Chef Allie: Following my passion took me to my very own kitchen

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At a time when less than 20% of executive chefs are women, and less than 7% own their own restaurants, I am often asked how and why I began my culinary journey.

Chef Allie Lyttle

When that happens, I go back in time to when I was 19, when I realized where my passions wanted to take me, and I tell this story:

As I was fidgeting with the knobs on the radio to flip the song for the 10th time in two minutes, my fiancé looked over at me: “What’s going on, Al?”

I began the typical, insecure, cat-and-mouse game of “nothing, I’m fine,” to which he replied, “Something’s up.”

I eventually caved. It took me a few hits of a Marlboro Light for courage, but I caved. The words came out as barely a whisper.

“I don’t want to be a nurse.”

The look in his eyes made me continue to stumble over the thoughts I hadn’t dared to speak for fear of disappointing everyone in my life: “I want to cook. I want to be a chef.”

He nodded, smiled and said, “Well, then you cook.”

Telling my fiancé (now ex-husband and distant) the truth was easy. Telling my parents? Well, that was going to be a bear, to put it mildly. Growing up in a lower-middle class family, I was pushed through parochial school and indoctrinated with the mantra, “You get good grades. You go to college. You get a good job. You have a good life.” As if that mantra became an equation and the end result was happiness; but it wasn’t for me.

I finally gained the courage to tell my mom that the equation for me had changed, that the mantra I had been hearing for 19 years wasn’t going to satisfy me or deliver me to the lofty end goal of happiness, and I was terrified.

“Umm. Uh, Mom? Can I talk to you,” I said.

“Al, I have a million things going on, what’s up,” my mom asked. She didn’t have time to mince words, or feelings for that matter.

“I’ve decided I don’t want to be a nurse,” I said. “Or continue with nursing school.”

Ah, yes, this? Well, this got her attention from her million things and she looked at me, took a beat or two to gain composure and pulled it together. “Well, okay,” she said. “What is it that you think you’d like to do then?”

I replied simply: “Cook.”

This amused her and she laughed it off before continuing, “I mean for a career, Alexandria. We all know you cook.”

“I want to be a chef,” I said. “That’s what I want to do.”

The Italian tears and guilt came on heavy after I finished my declaration: “Oh Allie, you can’t throw your life away to cook! You’ll never make any money. You’ll work every weekend and holiday. It’s rampant with men and sexism. You can’t be a chef, you just can’t.”

Maybe in that moment my mom forgot who she raised, because I was never told I couldn’t do something and if anyone had the nerve to try and tell me otherwise? They’d have to hold onto their hat because I was going to make them eat every single word, which I promise would be well-seasoned to boot.

And that’s how my journey began.

See, I had gotten a temporary job at a restaurant to help pay for things while in college. It was the I first realized that I could turn my passion into something. I had spent years making my own cookbooks from my nanny’s old “Taste of Home” magazines, working tirelessly to save each dish that spoke to me for later. I had experimented with adapting cookie recipes, adding too much raw garlic to Alfredo sauce (learn from 14-year-old Allie — it’s not a good move). I had been obsessed with creating through food for as long as I could remember, but I always thought a trade wouldn’t be an acceptable answer to the equation.

But even at 19 I knew I couldn’t ignore the fire in my belly and I had to chase the dream even if it meant bad pay, working every weekend and holiday, being harassed, being assaulted, breaking my body. Because if I succeeded? I knew I’d have my own equation to happiness to share with my children: Work hard + follow your dreams = endless fulfillment, joy and happiness.

It’s taken a long time; much longer because I’m a woman — remember that less than 20% of executive chefs are women, and less than 7% own their own restaurants — but I’m here. I made it.

I’m excited to be able to share more with you about chef life, restaurants, food, passion, ingredients, and my equation for happiness. I’m Allie, and it’s really nice to meet you.

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Allie Lyttle has been in the hospitality industry for the last 16 years working in every facet from bartender to restaurant manager to executive chef. She is currently building out her passion project: Ann Arbor-based restaurant, Lala's. When she isn't chasing around her 2-year-old daughter and pair of weenie dogs (Nathan & Vienna) she's trying to read the never-ending stack of cookbooks on her nightstand while her husband snores beside her.

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