Brooklyn, NY — Kubee Kassaye’s journey from a small farming village in Ethiopia to working as a chef in a five-star hotel in Manhattan was filled with challenges. But through it all, her passion for cooking, combined with two life-changing events, enabled her to successfully navigate the obstacles in grand style.
And now Kassaye, chef tournant at the Peninsula Hotel and a 2007 magna cum laude graduate of New York City College of Technology’s (City Tech’s) hospitality management program, is one step closer to her dream of owning her own restaurant. She is one of six women to receive the coveted 2012 Legacy Award for culinary achievement offered by the prestigious Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI). LDEI is an invitational organization of women leaders in food, beverage and hospitality whose mission is education, advocacy and philanthropy.
As a Legacy Award winner, Kassaye will spend a week starting on September 6 working side-by-side and under the direction of Dame Margaret Chisholm, executive chef, Culinary Capers, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Chisholm received the 2011 Chef of the Year Award from the International Caterers Association and is the co-author of The Girls Who Dish!: Seconds Anyone?
“I’m excited about this opportunity to learn new culinary and managerial skills, especially when it comes to overseeing a big kitchen, from Chef Chisholm,” says Kassaye. “This experience will help me become a better chef and a better team player.” In nominating Kassaye for the Legacy Award, City Tech Professor Karen Goodlad said, “Kubee’s motivation has led her to great opportunities. I have the utmost confidence that she will continue to excel both as a chef and as a leader.”
Professor Lynda Dias echoed similar sentiments in describing Kassaye as someone who is “highly motivated and embraces learning with the same passion she exhibits in her culinary career.” For the past five years, Kassaye has been commuting from her home in Parkchester to the Peninsula Hotel. As chef tournant, she supports all areas of the kitchen operation and is knowledgeable about and performs at all stations in both the hotel’s Fives Restaurant and the Salon De Ning Bar and Terrace.
She also has the responsibility as liaison between the restaurants’ customers and line cooks. She says of her job, “I am always working at a different station and I like that because the rotation helps me to know the entire kitchen.” And in assessing her work experience Kassaye explains that “it’s the most amazing feeling to see how much people appreciate what you cook for them and how much they enjoy the food.”
Kassaye, now 28, says she always wanted to be a cook. She explains that school was not an option in the rural Ethiopian village where she grew up. Her father was a farmer and her mother tended the house and her ten children, of which Kassaye was the fourth. “Back in those days, girls were always in the kitchen with their mothers,” she says. “My mother would tell me to go play with the kids, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to learn how to cook.”And in her large family, there was plenty of cooking to be done.
Kassaye’s story might have ended there in the village were it not for two life-changing events. At age 11, she was adopted by an uncle who lived in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. It was there that she first attended school; she was placed in kindergarten, where the other students were six years younger than she. She was also required to learn a new language, one that was not spoken in her home village. Then, in 1997, when she was 13, and only in second grade, her uncle decided to move the family to the US “to have a better life and a better education.”
As Kassaye describes it, the culture shock between Ethiopia and America was overwhelming. “Everything was so different for me, coming from a developing country to the land of opportunity.” Once again, she had to learn a new language. “The only words I knew in English were ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ I used to cry every night because it was hard to see people talking and having fun, and I couldn’t join in.” Kassaye was determined to master English and pursue her career goals. She graduated from high school, and in 2003 enrolled in City Tech.
“All the professors in the hospitality management department were like our parents,” she says. “They always advised us as to what was best for us.” She singles out Professors Lynda Dias, Karen Goodlad and Jean Claude. In addition to her classes, Kassaye participated in several extracurricular activities, volunteering for Spoons Across America, which develops and supports food- and nutrition-based programs for children; performing the duties of volunteer chef for the Anna Nurse Culinary Series, which brings industry professionals together with students to share their expertise and experiences; assisting in several events at the James Beard House; and serving as president of the Cook’s in the Market Club, among others.
“During all of my volunteer positions, I was able to learn new culinary skills from renowned chefs,” Kassaye explains. “For Spoons Across America,” I was able to teach the children how to grow fresh produce and to create meals with fresh ingredients. They were so eager to learn.”
Despite spending her days in professional kitchens, Kassaye loves to cook every evening for her husband of two years, Dereje Abebe, a City Tech graduate (2009) in computer engineering technology. “I try to cook different types of food so that he doesn’t get bored. I make Ethiopian, Italian, American or Chinese dishes. I love to see him happy when he eats. It makes my day.”
Kassaye’s ultimate goal is to open her own restaurant serving Ethiopian/Italian cuisine. “Ethiopian food consists of spicy meat dishes and vegetables. Italian encompasses different types of pasta,” she explains. “I believe they would make an amazing combination.”
New York City College of Technology (City Tech) of The City University of New York (CUNY) is the largest public college of technology in New York State. Located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the College enrolls more than 16,000 students in 62 baccalaureate, associate and specialized certificate programs.