By Carly DeFilippo
“Everyone comes into a room with a history,” says Chef Gerri Sarnataro, and it’s sure that Gerri herself—the owner of a successful cooking school in Umbria and a member of ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts faculty—is no exception. Like many professionals in the culinary field, Gerri’s career path was not a straight one; it was a combination of many parallel pursuits.
Growing up in suburban, middle-class Queens, it was easy for Gerri to fall in love with food. Her Italian-born grandfather owned a gourmet food store, so her family regularly feasted on such farm-to-table foodstuffs as local squab and fresh produce from Long Island. Yet, despite this unusual access to the region’s freshest flavors, Gerri never considered a career in the kitchen.
While choosing a career in food may seem to some like a risky proposition, it was actually the unsteady economics of education in late 1970s New York City that led Gerri to the culinary industry. As a graduate student in education and developmental psychology, she discovered that her job prospects were few and far between, so Gerri sought employment at Bloomingdale’s—right at the time when the famed department store was developing its culinary department.
Bloomingdale’s wasn’t the only business that was starting to take note of the culinary world. Thought leaders like Julia Child and Craig Claiborne were introducing the nation to a whole new kind of cooking, while American cooking advocate James Beard was working to valorize the nation’s food history and traditions. So it was no surprise when Gerri realized that she was spending most of her free time at work browsing through the cookbook section.
Despite being a 30-year-old career changer in a field dominated by young men, Gerri enrolled in a short, intensive course in culinary arts at the New York Restaurant School. From there, she found a job in New York City’s Garment District at Lanvin’s, an upscale, club-like restaurant that focused on “new American cuisine”, featuring such dishes as smoked duck breast, snow peas and fresh pastas. It was at Lanvin’s that Gerri also got her first taste of working in a pastry kitchen—crafting modern takes on tarte tatin or crème brûlée—as during that era, restaurants rarely invested in hiring a separate staff to develop and prepare items for dessert menus.
Continuing her tour of the Garment District, Gerri transferred to Wood’s Restaurant, where she catered to the urban fashion elite. From inside Wood’s kitchen, Gerri crafted gourmet takeout meals for designers like Oscar de la Renta, eventually launching her own catering company that would serve not only fashion icons, but also such renowned institutions as the New York Public Library.
Yet, while she was making a name for herself in New York, Gerri’s personal interests were increasingly pulling her across the Atlantic. Throughout her now 30-year career in culinary arts, Gerri frequently traveled overseas. She first spent 15 years rigorously exploring the culinary riches of France, but it was her return to Italy as an adult that truly captured Gerri’s imagination. So when she discovered a small workshop for sale in Umbria, she knew she had found an outlet to express her passion for local products and traditional techniques with other culinary enthusiasts.
Today, Gerri’s career is truly international, spending three months at a time with career students—like alumni Clarisa Martino and Zac Young—in ICE’s pastry kitchens, then jetting back to Italy to lead gastronomic tours and locavore cooking classes. Her schedule may be just as grueling as the days when she served New York’s fashion elite, but now, the menu is created entirely on her terms.
Looking back over her career, Gerri also notes that, for female chefs and entrepreneurs, the industry has changed considerably. Her first boss at Lanvin’s almost didn’t hire her due to her gender and the fact that she was a college-educated career changer. Today, it’s inspiring to see so many women taking charge in award-winning kitchens, and, at ICE, we’re proud to have a successful entrepreneur like Gerri inspiring the next generation of creative culinary professionals.