With DC Pride approaching, I interviewed a few of the city’s most influential LGBT Jews involved in the local food scene. Alex Levin, executive pastry chef of the Schlow Restaurant Group, which includes restaurants that span both coasts and Tico DC, The Riggsby, Alta Strada DC, Conosci and Casolare Ristorante in DC, shared his answers by email, and they are reprinted here. Part two will follow next week.
Jewish Food Experience®: Tell us about your career trajectory.
Alex Levin: Since I was a little kid, I’ve always loved cooking and baking. It was something that my grandmother and I did together after she picked me up from school on Friday afternoons, and I would help her prepare for the Sabbath. Being in her kitchen is one of my earliest memories, and it’s a place in which I spent many cherished hours over the years.
My parents felt strongly that my brothers and I have strong Jewish educations, and so I had the good fortune of attending Ramaz, a private school Yeshiva in New York City. The school provided me with a very well-rounded education in both secular and Orthodox Jewish studies. Most importantly, I learned at a very young age how to reach my full potential and dream big. I applied to Yale University and was lucky to be accepted. That experience provided a rich education, opportunity for personal development as well as an amazing forum to come out of the closet at the age of 18 after my freshman year.
I focused my studies in applied mathematics and economics and started a career in management and finance. Shifting from the diverse and tolerant university setting to the very conservative, closed-minded environment of finance was a big adjustment. I was openly gay, but it was a huge challenge. And being so young, I felt all alone and struggled terribly to find my way. Over some time, I realized how unhappy I was, and I migrated out of finance into a management position in a market research company and began to reclaim a sense of comfort and stability. I also started to participate in the development of the corporate culture that I started to lead—ultimately one that embraced plurality and diversity. I eventually ran the New York office of that group.
Still, that sense of reaching for the stars was with me. And I kept thinking to myself, What do I really want to do? My boyfriend at the time and I were walking on the beach in Fire Island, and he challenged me, suggesting that I should go to culinary school because after all cooking and baking were my favorite things to do. I followed his advice and decided to focus all of my energy into finding the right way to shift gears on my career at the age of 30.
After visiting the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, I knew I wanted to become a pastry chef. I applied, was accepted and made plans to leave my life in New York City and become a student again. I spent all of my time either in class, at small jobs here and there or in the library, trying to participate to the fullest in my education. I graduated at the top of my class and trained in New York under industry-leading pastry chefs, including Johnny Iuzzini, Francisco Migoya and Noah Carroll at restaurants Jean Georges, Cafe Boulud and the Apple Pie Bakery Cafe.
I moved to Washington in 2013 to serve as pastry chef at Michael White’s DC outlet of Osteria Morini and worked tirelessly to create a special place for people to come and have dessert. I worked there for over three years and fell in love with the city, the people I worked with and with the life of being a pastry chef. I was so honored to see my desserts, the restaurant and various parts of my life featured in numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Washingtonian and DC Modern Luxury. My parents were pretty thrilled at every moment!
Since I came out of the closet, I’ve made it a point to be very openly gay and to promote an atmosphere of diversity and plurality wherever I am. Restaurants are a great place to offer that kind of leadership—chefs are happy to work with anyone who has a strong spirit, who works hard and who wants to do a good job, no matter who you are or where you come from. I definitely clicked right into that, and I feel so much that my career change just moved me away from conference rooms to kitchens and that life is now about having fun all the time—particularly at work. I’m so grateful to count my bosses as close friends, and draw inspiration from my many talented and hard-working employees.
This past February, restaurateur Michael Schlow hired me to begin a new role as executive pastry chef for his company, Schlow Restaurant Group, where I lead, manage and execute pastry programs in Washington, DC, Boston and the New England area and Los Angeles. In my new role, I draw inspiration from American, Greek, Latin American, Italian and Spanish cuisines. It’s quite a new challenge and so much fun to be in so many kitchens and work with so much talent around me. I am still at the earliest part of this new chapter in my career and plan on growing with this company for a very long time.
JFE®: What do you enjoy most about being a chef, especially here in DC?
AL: Since moving here in 2013, I feel like I have developed close friendships with so many other chefs who have also done such great things in the dining scene, which continues to grow. When I walk into a restaurant here in DC, I feel like I am visiting a friend in his or her home. I love seeing my friends do what they do and have incredible results. It’s so inspiring that I ultimately decided that DC should and would be home for a long time.
JFE®: How has being Jewish influenced your work?
AL: My family and time at Ramaz gave me a very strong Jewish identity. There was a time at which I felt being Jewish and gay were very much at odds with one another. Ramaz, as an Orthodox institution, was a great place, except for the institutionalized homophobia that exists in that world. It was a scary place for me to even consider being out of the closet, and I am wowed today by the brave students who share who they are when they are still there. But on the positive side, the school instilled a very strong sense of what it means to work hard and get the job done. That certainly is a characteristic that has helped me develop in my role as a pastry chef.
I love being Jewish today, and connect strongly to the cultural side. I particularly love the Jewish holidays and enjoy helping the community celebrate them. I also love the strong relationship between Jewish events and food and baking. It may be with challah for Shabbat, honey cake on Rosh Hashanah or cheesecakes on Shavuot—I try to do little pop up bakeries and offerings to the community here in DC so that everyone can enjoy their favorite treats around the holidays.
JFE®: How has being LGBT (and also Jewish!) influenced you in your professional life?
AL: I don’t take for granted the fact that being gay in 2017 is a lot easier than it was in 1997, which was the year I came out. Being gay now is just a part of who I am. I don’t really think about it except if someone asks me if I am dating anyone or not. I work now in an environment where everyone is accepted and diversity is encouraged. While I don’t experience institutionalized homophobia in my day-to-day life, I know it is still out there in the world, so I go for the fight on the outside. I try to share with my extended network how important it is to own your identity and be proud to be out of the closet.
JFE®: Anything else to share with this audience on the topic?
AL: There’s been a lot of change in the world in the past year. A lot of difficulties and challenges lie ahead, and there is a real threat to the rights of the LGBT community. I am prepared to fight in every non-violent way that I know and use my voice in every outlet I have how important it is to live in a world where all people are treated equally and fairly. We can’t tolerate anyone being treated like they are second-class citizens.
On a lighter note, I am a good guy to know if you have a sweet tooth. You can find me on Facebook at Chef Alex Levin. I am always happy to meet new people! Happy Pride to everyone, and please let me know if you make my rainbow cupcakes!