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Finding fame in the world of haute cuisine

Whitney Chen '05 talks about how her participation in The Next Food Network Star changed her life, and how her Lehigh engineering education helped prepare her for her new career as a chef and food writer.

Whitney Chen ’05 left an engineering job in New York City to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a chef.

Whitney Chen ’05 has a knack for taking on challenges. At Lehigh, she was a successful student in industrial engineering, one of the university’s more demanding disciplines. After graduating, she worked on construction and energy projects for Navigant Consulting in New York City.

Lately, she has focused on a new challenge: cooking.

Before a packed audience at the Wood Dining Room in Iacocca Hall on Thursday, Chen spoke about her unique journey from engineer to world-class chef, TV show contestant on The Next Food Network Star, and food writer.

In a cooking demonstration called “Follow Your Passion,” Chen encouraged students, faculty, staff and community members to try their hand in the kitchen. Recipes and giveaways were available at the end of the program.

Chen has enjoyed a rapid rise to success and stardom in the restaurant world. Before she was on the show, she worked as a Chef de Partie at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, which The New York Times has called the best restaurant in the city.

While she was working her station at Per Se, her sister told her about a casting call for the Food Network show. Chen interviewed, was cast, and filmed the show last year. She greatly appreciated the opportunity, but says being on the show wasn’t always easy.

“We were very secluded from everyone,” she said. “It certainly made me appreciate my family and friends.”

An abrupt change

Chen enjoyed being an engineering consultant, but decided after four years to chase her dreams of becoming a chef. She dropped everything, moved to Maryland to attend culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine and completed the program in 2010. Her family and friends were fully supportive of her decision to switch careers.

“I always wanted to cook. I mean, I wanted to cook before I came to Lehigh. But my parents basically said no,” said Chen. “In the end, they were absolutely right. I would not give up my time or my degree here for anything.”

Today, Chen is a contributing editor and photographer at Gilt Taste, an online food magazine and shop. Her column, “Don’t Sweat the Technique,” shows readers how to incorporate four-star flair in their own recipes. She’s also working on launching a food-focused nonprofit by the end of the year.

“The hard part about cooking is you really have to show people how to cook,” said Chen. “That’s really the focus of my column, to kind of very clearly spell it out.”

A self-proclaimed life learner, Chen holds a certificate in journalism from New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

Chen is a member of Delta Gamma sorority, and in her time at Lehigh she worked with the Lehigh University Art Galleries, among other involvements. She looks back fondly on her four years in South Bethlehem, and appreciates the lifelong bonds she formed on campus. Best of all, she says, her education in engineering prepared her for a life in the restaurant world.

“I actually think having this degree and having everything I learned at Lehigh to fall back on made me a lot more confident in being able to leave my job and go pursue something else, ” she said.

“I use everything I learned here, or parts of everything I learned here, every day.”

Photos by Douglas Benedict

Story by Karl Brisseaux

Posted on Friday, March 16, 2012

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