For most Penn students, learning how to make a home–cooked meal is an unavoidable and (if we’re being honest) somewhat unattainable rite of passage. For Rachel Prokupek (W ‘20), it’s a skill that she’s mastered on three different continents.
Cooking has always been a big part of Rachel’s life, as she grew up in a family that “appreciated good food” and had a dad that worked in the restaurant industry, as well a close family friend that did catering.
“The passion kind of developed naturally throughout high school,” she says. “I started cooking more, I started reading more about it, watching shows... and it really just went from there.”
Rachel eventually got to experience the profession firsthand when, in order to fulfill her school’s three–week internship requirement for graduation, she worked for Denver chef Troy Guard at several of his restaurants. She continued to work for Guard over the following summer.
“It was my first time working at a kitchen ever, and it was a bunch of guys. I was the only girl in the kitchen,” she says. “And [the restaurant] had this open kitchen where people would sit at the bar and look into the kitchen as we were cooking, so I was always interacting with customers. I learned a lot.”
Rachel admits there were some unexpected challenges along the way. “One of the most important things about working in a restaurant,” she explains, “is that you have to be careful about food costs, because if you mess up [a dish] and can’t use it, that’s a waste of money. It’s the tightest margin, and I had to be perfect, so when I messed stuff up the chef would have to come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, this means you’re wasting X amount of dollars because you messed up this one skill.’”
Before coming to Penn, Rachel took a gap year to attend Le Cordon Bleu, the famed culinary school in France that boasts Julia Child, Giada de Laurentiis, and Mario Batali as alumni. The international and professional atmosphere combined to make the experience unforgettable for her. “It was the best year of my life,” Rachel says. However, she says that the environment was understandably “very intense,” given the high caliber of talent. “It’s not like cooking yourself breakfast before school,” she shares.
If earning a culinary degree from one of the most famous universities in the world isn’t enough for you to buy into Rachel’s expertise, it should be noted that she also helped develop a restaurant on Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda. This girl knows what she’s doing.
The restaurant, named The Crested Crane, is part of an initiative to increase Ugandan tourism. After visiting the country for several weeks through a program run by the Global Livingston Institute (GLI) in Denver, Rachel maintained her relationship with the head cook at the program and worked with him to create the concept and menu for the restaurant. She went back to Uganda during her freshman year for the grand opening. “100 people from all over the island came,” Rachel says. “The chef and I cooked all of the food together. It was so fun.”
At Penn, Rachel continues exploring her love of cooking through her participation in Penn Appétit, which she has been involved with since receiving her college acceptance (she wrote an article for the club during her gap year before even arriving on campus) and she is now the club’s Executive Director.
While she can’t say she knows exactly how cooking will play into her profession after graduation, Rachel can’t wait to see where her passion takes her during the next two years at Penn. While nothing is confirmed, Rachel hinted that she may be in the running for an undergraduate special of Chopped, a cooking competition show on Food Network. “That would be crazy,” she admits, after revealing that she did an interview with one of the show’s producers and received a follow–up email a few days ago regarding her upcoming availabilities.
Until then, however, Rachel’s just going to keep doing what makes her happy. “People all over the world can connect over food and ingredients, and it just brings people together,” she says. “I just love cooking.”
A previous version of this article stated that Rachel will be the Executive Director of Penn Appétit next semester. She is currently the Executive Director. It also stated that she owned a restaurant in Uganda rather than helping to develop it. 34th Street regrets these errors.