Renowned chef Gale Gand never chose the food industry; it chose her. In fact, as she warmly explained when I interviewed her on a recent February afternoon, her culinary career began almost entirely by chance.
When Gand was a college student waiting tables at a restaurant, a line cook failed to show up one night. Desperate, Gand’s manager threw her into the kitchen. After about ten seconds of sheer terror, Gand felt a sense of calm wash over her. Suddenly, the kitchen felt like home, and she lost herself in the rhythm of cooking. That night, she fell in love with the craftsmanship and artistry of the cooking process, and she realized that she was fascinated by the physics and chemistry it entailed. Clearly, Gand had found her calling.
After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Gand attended culinary school at La Varenne in Paris. In culinary school, she quickly felt drawn to and excelled in pastry. She found joy and comfort in the exactness of baking, a process that depends upon specific chemical reactions.
She also valued the freedom of pastry, which allows its chefs to “stay with their ingredients” and use those ingredients to make different desserts depending on the day. Gand’s perfectionism, organization and attention to detail served her well in the precise world of pastry chefs. In the mid-1970s, she began working in restaurants, first in New York City and later in London and the English countryside.
Just as many female chefs, Gand often faced sexism in these restaurant kitchens. She recalls many instances in which male chefs underestimated her stamina and accused her of being the “weak link” who might let her emotions stand in the way of her work.
Worse, men often assumed that she would be too fragile to succeed in this physically-demanding, labor-intensive field. Gand, passionate about cooking and confident in herself, refused to let their discrimination discourage her. Instead, she set out to prove their stereotypes wrong.
Gand advises all young women in the restaurant industry to follow her lead and overcome these stereotypes by presenting themselves as bold, tireless, and driven. Above all, female chefs must trust themselves and their abilities, be calm and flexible in stressful situations, and have an unwavering, “can-do” attitude.
After nearly twenty years of working in these challenging restaurant kitchens, Gand decided that she was ready to open her own restaurants. In the early 1990s, Gand and her ex-husband, Chef Rick Tramonto, opened Trio and Brasserie T in Chicago and started a restaurant at the Stapleford Park Country House Hotel in Leicestershire, England.
In 1999, they opened the legendary Chicago fine-dining restaurant Tru. Gand’s art background gave Tru’s food an artistic, unique appearance that quickly caught fine diners’ and critics’ attention. Since its debut, Tru has received two Michelin stars and been honored by the James Beard Foundation and by various magazines.
More recently, Gand partnered with Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh to open Spritzburger, a two-year pop up restaurant in Chicago. This spunky restaurant served grass-fed burgers, Gand’s desserts, vintage cocktails, and her own cinnamon ginger root beer. Gand’s root beer became so popular that she now partners with Sysco to manufacture and sell 70,000 bottles every year.
Gand attributes her incredible success as a restauranteur and entrepreneur to her creativity, stamina and knowledge of finances, all of which are skills she gained as a young woman, when she performed with and bookkept for her family, the Gand Family Singers.
Yet Gand’s greatest satisfaction with her culinary career has come not from her restaurants, but from her role as a teacher. Gand realized early on that she is a natural storyteller and has a gift for “demystifying” the art of baking and cooking. Teaching others to cook is so important to her because it enables her to pass on a “verbal history and art form.”
In the past decade, she has taught thousands of people through various mediums. Currently, Gand teaches online classes about meringue- and custard-making on Craftsy.com. For eight years, she hosted the Food Network show “Sweet Dreams,” in which she demonstrated how to bake any dessert imaginable, from “Fabulous Red Velvet Cake” to “Pear and Raspberry Crostata.” Gand’s show gave her an incredible amount of exposure; more than 30,000 people watched her show each time it aired, and thousands of viewers have contacted her to thank her for inspiring them to pursue their culinary dreams.
Gand greatly values the connections she has made with her viewers and the positive impact she has had on their lives. As an offshoot of her TV show, Gand is often invited to do live teaching demonstrations at wine and food festivals. Also, in 2011 and 2012, she served as the Chef in Residence at Elawa Farm in Lake Forest, Illinois, where she taught family cooking classes. In doing so, she had the opportunity to help disconnected, emotionally-unwell families bond and heal by preparing food together. To Gand, this meaningful experience highlighted the power and importance of cooking good food, which can bring people together in a way nothing else can.
Gand has also taught thousands through her cookbooks. Since 1997, she has published eight collections of both sweet and savory recipes. Although Gand feels more comfortable with pastry, she enjoys developing and testing savory recipes to keep her books original and exciting. She is passionate about cookbook writing because of its biographical nature; writing down her recipes allows her to chronicle important memories and events in her life.
More importantly, though, Gand’s cookbooks enable her to connect with people from all over the world who cannot come to her restaurants but still want to experience her food. She has formed many unexpectedly intimate relationships with readers over the years, such as a family in Texas that cooks her sweet potato recipe every Thanksgiving. Members of this family have written to her and repeatedly thanked her for helping make their meal memorable. Above all, this knowledge that she has made a difference in people’s lives through her food drives Gand to keep cooking every day.