Longtime and beloved Valley pediatrician J.J. Levenstein switches gears midlife—to some pretty delicious results.
J.J. Levenstein has never taken “no” for an answer. She was raised by a single mother who worked at a grocery store. At the age of 12, after volunteering as a candy striper, J.J. knew she wanted to be a pediatrician, but it wasn’t easy. The San Francisco native applied to medical school four times before getting accepted by USC at age 28. For nearly a decade the physician tended to thousands of patients at Valley Pediatrics, before opening up her own practice. Then, in 2012, to just about everybody’s surprise, J.J., at the time only 55, walked away from all of it. But as Editor Linda Grasso discovered, the past four years have been anything but a laid- back retirement.
Why did you leave your pediatrics practice? You worked so hard and long to get there and you were only 55!
I got burned out. With technology, I just couldn’t ever get away from it. People would constantly send emails and call me on my cell. I actually had some people get my home address off the backs of checks that I’d sent for bar mitzvah gifts!
After all those years of school, not to mention student loans, it must have been a gut-wrenching decision to leave your practice.
It was. But I’d “lost that lovin’ feeling” and people—including my patients—were noticing it. I spoke with my husband and son and we all agreed it was time to go. My husband had been a stay-at-home dad and “Dr. J.J.’s husband” for years—and we needed to work on “us.”
Were you afraid?
No. With my son in college, it was the right time (he’s now getting his MBA). Plus, I’d gained weight. I was 35 pounds heavier and needed to take care of myself.
So how did you decide to become a chef?
I always had a thing about cooking. After leaving my practice, I went to Westlake Culinary Institute for a six-month class. It was a way for me to find out if I had the chops. I wanted to learn how to take down a lobster and how to pick open oysters. I had a ball.
So you zeroed in on gourmet ice cream?
I tried catering but didn’t love it. Then the father of one of my patients, Alex Eusebio , tasted some of my ice cream. Over three margaritas he said ‘Hey why don’t you start selling us some of your ice cream for Cascabel?’ and I agreed! I started with a rum raisin, rice pudding, horchata flavor served atop a brownie.
And now you are making ice cream for sale at the new take-out spot, The Blvd Kitchen in Sherman Oaks. Favorite flavors?
Right now: Apple Pie Sorbet, S’mores and Lemon Basil Blackberry. Ice cream is really creative. I think of what is currently selling at farmer’s markets, what might work well together, what I have on hand etc. I let my mind explode with possibilities.
Then, that same year, you get another opportunity. It’s generated from yet another patient who has given your name to the casting director of the Home & Family show on the Hallmark Channel.
Yes. I started doing appearances once a week and then it morphed into a real job. I do everything: Q & A’s, medical segments, chatting about current events; I’ve even cooked on the show.
We women tend to take care of other people and put our own needs and dreams on a back burner. Not you.
I’ve always felt that I matter. To make a serious change, you need to be self-confident and have supportive people. If the people in your life don’t support you, then it can be hard. My husband believed in me. I’ve always worked and been pretty self-sufficient, but it is all much better with him at my side.
The Front Yard, an all-day, indoor-outdoor restaurant at The Garland Hotel in North Hollywood, hired chefs Larry Greenwood and Jacob Smith.
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