Last week, I told y'all that we had a very special guest join our team in the kitchen at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. The time has come for me to reveal who that special guest was. Everyone, meet Lei! Lei reached out to me on social media a few months ago saying she's always dreamed of working with me. After learning a bit about her incredible journey and her passion for cooking, I knew I had to meet Lei. The SOBEWFF was the perfect opportunity for her to join me in the kitchen.
Between three events, we cooked for approximately 1500 people in just 2 days! While this may be intimidating to some, Lei worked with grace and confidence. With her experience as a cook in the US Air Force, I knew she'd be comfortable with the amount of work that comes with feeding large groups of people.
Successful nights in the kitchen are dependent upon the flow of the team. When you're cooking and plating, you fall into a rhythm with your fellow chefs. My team and I have been working together for a while now and have found a rhythm with each other. When Lei joined us, she fell into our rhythm seamlessly! It was like we had been working side by side for years. Getting to meet her husband and daughter (whose name is also Cat!) was the cherry on top.
I wanted to give Lei some room on this post to share her experience at the SOBEWFF. Without further ado, I introduce you to superstar chef, Lei!
A FEW WORDS FROM LEI
I've always loved to cook. I grew up in a big Italian family and have fond memories of dinner tables covered with plates of seafood pasta with creamy feta, stuffed clams, very slightly burnt chicken strips and fried eggplant parmesan. Cooking is a way that I express my love. If you come to my house, you don't have much of a choice, I will feed you.
I enlisted in the United States Air Force partially because I wanted to ruffle feathers. In 2008, there was still an attitude that women don't belong in the military. When my non-commissioned officer asked why I wanted to join the fight, I said "because I love to cook," an answer he'd never heard before. Unfortunately, my service was short lived and I was discharged under honorable conditions 16 months later due to a medical condition.
I reached out to Chef Cora because she resonates with me as a parent and a member of the LGBTQ community. She also inspires me, not only as a decorated chef, but as a kind human being. I've been on a journey of self discovery since the birth of my daughter, Cat. Distraught about the world I was bringing her into, I wondered what I could do to make it a better place for her. I became an activist and started to speak out against bullying and support feminism and LGBTQ rights.
We have to help our children build the armor they need to navigate the world. Every night before Cat goes to bed, I tell her "You are brave, you are strong, you are kind, you are smart, and you're capable of anything." I started to seek out strong female role models who demonstrate those principles. Cat Cora is at the top of my list of women who showcase that strength, kindness and determination.
I only slept for 4 hours the night before the SOBEWFF. It's been a long time since I was in a commercial kitchen and I've never done restaurant service before. When I was in the military we mainly did catering style service. I was extremely excited to work with Chef Cora and Chef DaSilva, but I was also nervous because I didn't want to get in the way. A well-run kitchen is like a choreographed dance, and the last thing I wanted to do is disrupt that.
I loved the entire experience! My favorite dish was the Stracciatella because I got to artistically place elements on the plate. I also enjoyed plating the Budino with Chef Cora because my daughter got to have one - she devoured it.
After it was all over, I teared up from the emotion and energy of the evening. It's really incredible how one person believing in you can leave a permanent mark on your soul. I've had my share of rejections and what I consider to be failures, but you have to keep pushing boundaries, keep creating, keep trying and keep failing. It's the only way to learn and grow. It's also the only way you get opportunities like standing beside one of the greatest chefs in the world. I would have swept floors and done dishes all day just to be a fly on the wall and soak up some of the magic. But she let me cook, shoulder to shoulder with her... Whether she knows it or not, Chef Cora gave me armor, the same way I give it to my daughter. And I'll never take it off.
Since we're all staying at home, it's the perfect time for me to connect with y'all as much as possible. With the help of my kids and my wonderful wife, I started a new series on Instagram, called CORA-ntine Cuisine. Everyday at 5 pm PST, I'll be cooking my favorite recipes. Be sure to tune in!