Language and culture both bring people together through travel. A gap year abroad or an exchange student in your household can broaden horizons and open surprising doors. And sometimes behind the door is a new career in a far-off land.
The makings of a French chef
For California high schooler Elizabeth Whitt, her eyes were opened when a Belgian student came to live in her family’s home outside Pasadena. When she had the opportunity to take a gap year after high school, she landed in Belgium without knowing a word of French. But she picked up the language quickly and became conversant. She also visited Paris for the first time, setting up a lifelong love affair with the City of Light. In 1996, she returned to Paris for a semester abroad program through her school, Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where she was majoring in Psychology with a minor in French.
After college, she again looked to Europe. “When I applied to Le Cordon Bleu, I wanted to take a year off from my studies,” Elizabeth says. “I had just graduated college and wanted to postpone my doctorate program, so I decided the best way to do that would be in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu.” She had been contemplating various culinary schools while working in jobs she disliked, and in the end, Paris drew her back once more.
Destiny steps in
Born in San Marino, California, coincidentally the birthplace of Julia Child, you could say that it was destiny that Elizabeth’s culinary interests would take her to Paris. The Le Grand Diplome is a nine-month course designed to teach chefs and pastry chefs with additional studies offered in wine and other disciplines. Elizabeth’s experience, however, quickly became much more intense than for other students. With her fluency in French, she was soon working as a translator which doubled her hours but also introduced her to people from around the world.
She describes her schedule as non-stop, but something she thoroughly enjoyed. “It was tiring and exhausting at times, but only because I wanted to do everything and experience everything,” she says. “I took all of the wine classes, all of the extra workshop weekends so I never stopped! I loved every exhausting minute of it and would do it all over again in a heartbeat!”
Part of Le Cordon Bleu’s draw for international students is its unbeatable location in Paris, just a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower. Cuisine and culture is part of the city’s DNA and Elizabeth took full advantage. “Le Cordon Bleu facilitated incredible gourmet experiences around the city and throughout France,” she says. “We had once in a lifetime dinners, lunches and tours, all as a part of our curriculum if we opted into them. Also, with our classmates, we would all run around town with each other checking out all things food!”
A love affair with Paris
Elizabeth arrived in Paris intending to stay just nine months and remained for 13 years. Year after year, she found herself more entrenched there and still enchanted by the city. She married a Frenchman, Francois, and had a child. She continued working at Le Cordon Bleu, translating and teaching English, as well as leading gourmet tours of wine regions. She also curated an alumni blog for Le Cordon Bleu International and MasterCook, and created a gourmet food truck specializing in waffle sandwiches
Job opportunities eventually mandated a move back to Southern California, which had undergone a culinary renaissance in the interim. Now living in Long Beach, California, Elizabeth is building her travel business with culinary-themed weekends in and around her home state, as well as France and Italy. www.chefelizabeth.com.
Most of us probably wouldn’t think of how traveling intertwines with destiny or how a trip abroad could foster a career move but perhaps that old adage about how travel can be life changing is making much more sense these days.