Think the American dream is dead? You haven’t met Ghaya Oliveira.Gabriella Gershenson
April 11, 2019
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), with founding support by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Gabriella Gershenson explores the remarkable transformation of James Beard Award winner Ghaya Oliveira from investment banker in Tunisia to the highly praised head of pastry at Daniel Boulud’s flagship restaurant in New York.
When Ghaya Oliveira, the executive pastry chef at Daniel in New York City, chooses a path, she takes to it with intensity. As a child growing up in Tunis, Tunisia, she devoted herself to ballet, training for hours each day. Later, Oliveira switched to economics, and promptly fell in love with that, too. When she attempted to keep up with dance after joining an investment bank, she found that her interest had faded. “I tried to give classes to kids,” says Oliveira. “I did not have the patience to keep going with it. I got really absorbed by the world of numbers.”
Ghaya Oliveira, now 43, maintains a talent for throwing herself completely into a task, and turning hard labor into a labor of love. It’s a skill that served her well when, 20 years ago, her life took an unexpected turn. Her sister, Rim, who lived in New York and had just given birth to a son, was diagnosed with a serious illness. Oliveira moved to Queens to care for them. A year later, Rim died. “After my sister passed away, the whole family kind of shattered,” says Oliveira. “My parents didn't get along anymore, so I invited my mom to come and stay with me here.”
Oliveira, now the legal guardian of her nephew, had to figure out how to support their family. “It happened very fast. You wake up one day and you're like, ‘Oh, shit, what just happened?’"
She looked for opportunities in ballet, but classes were too expensive. She briefly explored the idea of banking, but the paperwork required to transfer her Tunisian diplomas proved too overwhelming. With hardly any English, she managed to pick up odd jobs—working in a flower shop, babysitting, cleaning a restaurant. It was a friend at the florist’s who told her about an opening at Domingo, a restaurant owned by the singer Plácido Domingo. This would be her first foray into pastry. “[Chef] Patricia Quintana had me doing her pastries. She gave me her book and would show me her recipes and [asked], ‘Can you do this?’"
About a year in, Oliveira came to Domingo one day to find that it had closed. Her manager told her about another restaurant that may be hiring. “He gave me a business card. He's like, ‘It might be good for you, actually. They speak French over there.’” That place was Cafe Boulud, and Oliveira started work that day. “I still remember the first things I did, cutting chocolate ganache and piping ten trays of green macarons.”
Oliveira describes the next decade and a half as a blur—the word “sacrifice” comes up a lot. “Daniel Boulud is a school,” she says. “He gives a lot of opportunity to the people who want [it] and will work hard. Now, all the possibilities comes with big sacrifices. Nothing's going to be served to you on a silver platter.” The biggest trade-off was her absence from home. “I did not spend much time with my husband, my son, or my mom. I got lucky that they were understanding.”
To say that Oliveira works hard is an understatement. At Cafe Boulud, she would arrive at 6:00 A.M. and depart after 10:00 P.M. On weekends, her husband—they met as neighbors in her building in Queens—would drive her to culinary school on Long Island. Many of her colleagues were graduates of schools such as CIA or the French Culinary Institute (FCI), but those schools were financially beyond her reach. “I visited FCI. It was, for I don't know how many months. $25,000. I end[ed] up finding this school in Long Island for $2,500.” Simultaneously, Oliveira was teaching herself English by watching a television she’d bought with her first paychecks.
While at Cafe Boulud, Oliveira worked alongside other promising talents, such as David Chang, Rich Torrisi, Jennifer Reed, and Tien Ho. And like them, she steadily moved up the ranks in her career. In 2007, she was promoted to executive pastry chef at the new Bar Boulud. Five years later, she became executive pastry chef at Boulud Sud, where people took notice of her creativity and her Eastern Mediterranean palate. It was there that she unveiled her most famous dessert, the grapefruit givré, a hollowed out frozen fruit filled with grapefruit sorbet, grapefruit compote, sesame foam, and rose lokum, topped with halvah floss. In a 2011 New York Times review of the restaurant, food critic Sam Sifton describe it as “straight from a cookbook co-written by Escoffier and Ferran Adrià.”
“The grapefruit [came out of] flavors that I [grew] up with, especially the halvah,” says Oliveira. Her father would bring home fresh halva from a local factory, “still warm in the can.” In Tunis, Oliveira was exposed to fine pastry both outside and within the home. “We had French pastry, of course, but we [also] had our Tunisian pastries,” recalls Oliveira. “They’re very sweet and [served] in very little portions, because everything is delicate. It's expensive, too, because everything is made out of hazelnuts or pistachios or pine nuts or almonds or walnuts.” Her mother was an accomplished baker, and their pantry was filled with delicacies, such as rose petal jam; quince paste; and geranium, rose, and orange blossom waters, all made by Oliveira’s grandmother.
Even these days, Oliveira’s style is continually evolving. “I don't stop creating things,” she says of her menu at Daniel. Right now, she’s exploring Indonesian ingredients, including cacao, coffee, and peppercorns. “I say, ‘We serve you the world in a plate.’ Sometimes people don't realize the chocolate's coming from here, and the fruit's coming from there.”
When she won a James Beard Foundation Award in 2017 for her work at Daniel, Oliveira couldn’t believe it. “I was like, ‘Are they sure?’ We used to always host parties for the James Beard Awards. One day, I was part of it. There was a party for me. It's funny how things turn around.”
Gabriella Gershenson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.
The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.