When Alexander Zeleniuch graduated from NYU with a Global Liberal Studies degree in 2012, he already had a consulting job lined up that moved him from New York City to San Francisco. After a few years in the fast-paced world of corporate projects and frequent travel, he decided to follow his passion for gastronomy and enrolled at Paris' famous Le Cordon Bleu. As Alexander prepares now to graduate with a culinary arts degree and to enter another fast-paced world -- that of professional kitchens and international cuisine -- we check in with him in Paris.
When did you realize you wanted to be a chef?
Growing up in a Franco-American household with both passports, I was exposed to French food and culture early in life. I savor the memories I have of preparing le bouquet garni for un rôti de veau with my grandmother in Lille, as well as slow simmering a sumptuous bœuf bourguignon with my mother at home in New Jersey. But it was while working at a local Italian restaurant throughout high school and college that I came to understand that cooking professionally is quite different from cooking at home. I worked as a greeter, busboy, and line cook, and I loved it. As time passed,
I knew that someday I'd want to further pursue my passion for food and get proper training. I wanted to learn the art ofcomposing a meal, from ingredient selection to preparation, compilation, and presentation from people who devote their lives to it.
Was it a difficult decision to leave consulting for Le Cordon Bleu?
No, it was a decision that I made over time. Following graduation from GLS, I joined a consulting firm that taught me basic business principles and exposed me to corporate culture. After three years, a promotion and some savings, it was the right time to move on. I also knew that if I didn’t pursue my dream of culinary school now, it would be less likely down the road.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
That’s like asking an artist to pick a favorite color! I will say I especially enjoy preparing seafood. At school we have worked with many varieties, and each fish still feels unique. As for a specific dish, I really enjoyed our bouillabaisse recipe. When executed properly, one mouthful transports you to Marseille’s grand port.
Did you learn about cuisine during your undergraduate travels?
Indeed, I did! I spent my junior year in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a place rich in gastronomy. I will never forget the first time I saw a steak cut with a spoon, to showcase the tenderness of the meat. Between fall and spring semesters that year, I backpacked around South America for two months with my good friend and fellow GLS alum, Nick Grassi. We had the pleasure of tasting food from all over the continent. An important takeaway from the whole experience was that food should be kept local. Whether that was beef in Argentina or fish ceviche in Peru, it was the local ingredient that came first -- and that made all the difference.
Which city has better food: Paris or New York?
Again, a very loaded question! I would say that New York has more diversity in food but a lower standard than Paris. You can find any type of food at any price point in New York, but sometimes, it’s a roll of the dice for quality. In Paris, the vast majority of restaurants serve French food, and rarely have I been disappointed with the quality.
Of all the cities where you have lived, which is your favorite?
If I had to pick one, I would say so far I enjoy Paris the most. Of course, it is a biased answer because much of my experience in a city revolves around food, and France’s capital is hard to beat. I also enjoy the pace of life here and the cafe culture. There may not be a better city in the world to sit on a terrace along the river and people-watch as you sip espresso and nibble on freshly baked pastry.
What will you do after completing your program at Le Cordon Bleu?
Following school, I will intern temporarily with world-famous chef, Thierry Marx, at the Mandarin Oriental in Paris. Marx holds two Michelin stars at the hotel’s fine dining restaurant Sur Mesure, and I am very excited about this opportunity to extend my culinary education by learning more about molecular gastronomy and Japanese-French fusion cuisine, for which Chef Marx is known. He is also an advocate for community service, and I look forward to volunteering with him and the rest of the crew for various causes in and around Paris.
Describe GLS in 3 words.
NYU’s best degree!