For many people, a crushing medical diagnosis can tragically be the end of their story. But for cooking instructor and culinary creator Janine Bruno, her darkest period was also a new beginning. When life threw obstacle after obstacle in her path, she only grew stronger. Drawing on a deep and lifelong love of food and her connections with her mother and grandmother, the challenges Bruno faced encouraged her to rekindle her culinary passions and draw from her Italian heritage. She turned her love of cooking — and sharing food with others — into a brand new career.
From there, her successes continued to blossom. She started a new business, won local and international accolades for her recipes, and ultimately became happier and more fulfilled than she even knew was possible.
A period of change
Bruno, 38, says that the trajectory of her life changed within a few months of her 30th birthday. A lifelong East Coaster who grew up in Manhattan and southern New Jersey (with a brief stint in California to keep things interesting), Bruno was living happily in Philadelphia with a boyfriend of five years when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It’s one of those things that you think will never happen to you, especially at that point in your life,” she recalls. “But it did.”
Grueling and painful treatments followed as Bruno fought the illness head-on. She was in and out of surgeries and treatment, fighting for her life. And as all this was going on, her relationship with her boyfriend abruptly ended. “My lovely partner left me for someone else,” she says with a pointed hint of sarcasm.
Forced to move out of his house and start over in a small apartment, and with her health still in a precarious state, the bad news just kept coming. Her beloved grandmother passed away. Then, just a few months later, she also lost her job as a merchandise manager.
“I was a mess,” she sighs. “It was just one thing after another. It was dark. I felt hopeless, with no money, no career, and no direction. I just isolated myself from the world — I was depressed and felt like I had lost all of my self-worth. I didn’t know how I was going to go on.”
Emerging from the darkness
Desperate to find something that she could take comfort in, Bruno found herself turning to cooking.
“I had lost my grandmother, and I wanted to preserve our family traditions,” she remembers. “Cooking was something that made me feel really connected to her. I remember being with her and my mom — we were always helping her; we were always in the kitchen with our aprons on. I think that love of food is just in my blood.”
As a form of therapy and self-care, cooking helped Bruno draw from her heritage. A cousin came from Italy — her grandparents were Sicilian immigrants — and stayed with her, teaching her some of the family’s most cherished recipes. From this simple transfer of history and skill, a new ritual was born. On Sundays, Bruno would go to church and then shop for fresh ingredients at the local Italian market. Then, when she got home, she’d practice different recipes and techniques, teaching herself how to make the homemade meals she’d enjoyed as a child, all on her own, from scratch.
Handmade pasta quickly became one of her favorites. It spoke to her roots and her passion, but it was also incredibly therapeutic. She made the dough, rolled it, shaped it, repeating motions and techniques that had been in her family for generations.
“That was a real turning point for me,” Bruno says. “When you go through something like cancer at a young age, it reminds you of the importance of having purpose in your life. Despite the darkness, I felt really lucky. I’d made it to the other side of the disease. I didn’t understand why, but I knew I wanted to put my energy and attention into doing something that mattered. Something that could help people. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that might be sharing what I loved, our family’s passion and tradition, and all of our Italian heritage.
“Homemade by Bruno” is born
Although she was a completely self-taught home cook with no formal training, Bruno knew that her food was delicious. She loved being around people and hearing their stories and sharing her own. So, in 2018, she created “Homemade by Bruno,” a series of cooking classes she started hosting around Philadelphia.
At first, she held the classes in her own kitchen. Gradually, she expanded to visiting other people’s homes as well. Word of mouth spread, and the reservations kept coming in. By 2022, Bruno had amassed a large enough following that she was able to open her first brick-and-mortar location, a cozy 400-square-foot space in Philly’s Point Breeze neighborhood.
Two short years later, her operation had grown even more dramatically. Bruno and her team of four instructors now host between 10 and 12 cooking sessions a week, with a second cooking school location set to open soon — and further expansion plans are underway.
If you want to change your life — if you want to change the trajectory of your life — it just takes faith and a lot of consistent hard work.Janine Bruno
Bruno credits her success, in part, to the wonderful classic, simplicity of Italian food. Amazing meals centered around fresh tomatoes, vibrant basil and thyme, earthy cheeses, savory meats, and delicious hand-shaped pasta made from simple ingredients like semolina, eggs, and water.
In addition to those essentials, and the familial recipes she helps to bring to life each night, Bruno believes the vibe of her classes and the feelings they bring to participants are an utmost concern.
“I want it to feel like you’re walking into someone’s home when you visit us,” she says proudly. “We make incredible food, but it’s more than just learning how to prepare a recipe.
“What we’re doing in our classes is an experience. It’s a good date night. It’s a good night out with your friends or family. It’s not an intense cooking class where you’re all stressed out. It’s about creating something from scratch with your hands and learning the meaning and the feeling behind these recipes. And once that happens, then you get to eat! We give you a welcome glass of wine. You start with a little antipasto and a little charcuterie board. We make homemade pasta and gelato that you finish your meal with. It’s just a cool night out.”
And for Bruno, after the struggles she’s endured, nothing could be more rewarding or fulfilling than seeing each class wrap and the smiles on the faces of her students as they leave her building.
“I love connecting with people,” she says. “During our classes, we become family for the night. Things like this feed my soul. I love putting people together with a common interest and building that community, and then watching it grow.”
The secret of her success
Since starting Homemade By Bruno, Janine’s success has spread in other ways as well. She’s found love again, marrying her husband Thomas in October 2023. She’s entered gelato-making competitions and won accolades in both the Gelato Festival America and Gelato Festival World Masters. She’s also started a series of Italian culinary tours, helping American tourists learn and appreciate Italy’s vast culinary history and landscape.
“People ask how it all happened for me,” Bruno says. “But it wasn’t overnight. It was a beautiful journey. There were dark parts, of course, but they helped me discover a passion and a talent that I didn’t know I had. A lot of work goes into building a business, but the possibility and opportunity is always there. If you want to change your life — if you want to change the trajectory of your life — it just takes faith and a lot of consistent hard work.”
And from that hard work, dedication, and passion, Bruno says that anything is achievable, especially if you continue to believe in yourself and focus on the things you love.
“When I get up in the morning, I never dread what I have to do, or what’s on my agenda for the day,” she says. “I get to meet people. I get to feed people. Even prepping for classes, I love cooking so much, it’s not work. It’s exciting for me. And I can look back and see that I did it all on my own. I didn’t take any handouts. I just wanted to organically build something that I loved and felt proud of — and it happened. And this is just the beginning.”
When asked what she’s looking forward to next, Bruno says it’s the small things. Now more than ever, she tries to keep things simple and remember what matters most. Like Sunday dinner, and cooking a wonderful meal with her husband.
“If I spend my Sunday making meatballs, drinking wine, and listening to good old music, that’s a perfect day for me.,” she says. “That’s all I need. And that’s what I love doing the most. I have my husband helping me roll the meatballs or mix the meat. Then we let the sauce simmer all day. It’s perfect.
“A lot of people don’t like to share family recipes,” she continues. “They want to keep them to themselves. I want to share my family recipes because now, on a Sunday, there might be a thousand other families making my grandmother’s meatballs. And I think that’s really cool. That’s a real way to carry on those recipes and traditions. Nothing makes me happier!”