From Paris to Penn, Pursuing a Culinary Passion
Rachel Prokupek was rolling out pastry two years ago, pursuing a culinary degree at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Now the University of Pennsylvania sophomore is rolling out the first cookbook, Whisk, for food magazine Penn Appétit.
As culinary director, Prokupek is on the 16-member board of student-run Penn Appétit, produced each fall and spring semester. The 21st issue was published this month and is available online. A limited number of print copies of the free magazine will be available across campus as well.
The Penn Appétit team of 65 students also puts out a robust blog with restaurant reviews, recipes and social media posts. And, of course, there is a cooking club. But there are also “food summits” and “career treks” with high-profile chefs.
In its 10th year, Penn Appétit is the nation’s oldest student-run food publication, said Jessica Lowenthal, director of Kelly Writers House, where the magazine started with an incubation grant in 2007.
“It was the first of its kind. Other colleges have used it as their model,” Lowenthal said. “I think it’s incredible. The photography is beautiful, and the writing is terrific.”
Prokupek, from Denver, first learned about Penn Appétit during Quaker Days in 2015; the magazine team impressed her and figured into her decision to come to Penn.
She had always loved food, growing up watching cooking shows on the Food Network, and choosing foodie movies. Stacks of Bon Appétit magazines competed for space on shelves filled with cookbooks. Between Model UN and playing tennis in high school, she spent her free time cooking with her family.
Her father, who had been in the food industry, suggested she try culinary school after graduation. Le Cordon Bleu offered a nine-month program, September through June. Penn offered the option of deferral for a gap year.
“I knew I was into food, but didn’t know what I wanted to do with it yet,” she said. “Even throughout my year in Paris, I knew I wanted to do something with food in my career but I didn’t know in what capacity: maybe a restaurant owner, or in consumer-packaged goods, or a chef.”
The courses at Le Cordon Bleu were six days a week, and in French, which she had to learn quickly.
“It was very much like in the movies. The chefs were tough,” she said. “I was in the kitchen every day. I absolutely loved it.”
Although the youngest in the program, she received the Grand Diplôme, described as “the most prestigious culinary qualification” at Le Cordon Bleu, combining the study of the Diplôme de Cuisine and Diplôme de Pâtisserie.
“It was the best year of my life. I was eating, living, breathing food for a year,” she said. “I met people from all around the world.”
Part of the experience included a “stage,” an unpaid internship at a restaurant. Before starting at Penn, she spent the summer at Restaurant Daniel, an elegant French bistro in Manhattan. She worked the line, prepping ingredients.
“I realized I do not want to be in the kitchen,” she said. “I do not want to be a chef. I don’t consider myself a chef. I consider myself a cook with a culinary degree.”
At Penn, she started out as an international-relations major in the College of Arts and Sciences, thinking she might want to go into the foreign service. She transferred to the Wharton School this semester to study marketing, with the intention of working in the world of food.
“My idea is to open restaurants,” she said. “I know how food works. I know how kitchens work. I have a degree. There will always be chefs who are better than me in kitchen, but I can have conversations with them and understand.”
Penn Appétit, she said, has given her the opportunity to get started on that path.
Parker Brown, a senior and Penn Appétit’s executive director, met Prokupek during Quaker Days and encouraged her to write an article for the magazine. She did, about her year in Paris. She joined the magazine staff freshman year, and she has been an editor and writer ever since.
On a fall Friday, Prokupek and Brown and a half-dozen other members of the staff were in the apartment of Penn Appétit photographer Isabel Zapata, a junior majoring in biology who is from Colombia and Washington, D.C. They were working together to plate food and style cocktails for the magazine photo shoot.
“We want to be Penn’s one-stop resource for everything food-related,” said Brown, from Las Vegas. “We want to get the Penn community involved in food.”
In addition to the magazine, the Penn Appétit team organizes various activities throughout the year, including the third-annual Food Summit last month featuring Ellen Yin, founder and co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group, as the keynote speaker; a social-impact group that is writing a nutrition booklet for children; a cooking club that puts on a three-course dinner every semester; and a “career trek” planned for the spring semester.
The cookbook, Whisk, was Prokupek’s idea. The 14 students on her staff are revisiting recipes from the 20 previous issues of Penn Appétit, updating them with their own ideas. They plan to publish the cookbook by the end of the school year, but has started sharing some content on social media.
“We are in the process of testing the recipes. Everyone is so excited,” she said. “People who cook on the team create really refined recipes. We are highlighting some of the best student cooks at Penn, and we can’t wait to share our love for food with the rest of the Penn community."