What Keeps You Up at Night?: Kat Nitsou

This week we bring you thoughts from Kat Nitsou, a classically-trained chef, real-estate agent, and budding interior architect. Kat lives in Eagle Rock with her husband Oliver, founder of Schema Media, and their two children, Kalina and Atteo, ages 3 and 1-1/2. She has just published a cookbook celebrating the cuisine and traditions of the Balkans, a reflection of her Macedonian heritage.

We sat down with Kat to talk about the choices she’s made, how the challenges she’s faced have made her stronger, and how her non-traditional path keeps her learning and engaged. And at the end of the day we’re asking her, ‘What Keeps You Up At Night?’

You literally wear multiple hats—you are taking classes in interior architecture, you’re a Cordon Bleu trained chef, a real estate agent for Sotheby’s, and a wife and mother. Let’s talk about the food first. What led you to cooking school?

I’m originally from Toronto, Canada, and when I graduated with my undergraduate degree in marketing and entrepreneurial studies it was 2008—the very beginning of the recession. I was dating my now-husband Oliver, and I wanted to stay in the U.S., but no one would sponsor me for a visa. The easiest path forward was to get a student visa.

I was interested in food styling, so I went to Cordon Bleu in Hollywood to get proper chef training. After graduating I got an internship at the LA Times, where I wrote a series of dessert recipes infused with herbs, and that helped establish me. After that I worked as a private chef for some celebrity clients, families with nutrition issues, and I also did catering and events. I never actually worked in a restaurant kitchen though!

How did your cookbook MACEDONIA: Recipes from the Balkans come about?
I began writing the book even before culinary school, as these recipes are the soul food of my childhood. I tested and wrote the recipes and copy, and Oliver did the photography. We had a graphic designer friend, Jake Rivera, who put it all together and I found a printer in Canada.
As a Macedonian woman I want to celebrate these recipes because it’s the food I know the best and love the most. I also share the belief, commonly held among chefs, that the best way to learn about any country or culture is through its food and its kitchens. I wanted to share that with my kids.

How did you make the leap from chef and cookbook author to real estate agent?
Ha, yes these two careers aren’t exactly on a linear path! It’s funny, I think what inspired me in my work harkens back to my childhood. My Dad always worked on home improvement projects and renovated homes in Toronto—this was way before HGTV! I think I learned how to drywall by age eleven.

After Oliver and I got married, we started looking for a house, because at the time our rent kept rising. We finally found a house that had been vacant for two years and ended up renovating it over the seven years we lived there. During the process I just fell in love. I started working on my real estate license a year after we bought that house and never looked back.

It sounds cheesy, but I get to help make my client’s dreams come true. All the work that goes into buying or selling a house is such an ordeal, and seeing people through the process is an emotional experience, so it’s really rewarding when it’s all done.

What was the Aha! moment that made you decide to shift careers so completely?
By the time we finished renovating the house, we had reached the point as a couple where we wanted to have a family. The private cooking and events I had been doing were super time-consuming and the hours weren’t family-friendly. So much time goes into cooking and event prep, and I knew that as a mom I didn’t want to take that on. With the kind of jobs I’ve had there is no maternity leave.

It’s interesting you were really intentional about that, even before you had children.
When I got pregnant with our daughter Kalina, we also discovered I have a serious health issue that required me to be on bedrest starting at about 20 weeks for both of my pregnancies.

After we brought Kalina home from the hospital, our house had 57 stairs, and it didn’t take us long to realize that wasn’t going to work with kid-stuff like strollers, so we started looking for a new house that was more kid-friendly. When Kalina was a month old, we found a house we completely loved. It took us a full year and three offers before the seller accepted our offer and then we started another full renovation when Kalina turned one. During that time we were carrying two mortgages, paying for renovation costs, and then we found out I was pregnant with Atteo and I had to go on bed rest again. It was a wildly challenging time.

That sounds like a lot, how did you get through it? 
I think a couple of factors helped—the nice thing about the work I do is the hours are flexible, and I also have the complete support of my family—my parents come to stay with us often to help, and fortunately Oliver’s job is pretty flexible too. At the beginning of each week, Oliver and I have a pow-wow to see what we can handle, and I try to schedule my work around when we have childcare.

And how do you balance it all? 
With small children you have to be realistic about what your capacity is, whether it’s financial or time-wise. I try not to give in to the pressure to have our kids go to too many activities. The style of how I was raised is more organic—we were exposed to things without putting stress on the family to always be scheduled. I like to protect family time and let the kids be kids. Our daughter goes to Montessori from 8-4 and that’s a long day. After school I like to take the kids to the park, the playground, the library. I have a girlfriend who says they need to get the wiggles out and it’s so true.

Some parents of older kids talk about how they only allow one activity per child, what are your thoughts on that?
That’s brilliant! We’re not there yet with our children, so I’m not sure how it’s going to be when they’re older, but in general I feel like we think kids need more than they actually need. There is a lot of information out there today for parents online. Sometimes less is more with kids. My kids are one-hundred-percent happy if I let them be. I don’t feel the need to force stimulation on them. My parents were always telling us to go outside and play. Atteo wants to pick up rocks and put them in a bucket all day long, and it’s hilarious. I’ve given up on the pressure to get all the right books and and curate expensive and time-consuming experiences for our children. I think they should experience nature, have people around them, and feel loved. My dad always says you just need to pay attention to your kids.

What do you have your eyes on next?
In the fall, both of our kids will be in Montessori, so I’ve enrolled in a UCLA Extension program in interior architecture. I’m passionate about interior design, and it’s beneficial for my clients because I can walk into a space and help them not only imagine what a space can be, but also understand what they can realistically do with it. Right now I know what I gravitate to naturally design-wise but I want to deepen my knowledge and expand my technical skill set to include spacial placement, and structural and architectural design.

I’m really excited about going back to school, I’m 36 and still trying to figure out what I’m doing with my life! I’m not in a position to go to school full-time because of our children, so I’m just going to go at my own pace.

I also live and die by the quote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”* I feel like my whole life is about being prepared so that when luck hits, I’m ready to take advantage and give it my all.

What keeps you up at night?
I’ve never been a great sleeper, to be honest. Also, having two babies in the last three years, I’m woken up during the night often. I have a thousand ideas in my head and I can’t stop thinking about them so I’ll go into the kitchen and stay up all night researching on Pinterest or Instagram, or I’ll start baking or cooking. I love drinking coffee in the quiet of the night and just being alone in my thoughts. I’ve realized that “being done” with something—whether it’s a house, or raising children—is a state of mind, and that’s helping me focus on what really matters: doing what I’m passionate about and not losing sleep over the small stuff.

I love the idea that completion and finality is very subjective, and really relate to your drive to keep finding new inspiration—and new sources for preparation. Thank you, Kat!

So, dear readers, what keeps you up at night?

P.S. More interviews in this series to relate to and be inspired by, and Julia Child, The Ultimate Entrepreneur who changed careers later in life.

Interview and series by Mina Manchester. Mina Manchester has worked in PR for eleven years, and writes fiction. Her short story was published in The Normal School  this summer, and she in the process of revising her first novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. 

[Sources in lead photo: Tank top—Leonie / Duster—Babaton / Jean skirt—River Island; *Quote attributed to the Roman philosopher, Seneca]

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