When Danielle Walker was diagnosed with a severe form of Ulcerative Colitis at 22, she knew it would change her life forever. What she didn’t anticipate was it being the catalyst for her career as a wildly successful food blogger and New York Times bestselling author.
With a second baby and another cookbook on the way, things are busier than ever for this San Francisco blogger and author. Her hectic schedule doesn’t stop her from checking in regularly with her loyal readers on Against All Grain, the blog that started it all. Her mission is simple and clear: “To inspire you to get healthy and know that in doing so, you don’t have to live in a world of bland food!” Mission accomplished, Danielle.
Whether you currently follow the paleo diet or hold pasta near and dear to your heart, we’re confident that Danielle’s story will urge you to really consider what you’re having for dinner tonight. Keep reading for more about her journey from executive assistant to mom, author, and grain-free chef.
Full name: Danielle Lynne Walker
Location: San Francisco Bay Area
Current Title/Company: Founder at Danielle Walker’s Against All Grain
Educational background: Bachelors in Marketing California State University
What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
My husband had interned for a successful venture capital firm throughout college and the CEO was looking to hire an executive assistant. I interviewed with them right before graduation and started quickly thereafter.
You were diagnosed with a severe form of Ulcerative Colitis at 22. Tell us more about that experience and why you ultimately chose to lead a grain-free lifestyle.
Frightening and confusing. I was so young and the disease does not currently have a cure, so my entire life flashed before my eyes about what it would be like to live with it forever. How it would affect my marriage, my job, the possibility of having kids. There were a lot of unknowns. I initially decided to look into dietary changes after about 18 months of being really sick and hospitalized multiple times. I went through different diets like whole grain, gluten-free, or real foods and none were working so I decided to try the paleo diet about 4 years after my diagnosis.
You started your blog, Against All Grain, to teach others suffering from similar diseases how to enjoy food, what inspired you to start a blog? What were your original goals for Against All Grain when you first started out? How have they since evolved?
I felt really alone when I was first diagnosed, but even more alone when I had to switch my diet. In 2009, there weren’t many websites out there with trustworthy recipes for this type of diet so I wanted to be a source of hope for others struggling with similar issues and wanting to eat well. I had no aspirations for the success of the blog honestly. I didn’t know at the time that you could make a living from a blog, have anyone more than your parents and family read it, or even more have a book published out of it. My current goal is to keep providing recipes for all of my fans and to continue to be a place of hope for people. And to grow it even more so I can continue to make a living out of something that I am passionate about and love doing.
You run a very popular food blog and have over 355,0000 likes on Facebook. How did you successfully grow your blog and social media?
I used started using Facebook in April of 2011 as a tool to provide links to my recipes and articles I found interesting. I actually started it because I was worried my friends and family would get tired of hearing me talk about my blog and food on my personal Facebook so I started posting it all on the Against All Grain page so they would have an option to see it or not! I remember hitting 1,000 likes in March of 2012 and being SO excited! It’s amazing to see how much it has taken off. I think social media is such a valuable tool in growing a blog and a business. People like to be able to see updates from all of their favorite websites in one place, whether it’s Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, rather than remembering to click over to each website daily. It was a huge tool in the growth of my overall business and still continues to be today. It’s a place where I can interact with people, and that’s really important.
My foremost goal in running my Facebook page is to show who I really am. I want them to feel like they’re looking at a friend’s page, and not a business that inundates them with advertisements or where a product is constantly being pushed. My page has integrity and it is a positive place where people can come for support, to find recipes, and get new ideas. I don’t allow anything negative to be posted so we monitor it closely to ensure it’s a safe environment for people. I also only just recently brought someone on to my team to help moderate the comments so my fans have and will always get me, or occasionally an extension of me, actually commenting to them and answering questions rather than a slew of people who aren’t invested in them.
What would you say are the key ingredients to being a successful food blogger? Should a new blogger first invest in a great camera and professional blog design, or focus solely on content?
Focus on content and a constant flow of it. I think what helped me propel at the beginning was the consistency in which I posted new recipes and the fact that I was vulnerable and personable. My photography was terrible at the beginning and I posted iPhone pictures that used the flash. I was never trained in photography and didn’t have good equipment but people continued to follow. Granted, I think people do have more confidence in trying a new recipe if the photo looks appetizing, so I would suggest honing their photography skills incessantly in the free time of developing and posting recipes. Read food photography blogs, watch YouTube videos, and study the styles on Pinterest. When you’re making a little bit of money on your blog, a good camera can help but it’s not a necessary expense. I now use a Canon Mark D 5ii (need to upgrade to the iii!) and typically shoot with a 100mm macro lens but sometimes a 50mm 1.4.
You published your first cookbook, Against All Grain: Delectable Paleo Recipes To Eat Well & Feel Great in July of 2013. How did you receive the opportunity to publish your recipes? Is there a difference between the recipes you post to your blog and those you published in your cookbook?
I was in the process of venturing into self-publishing when Victory Belt contacted me. One of their main account managers had been using recipes from my blog for her young son who was grain and dairy free. She showed my blog to the owner of the publishing house and they emailed promptly to ask me to write a book. She mentioned that my granola was the only thing her son would eat in the mornings and she was thrilled to send it with him to school on their special Cereal Day once a week and not have him feel left out. I love hearing stories like that but never imagined it would land me a book deal. The book is 90% brand new recipes and a handful of fan favorites from the blog that I knew people would want in printed form to have on their counters.
As both author and photographer of your New York Times bestselling cookbook, did you have prior experience in the culinary industry or with photography?
I’m self-trained through and through. I learned to cook from my Grandmother and my mom and learned grain-free baking and how photograph and by trial and error. With an emphasis on error, I used to spend extremely lengthy periods of time trying to get the right shot of a single dish, often taking 1,000+ photos until I would get the perfect one truly by chance. Then I couldn’t recreate the elements that were successful! It was so time consuming and frustrating so I started reading books and blogs and learned tricks and figured out lighting, styling, and my camera functions so the guess work started to diminish.
What were you doing before you started your blog and published a cookbook?
I quit my job as an executive assistant to be a full-time mom, and started my blog at the same time. I had a lot of free time while my son was sleeping so I started the blog as an outlet for me. The free-time quickly diminished when he started being mobile and the blog was fairly stagnant for a while, but I loved doing it and saw that there were actually people enjoying it so I started making an effort to do it.
With a passion for journalism, as well as cooking, does your educational background apply to your current career? If not, where and how did you acquire the necessary skills?
I always wished I had pursued my dreams of a journalism degree in college instead of switching to business and studying marketing, fashion, and retailing. I took classes in it that I always really enjoyed but the marketing degree seemed more useful and logical. Now, in hindsight, I’m so thankful I went that route. While I love journalism, and it definitely has influenced my love to write and blog, I think I use the skills I learned in business school much more now with Against All Grain. I use elements of the marketing and advertising classes I took in every aspect of my business. I acquired the cooking skills with persistence and determination. I refused to give up the textures and flavors of the foods I loved so it propelled me keep trying until I got it.
As an advocate for cooking without omitting taste, where do you find inspiration for your recipes? What advice can you give to those who want to cook healthy but are unsure of where to start?
I skim all of the food magazines, food websites, cooking shows, and Pinterest to stay up with the current trends and continue to be inspired. A lot of my inspiration comes though from looking at menus when we’re out to eat and recreating the things that I cannot order in my own kitchen. A lot of my recipes come from repurposing old recipes or failures as well. I’ll set out to make a cookie and will taste more like a cake so I’ll alter the recipe a bit and call it a cake instead.
You have a husband and a toddler; do they follow the same diet? Tell us about your meal planning process.
I am the worst meal planner in existence! Mostly because of the nature of my job I have hundreds of meal ideas running through my head constantly and decide to make things on a whim so I usually do 5 grocery trips a week to get ingredients to develop recipes. I am having to push myself to new levels to create all of the meal plans and grocery lists for Meals Made Simple, my new book out in September. When I actually do it, I can be really organized! Even though I don’t function that way, I really suggest in this book that people do. It helps with stress when people are first switching to this lifestyle, keeps things fresh, and reduces waste.
My husband shifted slowly more out of support for me but would eat a regular diet when he was at work or out to meals. He started realizing he had intolerances that he didn’t notice before, so now I would say he’s 95% on. My son is gluten-free but still eats a few grains and has organic grass-fed dairy on occasion. He eats what we eat at home though and loves all of my baked goods and breads. I don’t buy anything processed like that for him but we do keep a few gluten-free convenience items in the house for him for school because he’s not allowed to bring anything homemade in his lunch out of the chance that it is nut contaminated.
As a blogger, cookbook author, and mother, how do you achieve a work/life balance?
For the first two years I was doing it, I juggled it all myself and didn’t even have help with Asher. I found myself working at night and being glued to my phone answering emails and comments. Half way into the book writing process I realized I needed some assistance in my business as well as childcare and that has made all the difference! The nature of this business, and with the majority of it taking place on social media, means it never ends, but I have to set limits for myself to work hours. When my husband gets home from work its family time, and phones and computers go away until the next morning. If you’re not careful, it could be all consuming so we are careful to always put our family first.
Describe a typical day in the life of Danielle Walker.
I have a 3 year old so the morning starts off early and with lots of snuggling, cartoon watching, and book reading. Oh and coffee. Always coffee first thing. Then I wake up enough to make the family some breakfast (and if the lighting is good enough, photograph!). My son goes to school or I have a babysitter while I work sometimes so then I start answering emails, checking social media and responding as much as I can. Then I usually go into the kitchen to create and photograph for either the blog or the new book. Some errands and grocery shopping are spritzed in there somewhere and an occasional meeting or coffee catch-up with a friend. I should walk my dog or work out but I usually talk myself out of it with too much to do. Then it’s dinnertime, and I’m back in the kitchen!
What obstacles have you faced during your career, and how were you able to overcome them?
I started my blog in the pinnacle of a flare-up, a low point in my life, and fresh to this way of eating. I was untrained and inexperienced. I started a website from nothing, with no photography skills or knowledge of how to cook in this way of eating. So I basically started out in an obstacle. I grew it into an award winning website (with awards for photography even!), that has reached people worldwide and is slowly changing the lives of millions. The blog turned into a #1 bestselling book and has opened up so many more opportunities to help people. I wouldn’t have been able to do it all without my fans and their affirmation and constant support so I would say they, in combination with my determination, helped me overcome the obstacles.
Best moment of your career so far?
Making the New York Times List for the first time. I was alone in my office when I found out and my husband wasn’t picking up his phone. I was hyperventilating jumping up and down and couldn’t wait to tell him. Tied with that moment are all of the book tour stops I did and the countless people I met who shared their health stories with me, cried with me, and reminded me why I am doing what I’m doing.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Things are going to be ok and they happen for a reason, so keep hoping. Have faith that it will all work out and just keep pushing forward. Oh and keep a food journal. I think I could have saved myself a lot of misery if I would have watched what I was eating more closely early on.
Danielle Walker is The Everygirl:
Kitchen gadget you can’t live without?
My Spiral Slicer
If you weren’t a food aficionado, what would you be?
A full-time mom. There’s not really much else I would do that would take me away from my family, but what I am doing now is helping thousands of people so it’s worth it.
Unsweetened almond milk cappuccino with a tiny drizzle of maple syrup
Favorite way to treat yourself?
A shopping trip to Anthropologie. For both food props and wardrobe.
Anywhere with a white sandy beach and blue water where I can unplug, relax, and enjoy some quality family time!