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Women Who Inspire Us: Chef Carrie Nahabedian

Chef Carrie Nahabedian is best known for her work at the Michelin star restaurant NAHA in Chicago. She also was the winner of a James Beard Foundation Award in 2008. We sat down with Chef Nahabedian to chat inspiration, advice on getting into the industry, motivation, and what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominated field.

What was it about culinary arts that sparked your interest?

My parents have always said that I was a very creative child from the beginning. They knew immediately I would go into some form of the arts at a very young age. My draw to culinary was a mix of the heritage of my family and their love of great food passed down from my mother, my aunts and specifically my grandma Rose.

What is the best piece of advice you were given starting out?

Be true to the school. Be true to the school of cuisine and don't deviate until you master the basics. Stick to the attention to detail required to be great. 

Where do you get inspiration from?

I’m inspired by the environment, nature, my travels. I'm inspired by the bounty of tremendous products that are available on a daily basis throughout the season. I can draw inspiration from anywhere I am - be it my own backyard or around the globe. 

What was the toughest challenge you had to overcome? How did you stay motivated?

It can be tough to pin one down, as you overcome different obstacles at different stages of your career. In the beginning - it was my age. I was 16 years old in high school, trying to get people to take me seriously. My focus and determination and talent helped me overcome those obstacles. Later in life, you approach different obstacles, based on owning your own business and leading a team. You overcome things by winning folks over with your work, remembering it’s always about the guests - not about the Chef and the staff: about the guest. When you bring everyone together with a common goal of providing a great experience in food, style and service - everyone succeeds together. (And the guest wins!)

There is a lot of competition in your industry, what sets you apart from other chefs?

Competition is good for everyone - as it makes us all stronger. Competition brings you an awareness of what others are doing around them -- and I strive in great competition. Your personality, style of cooking and food sets you apart - but you also need to realize some days folks simply won’t want to eat your food (some days you just want Chinese!) You must know where you stand, stay true to what you believe in, and never chase trends. 

What was your reaction when you found out Naha earned a Michelin star? 

It was a really tremendous day and a great honor. It also happened on the exact date of NAHA’s ten year anniversary, which was so special. It’s every Chef’s dream to have Michelin recognize their work. At the time, Michelin really only awarded Chefs in Europe, and had really just begun branching out into the United States and Asia. For us at NAHA, and I think many Chefs in the city itself, the win proved that it was unattainable. It was a great feeling and an incredible reward for the entire team AND the clients and guests we serve. They were so happy for us and for the city. I think it truly was a moment when Chicago realized we could be a real force in the global culinary landscape. 

What qualities are essential to run successful restaurants like yours?

You have to hire like-minded individuals who believe in what you do, support your belief, and follow the direction offered (remember: it’s about the guest!) Make sure to remember that everyone you hire is a direct reflection  of you. Your name is on the front door, so hire well, train well, motivate with guidance and most importantly: support everyone in the organization. You're all in this together. It’s not “they, me, or them” - it’s US as one united team.

Do you think it’s more difficult for a woman to find success in your industry? If so, how can they overcome those challenges?

This is a very divisive question because of the current movements and moment in time we are in. I would suffice to say that women in any industry of course face challenges that we would like to think men don't. My advice is this: if you’re a woman: approach and get the job because of your talent and who you are - and never use your sex to further or diminish your character. (Don’t be a female astronaut - be an astronaut who happens to be a female.) Being a woman is part of you - but it is not the first thing and most important thing about you. Your talent, hard work and dedication should stand on its own, above all.

The industry has changed a lot, how have you adapted to those changes?

You have to be very cognizant of each individual and not just focus on women or men or one group. You have to be aware of where they live - is it safe for them to travel, etc? You make concessions for folks who go to school in the morning or are part time or take care of family or have a church commitment. What’s changed is that we are much more involved in the personal lives of our employees like never before. I try to pay attention and work with empathy. I believe if my employee and staff are happy in their outside life - they will be happy at work.

You’ve accomplished a lot so far, is there any other venture you haven’t done that you would like to do?

I think we all too often peruse “the best day of our lives”, instead of focusing on the day at hand. There's too much of a focus today on instant gratification. I have been grateful to have had so many spectacular days! I have loved how my career has evolved from high school to meeting and working with my mentors. Moving forward, I would love to be part of other’s success - the people I’ve worked with and mentored myself over the years. I also have a dream that one day Michael and I will have a restaurant on a big beautiful body of tropical water. That, to me, would be a wonderful accomplishment. But, I have no regrets. I only look back for inspiration, and for experiences to will take me forward. You must live in the moment and absolutely love what you do. 

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