By Carly DeFilippo
Before she even enrolled at ICE, Einav Gefen was already turning heads as the first–ever female chef at cutting edge seafood restaurant Mul Yam in her native Israel. But when Gefen and her husband moved to NYC, she knew she wanted to go back to school and rebuild a solid foundation of techniques. Since graduating, she has worked in the fine dining kitchen of Restaurant Daniel, led the kitchen at Danal in the East Village, and even returned to ICE as a Culinary Arts Chef Instructor. Yet her greatest accomplishment to date is changing the way Americans eat—and serving up a TED talk—as the Corporate Chef and Culinary Team Leader for Unilever Consumer Kitchens.
What motivated you to enroll in the Culinary Arts program at ICE?
Before enrolling with ICE I was working as a sous chef at a high-end seafood restaurant in Israel. By then, I knew that cooking was my passion and what I wanted to do for a living, but I felt I needed to go to a cooking school to fully understand the “what” and the “how.” With no good cooking school available in Israel, I was debating between Sydney and New York City. After doing some research, I decided ICE was the best option for me, with small classes and a great vibe—the perfect place for a foreigner in the “Big Apple.”
What have you been up to since graduating?
A lot has happened since I graduated in 1999! I externed at Restaurant Daniel. I wanted to aim as high as I could and learn from the best of the best in the industry. It set me up for a great career path. From there, I continued along my path in restaurants with an Executive Chef position at Danal in the East Village. My career direction took a different turn, however, when I was five months pregnant with my first child. I took a break from the physical work in restaurants to become the Director of the Culinary Center at the Manhattan JCC, building the culinary center from scratch and running it for two years. In that role, I had the opportunity to appear on a few live TV spots and was able to extend my network—which actually brought me back to ICE as a Chef Instructor!
I loved teaching at ICE and was not looking for a new job; however, after five years at the school, one of my students brought the corporate chef position at Unilever to my attention. I got the job and have been with Unilever for seven years, leading the culinary team that supports our food brands for the U.S. and Canada. The role encapsulates many of my interests—creativity, recipe development, chemistry and marketing—and it all has to do with creating good food and nourishing families.
In addition to your TED talk (an inspiring lecture by an industry leader shown to millions of viewers worldwide), are there any professional accomplishments of which you are particularly proud?
There are many things I am proud of. First and foremost, it is amazing to see former students of mine do well in the industry. It is also fun to see products I helped develop on supermarket shelves. In my current work with Knorr, I am now the face of the brand in a TV commercial and YouTube video recipes. I also recently visited the White House for a meeting with Chef Sam Kass!
And yes, one of the things I am most proud of, is the TED talk. I presented in September 2014—a huge accomplishment for me and an opportunity to talk about my personal goals and contributions to the industry.
Briefly describe a day in your working life at Unilever (one of the top five consumer brand companies worldwide).
No two days are alike in my role. Unilever oversees more than 1,000 brands—from Hellman’s to Bertolli to Lipton—so there really is an incredible amount of opportunity. If we are working on a hands-on project, we will be in the kitchen all day; otherwise I might be in meetings, ideation sessions or traveling. We have a lot of tastings: our products, recipes we are using to elevate their quality, or to find new ingredients. We also track culinary trends and do store-scouting. It is a very dynamic, busy role.
What might people be surprised to learn about your job?
People will be surprised to know the amount of thought and work that goes into Unilever products and recipes. Our consumer is the star of the show, and it is essential for us to meet their expectations, understand their struggles and identify ways we can help in putting tasty meals on their table. We have more than 200 chefs around the world, all of whom are working to make sure we reach these goals in everything we do.
Where would you like to see yourself in the future?
In the future, I would like to continue making a difference. We live in a time of change and sometimes uncertainty. If I can, through my role—or any role—help people eat better, cook a little more (so they can own the kitchen again) and never go hungry, I will be the happiest person alive. There is so much more we can do to make this happen.
How would you describe your culinary voice?
In reference to my style of cooking, I would describe my culinary voice as clean and fresh. Growing up in Israel, I ate a lot of vegetables and dishes seasoned with fresh herbs in a mixture of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Eastern European cuisines. Today, this style is infused with my background in fine dining. I believe that—with a few basic skills and some curiosity—good, tasty food is within anyone’s reach.
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