ACA Alumni Profiles
Alumnus: Deb Pellegrino
With a culinary degree in hand, Deb Pellegrino landed a crew chef job on a luxurious yacht and traveled the globe for three years. She visited places from the Tahitian islands and the Galapagos to the U.S. West Coast, Bermuda and the Caribbean to Scotland, Norway (Scandinavia), Russia and more. She traded T-shirts for black pearls, caught her own fish to clean and serve for dinner, and bought shrimp fresh from a trawler that crossed paths with her vessel.
While waiting for a second cruise assignment, Pellegrino took a job as a pastry sous-chef at an Atlantic City casino. That’s when she discovered her love of pastry, and met the man who would become her husband. Today, she works for the world’s largest casino operator, Harrah’s Entertainment. At Harrah’s and Showboat casinos in Atlantic City, she’s in charge of the desserts in gourmet rooms, coffee shops, buffets, special events, banquets and rooms service. Pellegrino says she thrives on the fast pace and the challenge.
My job today:
Pastry Chef, Harrah’s/Showboat
Sophistication at Harrah’s, Mardi-Gras party atmosphere throughout Showboat. At the French Quarter Buffet, suggesting a stroll down a New Orleans sidewalk, all food is prepared right in front of guests. Food sites include several steak houses, several Italian restaurants, an Asian restaurant, a raw bar, a noodle bar, coffee and sandwich shops and more.
The spirit of events for her job:
“We’re supposed to match the food with the ambience and it has to be spectacular and ‘wow.’” At one party celebrating employee excellence, a dessert extravaganza featured an ice table with ice cream built into it the table, so people could scoop it; cones full of chocolate-covered strawberries and truffles, suspended from the ceiling as if in mid-air; a chocolate fountain with kabobs and truffles for dipping; creme brulee with coconut and pineapples burned to order. An annual outside barbecue for guests featured props like a lifeboat filled with shrimp, oysters and clams; roast whole pigs on spits, drinks served out of pineapples and coconut shells.
What I do:
As Pastry Chef for Harrah’s/Showboat, oversee 17 employees; handle creation of dessert menus, manage production and execution of all pastry menu items for 24 different outlets. Responsibilities include gourmet rooms, coffee shops, buffets, special events, banquets, room service. For the buffets and cafeterias alone, 100 sugar-free cheesecakes a day, 100 regular cheesecakes a day, and 180 pies a day.
The most important thing I learned at the Academy:
Take your career seriously. Be organized and act professional.
Approach to life:
At the Academy, there was one teacher who was really strict, and I used to specifically request him. I felt that if I could do well in his class, I would do well outside. I used to seek out the hardest and most demanding thing in school, and now I do the same in my job I like the challenge, multi-tasking. The more jobs you give me, the better.
What I like best about my present job:
The creativity and the empowerment to make my own decisions; the fast-paced action and constant change.
At Harrah’s we strive to make each event bigger and better than the one the year before. It’s a constant challenge to come up with creative ways to display and make our food. It’s definitely challenging running pastry for two casinos. We change the menus with the seasons, and have last-minute requests all the time.
Most of the recipes in use are mine. All the menu changes are my concepts.
Most memorable career experience:
Working on a private yacht after graduating from the Academy. Cooked for a crew of 18 regularly, but also assisted the private chef of the owner when he was on board, cooking for between 10 guests and 300 guests. Partial itinerary: Panama Canal, Galapagos Islands, Tahitian islands, Australia, China and Japan in the first year and a half; summer in Bermuda, winter in Caribbean; then Northern Europe – Scotland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, the Baltic Republic. She also has cooked for politicians and celebrities including President Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Tony Bennett and Don Rickles.
How to get a yacht job:
Visiting Ft. Lauderdale, Pellegrino saw 200-foot yachts, knocked on a hull and asked the chef how to get a job on one. Even though the chef said it would take a long time, Pellegrino found a slot as crew chef with a 204-foot yacht headed for a three-year world tour, starting on the Pacific Rim. She had three weeks to provision the boat.
Highlights of the world cruise:
It was like something out of National Geographic...We all had to be certified in diving so we would go diving everywhere we went....In Papua, New Guinea, in a dugout canoe, we had to ask the head of the tribe if we could anchor at his island...Another time, I traded T-shirts for black pearls... I never had to buy fish. I did my own fishing on board, brought it back, cleaned it for dinner.
Advice to an aspiring chef:
Figure out what you like, and go for that. Being a chef is one of the few jobs where you get paid for eight hours but are expected to work 12–14 hour days. But when you find something you’re passionate about, it makes it that much easier.
Husband is a sous-chef at Carmine’s, a family-style restaurant at Tropicana resort in Atlantic City. “Thank God I have someone who understands... he works a lot of hours, too. If I get wound up at work, he calms me down.“
Where I get inspiration:
I get a lot of inspiration from all that’s going on around me. I use the Internet, magazines, TV. Sometimes I take a fad, or something that’s going on that has nothing to do with pastry -- sometimes I’ll put my artistic ability into desserts and how they’re presented. With desserts, you can get as crazy and off-the-cuff as you want.
I love what I do. Sometimes I think about getting out of the kitchen, being out in front of the guests, in food and beverage, but I have that passion for the food and the creativity to come up with different ideas and meet deadlines.