Q&A: Paige Lombardi '08, Chef de Cuisine at Oleana

Thursday, Jan 24, 2019

Paige Lombardi

Paige talks about the steps she took after graduating and shares advice for students thinking about a career in the restaurant business. 

What exactly does a chef de cuisine do?

My responsibilities, in no particular order, include: the (shared) production and quality control of all of the food we serve, both savory and pastry; controlling our food cost through ordering and the setting of costs on the menu; communicating with both our pastry chef and General Manager on a daily basis to work as a unified management team; placing daily orders with several purveyors; creating and executing multiple daily specials; recruiting, staffing, training, and educating a team of 14; keeping an eye on all necessary equipment maintenance; writing menus for special events as well as executing special events in-house; constantly reviewing and altering dishes to accommodate different allergens and dietary restrictions.

I'm sure I'm forgetting a few things, but that's the gist!

How did you find your first job after Princeton?

My first real job in a restaurant was at Del Posto, a New York Times four-star restaurant in Manhattan. I applied for an internship there to fulfill a requirement for a culinary program I was completing, and ended up being hired on and working there for almost three years. 

What advice do you have for a student contemplating a career in your field?

A lot of people toy with careers in restaurant kitchens, but it is definitely not for everyone. You have to be willing to CHOOSE, and (ideally for long-term success) PREFER to work in an environment that is pretty fast-paced and potentially stressful; where you will be on your feet up to 14 hours a day; where you will work weekends and nights, and will miss countless events with friends and family; where you might be physically uncomfortable fairly frequently (hot in general, hotter in the summers; burns and cuts come with the territory; lots of lifting of 50 pound bags, etc.); and where you won't ever make nearly the wages that some of your other friends from Princeton will make. 

Long story short, if you like cooking at home, that is definitely not an indicator that you could be a successful line cook, or one day, a chef. I think that sometimes people have a pretty romantic notion of what cooking in a restaurant is like. In reality, it's more of a trade than people think, and you spend a lot more time cleaning and cursing at oven pilot lights that won't stay lit than plating food to classical music a la "Chef's Table" (though I like that stuff as much as the next lady). 

What experiences did you consider to be most valuable? 

I rowed on the lightweight women's crew team all four years at Princeton (and the four years of high school before that), and I always liken cooking for a living to just continuing my participation in an endurance sport into adulthood. You have to have a fair amount of personal grit and drive to constantly be pushing yourself to be better and faster—and that's not even talking about the interpersonal managerial skills you need to develop to become a chef, where you are also working to push and develop those skills in your team, while multitasking a lot of other priorities. 

Honestly, my time at Princeton really cemented in me the drive to push to get myself to the best possible opportunities I could attain. I applied to the best restaurants in New York City for my first cooking job, even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, just because I knew that being in the best environments was going to give me nothing but a continued foot up. 

What was the most beneficial thing you learned during your career path?

The impact that hospitality can have on a person. You never know how a guest might come to your restaurant on any given night—in a fight with a spouse, mourning a loss or cranky from traffic—but the fact that you have the opportunity to make someone's experience and perspective a positive one though kindness and care and maybe a dish that you've made that you are proud of; that's a pretty special thing. It's the whole point of what we in the restaurant industry do!