Ex-models take on new careers in the kitchen

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 February, 2015, 6:08am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 February, 2015, 10:13am

Food and models are not an obvious pairing. Rather than going together like crispy duck and plum sauce, the modelling industry is likelier to make you think of fad diets or eating disorders. Yet these rarefied sylphs are moving from the catwalk to the kitchen.

British supermodel Jourdan Dunn regularly tweets pictures of dishes she's cooked. Proving she has good (food) taste, Dunn also recently posted a picture of fried chicken she was about to tuck into at Yardbird in Hong Kong. And the model has her own YouTube food show, Well Dunn, on which she cooks gutsy recipes such as jerk chicken with rice and peas.

Karlie Kloss, the US supermodel, is a biscuit-baking fanatic who learned to read by following recipes with her grandmother and bought a food processor with her first pay cheque. She sells Karlie's Kookies for charity.

Helena Rizzo, the world's best female chef, according to Restaurant magazine, started out in modelling. Rizzo - of Mani restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, number 36 on the world's best restaurants list - became a model after leaving school. She is surprisingly modest about her catwalk credentials, saying in an interview last year: "I wasn't a supermodel; I was a mediocre model. I decided to go to Europe to learn more about cookery."

Modelling also led to a career in nutrition and food for Jasmine Hemsley, who's half British, half Filipino. Once half of the Hemsley & Hemsley duo with her sister Melissa, she has produced the popular Art of Eating Well cookbook as well as the spiraliser (a utensil that turns vegetables into noodle or pasta-like ribbons).

"You definitely have to look after yourself when working as a model. It's all part of the job," says Hemsley. "Photoshop and good lighting can't always hide a night of no sleep or a bad diet."

Hemsley was fascinated by food and health, and helped a few colleagues with their eating habits. "My model colleagues couldn't understand why I was eating 'fattening' butter or a fatty steak: they were intrigued. The modelling work was going well, but my hobby quickly turned full time, and since I was so passionate about it, it was an easy transition."

The sisters are adamant that healthy food should be delicious, too. "We do not advocate calorie counting or cutting out entire food groups. There is a myth that fat is bad. Fat is an excellent source of energy that makes your meals satisfying and tasty," says Hemsley.

In Hong Kong, Amanda Strang made the unlikely transition from model to patisserie owner, picking up solid training as a pastry chef en route. "Modelling was my career, and cooking and making pastries was my hobby. Models do eat," she says.

Strang's interest in cake making began as a child. "I began making pastries at the age of eight," she says. "My mother doesn't know how to bake, but my father loves desserts and chocolates, so it was mainly because of my father that I started making pastries."

So Strang, who is half French, enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and apprenticed at Ladurée and Caprice at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong. "I thought of having my own cake shop after I co-hosted a food show with [food critic] Chua Lam," she says. "He is like a mentor to me."

Strang admits she raised a few eyebrows when she opened Petite Amanda, the patisserie at IFC. "When I opened, people came to the shop to see it with their own eyes," she says.

Although many who queued were as likely to have been there to see Strang as much as her cakes, she says: "I think the Hong Kong public has been very impressed. It's never been done before. Models and celebrities put their name to food and beverage outlets, but I went to culinary school and I run the business myself."

New York-based chef Clarice Lam also swapped the international catwalks for working in pastry - at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Spice Market.

"I have been interested in food and particularly sweet things since I was a little kid," she says. "Paris is where I fell in love with pastry. I have always loved to cook, but after living in Paris and seeing all the beautiful pastries and desserts, I wanted to be a pastry chef."

Travelling in Europe as a model added to Lam's interest in food. "I felt the easiest way to immerse myself in any culture was to study the cuisine. I loved the food in Italy. It is practically impossible to find a bad place to eat there. Paris is the fashion capital of the world and also the birthplace of pastry. It would be difficult for anyone living in Paris not to take an interest in food."

People may assume models are on a permanent diet, but Lam says: "At that time I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain an ounce. But now it's a completely different story."

Despite training at Le Cordon Bleu in Florence, and the French Culinary Institute in New York, she felt nervous in a professional kitchen. "I felt intimidated and overwhelmed. Going to school prepped me with the basics, but working in the field was a whole different pace."

Lam became executive chef at The Chocolate Room, a dessert restaurant in Brooklyn, and now runs an online bakery business, The Baking Bean, with plans to open her own store. Her experiences as a model influence her designs: "I have an encyclopedia of images in my brain from my travels. I grab a lot of inspiration from colours, art and architecture."

When I first opened, people came to the shop to see it with their own eyes
Amanda Strang

Sophie Dahl was an early example of the model-turned- cook phenomenon, a moniker she dislikes. "It wasn't like I toppled from a catwalk into a kitchen in a freak accident and presented with an oven for the first time," she has said.

Padma Lakshmi, a former model from India, became a TV food star in the US. Like Dahl, she has no formal training but is a passionate home cook. The judge on cable TV show Top Chef made the change by writing Easy Exotic: A Model's Low-Fat Recipes From Around the World, "because everyone wants to know what a model eats".

Certainly being beautiful helps with a TV career, but what does it say about working in a professional kitchen? Strang admits it helped her get free publicity for her shop, but Lam says: "It's not something that I generally talk about. When I'm working in the kitchen, I prefer people to judge me based on my skill as a chef, not for something that I used to be."