Last night Whitney Chen, a 2005 Lehigh engineering program graduate, came back to her alma mater to give…a cooking demo.
Chen worked as an engineering consultant for four years before quitting her job to pursue her dreams. Wanting to attend culinary schools even before taking on Lehigh’s engineering program (her parents dissuaded her from cooking school), she eventually left her engineering consultant position to attend a year-long program at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, MD.
She then went on to cook at Per Se, widely regarded as one of the top restaurants in the country after earning four starts from the New York Times and three stars from the Michelin Guide. Following her rise to chef de partie at Per Se she had a brief run on the Food Network’s The Next Food Network Star before being eliminated in the finals.
Focusing first on her time at Lehigh, Chen noted that her networking connections from Lehigh were instrumental in her success throughout her career. She said she had a wake-up call when she was working into the morning hours at Per Se (which she joked is “magical and psycho all at the same time.”) After service was over for the evening the staff was attending a menu meeting to discuss the dishes for the next day. As they were going over the fine details around 3a.m., one of Chen’s fellow chefs piped up, “I think we need to rethink the parsley garnish on this dish.” Her first reaction was, “is this guy insane?” however the more she thought about it, the more she realized how much passion and drive the people around her had for food.
Noting she was a good, but not a great, student at Lehigh, she said even in her undergraduate program she was surrounded by people that were motivated and passionate about what they were doing. That continued on through her engineering career and finally into her culinary endeavors. Saying that when people are paying $295 a plate at Per Se (you should’ve heard the gasps in the crowd when she said that), you need people that are enthusiastic behind the scenes and her time at Lehigh reinforced her that notion.
After speaking briefly with the large group that came to see Chen, it was time to cook. She decided to cook simple, utilizing small amounts of ingredients and using tools that were both cheap and easy to work with in a dorm-setting. She introduced her first dish by saying, “So, when I was at Lehigh I drank a lot of beer…” and went on to say that due to that she started doing a low-carb diet. Loving lasagna, but not wanting to eat it due to the noodles, she set out to make a low-carb alternative. She settled on a tian, a sort of vegetable casserole/lasagna. She layered zucchini strips sliced with a mandolin, topping each later with a cheese/lemon zest/herb/olive oil combo until topping the whole thing off with one final layer of cheese. Once the prep was finished she dispatched her fiancé to pop it in the oven.
Next up was grilled cheese. Polling the crowd, she asked who in the crowd thought they made a really great grilled cheese. The crowd was timid, no one wanting to raise their hand. Finally Karl Brisseaux, a Lehigh mechanical engineering major, put his hand up. Chen challenged him to a “grilled cheese throwdown”. As Karl topped his with bacon, butter, and cheese, Chen told the crowd she slathers mayo on the outside of her bread to brown it. After going through the motions and cooking up their grilled cheeses Chen invited Danny, a Lehigh economics major, to come taste test. He proclaimed them both very good.
Afterward it was time to pop the veggie tian out of the oven. Chen invited a young audience member to come give it a try. Proclaiming he didn’t like vegetables, Chen sliced a piece for him and proclaimed, “It’s good,” much to the crowd’s amusement.
A brief question and answer session proved to be the most interesting part of the evening. Speaking about her time on the Food Network, Chen said it was “one of the most interesting things I’ve done in my life.” She said when they arrived their cellphones were taken and they were completely secluded from society. They were not allowed to read, listen to music, or talk to family/friends.
When questioned about what her craziest night at Per Se was, Chen had a specific incident pop in her mind. She said that when she started at Per Se she was “way in over my head.” New chefs in the kitchen typically work six weeks doing cold prep before entering into a higher position. Two weeks into the job she came in to find herself listed on the schedule as the entremetier, a higher position in charge of preparing the meatless dishes. She was having trouble prepping and they sprang an extra dish on her. She said she was overwhelmed trying to prep for the dishes only to find out that because it was white truffle season, the extra dish was a white truffle risotto. After looking at the menu Chen found out that the dish carried an extra $175 surcharge due to the high cost of truffles. Thinking she was safe because no one would order it due to the exorbitant cost, she breathed a little easier. When it came time for dinner service? Nearly every diner that came in ordered the truffle dish.
One student asked Chen about her decision to leave the engineering world and become a chef. Chen made it clear that it was a calculated risk, noting she had “all of her ducks in a row” before she left her engineering job. She didn’t burn bridges and she still kept consulting on the side to pay bills while she was in culinary school, as well as maintained her network of contacts with Lehigh alumni.
So what does the future hold for Chen now that she’s out of the engineering field, the Food Network, and Per Se? Chen is currently writing under famed culinary maven Ruth Reichl for Gilt Taste. She also said she’s working on a food-based non-profit but wouldn’t provide any specifics. Asked if she ever considered having her own place, Chen responded, “I will never have my own restaurant” due to the endless hard work that it involves. She said she loved the kitchen and respects the staff and people that do it, but she wouldn’t want a place to call her own. And as for TV? She said she’s done being on camera for now, but she’s working with the crew of the new Bravo TV series Around the World in 80 Plates but the “door is always open at the Food Network.”
Grilled cheese throwdown time