If you asked Alexia “Chef Lex” Grant what she thought her profession might be while she was still a student at Piscataway High School, a career in the culinary arts wouldn’t have been her response. Grant grew up in Piscataway as the only child of West Indian parents. After high school, she didn’t know what she wanted to do and admits she felt a bit stuck. Then she received some advice from her grandfather, an entrepreneur who owned his own mechanic shop.
“My grandfather, at the time, was very, very sick and we were taking care of him at the house and before he passed away, he sat me down and said to me, ‘I don’t know what it is that you’re going to do with yourself, but whatever you do you’re going to be great at it, so I need you to just pick something and give it your all.’”
That day, she called the Art Institute of New York, went in for an interview and filled out the application paperwork.
Today – after beating out half a dozen chefs during a rigorous two-month interview process last year – she works as Knicks star Carmelo Anthony and La La Anthony’s personal chef. In addition, she founded her own catering company, Eat Me Up Cuisine, in October 2014.
“Life is amazing now,” she said. “I am cooking for people I never thought was possible. Do you know how it feels to have Beyoncé walk in the room? I started sweating.”
However, it took years of painstaking work for Grant to start her own business and begin to amass a roster of celebrity clients. Grant found out she was accepted to the culinary school on the same day her grandfather passed away – as she was on the way to the hospital to see him. “I feel like it was destiny,” said Grant, who credits her grandfather for telling her to follow her heart in terms of career choice.
After attending culinary school, she worked a number of jobs – some related to the culinary industry, others not at all.
“I was a receptionist, a security guard. I worked in every other aspect of a restaurant other than the kitchen; like I’ve been a bartender,” Chef Lex said. “I’ve been to bartending school. I was a server, I was a host, I ran the front of the house for people, but the kitchen was always calling me because that was where you were able to create and just be, and exist in your domain.”
Grant’s first real restaurant job was at Delta’s Restaurant in New Brunswick. “I was a server and then they also let me work in the kitchen,” she said of Delta’s. She was also taking catering jobs whenever and wherever possible.
Her boyfriend at the time encouraged her to focus on cooking, since that was the only time she was happy working. Continuing to follow her heart, she quit her job and began working at Breezes, a Caribbean restaurant in Metuchen.
It wasn’t long before she began to excel. “You don’t really know what you’re capable of until you’re put in a position where someone lets you do whatever you want,” Chef Lex said. “A lot of people clam up, but I had an entire plan.”
Her plan paid off in a big way. “So in that restaurant, I moved from prep cook to line cook, to sous chef, to running the kitchen, to running events in like eight months. They were astonished. They were like ‘are you sure you’ve never done this before?’”
From there, she went to work at Fig and Olive in New York for a few years, where her palette was introduced to new flavors and textures as she further refined her skills.
Chef Lex wasn’t receiving benefits from her job at Fig and Olive though, so she went out and got a corporate one at Restaurant Associates that did provide benefits. At that job – which required cooking for a large number of employees at a company cafeteria – she learned how to budget properly and began taking side jobs from workers there, after they found out about her catering business.
At that point, Chef Lex began thinking about how she could become her own boss, a decision she said she “absolutely” made due to how difficult it is to advance in an industry that is dominated by white men.
“The chefs loved me, but just could not advance me because of how the men in the kitchen looked at me,” she said. “They would listen, it’s not like I was superbly disrespected, it was that I just wasn’t respected.”
“It’s like in the kitchen there’s no such thing as sexual harassment. That doesn’t exist in a chef’s world,” she continued. “You don’t file claims [with human resources]. You literally have to stand up for yourself.”
That goal – to be her own boss – got a boost when a friend of a friend led to Chef Lex’s first job with a celebrity: Angela Simmons.
“Ultimately, just by putting myself out there, I was able to snag a position with Angela Simmons. I didn’t even go and apply or any of those things… It manifested,” she said. “I talked about it so much to everyone, what I wanted to do and what I felt, and what I was willing to do and how far I’m willing to go, and someone was listening to me.”
An out-of-the-blue tryout meal seemed to work out quite well, since Simmons immediately followed it with the question: “Can you start tomorrow?”
“Absolutely,” Chef Lex replied, even though she had two other jobs at the time.
After leaving Simmons’ apartment, she stood on 58th St., between 5th and 6th Ave., and cried.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she said. “I was crying tears of joy, tears of confusion, tears of ‘did this just really happen?’”
She called her mom to tell her the news and then went to Fig and Olive to discuss her new job. After telling them that she didn’t know if her gig with Simmons was permanent, she was told “you’ll always have a job here,” and cried tears of joy.
“That’s always what you want to hear,” Chef Lex said. “That you did such a good job that you have a home here.”
She kept her corporate job so she could have benefits, but quickly discovered that balancing the two jobs proved to be an exhausting challenge.
“The first three months of me doing this, I was absolutely run ragged. I learned really what it meant to be a private chef, that a private chef means that you are also the assistant, also the seamstress, also the stylist, also the space planner and party planner. I had to be everything and I wasn’t prepared; like, I didn’t know. None of my mentors were private chefs. I had no guidelines to follow.”
It was clear that something had to give. “Three months in, I just got up all of this courage, mustered it up, and I quit my job at Restaurant Associates. I quit and I haven’t been back since. Every person I’ve worked for has been a private client, and this has been a year and three months and I survived my first year of entrepreneurship. I’m really, really happy about it. And I found time in that year to also make sure that I gave back to my community; I found time in that year for spiritual growth and for me to find out the path that I wanted to follow and who I really am.”
Chef Lex helped bring an initiative called Take Care to New Jersey’s most populous city. Take Care aims to feed hungry residents through the efforts of local volunteers and organizations. Chef Lex, who has volunteered at the original Harlem location, spearheaded the Take Care of Newark #Feed500, an event with a name that perfectly encapsulates it.
“The first time we fed 617 [people] and the next time we fed 801,” she said of the Newark event that took place in December 2015 and 2016, respectively. “That was my money that I put up for that. We got some donations, but not enough to cover the amount of food. That was me putting my job at risk by asking my clients, ‘Hey, do you guys need all this stuff in the cabinet? Because I’m about to take this stuff and feed it to homeless people.’”
Once unsure of her career path, Chef Lex now has the opportunity to help inspire young women. The entrepreneur has been asked to speak to girls about career options at about 15 schools across New Jersey and New York.
“Feeding the homeless is always going to be a top priority, that is my thing, but I’ve already got the blueprint for how to get that done; so my next thing now is reaching children,” she said. “I want to talk to young girls who are 11th and 12th graders, who really don’t know what they want to do because that was me. I think they would really relate to my story and hopefully derive something from it; even if being a chef isn’t for you, it’s really about picking something and sticking with it. It’s about asking yourself those hard questions.”
Reflecting on where she is today, Chef Lex admits that “I don’t even know how I got here sometimes. Yes, I know it’s through hard work, but when I really look back, it’s because people were there for me. I didn’t always have money. I couldn’t always pay my rent or feed myself. I was definitely taking food home from work to make sure I had groceries and stuff. Things were hard and the people that were there for me, I’m so grateful for. But the people who were there for me, they don’t need my help now; there’s other people that need help, so I gotta do what I can for them because someone did it for me.”
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