It was a phrase that I grew up hearing on cooking shows that I would watch after school as a child.
It was a phrase that my first boss would say when they wanted me to get organized in 8th grade.
It was a phrase that was an answer on my final exam from the Academy of Hotel Administration and Culinary Arts at Bergen Academies.
It was a phrase that I repeated to myself when filming on Food Network: Chopped.
And it was a phrase that would be taught in one of my first classes at Cornell University’s Hotel School.
Growing up, cooking was my entire life. I started playing with measuring cups in the sink at age two and never stopped cooking from there. Every job that I had held was based around food and everything that I knew including my identity seemed to be cooking related. From my extracurricular activity, to my entertainment on the weekends, to my topic of study in school, to my career; it was everything. I was known by the fact that I could cook. As a result, it became a large part of my identity and I had every intention to keep it that way.
Or so I thought.
When I was 10 years old my shoulders began to dislocate frequently. Doctor after doctor told me that I was crazy or that I was just “double jointed” as most kids were. When the dislocations started in my knees and elbows and fingers, I knew that there was something else going on. I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome at the age of 16, a connective tissue disorder that made all of my joints dislocate dozens of times a day. It was the biggest relief to finally have an answer but also it made me questions what my future would look like. The idea that I may not be able to cook anymore never even crossed my mind.
I took job after job, slowly worked my way from a small taco shop in my town to Restaurant DANIEL by my senior year of high school. When I finally felt confident that I was on track for my dream of one day opening a restaurant to come true, I started to realize that maybe EDS was having a bigger impact on me than I had thought. The hours in the kitchen were wearing on my body and suddenly seemed impossible to keep up with. However, I had been already fulfilling my lifetime mission to be a chef so I continued to push forward towards my dream.
In my classes my first year at Cornell I learned that I enjoy working with computers. I began to apply the technology concepts that I was learning to the restaurants that I was working at by building inventory management systems, financial organization tools to even forecasting models. Bringing something new to the food industry seemed like a unique opportunity. I knew that as long as I could keep cooking that I would be happy.
Moving into my second year at Cornell, I started to dive deeper into computer science and data analytics to see how else I could problem solve using technology. I loved every second of it. I was at a place where I had learned to manage my EDS and pursue my passion regardless of any roadblocks.
Or so I thought.
In February 2015, one night after eating dinner at Aladdin’s, a regular stop for me while at Cornell, I broke out in hives and started to have trouble breathing seemingly without reason. The physical impact began to occur repeatedly and so once again, I found myself going to the doctor to get evaluated. Eventually, I was diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Disorder, a rare condition that makes my body have allergic reactions to almost everything and sometimes to even nothing at all. Overnight I went from cooking and eating whatever my mind could think up to being able to eat only six foods. No creativity allowed, no variety allowed, just sustenance.
Even while living in dorms I had become accustomed to variety and interesting food; I would combine the dining hall foods to make new inventions. I had been lucky enough to become close with the chef of my dorm, so when my list of “allowed” foods dropped to just six foods, he was willing to work with me to create lunches and dinners for me that were wrapped in plastic and kept separate from all other foods. Eating just chicken, mustard, zucchini and rice was mentally challenging but with the support of the chef, my friends and my family I just kept looking forward, hoping for the day that I would go back to my old ways.
I realized that so many people felt this way about food; they viewed it as sustenance. For me, I viewed it as a chance to change someone’s day through the plate in front of them. This opportunity seemed so far out of reach now… with only about six foods that I could tolerate how could I possibly keep cooking?
I struggled with the idea of not cooking since my love and passion for it was tightly wrapped into my identity. Since I was no longer cooking, as a distraction,I began to focus on my studies I began to even choose projects and classes that I never had imagined. My increasing knowledge and experience working with data and writing programs made me stand out because technology and data were starting to become a main focus of growth across leading companies in the hospitality industry. I had accidentally not only fallen into an interest that I never knew that I had, but also into an opportunity that I never knew existed.
Once I opened myself up to the idea of working on the analytics side of the hotel and restaurant industry I realized that my real passion was for impacting people through the use of experience whether through their stay at a hotel or a meal at a restaurant. While directly cooking for people had been my initial way of making an impact,I learned that there are so many more ways to do that. I realized that I could change the industry and more importantly positively impact people’s lives by bringing better service to customers through the use of analytics and technology. All of a sudden, my new goal eclipsed my past direction..
After graduating from Cornell University I moved to Las Vegas, Nevada to pursue a career in hospitality data analytics with MGM Resorts International. While the transition out of the food industry was a long and difficult one, the journey has allowed me to learn about myself and to grow as a person and as a professional. And acutally, things have already come full circle. Through the years I have begun to bring myself back into cooking as a hobby. While cooking with a laundry list of foods off limits can be a challenge, it has challenged me to test my cooking abilities and apply them in an entirely new way through my daily cooking at home. These days my julienned carrots are prepared in a foam cup and I just try to keep all of my joints are in their respective places.
Mise en place; everything in its place.
Emma Scher is a Manager of Revenue Strategy at MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas, Nevada. She recently graduated from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University in December 2016. Emma continues to push the boundaries of strength and persistence through her love of crossfit. She remains passionate about cooking, and uses her recent development of allergies to inspire new dishes and ideas. Tying her love of cooking and crossfit together has allowed her to explore a relatively untouched area of the culinary world- nutritious, allergen free food that excites the palate.