A Media Frenzy Propels Local Celebrity Chef Back Into the Limelight. Is a Movie Next?

A friend tells the story of Paula Wolfert, her recent notoriety and her struggles with Alzheimers.

Paula Wolfert and Emily Thelin. Photo: Eric Wolfinger
Paula Wolfert and Emily Thelin. Photo: Eric Wolfinger

By Kathleen Hill

What if you were an internationally famous cookbook author and then all of a sudden one day you couldn’t remember how to make an omelet?

That’s exactly what happened to the legendary cook, author, and culinary historian, Paula Wolfert, a friend and resident of Sonoma. Recently profiled in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, Wolfert has publicly acknowledged her battle with dementia and Alzheimers in recent years.

But let me tell you about the Paula I know.

Wolfert grew up in Flatbush, New York, where her mother fed her a rather boring diet of melon, iceberg lettuce, and cottage cheese. Early on, she decided she wasn’t made for that kind of food, but it wasn’t until she took some cooking classes that she was inspired to learn about cuisine.

“While I was at Columbia my mother gifted me with six Saturday morning classes with Dione Lucas who was a Cordon Bleu trained chef,” Wolfert said in a recent email. “Later I quit going to school and worked for her full time for free before switching and working for (James) Beard.”

Yes, that James Beard.

Wolfert didn’t just sit in New York and research Mediterranean cuisine at the library, however. She moved to France and Morocco for several years, befriended home cooks, and told us their stories through nine best-selling cookbooks she wrote between 1973 and 2011.

But in her personal life, Paula was starting to forget things more and more.

In 2010 biographer Emily Kaiser Thelin began on an epic project to document the author’s life in some 50 recipes, in a just-released book called “Unforgettable” after learning of Wolfert’s diagnosis. Paula confessed to Thelin, who had worked with her at Food & Wine Magazine, that she had dementia, and Thelin popped the question asking Wolfert to allow her to write a book about her and her culinary adventures, thinking the world needed to know of this “renegade life.”

Friends also saw Wolfert changing. 

A day came when, with our Tuesday Lunch Bunch, the now 79-year-old Paula couldn’t figure out how much money to put out to pay her bill. The longtime group of women artists, designers, writers (and an economist thrown in for good measure) could only gently help her count and try to remember in that moment.

While she knew she had been having trouble remembering some things, these were startling indications that perhaps her problem had progressed, and scared all of us. 

This could happen to many of us, we knew, but Paula had been sharing so much of herself through her books and teaching that several friends wondered what was ahead.

Being Paula, she immersed herself into researching dementia and Alzheimer’s with the brilliance and energy with which she had researched the culture of food in so many countries.

She still tries to get us all to follow various medical diets she finds, one of her favorites being Bulletproof Coffee (black coffee blended with grass-fed butter and MCT oil).  According to Paula, her UCSF doctors say that with everything she is doing, her problem is progressing more slowly than other people’s, which is good news.

Paula doesn’t stop. She leads a monthly “Memory Café” and practices “yoga, qigong, and recently added a class called Jin shin Jyutsu,” all at Sonoma’s Vintage House Senior Center.

At lunch on a recent Tuesday Paula blushed a little and admitted: “There has been some interest” in making her story into a movie. All of the recent front page publicity reconnected her with the 12 core members of her Alzheimer’s Association group that toured the country raising awareness of early symptoms, as well as with a few old friends, most of whom she has been in touch with anyway via FaceTime and Zoom. (Paula gathers no moss – saying “Skype is old fashioned.”)

Sounding like she was back at her mother’s dining table in Brooklyn, Paula exclaimed, “None of us sit around feeling sorry for ourselves, because what’s the point?”

And by the way, she can cook again, following her own recipes one step at a time. She whispered, “Those recipes are hard!” Most of her readers and fans knew that.

Continuing her busy life, Paula Wolfert and Thelin, will be at Sonoma’s Readers’ Books on Saturday, April 22 at 2 p.m. discussing the book. The afternoon will be co-sponsored by Readers’ and the Last Wednesday Food Group.

Wolfert and Thelin will also offer kitchen and life wisdom again on Sunday, June 4 at Shed in Healdsburg, where Chef Perry Hoffman will prepare an early dinner from “Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life.” (Read Diane Peterson’s recent article about Wolfert and the book in The Press Democrat.)

Wolfert gives Emily Thelin all the credit for convincing her to work on the book with her, showing super patience, putting on the Kickstarter campaign, assembling a crew to make a video and super photos for the book, writing it, publishing it, and hiring publicists to schedule interviews. Paula also seems to relish the attention that she has enjoyed for years, obviously feeling that her life and work are being validated.

What an inspiration!

All author and publisher income from sales of this book will be donated to the International Dementia Alliance. For her Readers’ Books appearance go to 130 East Napa Street, Sonoma. 939-1779. Tickets for the Shed dinner will be available at healdsburgshed.com/gather/events.

(Featured photo: Eric Wolfinger)