By Julie Kayzerman
Beyond the kitchen doors in Eickhoff Hall on a Saturday morning, Catering Chef Jacqueline Baldassari is probably break dancing and singing Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” into a wooden spoon.
Everybody’s swingin’. This is such a groovy place.
She has a boombox set up to blast some old funk and soul music while the whole staff sings along together and, in turn, works better and faster, she said.
Keep on dancin’. You got to get it. Got to give it up.
“I’m very energetic, I’m freakin’ off the wall,” Baldassari said with a raspy laugh. “I’ll just start break dancing … I’ll be like ‘What? Party time!’ after I’ve been here for like 12 hours.”
However, the behind-the-scenes chef from Florence, N.J., might be better known from her reality television stints on season nine of “Chopped” in 2011 and season 11 of “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2013.
But while Chef Gordon Ramsey told Baldassari she was just a “diner girl from Jersey” on “Hell’s Kitchen,” to the College, she’s much more: a break-dancing chef with an infectious laugh whose culinary skills nearly doubled the amount of sales during her first year at the College.
Before Baldassari stepped in, sales from June 1, 2012 to June 1, 2013 at the College were recorded at $520,530.49. The following year they were at $589,070.17.
But when the funky chef came swinging through the kitchen doors in April 2014, sales skyrocketed to $984.797.40, according to Sodexo’s system, CaterTrax, which only accounts for about 75 percent of sales.
“My parents were like, ‘Do not go into the restaurant business,’” Baldassari said. “I love it. I can’t get away from it. It’s a hardworking career, it’s not an easy job by any means, but I love it. I love feeding people, I love tasting stuff, working with funky ingredients, teaching other cooks and chefs how to work with the stuff.”
Born to cook
Born and raised in the restaurant industry, Baldassari became a cooking connoisseur as a kid, hopping in and out of the seven different restaurants her family owned in the Trenton area, from doughnut shops to banquet halls.
At age seven, she was ordering a medium-rare filet mignon, instead of the Mickey Mouse cheeseburger offered on the kid’s menu. At 12, Baldassari worked in the coat check room of her grandfather’s restaurant, Roman Hall, with wide eyes at the bills she was collecting from tipping customers.
But it was at her job at Rat’s restaurant in Hamilton Township at 16 years old where she developed her skill set in high-end cooking. There, she fell in love with the potential that different food dishes had to offer.
“I’m very creative because I have such a broad horizon of many different cuisines,” Baldassari said. “I love colors, textures and to combine them. So not only what you’re seeing is absolutely amazing looking … it also makes your mouth have a crazy party.”
So when age 27 rolled around, she went on the T.V. screen to impress the judges on “Chopped” with her grilled asparagus with prosciutto and melon before being eliminated in round two on episode “1 in 100.” Not much later, she found herself living with 20 strangers, getting woken up by drill sergeants and diving into a lobster tank on season 11 of “Hell’s Kitchen,” during her three weeks on the show.
And from that, Baldassari learned the greatest lesson of all: “Not to do long TV shows again,” she joked. “It’s intense. Everything that (Ramsey is) shouting out at you, you have to remember, and if you can’t remember, you’re going to fail.”
Failure is not an option
But Baldassari didn’t even come close to failing. She hung up the chef’s jacket for a bit to go to accounting school. But it was too boring for the energetic chef — she couldn’t break dance and crunch numbers at the same time.
She went back to her roots in high-end cooking, working at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, serving people like mathematician John Nash and his son. She even spent time at the Ivy Inn in Princeton, kickstarting the restaurant by creating the menu and designing the signature Ivy Burger, she said with a kiss to her fingers.
Now Baldassari has found comfort at the College, being around students and running the catering department in a kitchen full of dancing and laughter.
“I think I’m going to stay here for awhile,” she said. But Baldassari still has her eye set on the ultimate dream: owning her own restaurant.
“I would love it,” she said. “Nothing crazy, a bistro, inexpensive, affordable for everyone … that’s the dream. “Everybody should be able to have good food,” Baldassari said. “Just because you’re on a budget or you’re not making a ton of money, you’re a college kid … everybody should be able to have an amazing diner experience no matter if it’s once in your life or once a week.”