”

From ‘tiny little business’ to ‘small compound’

Lisa moved to Hatfield in the early 1980s with her then-husband who had gotten a job in the area. She left behind a promising career as a book publicist in New York City. “There was nothing comparable from a career standpoint that I wanted to do up here, so I decided to start my own company, Lisa Ekus Public Relations,” she said. The company, which celebrates its 36th birthday in April, has expanded significantly since it was founded in 1982. When Lisa first started out, she had two clients. “We had no kids, no pets,” she said. It was “a tiny little business.” Over the past three-and-a-half decades, The Lisa Ekus Group has represented nearly 2,000 culinary professionals, she added: “It’s a small compound now.”

In the early days, Lisa refused to be rattled by the lack of women in the industry. Instead, she adopted as her mentors two strong businesswomen: cookbook author and book packager Irena Chalmers (who’s been dubbed “the culinary oracle of 100 cookbooks”) and agent Jean Naggar (founder of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency), who introduced Lisa to the publishing industry during an internship she did at the agency while studying at Barnard College. “They were both successful businesswomen who were willing to share at a time when there really was no one,” said Lisa. Now, both Lisa and Sally are founding members of the Women Presidents’ Organization — Lisa of the Springfield chapter, Sally of the Hartford chapter — an international nonprofit organization that works to advance the careers of women entrepreneurs. 

As The Lisa Ekus Group grew, business blended with home life in the Ekus household. Lisa’s two daughters, Sally and Amelia, 33 and 29, saw the inner workings of the business firsthand from a young age. “My children were surrounded by the best food writers and cooks in the industry from the time they were babies,” Lisa said. “It taught them a lot about adults, trying unusual foods — and there were always thousands of books in the house.”

At the age of 6, Sally chatted up Julia Child, who had been invited to the house for dinner. Child requested Chinese food, and, instead of ordering in, Lisa cooked it herself. The resulting nine-course meal — which included black-bean spare ribs and shrimp fried spring rolls — was served at the family’s cherry-wood table. “I had many encounters with her,” Lisa said of Child. “We were quite friendly; she was an amazing, curious, caring woman.”

Even though Sally has spent her life immersed in the food industry, working at her mother’s company wasn’t originally her plan. After graduating from Ithaca College, Sally, who had been accepted into a master’s degree program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, took a year off from school, working with her mother. She found that there was a carry over from her college focus on mental health to her work at The Lisa Ekus Group; skills like active listening, negotiating and communication came in handy. Sally has been with the company ever since. “It’s always been a part of my life,” she said.  

Lisa was careful not to make her daughters feel obligated to join the business, but she was thrilled to welcome Sally to the group. Of all her company’s accomplishments in the past 36 years, “I am most proud of having my daughter join me in this business,” Lisa said. “It’s the most incredible legacy to have a family member in the business.”

Now, Sally’s a seasoned pro. More than once during my interview with Gerald, she stopped her grandfather mid-sentence to say, “That’s a really good quote” or “I like that.” Just as Sally looks out for her Poppy, he looks out for her, too. “Sally is particularly special to us,” he said. She survived childhood leukemia. As part of the advance for his book, the publisher, Echo Point, was asked to make a donation to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Sally’s honor.

Amelia, who lives in Brooklyn, also works in the food industry at Guckenheimer, a corporate dining service that provides gourmet food to big companies like Twitter and Barclays Bank. Eater, the popular food website, voted Amelia a 2017 Eater Young Gun, an award given to the “best and brightest new restaurant industry talent.” She was one of 15 winners from around the country.

Sally and Amelia’s lives are so intertwined with food that they got tattoos of the family silverware on their arms. On a recent visit to Lisa’s house, Sally lifted up her shirt sleeve to reveal a fork tattoo; Amelia has the matching knife. The sisters brought the silverware with them to the tattoo parlor for the artist to reference. “Just in case you didn’t think we were a food family!” Sally said with a laugh.

Memories often are centered around food for this family. Road trips were always accompanied by the candy Jujyfruits, at a cost. “If you do buy them, have a call in place for your dentist!” Gerald warned. “They’ll take a tooth out.” Mention barbeques, and Sally brings up her recent hamburger dream: “I was at a family barbecue, and I was going around collecting all the meat because I was so appalled that it was purchased at an unethical and mass-market location,” she said, and laughed. Gerald looked at her in shock (he’s a man who loves his meat). “We carry on like maniacs,” he said. 

Each member of the family has unique preferences: Gerald hates vegetables (he pushes them off his plate) while Sally just came off a month trial of veganism. There are, however, universal favorites like Sally’s spatchcocked chicken and Diane’s brisket.​​​​Whatever the meal, “It’s more about the people at the table, not the food,” Lisa shared. “Cooking together sometimes creates the environment … Don’t stress over it!”

It was, in part, the family’s dinnertime conversations that laid the premise for “Beyond the Images.” Writing a book wasn’t exactly a choice for Gerald. After years of his grandchildren’s badgering, he finally caved and began to scrawl his stories onto yellow medical pads.

Growing up, “If you didn’t know what a word meant, my father always said ‘Look it up,’ ” Lisa said. She recalled with a smile how her father hid words written on paper around their house to help his daughters study for spelling tests and the SATs.

Lisa was brought up to be a lover of the written word. In her Hatfield home, which she shares part time with Virginia (the rest of the time Virginia resides in Atlanta, Georgia), there’s a two-story, sprawling library — complete with a fireplace and plush, forest-green chairs — that houses around 10,000 books, over half of which are cookbooks. Lisa’s favorites include “Cooking for the Weekend” by Michael McLaughlin (“I swear by his recipes,” she said), and any of Virginia’s cookbooks, for which Lisa is “chief taster” when the author is developing her recipes.

Lisa now proudly adds her father’s book, “Beyond the Images,” to her collection.