Nutley student follows her dream to chefdom

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NUTLEY, NJ — Many adults look back on their kindergarten dreams and chuckle or shake their head ruefully. But not Gianna Searls, a Nutley High School 2019 graduate. She has known since kindergarten that she wants to be a professional chef, and she is now pursuing that dream at Johnson & Wales University, located in Providence, R.I., where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the culinary arts.

“I have been cooking since I could remember. Cooking has always been my favorite thing to do; while everyone was at sport practices I would be in the kitchen cooking,” Searls told the Nutley Journal on March 15. “Growing up, I would always love to be in the kitchen helping my grandma make all these Italian dishes.” 

It is nor surprising that Italian food is Searls favorite, both to make and eat.

“My speciality dishes are mainly all pasta dishes, but my signature dish is a raviolo al’ uovo, which is homemade ravioli dough filled with an egg yolk,” she said.

But Searls is more than willing to spread her wings and learn about cuisine from various cultures around the world.

“Recently in this past semester at school, I took a ‘global a la carte’ class, which is cooking dishes from all different counties,” she said. “I got to taste and make all these amazing dishes, which I am definitely going to experiment on more and more.”

In her continued quest to hone her cooking skills, Searls recently entered the “Favorite Chef” contest, as winning would give her the opportunity to travel to Italy after she graduates from college in 2023 to continue studying her passion for cooking. Although she didn’t win — placing fifth instead — Searls is unwavering in her commitment to becoming a chef.

“Becoming a chef is my dream — something I have dreamed about since I was about 5 years old,” Searls said. “After I graduate from JWU, I plan to travel to Italy to achieve more in my culinary career, and get a more advanced palate and techniques within Italian cuisine. This summer I am planning on buying Gordon Ramsey’s masterclass to help me with plating and cooking practices.”

Though she has been cooking since she could reach the countertop, attending Nutley High School helped her take a strong leap closer to a culinary career. Searls specifically thanks NHS teacher Tarik Huggins for supporting and instructing her.

“Joining Culinary 1 as a sophomore I was so excited to actually get to go to school. It was after my first day of this class and I knew this was my class. Out of about 130 sophomores taking this class, I was the girl who received a chef jacket from Mr. Huggins,” Searls said. “Going into Culinary 2 my junior year, you have to be recommended to take the class. Taking this class was much more focused on making foods with more techniques and being able to think on the spot of what to make with different ingredients. 

“Moving on to Culinary 3, hospitality management, seven students get picked to take this class. What we did is, we taught the other two level classes recipes, and our grades rely on how well we teach the other students,” she continued. “We also got to run an event on our own. I picked to run the annual Nutley Thanksgiving Luncheon for over 200 people. Mr. Huggins, a JWU alumnus, helped me achieve so many great accomplishments throughout the three years of my high school culinary classes. He helped me become a better person and culinary student, and has helped me determine my future, and he gave me boosts to keep me going in life.”

For Huggins, teaching Searls at NHS was a true pleasure, and he believes she will go far in the culinary world.

“Gianna Searls was an extremely talented student from the beginning,” Huggins told the Nutley Journal on March 16. “She was always passionate about culinary arts. I would regularly challenge her and give her additional opportunities to test skills. She never failed to exceed my expectations. I am so proud of her and eagerly look forward to hearing about her success in the future.”

In addition to learning from Huggins, Searls is following in his footsteps by attending JWU, where she said she has already learned so much. Though she admits she still has much to learn, she advises others to follow their dreams and not let others dissuade them.

“One of my favorite culinary idols is Lidia Bastianich. In 2018, I met her at a book signing, and she was giving me the best advice and that was to keep going. Within that the biggest thing I have learned is to follow your dreams and just go for it. Do what feels right, and do not let anyone tell you you cannot do it,” Searls said. “I cannot wait to do big things after I graduate and hopefully one day be on ‘Top Chef’ America. I am looking forward to all the amazing opportunities and experiences that come my way.”

Photos Courtesy of Gianna Searls