Breanne Delgado didn’t set out to be a chef or an activist — let alone one of the founders of the Women’s March, the historic protest held to counter Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. In fact, she got her start in pastry by accidentally enrolling in culinary school at the age of 17.
Since then, Delgado’s career has spanned from Michelin-starred kitchens to a role as executive pastry chef at Facebook. In that time, she learned how to work hard, show up, and think creatively — and also how to overcome systemic challenges in the workplace due to her age and gender. After helping to launch the Women’s March, which earned her a place among Glamour’s 2017 Women of the Year, Delgado has leaned in to her activism; soon, she’ll launch Stir the Nation, a movement that aims to build bridges between people through food. Here, she shares how she got her start and why she believes the restaurant industry has “an obligation to ensure that we model how to treat and be treated in the workplace.”
Eater: What does your job involve?
Breanne Delgado: Whew, what does it not involve is more accurate! I call myself a “cheftivist” because being a chef and activist isn’t an either/or for me, it’s a both/and. After co-founding the Women’s March, a drastic change from my life as a chef, I had a lot of identity issues with my career and purpose in life. But then I realized how food is political in so many intersections, making it an extremely effective way to build bridges. So I decided to create Stir the Nation, where I use food to talk about social justice and workplace issues alongside community organizers.
I’m actually about to officially launch in a few weeks, so I’m wearing a lot of hats. One day I might be protesting in Washington, D.C., and the next day be pulling an all-nighter in my kitchen prepping for an event. But the one thing I’ve learned through movement-building and entrepreneurship is that listening is the most important thing I can do. Listening to feedback with an open heart, learning from other communities, and taking in the wisdom from those that have helped me find my voice.
What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
I got pretty good grades in high school, enough for me to be dually enrolled at my local community college my junior and senior year. I thought I would be an accountant because I was good at math — until I flunked my accounting course. Discouraged, I saw there was a Baking 101 class listed and immediately signed up. I was always baking for fun anyway, ever since my Grandma had shown me and my sister how to decorate a cake with piped borders and buttercream roses. It was the only thing I was better at than my sister, and I thought this class would just solidify that. Except it was part of culinary school — you know, that baking class everyone is usually begrudgingly required to take when pursuing a degree in the hospitality industry.
So there I was at 17, enrolled in culinary school. One of the only women, certainly the youngest, and most likely the only one to enroll accidentally. On the first day of class, I got yelled at by Chef for spreading my cheesecake batter with a butter knife instead of an offset spatula. That’s when I knew that I wanted to be a pastry chef.
Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?
I ended up getting my associate’s degree in baking and pastry arts and was only one class away from a dual degree in culinary arts. While the fancy culinary schools sounded appealing, I knew I would never be able to afford that tuition, so I went the community college route.
It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It allowed me to graduate debt-free and invest in making the move from Detroit to New York City. Plus, there’s only one way to make a crėme anglaise. You may learn that in school, working in a pastry department, or even watching YouTube. Determination, drive, humility, and passion make up the foundation of pursuing a career in this industry, not your education — that can only enhance your foundation and vice versa. Master these skills and the ability to be awake at odd hours and you have a bright future ahead of you!
What was your first job? What did it involve?
I was a cashier at Target. Once they found out I was in culinary school, they moved me to “Food Avenue” because they thought I would want to cook. Heating up frozen pizzas got old but chocolate never does, so I took a job dipping strawberries at Godiva. I would get in trouble with corporate because I would decorate the strawberries too over the top and make chocolate purses and shoes to appeal to the shoppers. Once I graduated from culinary school, I started working at a bakery in Royal Oak, Michigan, where I learned to ice a cake in 30 seconds in order to keep up with the other bakers and our orders.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
It was always my age and/or the fact that I’m a woman. I would be constantly underestimated and passed up for promotions because of it. One time, I was told the reason I didn’t get a higher position over the man applying for it was because he “had a mortgage to pay” and I didn’t. I’m really stubborn and had something to prove, so those instances motivated me to persevere for the most part.
However, that’s not the case for everyone. In fact, I’ve seen it make talented people leave the industry because they can’t take it anymore. There’s a huge cultural shift happening around equality, and it’s crucial that we lean into that. In the food industry, where nearly 6 in 10 adults have worked at some point in their lives, we have an obligation to ensure that we model how to treat and be treated in the workplace. We can show over half of Americans work environments filled with equal opportunities, diverse and inclusive leadership, work/life balance, and transparency. No other industry touches so many people, especially early on in their working careers. These are the thoughts that keep me up at night, while still getting me out of bed every day to do what I do.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
I’ve had many turning points throughout the last few years, but a big one for me was last year at this time leading the [protests at the] Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I was in DC for over a month coordinating protests, volunteering on jail duty, and sitting in senators’ offices pleading they vote no on his confirmation. The stories that were shared by victims of abuse were really triggering to me, especially since I had just lost my job a few years back when I refused to engage in sexual relations with my boss. It was why I had gone freelance, even though I wasn’t quite ready, because I refused to work for anyone else after that instance. But after Kavanaugh was confirmed, I committed to creating space using food to talk about toxic work culture and unpacking systemic issues.
What were the most important skills that got you there?
Listening, showing up, and staying creative. Showing up physically, not just on social media, makes a visible difference in our screen-driven lives, and staying creative helps fuel my willpower to keep building. Also, you’d be surprised how many skills I acquired working in restaurants I’ve been able to use in my activism! Especially the whole long hours and days part.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love meeting people and learning about different communities when I travel. It’s so interesting when you realize just how much we are connected. You look at something like bread that is so nourishing and simple, yet symbolic in many cultures. The same ingredients, yet so many different interpretations. I love connecting all of the dots.
What would surprise people or something you didn’t know going into your job? Why?
I feel so grateful to have found a way to merge my passions together, but that has resulted in a lot of falling down along the way. A lot of work really is learning as you go and requires a tremendous amount of vulnerability. I’ve Googled the craziest things and watched hours of videos on how to make spreadsheet or build a website. Sometimes you figure it out and sometimes you just have to delegate or ask for help. Creating change isn’t easy, in fact it can be rather isolating, so I’m always trying to find a balance between human connection and recharging my own batteries.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do?
I was just recently a part of Reality Taste, where 49 other food professionals and I toured Israel and Palestine, learning about the food, the culture, and how conflict has impacted the many communities living within. It was a life-changing trip being able to experience so many different cultures and learn alongside amazing leaders in our field. I’m still processing it.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
You have to slow down to speed up. Take time to really understand your goals and what you want to accomplish, make a plan on how to get there and know it’s okay if it takes time. I struggle with imposter syndrome and perfectionism, but you have to be your own biggest cheerleader. You will make mistakes, you will have hard moments, but you can’t put a price tag on doing what you love and living out your purpose. And finally, know that you can create change and make a difference!
Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Photo of Breanne Delgado: Heidis Bridge
llustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.