As Chef Gale Gand likes to put it, she’s had a robust career. The two-time James Beard winner had her own show on The Food Network for eight years, has written eight books, raised three children and still runs her own root beer company. Would you believe she got her start traveling the country in the family folk band and doing gigs at fairs and Disneyland? The Chef Works’ blog was lucky enough to catch up with the culinary icon after the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs National Conference to talk about her rise in the industry.
Take us back to that exact moment when you knew you wanted to be a chef.
Gale Gand: I’m 19 and a starving art student. I’m broke and eating dandelions on my way home from school. I start eating at this vegetarian restaurant because it’s cheap. But I played beat-the-check twice because I couldn’t afford the $1.25 for my salad. The third time I’m going to do it, I decide to apply for a job there and I start waitressing, because I get $2 of food per shift.
Three weeks in, a line cook does a no-show, no-call. They toss me an apron and say get back there. I had loved being a waitress and describing the food, but I had never cooked professionally. For six seconds, I’m terrified. On the seventh, this calm comes over me and I feel like I’ve found my home. It was like speaking a language I was fluent in, but I don’t ever remember learning it. That was 42 years ago.
We’re talking about a very different time and era. What were some of the challenges?
GG: I remember going to France when I was 23. I wrote letters to all of these restaurants asking if I could study there. I got one back addressed to “Mr. Gand.” My first name is spelled like the male version. Thanks mom. So when I get there, they are shocked that I’m a woman. This was Fernand Point’s restaurant La Pyramide in Vienne near Lyon. It took an hour before they’d even let me in the kitchen.
They wouldn’t let me touch anything, so I wondered how I could cook here. I found this commis peeling carrots and told him I’d do it and he could move on to something else. After I was done with that, I found another guy peeling potatoes and told him I’d do that. I went around and did everyone’s prep work. Three hours later, I was everyone’s best friend and they were ready to tell me family secrets.
I’m sure it’s not easy, but can you narrow down one or two moments in your career that stand out above all others?
GG: I’m 61 and have been cooking for 42 years and there have been so many amazing moments. Every time I think about one thing, I remember something else that happened that was amazing and crazy, like the time I cooked for the president of China or when Robin Williams came into Tru [my former restaurant in Chicago] and he laughed at all of my jokes. But I’d say cooking with Julia Child on her show and at her house was one of them. That’s like going to the North Pole to meet Santa. Then there are the two James Beard awards and when the Food Network called to offer me my show. That was a weak-in-the-knees moment for me.
What are you going to be doing today, next month and next year?
GG: Today, my son and I are foraging for ramps. We have a one-month-out-of-the-year business. It’s our little micro-agro business. It started when he was 8, after my twins were born, so we could spend time together away from the babies. Now he’s getting ready to graduate college. That first year we collected 10 pounds and he sold them to Tru for $5 per pound. Last year we hauled in 341 pounds and he charges $13 per pound. He’s a double major, business economics and math. Think that has something to do with it?
I love to teach, so next month I’ll be teaching a lot of classes. We closed Tru last year after 18 years with two Michelin Stars. We went out on top. So I don’t have to worry about the day-to-day restaurant work. I also do a lot of corporate team building events where I teach and then we eat what we cook. As for next year, my feeling is that if I had tried to predict my 2000 to 2005, no one would have believed me. I’d win a Beard Award, get my own cooking show, write five books, have a successful marriage and have twins. So I don’t predict anything. I just answer my phone and respond to all of my emails and let the universe keep throwing good things my way.