Layla Saif ’13, Garde Manger
Layla Saif didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her mother tried to help out by making suggestions. She proposed being a writer, the proud profession of Layla’s poet father and many of her aunts and uncles, but the idea didn’t seem to fit. She suggested Layla become a piano player, but though she played quite well, it didn’t seem to be the right choice. Finally, her mother said, “Why don’t you try baking.” And so Layla did.
“My first effort was a banana cake from an old cookbook,” recalls Layla, now head garde manger and expeditor at The Hop in Beacon, NY. “I marveled at how a few ingredients could come together and create something completely different and delicious—and made from my own hands!” So she kept baking and cooking and eventually informed her parents that she wanted to go to culinary school. “I initially looked at culinary schools in London. My sister lives there so I know the city. During an Internet search I came across The Culinary Institute of America, started reading, and quickly realized this was my school,” says Layla. “I told my parents I wanted to go to the CIA because it was the best in the world.” It would be a serious commitment. The CIA was half a world away from her home in Amman, Jordan. Even though her parents were nervous about the distance, they were happy their intelligent daughter had found her path, and supported Layla wholeheartedly.
“That first day in class was one of the scariest days of my life. I didn’t have a lot of experience, and I felt my classmates were well ahead of me in terms of knife cuts, sauces, and terminology,” Layla remembers. “But I put my head down, studied hard, practiced my new skills, and pretty soon was an active and vocal member of my team.”
“I was really impressed with the faculty. These are master chefs from all over the world. The international diverse chef-instructors have years of experience and that knowledge is just there for the taking,” says Layla. She loved her school, even though it was tough at times. “I just kept reminding myself how much I loved working with food so I would get up every day and go do it again.”
The CIA helped Layla obtain an Optional Practical Training visa, which allowed her to remain in the U.S. and work for a year. After graduation she worked at Bear Mountain Inn under the tutelage of Chef Michael Matarazzo ’03. “In my mind I had only one year in the U.S. so I wanted to make the most of my time,” Layla says. “I really wanted to work at a seasonal, farm-to-table restaurant, working closely with farmers and the surrounding community.” She accepted a position in San Francisco and was ready to move when she met executive chef and co-owner of The Hop, Chef Matt Hutchins ’10. “When I walked into his kitchen the first thing I saw was a whole lamb ready to be butchered. It came from a farm just 10-miles away. The cheesemonger had just dropped off a selection of local cheese and a farmer was at the door dropping off freshly picked produce. I knew I was in the right place.”
A big part of Layla’s duties involves the butchery of whole animals. “The meat fabrication class at the CIA particularly scared me. It was something I had never done before,” says Layla, “Funny how the class I dreaded the most is what I’m doing now and I loving. Every day I get a little faster under Chef Hutchins’ guidance. A couple of days a week I volunteer at a farm working with animals and in the fields so my experience really is farm to table.”
While Layla loves her job, and is considered a member of The Hop family, her future is uncertain. She needs an important O-1 nonimmigrant visa in order to remain in the U.S. Layla is hopeful that she can continue learning and growing in the industry she loves, and the owners of The Hop have graciously offered to sponsor her visa. They recognize her potential and would love for her to remain a member of their staff.
“I’m hopeful the paperwork will go through and I’ll get the approval to stay. I’m learning so much, especially about butchery,” says Layla. “The CIA gave me a strong base to make it in the culinary industry. And I can still hear the voices and direction of my chef-instructors. Every time I make a roux, I hear Chef Bill Phillips. Every time I touch a piece of meat, I hear Chef Dwayne LiPuma. It’s like they’re looking over my shoulder and continuing to teach me.”
When Layla eventually does return home to Jordan, she plans to teach culinary skills and butchery to women living in Palestinian refugee camps. “Catering is a big industry in Jordan and teaching this type of skill will give these women a chance to make a living,” Layla says. Without a doubt, Layla has figured out what she wants to be when she grows up.