A Slice of the Good Life

MD Magazine®, Volume 7 Issue 2, Volume 7, Issue 2

For a busy physician, a shortcut to homemade bread turned into a new career opportunity as the author of a line of successful cookbooks.

Examining the career trajectory of 54-year-old Jeff Hertzberg, MD, MS, of Minneapolis, over the last couple of decades, it’s been all about the dough, but definitely not about the money.

Since 2007, Hertzberg has been half of the authorship team behind the book “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” and its 4 ...in Five Minutes a Day sequels—including, last October, a 90-recipe gluten-free version. To date, the 5 well-reviewed volumes have sold about 625,000 in print—leaders in their genre, often #1 in their categories on Amazon.com.

It’s safe to guess that he’s the only MD on the bread-baking best-seller list.

Hertzberg grew up in Little Neck, NY, a section of Queens “with Jewish and Italian bakeries everywhere,” he reminisces. “I loved fresh-baked bread, especially something I knew as cornbread, which was a Jewish rye made with a lot of whole grain, not corn.”

He became a hobbyist baker alongside his writer/editor wife, Laura Silver, during his residency in the late 1980s, before their 2 daughters were born. Hertzberg enjoyed “the traditional way of baking, but it just wasn’t practical. Trying to come up with a different, faster system for the dough just percolated in my mind.”

By 2000, he had succeeded. As described now on the books’ website, ArtisanBreadInFive.com, “The secret is homemade stored dough, mixed and refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. You’ve made enough for many loaves, so you can take a piece from the fridge whenever you need it.”

At Silver’s urging, he called in to Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s NPR show, “The Splendid Table,” to mention his brainstorm. By chance, the late Ruth Cavin, associate publisher of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, happened to be listening. Cavin, although best known as an editor of mystery novels, had a fondness for cookbooks, too.

Cavin got in touch with Hertzberg and made him an informal book offer, “but I ignored it for 3 years,” he recalls. “We had a second baby coming, and I was also building an informatics business.”

Hertzberg had begun shifting away from hands-on patient care about 6 years earlier. He’d earned his BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983 and his MD from New York University’s School of Medicine in 1987, and had then spent 3 years in an internal medicine residency at the University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinic and 3 more in a private practice there by 1993.

“The shock was that the pace in private practice was the same as in residency,” Hertzberg says, with some sadness. “I felt like I was rushing for 6 years.” Inspired by the burgeoning potential of computers in the medical field, he began a postdoc National Library of Medicine fellowship in informatics at the University of Minnesota in 1993. Even before the fellowship ended in 1995 and he’d earned his MS, Hertzberg had begun what would become his own successful health care information systems company called Medformatics, Inc.

His consulting hours were long but flexible, “and controlled by me,” Hertzberg notes. “I had the unbelievable privilege of getting to spend lots of time with my kids [Rachel, now 18, and Julia, now 14].” He was their primary caretaker one or 2 weekdays each week in their youth, something—when picturing his career in medicine—“I’d never imagined I’d be privileged to do.”

One day in 2003, Hertzberg took 2-year-old Julia to her preschool music class, and there he met fellow parent Zoë François, a pastry-chef graduate of the famed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. When Hertzberg told François about the back-burner book offer, “she basically looked at me and said, ‘You HAVE to do it!’” They cemented a professional partnership and contacted a thrilled Cavin.

Cavin died in 2011 at 92, but she was “very tickled,” Hertzberg says, to live to see the publication of “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” in 2007 and “Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day” in 2009. The other titles are “Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in Five Minutes a Day” (2011), “The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” (2013), and “Gluten-Free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” (2014), with a second edition of “Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day” and a holidays-and-celebrations volume planned for 2016 and 2018, respectively.

Today Hertzberg’s favorite breads are made of whole grains. “I eat very little white flour, and really enjoy natural sourdough,” he remarks, a fact he shares with fans when he meets them in person. He and François periodically do so, especially upon the release of new titles, at personal appearances. They’ve taught at such venues as Sur La Table in Seattle and the Ocean Reef Club Cooking School in Key Largo, for instance.

But Hertzberg has a foot in traditional academia, too, as assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management's Medical Industry Leadership Institute, designed to impart medical knowledge to MBA students who want to work in the health care industry.

Hertzberg has no regrets about how his own career has evolved. “Primary care physicians are underpaid, and put in so much time,” he opines sympathetically. “While pay-for-performance reimbursement may someday re-balance that, it's only in its infancy now, and we have a long way to go.”

He acknowledges that he probably could have earned more money taking a more conservative career path, but, especially reflective as Rachel is on the verge of leaving for college, he notes that he is living his mantra: “You cannot buy time.”

And if the qualification for entry is being true to one’s values, Hertzberg has assuredly infiltrated the only upper crust that matters to him.

The Rise in Gluten-Free Popularity

“Getting the dough right for ‘Gluten-Free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day’ was a challenge,” Hertzberg says, “and much more tricky” than anticipated. Although he and François finally developed a solution, “it was the hydration factor that took so much time: When a dough is wheat-based, we know what the hydration will be. We are used to that. With gluten-free, the danger is density. We don’t want the dough to be too dense, and, what’s more, it has to retain that loft for 10 days in the refrigerator.”

The people who truly need a gluten-free diet are those with celiac disease, Hertzberg notes. “I learned in med school that celiac was rare. In fact, it’s not rare now—more than 3 million Americans have it, and of those, about 2 million are undiagnosed.

“The problem is if people go on a gluten-free diet without medical supervision. That’s important” to maintain proper nutrition, emphasizes Hertzberg. “I made sure to make that point in the book, and it’s in there.”