In a New York Minute

Leah Kertesz
20 min readJun 22, 2020


Your life can change forever… but you better be ready.

New York, New York… if you can make it there you can make it anywhere, or at least that’s what they told me. For people who live in New York, they will tell you it is the greatest city in the world. That it is the epicentre of the western world, and for the most part it is. New York City is like a drug. It is intoxicating and addictive with the first taste. It is a living, pulsating, ever evolving urban organism where commanding sky scrapers stand proudly. It’s full of noise and movement; large, loud, colourful and full of contradictions. It makes you feel so small, yet so privileged just to be in New York’s presence. It’s absolutely not like the movies, or Sarah Jessica Parker teetering around in $1,000 Blahnik’s on a writer’s salary, but for everything it either is or isn’t, I can say for certain, it is resilient. Both in terms of the city’s structure and the city’s residents. If there’s one characteristic needed to survive in New York it’s the very act of resilience. Every day New York will try to push you out, and if you want it bad enough, it’s your job to jam your foot in the door and push your way in.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about timing and luck. According to Wikipedia “Luck is the phenomenon and belief that defines the experience of notably positive, negative, or improbable events.” I count myself to a be a very lucky person, but I’ve never even won a lucky door prize or scratchie ticket. But, I have experienced luck when it collides serendipitously with timing. This is the true story of how a phenomenon of a series of improbable events offered me the greatest entrée into New York City, and an experience that I will forever define as “that time I worked for the Devil Wears Prada of the Food World”.

My love of New York started 21 years ago when in 1999 I wrote in my personal diary “New York, it’s where I belong” with a picture of the Empire State Building. As an Adelaide girl born into a large, loud and colourful Jewish-Italian migrant family, I was quite obsessed with this idea of escaping to anywhere that would take me away from Adelaide. Even as a pre-pubescent teenager I knew I was different. When I looked around, at school, in the suburbs where I lived, and in the context of the predominantly white-bred Anglo Saxon, conservative small-town city, I couldn’t help but feel I didn’t belong. I was a tall girl with big dreams, so where do tall-poppies go when they grow up in small towns? “America!” (Yes, I am pronouncing that word with exactly the same accent as Eddie Murphy in ‘Coming to America’.) I didn’t know why I wrote those words in my diary, or how I would ever get there, but 18 years later I would come to call New York home, and be the proud owner of a 917 number (New Yorkers will get this).

As someone who has experienced luck, I would say, that if luck is at the intersection of timing and experience, then getting to that intersection means you probably need to have a laser-like focus, and the ability to read a street map. The illusion that we simply just ‘arrive’ without any strategic planning is an assumption. Unless of course, you’re a bumbling free-spirited, wide-eyed ambitious optimist like me who books a trip to New York and bursts through said intersection without knowing the difference between north, south, east and west… then yes, it might just happen if you’re lucky… but be careful what you wish for!

In 2013 I owned a jewellery business, designing, manufacturing and operating my own label which afforded me some disposable income as well as the grand plan that, hey if I can do this in Australia, why not “America”! (insert Eddie Murphy again). In hindsight this was a naïve entrepreneurial mis-step to think that I could expand my jewelry distribution to the US (oh, just a country with 10 x Australia’s population). I had figured out that I had enough money to stay in New York and on a US Tourist Visa for 3 months whilst I utilized that time to hustle and hawk my wares. I promised my Dad that I had a plan. Let’s just say he was less than convinced “If you go over there, you’re on your own Leah” ever the pragmatic Accountant, he tried to dissuade me. To a creative free-spirit like me, that’s exactly what I needed to fuel my Gatorade-strength determination and pack my bags for New York. The following week I had booked my plane ticket. See ya Adelaide! New York here I come!

Ok, so who books a flight to a first world super-country half way across the globe without any real plans, offers, meetings, interviews? I do! But I figured I had some connections and friends so this was enough. Ever the networker, I believed in the power of networks and inter-connectivity in a way that binds us all together like an intricate spider’s web. I plugged in random arrival and departure dates from September — December 2013. I figured I would land in New York on a Friday, use the weekend to get acquainted with the city and then hit the pavement on Monday. Surely that’s a strategy, right?

Once my flight was confirmed, what else was there to do but announce it to the world? Oh, how I LOL at myself now. I distinctly remember putting it out to my Facebook friends alerting to the world “New York here I come!”. Immediately, an Australian friend living in New York popped up in my DM, “Hey girl! Are you going to be in NYC on Saturday night? We’re all going out for drinks, join us!” See, I knew I was onto to something! I hadn’t even left Australia and I already had my first weekend party planned in New York. Life was looking up!

I traversed 24 hours and 3 stop overs from Adelaide — Sydney — Sydney — Los Angeles — Los Angeles — New York and landed in the attractive mid-September Indian summer. I stepped out of JFK and into the kind of seductive weather that radiates an incandescent glow when the Manhattanhenge sets between midtown streets and bestows a kind of magic that tricks tourists into thinking that New York is really like that. I hailed a cab with outstretched arms like I had seen in the movies and headed to my sublet downtown in Nolita/ Lower East Side at the corner of Bowery and East Houston. Everything looked like a movie. I felt the pulsating beat of the city which pumped my heart a little faster. It called to me “You have arrived” and I was filled with hope that this city held great opportunities for me, I just needed to find them.

On the night I went to meet my Aussie friends I strutted into the Soho Grand with a false confidence and my best Soho-style outfit which said ‘fake it till you make it’. I spotted my Aussie crew and cheerily bounced over to them with loud and affectionate greetings as only Aussies do. We were a sorority of Sydney bronzed beauties with Aussie guys who looked like they were just out of Bondi Rescue. I downed a cocktail and mingled amongst the familiar twang of Aussie accents that grew more gregarious with each drink.

I was two New York martinis in when a stylish bald-headed man in a three-piece suit and a matching tie and pocket square walked towards our group. He caught my eye because he was so misplaced. Firstly, no one in this bar was wearing a suit, and secondly, he commanded attention in a way that said, “I don’t give a shit”, which I came to learn later was part of his personal brand. He looked vaguely familiar, but mysterious, and he certainly didn’t look like part of our crew. Where had I seen this man before?

I was sitting at the bar stools among the chatty group when, as if in slow motion, the bald-headed man walked straight towards me. In my martini/ jetlagged/ happy haze I could see him approaching, beelining for the empty stool next to me. He took a seat. I turned to eyeball him. “Hi I’m Joe”. He politely, but firmly introduced himself. “You look familiar” I blurted out. I was on my third cocktail now and Loudmouth Leah was coming out. In what felt like a nanosecond I had a flashback to living in Bangkok two years prior where, yearning for any English language TV, I would often sit for hours and indulge in re-run episodes of MasterChef USA.

I blinked back to reality. Here he was, the bald-headed judge from MasterChef USA. I couldn’t recall his name but I knew he always stood beside Gordon Ramsey. “You’re that guy from MasterChef right?” I probed, sipping on my martini. “Yep” he said somewhat dismissive. I sensed a kind of aversion to this attention. “Well, enough about you, I’m Leah!” holding my hand out to introduce myself. Yep, Loudmouth Leah was definitely in the house.

Given I can wax lyrical about most subjects, but especially those involving food, we got talking about food, travel, Italian heritage, MasterChef and the TV business. I really piped up about a potential trip he was planning to Israel for a MasterChef tour where I instructed that he simply must visit the Dizengoff Centre Food Court for the best Yemenite chicken rice, and to seek out Abu-Hassan for the best humous in the world! He seemed impressed with my food knowledge and enthusiasm but also somewhat amused that I was not intimidated by his celebrity profile.

Our conversation paused when a modestly dressed girl with a silk scarf tied around her neck, sporting a blazer and ballet slippers arrived at Joe’s side, kind of like the way Robin just appears for Batman. She made a suggestion about leaving. We engaged in some brief small talk and I learned that her name was Kim and she worked with Joe as his Communications Director. I looked around the room and noticed people starting to leave and talk of hunger, food and late-night clubs. Always the Restauranteur Joe announced to the group “Come on, I’ll take you all to my restaurant!” There were 20 of us at the time. “What all of us?” I said. “Yeah let’s go!” I downed my drink, grabbed my girlfriends, and we headed to Joe’s restaurant Lupa where steaming hot bowls of pasta Amatriciana awaited us.

The night was a mix of great people, food, wine and New York hospitality. I couldn’t believe how I lucked out, my first weekend in New York! I met old friends, new friends and I met Joe and Kim, and got to eat at Joe’s restaurant. I had an apartment downtown, I had purpose with my jewellery, and all seemed right in the world. So, this is what it felt like to truly be aligned with the Universe? For the first time in my life I finally felt like I was in the right place at the right time.

If I thought the first weekend was lucky, the next two weeks unfolded in the uncanniest, sliding-doors kind of way. In making my way through connecting with New York Facebook friends and studying a subway map, one night I was invited out to an off-Broadway show (meaning not the big-name franchise Broadway spectacles, but independent, smaller and lesser promoted shows). There are only 3 things you need to know about Times Square. 1.) There are no good places to eat around there 2.) It’s a human zoo, and 3.) Avoid it if you can at all costs. I highly recommend point 3.

After exiting the theatre, we all stood around gathered on a bustling sidewalk trying to figure out where to go to eat whilst avoiding tourists like the plague. Someone suggested we walk down 46th street to move as far West as could from Broadway. Walking, talking and searching out for anywhere remotely decent to have a late-night dinner we came to a restaurant with black spot lit lamps above the sign ‘Becco’. Joe was standing outside on the curb smoking a cigar. I did a double take. Was this Joe? As in MasterChef Joe?

“Hi Joe, it’s Leah, the Aussie” as if my accent wasn’t enough already. “Hey, Wassup” he said coolly. He asked where I had been and I explained I’d just come from seeing an unremarkable theater show. It was confusing to see him in this context and I still couldn’t put all the pieces together. “I own this place” he explained, pointing up to the sign Becco. Was there any restaurant in New York City he didn’t own? He welcomed us in for a glass of prosecco and a bite to eat. My friends looked at me impressively. How did I know this man? I had only been in New York for a week.

In my quest to explore the city and zig-zag my way from uptown to downtown, rather than focus on my business expansion plans, the city pushed and pulled me in all sorts of directions and my free-spirit willingly followed. On yet another night out, this time exploring the depths of the Lower East Side (somewhere below Delancy) a friend and I went to see a band play at a dive bar. It was gritty, grungy and smelt like beer. There was cabaret style seating and we grabbed some drinks and took a seat at the front of the stage. Getting settled I happen to look over my shoulder, and to my far right at the back of the room was the outline of a bald head that diffused the low-level lighting. I caught his eye. Shit! Is that Joe? He must think I’m stalking him. Why do I keep randomly bumping into this man?

Joe was dressed in his 3-piece suit again and totally stood out in the context of this dirty bar. Without anywhere to hide, he came over and politely said hello. He pulled up a chair and had a drink with us, his eyes firmly squared on the band. During intermission he got up and announced he had to leave. I hadn’t had the chance to say much during the band’s melodic set but I decided to catch him on the way out. “Hey Joe…” I called to him out on the street. “I know it’s weird I keep seeing you around the city, I PROMISE I’m not stalking you!” trying to justify my existence. “Yeah, it’s weird…. Who are you?” he said with a little sarcasm and back-handed humor. “I promise I’m not a stalker… I’m from Adelaide!” I proclaimed. Though I’m not sure this offered any reassurance. As a gesture of reconciliation Joe offered to show me Eataly, his global Italian food emporium, and invited me to lunch so that he could work out who I was, and what I was about. I was not sure what kind of meeting this would be, but I was pleased to have the chance to set the record straight. After all, I had met this man 3 times in two weeks in a city of 8 million people. More than a series of improbable events, this was just getting plain weird now.

The day of our scheduled lunch at Eataly was one of those New York days that kicked my ass. I had a meeting way downtown in the Financial District with an Australia Immigration Lawyer to discuss visa options. She was widely known amongst the Australian community for her experience and guidance on Australian E3 work visas. After an expensive billable hour, the message was loud and clear; my little jewellery business would not be a viable option to either sponsor or support me in New York. I weighed up the pros and cons. It looked like, that whilst also challenging for a foreigner to find work in New York, the pathway, if I really wanted to stay, would be for me to get a job and an E3 visa.

I left the lawyers office with heavy shoulders and a head full of information. Then, out of nowhere grey skies opened up like the parting of the Red Sea in the 10 Commandments and dumped a shit ton of rain on me. Dammit! And I didn’t have an umbrella. New York lesson number 1.) Always be prepared for a change of weather. Steam wafted out of orange and white subway tubes and all I could hear was the sound of gridlocked traffic, taxi horns honking and ambulance sirens that wailed from stationary vehicles. I was searching for any available cab light. Arms outstretched, this time I was not as successful in getting a cab. I had 30 minutes to get to Eataly. Surely, I could get back up town in that time, right? I grossly underestimated New York traffic. When I finally found a cab, dodging through moving traffic to get it, I jumped in the backseat soaking wet. “I need to get to Flatiron straight away please! Can we get there in 20 minutes?” The cab driver looked back at me “Where you from? First time in New York?”. He seemed amused by my accent and chuckled. I slumped back in the seat and pulled out my phone to text Joe. There was already a missed message from him “Where are you?” I could tell his tone was unimpressed already. My blood ran nervous-cold. This was a disaster. A famous New York restauranteur had invited me to lunch, and I was late. New York 1 — Leah 0.

Arriving at Eataly Flatiron is like arriving at the Sistine Chapel. Its high ceilings, large open planned marketplace design is both grandiose and awe-inspiring in a way that no Australian has to compare. It’s the size of any prominent David Jones Department store, but filled with all-things food related. The finest imported Italian products, local fresh farmed produce, wine bars, bespoke restaurants, fish and meat counters, homewares and books. It is the fantastical A-Z of Italian food and retail experiences.

When I finally located Joe at one of the seven indoor restaurants, he was sitting in a corner seat waiting for me at the Ligurian style eatery ‘Pranzo’. This time he was casually dressed with jeans, an open neck shirt and baseball cap. He looked less than impressed, but for some miracle bestowed upon me that day, he waited (something which I came to learn later he both loathed and seldom did). I apologized profusely and explained about the traffic. These excuses are wasted on New Yorkers.

We had a simple lunch of pesto pasta and salad. All the wait staff looked at me, and our table was revered in way that offered exceptionally attentive service. Over lunch Joe asked me why I came to New York and what my plans were whilst I was in town. For context, I educated him on my connection with our mutual Australian friends, my Mum’s Italian family background, my work history in communications, events and marketing, and living in Bangkok where I had honed my entrepreneurial skills and started a jewellery business that ultimately led me to New York. I eluded to the fact that I had just come from the Lawyer’s office and that it was clear I needed a visa and job to stay. Slurping on his pasta Joe offered calmly, “I’ll sponsor your visa.” I inhaled a sip of water so hard I almost choked. “What? What do you mean?’ I questioned, “I mean, if you want to stay here, I’ll sponsor your visa.” He looked me square in the eye. I was speechless. Was he serious? No one had ever offered me such a grand gesture, and yet it was also kind of weird. Why was he offering this? Had he helped other hopelessly lost Aussies before? Was there a catch? Ever the over-communicator, I figured he required further explanation. “Oh sorry, I mean, as my Lawyer explained, it’s an E3 working visa. I can’t just get sponsored, I need to work; I need a job.” “Yeah so, come work for me.” Inside I was squealing, but outside I managed to compose it as “Excuse me, what?”.

Joe went on to explain that he needed a second Assistant to support his growing media empire and TV work. He had just signed on to do a 5th TV show which had been pitched as the ‘Shark-Tank’ of the Restaurant Business (in addition to filming the existing seasons of MasterChef in Italy and LA), he was at full capacity and needed help. I still wasn’t quite sure how I presented as an Assistant type person, but he seemed impressed with my ‘chutzpah’ (to use a good ol’ Yiddish/New York term). Quite simply, as he put it, he needed someone who could “run his shit”. Somehow, he thought that could be me. And he trusted me.

“With all due respect Joe, thank you so much, but I’m sorry, I’m not an Assistant”. He looked up from his plate offended and bewildered. “Well you know what Leah, it’s kind of a big deal to work for me.”

If I can just stop and pause for a moment here Ladies and Gentleman, this is what we call a ‘culture clash’. Insert young naïve Australian without any understanding of Celebrity culture or the order of hierarchy in the New York food scene, who meets larger-than-life Celebrity Restaurateur and TV personality with a sizeable ego who goes out on a limb to hire her, and in a lapse of judgement, young naïve Australian turns down his offer. Here I was thinking that all good job offers are made over the boardroom table after a series of interviews with Jerry from HR, but it seems that in ‘America’ things work differently when you’re the Boss. Could this have been the best job interview of my life and I just blew it? Either way the offer made me feel slightly uncomfortable , and I didn’t have enough context to make a fully informed decision. So with that, I thanked Joe for lunch and exited the restaurant.

Over the next 2.5 months, of my 3-month tourist visa, I got serious about what I was really trying to achieve in New York. I went for ‘real’ job interviews only to be met with more questions about visas from a potential employers. In between job interviews, I met with jewellery retailers and other Australian jewellery designers. With every meeting more questions arose about purchase orders, invoicing, stock levels and supply chain. Ugh. I was truly out of my depths in this city, but I still felt connected in a way that meant I wasn’t done yet. When I called home to speak to my parents, I reassured them that I knew what I was doing. In reality, I had no fucking clue. The weather got colder and I kept knocking on doors, but I never heard from Joe.

On the second to last day before my tourist visa expired, I couldn’t help but think of how magical my first two weeks in New York was. I saw and experienced more of the city which revealed itself in a way that led me to believe I may have just let the best opportunity slip through my fingers. Upon reflection, I had the luck, I had the timing, but I didn’t have the experience to know how to handle it when it all collided together. I couldn’t live with regret so I summoned the courage to call Joe. As I dialed his number my blood ran cold again, I was nervous. He answered quicker than I anticipated, and I wasn’t quite ready so I stammered my name down the phone “Hi… hi Joe, it’s Leah”. “Yeah Wassup”. Again, he didn’t really sound amused. “Oh um, I was wondering…” “Yeah what?” he hurried me. “I’m at a restaurant opening.” I went on to explain that I was going back to Australia tomorrow and that if he was still looking to fulfill the Assistant position that I would be amenable to that. “Ah yeah, ok, I’ll think about it”, and just like that, he hung up. My time for explaining was over. It was clear I had blown it. I had a chance that thousands would jump at, and here I was blind to what was being served to me on an Italian silver platter.

After 90 days in New York, my tourist visa was up and so I flew back home to Adelaide with my tail between my legs but no regrets. I had done everything I wanted to do, but failed to secure an opportunity that would allow me to stay. Back in Adelaide and reflecting on the big city I left behind one summer day, I was basking under the intense Aussie sun for a day at the beach with my Mum. Thoughts swirling, I looked at her and said “Mamma, I have to go back.” “I have to go back to New York, it’s not out of my system yet.” My Mum’s heart sank. Whilst she loved having me with her at home, she knew I was a restless spirit and she could not hold me back. “What’s this obsession with New York Leah?”, “I don’t’ know Mum, but I feel it in my soul. I have to go back.” “But you have nothing there, no job offers, no opportunities, you have everything here.” “I know…” I recoiled. She was right. We are a practical family, but dreams are not always practical. “You know, I worry that you want the world too much.” My Mum put her arms around me and pulled me towards her, her hugs all-encompassing. “I am your mother, I gave birth to you, but you are not mine to have, you are meant for the world. So if that’s what you really want, go out into the world, Leah, spread your wings and fly.” To this day, it is still the most selfless and loving advice my Mother has ever given me. With her words of approval, I wasted no time in booking another flight back to New York. I was on a plane the following week.

For the second time round, I returned to my Facebook social network in seeking out an apartment to sublet, a bed, couch or anything I could crash on in New York. Bitches, I’m back!! I was so excited! Just as soon as I had posted my return to New York City, Kim (aka Batman’s Robin) messaged me privately on Messenger. “Hey Leah, I hear you’re coming back to New York?” I confirmed my plans to land on Friday evening and she asked if I would like to meet up for a drink at Eataly on Monday night. Again, I was only two days in and already had plans to meet Kim for a drink! This chance delighted me as a way to make new friends and deepen my relationships in the city.

I wasn’t late arriving to Eataly this time and I knew exactly what subway stop would take me there. No more cabs! Kim and I ordered two glasses of white wine and chatted about the night we met at the Soho Grand a few months earlier. After some chit-chat she suddenly got straight to the point. “I don’t know what you said to Joe when you were here last time but he hasn’t stopped talking about you. Whatever you said, you impressed him, so we’d like to officially offer you the Assistant position… and we’ll sponsor your visa.” I was shocked. Kim continued to explain what the job entailed, what her role was, and what projects she had recently been working on with Joe and why things had gotten so busy. As second chances go, this was it, this was my golden ticket. I still had questions of course, and lots of them too, but in this moment, right now, I was ready to accept. In this collision of luck and timing, I finally had the experience and clarity to see what this really was; an open door that I needed to walk through.

So from hereon in lies the beginning of my two-year journey in New York; a crazy, beautiful experience living and working in the most competitive city in the world. Whilst I decided to jump into the unknown without a parachute, and I may have come out of it a little scarred and bruised, I wasn’t broken. Dreams don’t break you; they make you.

Those first two weeks taught me that magic can happen anywhere and at anytime; it’s happening all around you, revolving like the Earth orbiting the Sun. Even in a city like New York, with its abundant distractions, I had to get really quiet inside myself, I had to follow my heart and heed the opportunities that were presented. You’ll never get that neon flashing sign that tells you to go left or to go right, and no one is going to live you life for you. It’s your job to pay attention to the sign no matter how big or small; and I’ll have it a guess, that it usually comes as those unremarkable, insignificant interactions that you might not think too much about.

Every failure you have will have, be it meaningful or victorious will push you closer towards your dreams (or in my case, towards the Upper East Side where I eventually landed). Whilst both timing and luck may have played a significant part in this story, what I have come to learn is that it’s tenacity, determination and resilience that will allow you to continue on the journey to your dreams. We may not know how we will get there, we must only know that we are all intrinsically linked and connected in more ways than we can comprehend. The ability to manifest your personal pursuits comes with instinct, trust and an unwavering self-belief to never give up. I learnt many lessons during my time in New York, but for all the beautiful-ugly, gut-wrenching and heart stomping lessons, I learnt that dreams don’t just show up, you do. So, don’t be afraid, say yes, and you never know… you might just get lucky.

Author’s Note: This is part one in a series of New York stories.



Leah Kertesz

Loudmouth, entrepreneur, traveller, writer, reader. Flexing my writer’s brain one story at a time. #liveloud E: