By Matt Wein
Among the intellectually curious, there are two kinds of people: there are those who are interested in how things work, and then there’s Sophie Slesinger. Confronted with a question—say, about where food comes from—someone from Column A might dedicate an afternoon to reading articles on farming or permaculture, or watching a TED Talk on the locavore movement. Contrast this with Slesinger, who, for reasons even she can’t quite pin down, went from being a directionless college student to one of the country’s most promising young food professionals in less than 10 years.
She farmed. She baked. She helped open high-end restaurants. She worked her way so far up in the world of cheese that a major food publication anointed her one of the New York City food scene’s most promising young professionals. And then she walked away from the industry.
Now, Slesinger, who earned a dual MA in Food Studies + MBA degree from Chatham in 2018, works as a human scientist for Pittsburgh-based MAYA Design.
What brings someone who worked so hard and enjoyed so much success in the world of food to make such a dramatic pivot? Turns out, it was the same thing that got her into food in the first place: an insatiable intellectual curiosity.
“I never had an idea in my mind of what I wanted to be when I grew up,” she says. “I just knew I was interested in something that wasn’t at a desk.”
And while Slesinger was never enamored with the idea of food, it was an important character in her life as she was growing up in the Washington, D.C. area. Her first fieldwork came during her summers home from college when she worked at a French bakery near her Bethesda, Maryland home. When she finished college in 2009 and graduated into an historically awful job market, she pieced together a job doing food sustainability programming for the university. She wrote about food for a local newspaper. A year later she headed back to Maryland, where she got a job working on a farm on the Eastern Shore for $2 an hour.
When a few of her friends decided to move to New York City in 2010, she followed on a whim, thinking it the ideal place to focus on food. Armed with a short list of people she knew she wanted to work with, Slesinger relentlessly called and e-mailed them until someone got back to her. Her first gig in New York involved helping to open a specialty coffee shop.
That’s when Slesinger’s career took off at a pace only possible in a place like New York City. The coffee shop owner introduced her to Anne Saxelby, who ran a small shop focusing on American farmstead cheeses. When Saxelby needed someone to help with her cheese podcast, “Cut the Curd,” Slesinger offered to do it for the experience alone. As the business started growing, she took on more responsibility, and Saxelby became her mentor.
“I was piecing together so many things: I was working at the Brooklyn Flea slicing prosciutto. Then I would open a butcher shop at 6 a.m., and then I would go work in the coffee shop. It was just crazy.” Within three years, Slesinger was teaching chefs about cheese and helping move it to nearly 200 restaurants, including some of the country’s most prestigious.
“By then, I had something to offer chefs. I could give them something delicious, teach them about it, and then call the cheesemaker and the dairy farmer and tell them, ‘I just sold all your stuff to Thomas Keller at the French Laundry.’”
SLESINGER SHOT AROUND THE CITY LIKE A COMET. SHE WAS DOING A PASTRY INTERNSHIP AND WORKING AT FARMERS’ MARKETS ON HER DAYS OFF. ZAGAT NAMED HER TO ITS “30 UNDER 30” LIST OF NEW YORK CITY’S TOP FOOD PROFESSIONALS IN 2013.
But comets don’t stick around.
Two weeks later, she was laid off from the cheese shop. Her apartment got bedbugs. The pastry chef she’d been working with was fired. That’s when she decided it was probably a good time to leave New York City.
By then, Slesinger had nearly worked her way through the entirety of the food world. She’d farmed. She’d worked in distribution and sales. She’d done some baking, she’d worked in specialty foods. But she had never been a line cook. “That’s the most terrifying thing to me. I should probably do that,” she recalls thinking.
She got in touch with a distant cousin who owned a little French bistro in the Berkshires, and offered to do kitchen work for free during foliage season – the area’s busiest time of year. For four months, Slesinger lived off of the security deposit from her Brooklyn apartment, and found work in a cheese shop on her days off from the restaurant.
The staff helped her find a place to stay, and the chef slipped her hamburgers at the end of the night, knowing she couldn’t afford groceries.
“I chilled out a little bit. The environment and the workspace were totally new to me. I almost had to shut my brain off to be able to tune in, learn so much new stuff and work as quickly as they have to. It was a very small kitchen and I felt a little like a baby bird.”
After four months of lying low in the mountains, Slesinger got a phone call about a project back in Washington. An attorney was looking to open a grilled cheese-centric restaurant. He needed a cheese consultant, and he’d seen Slesinger recognized by Zagat. And like that, Slesinger moved back to Washington and set about helping open GCDC Grilled Cheese Bar.
After eight months of helping get GCDC up and running, she left to become the fromager at Blue Duck Tavern – one of Washington’s finest restaurants – in the Park Hyatt Hotel. There, she had free reign over the restaurant’s cheese and charcuterie from her own station in the middle of the dining room.
During her tenure at Blue Duck Tavern, the restaurant earned a Michelin star. And as a Hyatt employee, Slesinger enjoyed health insurance and vacation days, both of which are conspicuously absent across the rest of the industry. By then, she was well-acquainted with the food industry’s toxic culture and neglect toward its laborers.
She didn’t want to open a cheese shop and struggle to pay employees $12 per hour. She didn’t want to work the line, she didn’t want to try and become a chef. Feeling frustrated and maybe even a little burned out, Slesinger started considering graduate school.
“Chatham had just started the MBA + M.A. in Food Studies program. Once I found out about it, I applied within two weeks, and I decided I was going two weeks after that. I didn’t apply anywhere else. Chatham appealed to me because it was obvious that they saw the connection between business studies and food studies.”
During her time in the program, Slesinger took a design course at Carnegie Mellon University through the reciprocity program. Two tenets of design thinking, she learned, are iterative work and failing fast – both of which are integral in kitchen work. She also worked at a Pittsburgh restaurant that afforded her the opportunity to take what she’d been learning directly to the staff.
“I had this restaurant community that was all recently unemployed people. I worked with the dishwasher, porter, bartender, cook, manager, server, and just tried to teach them about what design thinking is to see if it’s something that’s useful to them. They became my subject group for my thesis.”
Slesinger credits Alice Julier, director of Chatham’s Food Studies program, for helping her adjust to graduate school, critiquing her work, and busting open some of Slesinger’s preconceived notions about academia. “She confirmed so many feelings that I was having that I didn’t have the right tools, I hadn’t [read] the right studies or researchers. I didn’t know who to cite, who was originating these ideas. And she helped me through all of that. And then the MBA was just a no-brainer,” Slesinger says.
“IF YOU CAN GIVE SOMEONE A TOOL, OR AN EXERCISE, OR A METHOD, OR A FRAMEWORK THAT WILL MAYBE CHANGE ONE PIECE OF HOW AN ENTIRE BUSINESS WORKS, OR AN ENTIRE KITCHEN WORKS, THEN THAT LITTLE ENTRY AND THOSE LITTLE CHANGES ARE WHAT WILL TO LEAD TO BIG CULTURAL CHANGES.”
In her new role at MAYA, Slesinger is tackling problems in everything from transportation and food to company structures and space. Her colleagues are researchers, strategists and engineers of all sorts, and she’s grateful to be working on addressing big problems.
“MAYA is full of very smart, creative people who are open and generous in the way that the best kitchens are,” she said. “They are excited to show you things, and are always curious. I’m like a baby bird again, you know? It’s just a different kitchen.”