When she was nineteen, Giovanna Delli Compagni moved from Venezuela to Arizona with her mom. Delli Compagni’s initial goal: learn English. She quickly enrolled in high school, then attended the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT), a technical school with a culinary program. From the moment Delli Compagni laid eyes on the industrial kitchen, she knew she’d found her career path. “It felt like home,” says Delli Compagni. “Still, when I walk into the kitchen, I have that feeling of comfort.”
Delli Compagni, now 33, is currently sous-chef at Asiate at the Mandarin Oriental, and she recently became the first female contestant to earn the prestigious Institut Paul Bocuse Scholarship from the Daniel Boulud Scholarship Fund. The award, valued at $15,000, covers the entire cost of a five-week program at Bocuse’s cooking school in Lyon, France, set to begin in May.
Breaking ground as the first woman to earn the distinction is an impressive feat on its own, but less than a month after winning, Delli Compagni has also secured a spot on the Food Network’s Chopped (her episode airs Tuesday, February 9, at 10 p.m. EST).
While much has happened for Delli Compagni over the past month, in many ways she’s been working toward this her entire life. Raised by a single mother, Delli Compagni started cooking with her grandmother as soon as she could reach the stove. As she got older, Delli Compagni took responsibility for the cooking while her mom worked. She studied traditional omelet preparations including a basic egg and sweet-pea version before attempting more complex frittatas with potatoes. “I enjoyed it and feel comfortable doing it,” she says. “It’s something that just became natural.”
Given her lifelong affiliation with the craft of cooking, it’s no surprise that Delli Compagni felt at home in a kitchen. At EVIT, she was introduced to C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program), a nonprofit that works with underserved schools and at-risk youth to establish careers in professional kitchens, when a representative came to give a speech about it. Delli Compagni jumped at the opportunity to sign up for a scholarship competition with the program.
Naturally, she rocked it. In the first round, Delli Compagni beat another student from EVIT. She then went head to head with participants from across Arizona. In the end, Delli Compagni snagged one of just 25 scholarships awarded to students across the state. She used her $40,000 award to enroll in the Culinary Institute of American (CIA). For the young chef, it was a life-changing moment. “My mom would never have had the opportunity to send me to such a school like CIA,” she says. “It helped me a lot, and today it still helps me a lot.”
Delli Compagni is still actively involved with the organization. She maintains regular contact with the founder and chairman emeritus of C-CAP, Richard Grausman, and many of the other players, to whom she refers as her “C-CAP family.”
C-CAP offers a variety of programs and awards — not all participants end up at CIA. To get one of the top-level scholarships, you have to be good — as in the best of the best. “CIA and Johnson & Wales are top-level scholarships, the equivalent of Harvard and Yale,” says Joyce Appelman, communications director for C-CAP. “These require higher grade levels and skills. Giovanna had the skills.”
After graduating, Delli Compagni went to Miami, spending time in the kitchens of DeVito South Beach and the Setai, before signing on with Asiate. During her three-year tenure with chef Jonathan Wright at the latter, she became enamored with Asian fare. She worked directly with chefs from India, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Singapore, learning about diverse cultures and cooking techniques. “Just to be surrounded by people and flavors and ingredients from all over the world,” says Delli Compagni, “it’s powerful.”
All the while, she worked closely with Grausman and her mentors at C-CAP, asking for advice, forging connections in the industry. When Delli Compagni moved to New York, her contacts through the organization made the move less daunting. At Asiate, she’s immersed herself in different flavors from the Asian culinary spectrum. She’s been incorporating Korean and Japanese ingredients into her strong base of Southeast Asian knowledge. It shows in her ability to layer flavors, says Boulud: “She won with the strength of the principal dish she was cooking [scallops] with taste and texture. It was something familiar, something creative, something well executed, that tastes good. The combination was harmony.”
Boulud got involved with C-CAP about ten years ago when his business partner, Joel Smilow, gave him a $100,000 grant as a birthday present. A native of Lyon and protégé of Bocuse, Boulud wanted to give American chefs the chance to gain firsthand experience in a French kitchen while honing classic technique. In addition to running not-for-profit Ment’or with Thomas Keller, Boulud felt that C-CAP provided a unique opportunity for participants. “It’s helping thousands of kids in not-so-fortunate neighborhoods to get scholarships and get preparation in the business,” says Boulud. “I think this is [different] from regular cooking school; they can go to bigger schools or straight into the industry.”
For Delli Compagni, the experience has been overwhelming. She’s thrilled about going to France and working with industry leaders — and when she returns, she’ll get to trail Boulud every so often. Even getting feedback from Boulud felt like an accomplishment. And Delli Compagni is glad to forge the way for other female chefs looking to compete: “Just to bring the presence of a female in the kitchen, it’s important to me. I think women are just as strong; women should have more presence, more recognition.”