There are many people in this world who talk about changing Chicago but do nothing to make a positive impact. Catherine De Orio is not one of those people. Since becoming the Executive Director of Kendall College Trust in 2014, Catherine has turned her words into action by spearheading the culinary camp summer program, impacting the lives of countless youth. As Catherine puts it, “This program is my baby.” Kendall College Trust works with Chicago Public Schools to select forty-eight students from underserved communities for the summer camp. The students stay overnight, live in dorms and learn how to cook.
When they’re not cooking, they are embarking upon cultural excursions. Catherine shared, “Some of the children who come to culinary camp have been living in Chicago their entire life and have never seen the lakefront. We want to give them a sense of pride in their city and when it happens, you can almost see the switch flip. We hope to spark a passion.” In the past the program has been geared towards high school juniors but this year they are opening up a second leg for baking and pastry that will include sophomores. Catherine passionately told me, “I want to build this out and make it bigger and better every year. I want to bring in speakers from the industry that can come in and answer questions. It’s so much more impactful to have people from the area that can say I was exactly where you are and here is where I am now. This is what resonates.”
Formally a Kendall College student herself and the current host of Check, Please!, a local Emmy award-winning restaurant review series on WTTV, Catherine has a deep understanding of connecting people through stories. But believe it or not, Catherine wasn’t always the culinary expert she is today. So how did Catherine become a leader in the industry? Find out in our interview below.
What were you doing before you became a television host?
I started my career in museum work—working at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. right out of college and then I moved to Venice Italy to work at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. From there, I went to law school and moved into a job as a litigation attorney. I decided to make another career change and attended Kendall College for culinary school. Before taking the job as the host of Check, Please! I was working as a food journalist and culinary and media consultant through my own company Culinary Curator.
In this capacity I was hired by corporations, smaller companies and restaurants to consult (and execute) media strategy, and was often retained as a media spokesperson. This included concepting media pitches, providing input on culinary trends, developing recipes and working as a spokesperson throughout local and national media outlets. Most of my work involved on-camera talent work and I appeared on local outlets across the country on a regular basis as well as appearing regularly on the Today Show, Better TV and Good Day LA. I also had appearances on shows like The Rachael Ray Show and Martha Stewart peppered in here and there.
Where did you attend law school and what made you realize you wanted to trade the courtroom for the kitchen?
I attended Loyola School of Law in Chicago. My plan was to work in the arts as an attorney. There isn’t much of that work here in Chicago and I was already in the planning stages of moving to New York when my boyfriend (now husband) asked me to stick around. I decided it’s easier to find work than love and put my plans to move to New York on hold. My husband and I have been together for about 16 years, so that worked out. However, I found myself at a loss as to what to do in the legal field. I went to law school for a very specific type of job in which I was now unable to find employment. I fuddled around a bit taking temp legal work, doing nonprofit work for Lawyers for the Creative Arts and then decided to bite the bullet and take a job in litigation.
My rationale was that litigation (i.e. communication) skills will never go to waste and can be transferred to both my professional and personal life. But after years in the practice, completely miserable, I decided to make a change. I grew up cooking, was interested in food and I loved to entertain. My creative outlet as an attorney was to throw very lavish parties and do all of the cooking myself. I was always asked who catered the party, and when I would tell people I did—many remarked that I should leave law and start a catering company. And after a particularly challenging day at my firm, I made the decision to enroll in culinary school and start down that path. I’m a firm believer in ‘no risk, no reward’ and honestly I was so unfulfilled as an attorney that I knew no matter what happened with my culinary aspirations, it couldn’t be any worse than my current professional situation. And it worked out!
Why did you choose to attend culinary school at Kendall College?
There were a few reasons. First and foremost, Kendall has a great reputation. Secondly, I needed to stay in Chicago so I didn’t entertain any programs that weren’t within driving distance from where I lived and worked (I continued to work as an attorney to pay for school while attending) and third, at that time Kendall offered classes in the evenings and weekends and I needed the flexibility.
What sets the culinary program apart?
The program at Kendall has changed quite a bit since I attended. That said, it is still a fantastic program that is taught by top-notch instructors, my favorite instructor from my time at Kendall is still there—Chef Pierre Pollin. He really cares about the students. He was tough but not harsh so you never were discouraged. He would also teach things off the curriculum—if we were willing to put in more work he would share so much of himself and his cooking experience with us. He forages mushrooms (and this was way before it was cool and every tatted-up, bearded-hipster was doing it), so he would bring them in to show us and let us taste and talk about the process. He just has a great joie de vivre, I took every available class of his. Additionally, Kendall has incredible state-of-the-art facilities.
There is now a program that wasn’t available when I was at Kendall, but I think is a very important program—it’s called the culinary plus two programs. Students can come and do two years in the culinary program to receive their associate’s degree and then go on for an additional two years in the business program to receive their bachelor’s degree. With the rise of chef driven/chef owner restaurants, it is more important than ever for students going into a culinary career with aspirations of having their own restaurant, catering company, food truck, etc. to have at least a basic level of business knowledge as a foundation.
How did your role at Check, Please! influence your decision to become the Executive Director of Kendall College Trust?
I don’t think that one really had anything to do with the other although they fit together nicely. I shoot Check, Please! in the summer and so I get very busy at that time, but since my work with the Trust is busiest during the academic year, they dovetail perfectly. One slows as the other ramps up.
I was being recruited to the KCT board when the executive director position opened up and I was asked if I knew someone that would be a good fit. I took a look at what the job entailed and asked if I could throw my hat in the ring. It was a good fit for various reasons. I attended the Kendall Culinary Program so I have a personal attachment to the school and students and I have an elevated profile in the culinary community so I could help bring attention to our cause.
There are so many amazing nonprofits in Chicago (all with worthwhile causes), so it helps to have any extra advantage for getting noticed. I run my own business so I am adept at the day-to-day operations of running a business. When dealing with nonprofit work, my legal experience is a huge asset. I always joke that I tried so hard to get away from the law but now I spend a good portion of my days speaking to lawyers and reviewing agreements! At least my dad is happy the degree is being utilized in some capacity!
What is a typical day for you as the Executive Director?
No day is typical! We have a very lean office — it’s only me and a part-time Associate Director. I have my hands in everything — developing strategy, creating budgets, handling accounting, fundraising, marketing, planning events, etc. So for instance, today I had a call with our legal counsel to review new federal regulations to ensure we are in compliance, followed by a call with our accounting/auditing firm, then I completed a few media interviews, reviewed our new website (launching soon!), worked on the program budget for a grant application and then this evening I’m off to discuss a corporate event partnership—luckily I get to do that at Pops For Champagne!
Tell me more about how the summer culinary camp works!
The Kendall College Trust Culinary Camp brings together exceptional students from underserved communities in a one-week immersive overnight camp. The program is designed to broaden the campers’ horizons in culinary, culture and community. Our campers spend a week bonding with students from other schools while learning valuable career skills, taught by the Kendall College faculty in Kendall College’s state-of-the-art kitchens. In the evenings, campers participate in chaperoned cultural excursions throughout Chicago.
At the end of the week, the students attend a graduation banquet luncheon (that they have prepared throughout the week) for their parents and are provided with a certificate. We are proud to partner with Chicago Public School (CPS) Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). C-CAP is a national non-profit that works with public schools to prepare underserved high school students for college and career opportunities in the restaurant and hospitality industry. I started this program at the Kendall College Trust, so it’s been amazing to watch it grow and continue to spark interest and enthusiasm. High school is such a formative time, so to be able to help spark and/or foster a passion for these students is incredibly rewarding work.
What is your favorite story involving a student?
I really love our students—it is very energizing to listen to them talk about their ambitions with such passion. They constantly inspire me. It’s hard to pick out very specific instances, but at the camp graduation, it was actually one of our campers and his parents who came up to me (parents with tears in her eyes), and thanked KCT and me for giving him the opportunity to do the camp. These types of experiences are not something for which our campers have the financial means. So it is wonderful hearing that I made a difference—it makes the hard work of new programming (and fundraising) worth it. Also, I have a few students who keep in touch and it’s very gratifying watching them grow.
What is your best food secret?
I am not sure that I actually have a secret. When it comes to entertaining, I guess my best advice is to not go from 0-100 when having people over for dinner. It’s always a recipe for disaster, the host ends up being stressed, the guests feel the stress and so it’s kind of awkward. And you don’t even get to visit with your guests—which is usually the whole reason for planning a dinner party! People like classic, homey dishes that they can share. And most people don’t come to your home expecting dainty, plated multi-course menus. So take a load off of yourself and cook what you know how to do well that won’t require you to be in the kitchen the entire time.
Where do you like to eat and what do you like to order?
I have so many places I like to dine—it seems unfair to single anyone out. That said, I love Ristorante Agostino’s on Harlem Avenue. It is some of the best Italian food you will eat in the city and I have been going since I was a young girl. I always order the fish salad and I love the zuppa di pesce—but it’s enormous so I usually talk my dining partner into splitting it with me! Generally I like homey, rustic food that is easy to share and enjoy with a group of people. For me, food is inextricably linked with friends and family.
What type of food do you cook at home?
Everyone expects that I cook super decadent meals at home—but I eat fairly healthy when I dine in. I cook primarily Mediterranean food, although I go easy on grains. It’s what I grew up eating and much of my culinary inspiration comes from my Italian grandmother who taught me to cook, my years living abroad in Italy and having the opportunity to travel throughout the entire Mediterranean and take cooking lessons there.
What is your best tip for keeping a work life balance?
HA HA! I am NOT the person to ask this question! I always joke that I’m either totally on or totally off, I am very much an extreme person so I say that my extremes end up evening out and creating a balance. But I guess the one thing that I have worked really hard at and am getting slightly better at is making sure to take care of myself by getting plenty of sleep, exercising and carving out time for things that nourish me. I would recommend that to anyone trying to achieve balance. I used to say yes to everything I was asked to do at the expense of both my physical and mental wellbeing and my relationships with friends and family.
I’ve become more comfortable with setting boundaries and sticking with them. Knowing what is most important to you and not only prioritizing it, but fiercely protecting it. Whether it be time with the hubs, friends, or just having time to watch bad reality TV or read a book, I’ve found has been my key to my balance. You can’t keep making withdrawals and no deposits if you want to be sustainable in the long-term, balancing your life is not much different than balancing your bank account.
If you could give one piece of advice to prospective culinary students what would it be?
Calm down. The industry is tough—so start learning balance during your training. Be curious and open to the experiences around you. Inspiration comes from everywhere as a creative and it’s important to resist tunnel vision and be dead set on what you want to do right away.
Be patient and focus on learning technique and building the strongest foundation possible. These days in our insta-famous world, young chefs want to run before they can walk. But often they haven’t yet honed the skills to execute the creative vision they have. If they are patient and continue to work hard, their vision will become their reality.
And listen. The chefs that have been in the business for a long time know a lot and if students are willing to listen they can learn so much from them. (I know that’s more than one piece of advice!)
Follow Catherine’s adventures on Twitter.
900 North North Branch Street, Chicago, IL 60642
Photos by IMR