Born in Rome, Italy and educated at Le Cordon Bleu, Barbara Pollastrini is an Italian chef who spent countless days and nights cooking her mother at an early age. With a passion for fine arts and love of cooking, Pollastrini intertwines these to conceptualize and present her beautiful dishes. As Pollastrini says, “A great meal is like a work of art. It should be pleasing to the eye, as well as the nose and palate.”
After attending Le Cordon Bleu and earning her diploma, Pollastrini began teaching culinary arts privately. With ambitions to one day host her own television show, she moved to Los Angeles and began working as a private chef. Without formal business training, the lessons brought about while working for herself were tough at first, but she would find her stride and become a sought-after chef who received many requests.
When she’s not working for clients, Pollastrini is active in cooking competitions. Having recently competed in the World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama that hosted thousands of professional chefs and home cooks vying for a top prize.
In our interview with Pollastrini, we explore the beginning of her career as a private chef, the mistakes she’s made professionally, her advice for building a great network, and why being your best advocate is the key to entrepreneurial success.
Where did your passion for food and cooking come from?
Growing up in Rome, I was inspired to cook from my mother, starting at an early age. Her special ability to cook wonderful meals using very few ingredients was something that always impressed me. She trained me all her life in [cooking], and I learned to love food from cooking together with her. As I grew up, I loved seeing friends come to our house and enjoy my mother’s food and I dreamt one day I would do the same in my house. I started learning more and more about cooking and decided to [attend] Le Cordon Bleu, and I’ve never stopped cooking ever since.
When you attended Le Cordon Bleu, what was that experience like?
It was my first real experience with [professional cooking], and it was amazing. I knew how to cook, but they refined the skills that my mom taught me. I met amazing people and enjoyed every single day.
How did your education prepare you for entering the industry and starting your professional career?
First of all, they taught me how to respect the ingredients. [Prior to that] I cooked with ingredients, but I didn’t really know what it meant to “respect” them. They taught me to use the best of the best ingredients. Also, I learned to respect the client or customer since each individual has different needs. In general, respect was my first lesson.
They also taught me to learn from my mistakes in the kitchen and rely upon my passion. Even when things went wrong, they taught us how to turn the errors into an amazing dish. I learned that my passion was the key to a successful outcome. With this cultivated passion, along with my culinary education, I felt like I could travel the world and have the skills to pursue my dream wherever I may be.
After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, what was your first professional job?
A friend asked me to teach cooking classes, so I decided to study to become a professional cooking teacher. After obtaining my certification in Milan, I started to teach at a cooking school. After teaching, I started a catering company and did this for a little bit and then moved to Los Angeles to become a private chef and pursue my dream of creating a cooking show.
Becoming a private chef and working for yourself early on, what was this period like?
It was a challenge because everything was new. I was not business oriented, but I learned how to save money and time [along the way]. I even learned about hiring [people] and treating them as I wanted to be treated, and that was helpful. It was an amazing experience working independently. In the beginning, I had several clients, and then one client made a big offer, so I decided to work [solely] for them.
In relation to working as a private chef, what’s important for others to understand about that world?
It’s not easy work [laughs]. First, you have to be really prepared. As a private chef, you [must] be able to cook several cuisines at once. Second, you need to be a very respectful, always. Third, you need to learn how to be part of the family without interfering. It is important to remain professional and not to take criticism personally.
Any professional mistakes along the way that taught you valuable lessons?
For me, it was staying in one particular job for too long. I became very comfortable in a position in which I had a lot of potential, but no flexibility, which led me to start to lose sight of my dream. Therefore, I would suggest that one always checks to see if what they’re currently doing is contributing to their ultimate goal.
What’s something that helped you grow your private chef business and career overall?
Building amazing relationships with colleagues. [To be successful] as a private chef or anything, you need to build a [network]. For me, in LA, there are not that many Italian chefs, so without building good relationships, you can miss an opportunity. [At the same time] it’s important to help your colleagues. I’ve been offered jobs that I’ve [passed along] to colleagues that I’ve trusted to take the work. I’ve had a rewarding career as a private chef, and I am thankful for earning the respect of the community.
Additionally, I have always stepped outside of my private chef business to compete in various international cooking competitions in order to challenge myself in different settings outside of my job. While I am grateful to have earned international recognition, I would say that these experiences have really broadened my career and have helped me to learn from others and grow personally.
How do you manage your time to ensure you’re highly productive and efficient?
It’s not easy working for yourself and even working as a private chef. I worked for several years for 12 hours a day, and it can be complicated. For me, I wake up early and make a plan – that’s most important. I create an agenda for everything I need to do. And then I work to get it all done in a timely fashion, so I can have a few moments for myself.
What would you say is the most rewarding thing about working for yourself?
For me, it is about the independence to choose the projects that will contribute to my personal goals. It is important to me that I have [control] over my career. When you know what you want, and you work for yourself, it’s easier to make choices to get you where you want to go — in my case; it’s about creating my personal brand.
What’s been the hardest part about working for yourself?
When you work for yourself, you have to be your own best advocate. It can be a big task to market your personality, brand, taste, and style all at once without having the backing of a big company. It takes a lot of hard work to create your personal brand all by yourself — but it’s not impossible!
What would your advice be for somebody that wants to be a food entrepreneur today?
Be unique and creative in ways that make you shine! It is important to have a good attitude always and never stop learning. For me, I never stopped studying so that I could constantly think about new ideas. I try to keep up with the latest trends in food, brainstorm with other inspirational chefs, and try new restaurants. You always want to be on top of the game in your career.
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