What has your journey been like in your career? Did you always know that you wanted to be in the food industry?
I kind of fell into the food industry as it's my family business, my father owned an Italian Restaurant in New York City for 32 years. I majored in Politics and African American studies in college and dreamed of joining the Peace Corps and becoming a development worker in sub-Saharan Africa. Alas, I graduated college in 2009 and there were literally zero jobs. So I started working at my father's restaurant to supplement the part time $12/hour job I had writing grants at the Earth Institute. I fell in love with the restaurant industry and took over the family business when we lost our original lease and relocated in 2011. I was only 24 years old when we opened and kind of had to teach myself how to manage a modern restaurant on the fly - I loved it but it was physically and mentally exhausting. After four years running the business I was diagnosed with endometriosis, a uterine disease that causes chronic pain and often infertility, and knew I had to slow down. My diagnosis of a chronic pain disease is what led me to the world of eating for health! Literally using food as medicine to help lessen my endometriosis symptoms. I had always loved cooking and even had a silly little blog as a creative outlet when I ran the restaurant. But it was the idea of cooking to help heal my body that really drove me to my current career. I sold the restaurant in 2018 and went to culinary school in 2019 that focused on nutritional cooking. And that's how I started as a professional chef.
I know you’re a natural chef, but can you explain to me and anyone else who isn't so well-versed in the culinary world… What does that mean?
I find my Natural Chef to be a kind of strange title - it's what my culinary school certificate says, Certified Natural Chef, so that's what I go by. I went to a specialized culinary school in Berkeley that focused on nutrition and wellness. The first half of the program was basic culinary school - sauces, knife skills, classic cooking techniques, and the second part was "eating for health". Each day we focused on a different disease or dietary issue and learned how to best cook for it. We also studied cuisines from around the world and their nourishing traditions. While I pride myself on being able to cook anything, my focus is on healthy cuisine. I like to say I make delicious food that just happens to be good for you! I now specialize in meal prep services, most of my clients have some sort of chronic illness and/or dietary restriction. All of my clients love food and eating but find navigating their dietary restrictions difficult. That's where I come in! I create tailor made menus based on my clients taste preferences and dietary restrictions - so they can still enjoy food while maintaining their diets for optimal health. I know some chefs turn their nose at dietary restrictions but I actually find it to be a really fun culinary challenge!
Instagram seems to create this image that being a chef is super glamorous. How do you find being a chef in real life compared to social media?
I would say IRL being a chef is far from glamorous! It's mostly doing dishes! I am definitely not showing all the dishes I do on Instagram stories! I also am not the best at showing the BTS of my business - I'm usually too busy cooking, driving, schlepping or shopping. There is also the bain of my existence - computer work! Emailing proposed menus, invoicing clients, responding to new client inquiries, emailing brands about potential partnerships - it's all necessary work to keep the business going and growing but I do not enjoy it. There is something dreamy about getting to cook all day as a living, and if that's all I ever had to do it may be the most glamorous job in the world!
You’ve had a restaurant, catered events, and now you do a lot of meal prep? So far what is your favorite of the three? Or is there something else that’s your favorite that you haven’t done yet?
My favorite is probably catering events - I get to use my experience from running a restaurant and my skills of cooking. I love the fast paced nature of it and especially love getting to interact directly with the people I'm feeding. I was the front of house at my restaurant and really vibe off interacting with customers, so catering allows me to cook as well as mingle! Alas I won't be catering events for a while due to covid so I miss it. I love meal prepping, and I especially love the stability of having a weekly income, but I never get to experience my clients eating the food and interacting with them. The other thing I really love doing is developing and sharing recipes. I have yet to be paid for any recipes I write but I love sharing them! It connects me to people and is such a cool feeling to see strangers across the world making my recipes. My ultimate goal is to write a cookbook. I have dozens of recipes squirreled away, I just need to put my to it and get to writing.
It seems like there’s a lot of trends having to do with dietary restrictions… What’s your take on that? And how do you handle it when it comes to cooking for others?
All dietary trends are definitely not created equally! My philosophy of healthy eating is pretty much the Michael Pollan ethos "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I focus on eating real whole foods and avoid anything heavily processed. I don't believe there is "one" healthy way to eat and a healthy diet looks different for every person. That being said, I am for some of them. I have done several rounds of Whole30 and find them to be extremely helpful when I need a good detox. I have done a fast mimicking diet and eat a paleo-ish diet. But others I am wary of - keto, calorie counting... There is nothing inherently wrong with any of them but I do feel they can be implemented in extreme and often unhealthy ways. For example, I'm all for the idea of keto, high fat, low carb but then see people eating cheese, with butter, with bacon and I'm like that can't be good for your heart! It's also not necessarily sustainable - you can eat that way for a few weeks or a few months but forever? I'm way more into a healthy lifestyle than a fad diet. But I am not a doctor, I am not here to tell anyone what they should and should not eat. Even with my clients, I do not prescribe their diets, instead I follow what they or their own doctors feel best. What I will do is offer a glimpse into my way of healthy eating, share recipes and ideas and hopefully that inspires others to eat more holistically.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to have the career you have? What were some of the things that you did that helped get you to where you are today?
Just got for it! I have women DM all the time asking how I got started as a private chef. While my past restaurant experience definitely helped it was my passion for cooking that really drove my career. When I went back to culinary school at age 31 I was really nervous. I mean, I hadn't been in school since 2009, what if I wasn't good at it anymore? Or worse, what if I wasn't as good of a cook as I always thought I was. By giving myself the challenge of going back to school, it not only confirmed my own skills but let me enhance them. I had the opportunity to cook for 4 hours a day, three days a week, in an industrial kitchen full of every ingredient I could think of! I took full advantage of the time and space and honed my culinary skills and really found my voice in the kitchen. I don't necessarily think you have to go to culinary school to become a chef but definitely just go for it! Get a job as a line cook, start preparing meals for a local family looking for some extra help, start selling your gluten free pastries! The best way to start is to just do it, you're never too old or too inexperienced to start. And keep doing it! Like any other skill, it's about practice practice practice!
What is your favorite thing to make? And is it different from other people's favorite thing to eat that you make?
Roast chicken will always be my absolute favorite thing to make and I have about a dozen different ways to make it. I love that it's like three meals in one - the roast chicken dinner, the leftovers are great for chicken salad for lunch and then I always save the bones to make broth. I think other people, or at least my husband, like my "bad girls club" meals, like Korean fried chicken or chicken pot pie.
Words to live by?
I like to say I put my money where my mouth is - literally. I talk about eating real whole foods and I buy and eat real whole foods. I spend my money on organic produce, grass fed meats, pasture raised eggs. They taste better, they are better for my body and most importantly, they are better for our planet. Spend those extra few dollars on quality products, it's better for all of us in the long run.
Learn more about Isabella and her work on her website www.isabellagambuto.com
Photos by Maia Flore