Talking with A translator who speaks food

alix wall

j. correspondent

Name: Olga Katsnelson

Age: 44

City: San Francisco

Position: Postcard Communications and Consulting founder, a boutique PR firm

J.: You were born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). When did you come to the U.S.?

Olga Katsnelson: My family came to the States in the late ’70s when I was 7. We lived in Randallstown, a suburb of Baltimore.


Olga Katsnelson

J.: In the early days of your career, you worked for Jewish Family and Children’s Services, the same resettlement agency that helped your family when they came to the U.S. How did you get into that work? What did you do there?


OK: I majored in art history at Smith, and after I graduated, I started volunteering for Jewish Vocational Services. It was really helpful if you were fully bilingual, which I was. While I was thinking of applying to graduate programs in art history, I found I really liked the work, and decided to move to San Francisco for some adventure. I looked for work within JVS and ended up getting a job with Jewish Family and Children’s Services. I started out managing in-kind donations and was then promoted to being a case manager. I worked there for three years.

J.: How did you decide to go into public relations?

OK: I followed my boyfriend to New York and did tons of informational interviews. I did one with a publicist, not even knowing what a publicist did, and in the middle of the informational interview, it turned into a job interview and she hired me.

J.: You’ve also served as a Russian translator for nuclear physicists and Olympic gymnasts. How did that come about?

OK:  Right after college, a friend of the family had a company looking for a translator. I traveled to different Russian cities with nuclear power plants, translating for engineers in business negotiations and at the dinner table.

I also translated at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, for the gymnasts and then the basketball players since they were in the same gym. It provided me with incredible access, since I went with the athletes from their meetings with coaches to translating their post-performance media interviews. It was fascinating to see the Olympics from the backstage area.

J.: You work in the food and hospitality industry, representing some of the Bay Area’s best-known chefs and restaurants, including the Daniel Patterson Group, Tartine Bakery and Cowgirl Creamery. Were you always a food lover? How did you decide on this area of specialization?

OK: I didn’t grow up cooking, but I did grow up loving restaurant meals. And in Russian homes, all conversations happen around the kitchen table. In my last year of college, I lived in a house where we cooked our own meals. When I moved in, I would boil pasta and put Italian dressing on it and that was dinner, but one of my roommates had “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” which blew my mind. That was the first cookbook I ever saw, and that was followed by “Moosewood Cookbook.” I learned how to cook from those two books.

I also spent all my college summers as a waitress and hostess on Martha’s Vineyard. The kitchen intimidated me, I was more of a front-of-the-house person, but I loved the energy of restaurants, and the camaraderie of the wait staff.

J.: Why do you enjoy working with chefs?

OK: I see it as an extension of what I wanted to do originally, as an art historian. I’m communicating and writing, and I have access to incredibly creative people, and serve as an interpreter of their work to the press. It’s similar to what art historians do, except that the artists are no longer living. I gave up artists for chefs and never regretted it; there is every bit as much as creativity, and you can interact with them.

There’s never a dull moment working with chefs. A lot of them have really unique views on the world. They don’t see food in a vacuum, but how food relates to everything else we think about, which makes the work really fun. I also enjoy working with the press corps. Being in the middle of these two groups is really fun.

J.: Are you active with the Jewish or Russian communities now?

OK: I’m not, mainly because of time, unless you count talking to my 101-year-old grandmother on the phone every day. I’ve been thinking of getting back in touch with my old boss at JFCS. I imagine there are still newly arrived émigrés who need help.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected]

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."