By Leslie Engel

I never dreamed of becoming a restaurant chef. Coming from a culinary student, this may sound a little strange. Why would someone go to culinary school and not want to join the ranks of great chefs like Alice Waters or Eric Ripert? It’s a legitimate question. Hear me out though, because today there are many paths you can forge with a culinary background.

Like most culinary students, my love for food and cooking began at an early age. I have fond memories of plucking sugar snap peas from my father’s garden and preparing a family meal at the ripe age of 10.

Despite this early interest, I pursued my love of food and cooking in ways that seemed more practical — examining the integral role food plays when it comes to our health. In grad school, I studied public health to better understand why so many people are sick with diabetes and obesity. I discovered that most Americans lack real, nourishing food in their diets — so I set out to change that. I carved out a niche during my time at a non-profit, making grants to support healthy food access and sustainable agriculture.

farmers' market

farmers’ market (credit: Anne Preble)

If I wasn’t in my kitchen or at the farmers market, I was venting to anyone who would listen about how giant food companies were sabotaging our health. I started a blog demonstrating how simple it is to cook healthy, inexpensive meals. I fantasized about culinary school — but always dismissed it as outlandish, one of those things an eccentric relative does.

During a brief and unsatisfying foray into city government, I had reached a crossroads. I’d hoped to shape food policy in this role. Instead, I found myself in endless meetings daydreaming about what I would cook next. Over lunch one day a colleague and I talked longingly about what we really wanted to do with our lives. We both said culinary school. I knew then it was finally time for me move out from behind the desk and into the kitchen.

The very next week I was touring ICE, with many ideas for the next phase of my career. I knew I wanted to provide healthy meals to people — or even inspire people to cook for themselves — but what would that look like? Would I delve into food media or the burgeoning meal kit delivery business, creating and testing recipes? Or would I become a private chef, using my expertise to provide wholesome meals to people short on time? Perhaps I’d take a broader, more public health approach, and join the growing movement to improve the food at institutions like hospitals or community-based organizations. While these options may not be as glamorous as working in a Michelin-starred restaurant, they feel true to how I relate to food. Everyone I spoke with at ICE — from admissions to career services — understood this and offered practical advice on how to reach my goals.

Sustainability Club at ICE

Leslie and another Culinary Arts student at a meeting of ICE’s Sustainability Club

One thing was certain — I would need to upgrade my skills to suit a professional kitchen. In an effort to undo years of questionable knife habits, I spent hours dicing potatoes and attended additional knife skills classes. I honed a variety of techniques from braising to poaching that I hope to translate into new, healthy recipes. I took advantage of networking and volunteer opportunities to meet people in the field and gain a better understanding of the industry. My classmates are a diverse bunch; some already have professional experience, and others are career changers like me. The range of ages, backgrounds and work styles provides an excellent preview of what working in a professional kitchen will be like.

As my time at ICE comes to a close, I look forward to drawing on the whole experience — the lessons, the difficulties and the relationships — as I move ahead with my career. Next month I’ll begin my externship in the test kitchen for a meal kit delivery service. Because why else would I go to culinary school?

Ready to find your culinary voice? Learn more about ICE’s career programs

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