Alyssa Gorelick loves food because it brings people together. Sure, the 31-year-old Charlotte native has a talent for creative flavors and artistic presentation, but her true passion lies in gathering people around a table. After working her way through the Queen City’s upscale dining scene and being the premier chef for the city’s first vegetarian restaurant, the enthusiastic entrepreneur and her now-fiance Andrew Wilen, opened Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood. Alyssa offers fun and relaxed cooking classes, featuring healthy and sustainable food. The classes, which are held in a charming local market, feature themes like Moroccan Cooking, Spring Time Italian and Cooking With Local Craft Beer. We snagged some time in the chef’s packed schedule to talk about being a woman in a male-dominated industry, launching a successful culinary business and what you can always find in her fridge. Welcome, Alyssa, today’s FACE of Charlotte!
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
I always really loved cooking. My mom is a great artist in a lot of different ways, from sculpture to woodcraft. I think I got a bit of her artistic eye, but it took awhile to figure out where I could put that. I started to really enjoy cooking though when I was young and my parents would entertain. I wanted to contribute something, and I loved the way food brought people together.
Did you go straight to culinary school after graduating high school?
Yes, I was really determined to be a chef by then. I went to The Art Institute here in Charlotte. After school I started working at Longview Country Club with [Chef] Paul Verica. I just really wanted to experience restaurants and work my way up. And it was great working with Paul. He’s very organized and creative. He’ll look at your strengths, but also the ways you can grow and develop. He was a great mentor.
What was your path from that first job to working as an executive chef?
I worked for a restaurant called M5 for about three-and-a-half years. It was a style of food I really love — fresh ingredients that incorporate Italian, Spanish and Greek flavors. Then I went to work for a restaurant called Mez as a sous chef and pastry chef before going to work for [another Charlotte restaurant] Halcyon, when it opened. I loved working at Halcyon because it was farm-to-fork in an upscale and refined setting. Marc Jacksina was a great chef to work for, and it was really great to finally be in a place where I felt like I was part of the growth of the restaurant. Then [vegetarian restaurant] Fern was next. Opening a vegetarian restaurant was a perfect fit because I was a vegetarian at the time and really understood what it needed to offer.
All the chefs you’ve mentioned are men. How has it been working in a role that has traditionally been dominated by men?
You can’t think of yourself as a woman in a man’s field. You have to think of yourself as being tough in any situation. I’ve been working next to guys and seen them get their egos bruised. It’s the same thing for a girl. You have to show you’re equal. And then it’s just a tough situation regardless of if you’re a man or a woman. There are a lot of chefs who want females in their kitchen. You just have to find the right environment where this is not an issue.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
The advice that really resonates with me is the quote “Nothing worth having comes easy.” I understand the growth that happens when you push yourself. I don’t want to be outworked by anyone, and everything I do is with great effort. I’m not sure exactly who coined the phrase, but it’s something I have told myself for a long time.
Why did you decide to make the move from the kitchen to the classroom?
I wanted to have something of my own. Working in the kitchen I hadn’t quite realized that there was this desire for people to learn how to cook. I was dating Andrew [Wilen] and I began to see things from his perspective — he had an interest in chefs and food and the unknowns in the kitchen. I realized people really want to learn these things.
So you jumped into teaching from there?
It really took me a while to grasp that it was something I could do. I’ve always been a shy person. But I started to want to develop it with him. We’d sit and talk about how we could bring this to people. Ultimately, it was our desire to be entrepreneurs and create something of our own that pushed us to begin.
What does a typical day look like for you now?
I’m usually up by 6:30 and will work out. Then I come home and work for a few hours, writing recipes, emailing and planning classes. I work in the office with Andrew and we brainstorm together. I send my assistant to do shopping and begin prepping for classes. In the early afternoon, I’ll go out for any errands or meetings, and then I’m at the market by 3 to begin setting up for our 6:30 class. We prep the ingredient trays and organize the equipment and I take final notes. Classes go until around 9:30 and then we’re usually there until around 10:30 cleaning up.
You’re known for using healthy, local ingredients. Has that always been your focus?
I think it began when I became more physically active. I started running half marathons a lot for a few years. That made me start to focus more on what I was eating. In my personal life, I was studying fitness and nutrition, and so naturally I started to focus on making food healthy. Of course, as a chef I still try to do a bit of everything.
What kinds of dishes do you like making for yourself now?
I love braised chicken. And I like making eggs at home. I roast a lot of vegetables and beets. I always have roasted beets in my fridge and make salads with them. I’m really big on bright, fresh salads. I like having lots of stuff on hand to mix together for those.
What’s in your refrigerator right now?
I’ve got lots of lettuces and arugula, some grapefruit, lots of eggs, coconut milk, some cooked rice, roasted beets and a leftover braised beef stew.
What’s next for you?
We want to grow and we’ve started a line of spreads. Our first two are a Rosemary Chili Mustard and a Champagne Tomato. We’ve been working on them for a few years and now we’re selling them on Saturday mornings at the market. We’re planning on launching an entire condiment line. We’re really excited to grow our offerings.
What are three things you can’t live without excluding faith, family and friends?
So tough! The answer would have to be my cat, Ann Perkins, who is named after a character on our favorite TV show “Parks and Rec.” This brings me to my second thing, which is comedy — usually found in standup or TV shows. Third would be kombucha. It’s just my favorite drink; it’s refreshing and something I really savor.
Thank you to Alyssa for giving us a look inside her life for today’s FACES of Charlotte article. And thank you to Justin Driscoll for today’s beautiful images of Chef Alyssa. See more of his work on his website, justindphotos.com.