Q&A: Portland-based Top Chef contestant Gabriel Pascuzzi reflects on past and present experiences

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Courtesy of Mark Graves

Portland-based chef Gabriel Pascuzzi was recently featured on Top Chef. Pascuzzi recently sat down with the Cardinal Times to discuss his life and experiences on the show.

Abby Yium

Gabriel Pascuzzi is a Portland-based chef and the owner of three restaurants, Mama Bird, Stacked Sandwiches and, most recently, Feel Good PDX

Pascuzzi graduated from Ida B. Wells High School in 2004, and furthered his passion for cooking in New York and Copenhagen, before moving back to Portland to open up his own restaurants. 

Cardinal Times reporter Abby Yium sat down with Pascuzzi to talk about his journey as a chef and recent experience on Top Chef, a cooking competition show. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

 

Q: You grew up in Portland, correct? Did this inspire your cooking or restaurants in any way? 

A: Yeah, [and] definitely. My grandfather’s off-the-boat Italian. We had a large garden growing up and a bunch of different fruit trees and bushes in our yard. He also taught my dad and uncles how to forage for mushrooms, so we did that a lot growing up. You do things as a kid in Oregon that you wouldn’t do in other states, like go[ing] berry picking and go[ing] to Sauvie’s Island in the summer. 

Q: What was your journey like, or what inspired you to become a chef? 

A: There were a multitude of things. We just touched on part of it and they slightly covered it in the last episode of Top Chef. I was a heavyset kid and was bullied when I was younger for being overweight. When I was 17, I told my dad, “I want to go to culinary school,” and he said, “Well, if you want to do that, you have to go.” My uncle had a restaurant in Montana, so he sent me up there. He lived in a town called Big Fork. It was a little, one stoplight town and all they had was a Subway, and I didn’t eat a ton of Subway, so I stopped drinking soda and eating fast food, and I worked in the restaurant. By the time I came back, I had lost 60 close to 75 pounds. 

Q: Do you have any advice for high school students dealing with bullying or similar struggles? 

A: I mean, for me personally, it’s hard. When you’re at that age, it’s really hard not to take what your peers say seriously. A lot of those kids that were like that are probably insecure themselves about something. So it’s really hard to just take the higher road. Always try to be the positive person and to be a nice person. It’s easy to go negative when other people are being negative to you. But, for me, it’s just about character and about who you are as a person. Just because someone’s mean to you doesn’t mean you should turn around and be mean to other people. You can make people feel stupid when you’re nice, you know what I mean? If you just keep being nice and kill them with kindness. Or just ignore them if you can. 

Q: What was your first reaction when you found out you were going to be on Top Chef? 

A: Honestly, a sense of relief. It was in the dead middle of the pandemic, and I was at work. It was just me, my chef and my manager, and maybe we had one other person because we were doing to-go meals at the time. I don’t think we’d fully opened yet. And I got the phone call. I picked it up and they kind of started with, “Hey, it’s Top Chef,” and I’m like, “Oh, they’re gonna say no.” And then she said, “Welcome to the family.” I told my chef that I had to walk around the neighborhood and called my family. Just kind of like a relief and happiness. 

Q: What’s your advice for aspiring chefs in high school? 

A: One, make sure you really want to do it. If you’re doing it to be famous, that’s the wrong reason. If you’re doing it because you don’t have anything better to do, I would also say that’s probably the wrong reason. For me, I truly enjoy my job every day. Like I love working with food. I love cooking things. I love creating. Honestly, I’d rather be on my feet than be at a desk. And for me, it’s like rewarding hard work. And it also requires fortitude and dedication. The other day, my butcher and my chef called out and I had to work 14 hours a day. But that’s just what I had to do. There’s a really good book called Letters to a Young Chef by Daniel Boulud. One, most young cooks should know who that is. And two, it’s very good, informative. It’s like 80 pages long, so super skinny, and just kind of gives a good foundation of what to expect. And while you’re in high school, get a job in a restaurant. It may be washing dishes. You know, that’s where you got to start. I washed dishes, and I still wash dishes. I tell all my employees, it doesn’t matter how high you get, you still end up washing dishes. You know, you gotta start at the bottom, and you’ll learn. Things take time in a restaurant. 

 

If you’re interested in watching Top Chef, you can find episodes on Bravo.com.

If you’re interested in learning more about Gabriel Pascuzzi, check out his Instagram here

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