Who says you can't go to both Penn and culinary school? These freshmen found you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Rachel Prokupek (C ‘20)
Rachel's resume boasts two Michelin stars and a degree from culinary school, but her foodie journey hasn’t been a cakewalk.
She's been passionate about food since she was young. It was a common interest between her and her father. He “was in the restaurant industry, and during family dinners [we] would sit at the table and talk about the industry,” says Rachel. A family friend taught Rachel about cooking and introduced her to the Food Network. From there, the obsession took hold.
“During high school, I got really into it," Rachel says. I started cooking for myself. I only watched the Food Network, and started reading and learning more about food."
Before coming to Penn, Rachel took a gap year and attended the famous culinary school Le Cordon Bleu, where she studied both cuisine and pastry. Though she loved the experience, it wasn’t without its challenges.
“The chefs would teach us how to create French dishes, and we’d go into the kitchen and have to recreate them. We were graded on everything from our timing to our cleanliness to our knife skills, the seasonings, every single thing possible,” recounts Rachel.
While pastry skills came naturally to her, she soon realized that cuisine didn’t. “People learned cuisine faster than I did. It was a failure to me when I’d have to present dishes and my fish was underdone, or I didn't julienne my carrots as perfectly as I should have. It sounds stupid, but it was important!” she laughs.
As a recent graduate from Le Cordon Bleu, Rachel had the opportunity to extern at Restaurant Daniel, a two Michelin star restaurant in New York City. Externing, she explains, is essentially the chef version of an internship. She was on the prep team, and was responsible for preparing soups and salads. Restaurant Daniel has standards on par with Le Cordon Bleu, and meeting them wasn’t always a breeze. “Daniel has to produce really high quality food, and the work that I did had to be up to that standard,” she says. At first, expectations put a lot of pressure on the young chef, who admits that “[during] the first two weeks, I would come home at the end of the night so degraded because I knew I wasn’t doing the work that was expected of me.” But eventually, her skills improved, and by the end of the summer, she even helped train new prep team members.
Going forward, Rachel wants to explore the business side of the restaurant industry. “I realized this summer that I don’t want to be a chef. I have so much respect for people who work in kitchens—it’s such hard work, with the hours and heat and timing. But I don’t want to be in the kitchen every day,” she says. Her dream job? “Owning my own restaurant group and working with other chefs to create concepts. I have the culinary experience. Now I just need the business side.”
Jennifer Higa (C ‘20)
She became interested in food as a child growing up in Japan. “In Japan, food is such a huge thing in the culture,” she says. Family meals were a central part of her childhood, and her parents fueled her culinary interests. From an early age, Jennifer has been fascinated by cooking. “There’s a picture of me when I’m five years old, with my chef hat, making cheese. I’m like really small, but for some reason I really wanted to make cheese!” she recalls, laughing.
Jenny loves to cook herself healthy meals, but as a freshman, she doesn’t have a kitchen. This inspired her YouTube series, Dorm Room Munchies, which is dedicated to dorm room cooking.
“I wanted to share easy dorm room cooking things, and most of the ingredients come from the dining hall,” she says. “I watch a lot of cooking YouTube videos in my free time,” and these videos inspire her content.
Her interest in digital content doesn’t stop at YouTube. Jennifer loves writing about food, and luckily, with the Penn Appétit blog, she gets invitations to write about Philly restaurants.
“Last week, I got a media dine–in at Ocean Prime. It was a very fancy meal: we got an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert. Everything was paid for except for the tip, and I just got to write about it. I love writing about food, I think presentation and flavors are so important. I just recorded all that, and had a photographer with me."
Jenny, like Rachel, wants to go into the restaurant industry, starting this summer. “I’m working at a restaurant in Japan that mixes social impact and food,” she says. This restaurant hires people with disabilities, giving them opportunities to work they might not get otherwise. Jenny will have the opportunity to work in the kitchen, with the creative teams and on the managerial side. “I’m gonna learn all about it,” she says.