Cooking from the heart

August 12, 2015

By David Weingrad

Immobilized in a wheelchair after suffering a stroke at age 6, the entire left side of her body having shut down, Rossella Cangialosi spent her days watching her mother cook.

Cooking always had special meaning in the Cangialosi household. It was a passion, a symbol of the family’s Italian pride and, most important, a family affair — her parents, Vito and Anna Maria, both born in Sicily, emphasized to Rossella and her brother and sister the importance of eating together every night as a family. Watching her mother do it night after night gave her an even greater appreciation of the art.

To her doctors’ amazement, Cangialosi recovered after a month and was back on her feet. And then it was her turn to cook.

Fourteen years later, she hasn’t stopped.

Honing her culinary skills first at Nassau BOCES in Westbury, while attending East Meadow High School, and then at the School of Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts at Monroe College in New Rochelle, Cangialosi, now 20, competed on Aug. 1 in a national cooking competition in Florida hosted by the American Culinary Federation, to determine the best student chef in the country.

In one of several events held during the ACF National Convention & Show from July 30 to Aug. 3 at the Orlando World Center Marriott, Cangialosi cooked four servings of a four-course meal in an hour, while competing against four other student chefs in front of 100 observers and five judges. She was awarded a gold medal for achieving a score above 90, and finished second overall.

Though she was focused intently on the task at hand during the competition, she said that spectators approached her afterward to congratulate her — and to note that she couldn’t stop smiling while she was cooking. If they knew her story, they would understand why she loved it so much. “Cooking is definitely in my blood,” Cangialosi said four days after the competition. “It brings people together.”

She added, “I guess you can say cooking food saved me.”

‘A tremendous heart’

It was at BOCES that Cangialosi learned about the world of competitive cooking and the invaluable training it provides for hopeful chefs. She took part in her first ACF competition at the Westbury school when she was 15. But things didn’t go too well. “I completely embarrassed myself,” she recalled. “I was cooking like I was home, and that’s not what you’re supposed to do.”

About midway through, a man in a white coat approached her, first offering constructive criticism, and then helping her cook — to Cangialosi’s dismay. She finished cooking on her own, and then, with a hint of sarcasm, told the man she was done. “Ten minutes pass, and he introduces himself,” she recounted. “‘Hi, my name is Frank Constantino. I’m the dean of Monroe College. I’m your lead judge.’ And my heart stopped beating for one second.”

She didn’t earn a medal that time, but what happened next changed her life: Constantino invited her to a competition the following month at Monroe’s culinary school, where he has been the dean since 2008. “I saw something in her,” said Constantino, who won the ACF’s National Championship competition in 2002. “You could tell she was really passionate about what she’s doing. But she just didn’t have the coaching.”

Cangialosi competed in the Monroe competition, this time faring much better. “That day, he handed me my first silver medal,” she said, adding that he also gave her a school knife kit — her first set of high-quality cutlery — and a blue handkerchief. “And he said, ‘Welcome to our team.’ And I was hysterical. I was really, really happy.”

From that day forward, Constantino became a mentor to Cangialosi, and a father figure away from home. Not only did her cooking improve, but her academics did, too. And when deciding where to attend college the following year, though she received scholarship offers to attend other culinary schools, she chose Monroe. “She’s the kind of a student that you hope for in a career,” said Constantino. “We talk about cooking from the head or cooking from the heart. The best cooks cook from the heart. She’s got a tremendous heart.”

It was Constantino who recommended Cangialosi to the ACF Long Island chapter for Student Chef of the Year. From there, regional boards from the Northeast, Southeast, central and western U.S. choose one student to represent them. Although Cangialosi was not selected by the Northeast chapter, she was later added as the fifth “wild card” competitor to compete against four other competitors, all of them women. It was the first Student Chef of the Year competition in its 28-year history to feature all female students.

Cangialosi underwent rigorous months-long training with Constantino at Monroe. Each year, the competition revolves around a special ingredient, which this year was duck, something she had never cooked before. She came up with a dish that Constantino described as challenging, but that also highlighted her cooking abilities while showcasing her Italian heritage: a radicchio kimchee, dried fruit mostarda, duck polpettina with a tomato and olive sauce, seared duck breast with a corn pancake and Mirabelle plum barbecue sauce, and a duck and cherry cobbler.

During her training, however, she was having so much difficulty completing the dish within the competition’s mandated time limit — one hour for cooking and 10 minutes for serving — that Constantino said, she was starting to believe she couldn’t do it. One day, he timed her without her knowledge. “So we started the clock, she did the dish, we stopped the clock, and it was an hour and 10 minutes,” he said. “When I told her the time, she came out from behind the kitchen table, gave me a big hug and started crying.

“From that point on,” he said, “there was never an issue in timing anymore.” Her training ended in late July, a week before the competition.

On Aug. 1, when the event began, the five chefs began cooking in 15-minute intervals, and Cangialosi completed the meal within the time limit, ultimately finishing one point behind Kathryn Eurich, a SUNY Delhi student. Constantino noted that of all the events throughout the convention, only four gold medals were awarded, three of them in the Student Chef of the Year competition. “I literally did my best,” Cangialosi said. “I put so much effort, I can’t even describe it to you. The amount of sweat I put through this competition was ridiculous.”

Life after Monroe

Cangialosi was born in Sicily, during a family vacation, when her mother went into labor earlier than expected. Her family, which also includes her brother, Vito Jr., 24, and sister, Maryanne, 22 — a 2010 East Meadow High School graduate — lived in Elmont and Virginia before moving to North Bellmore, near its East Meadow border, seven years ago.

She said she inherited her cooking skills from her mother, who Rossella said is a great home chef, but never cooked professionally. Her father, a construction project manager, does not cook, but, his daughter noted, “He loves to eat.”

Cangialosi graduated from Monroe this spring. On Aug. 10, she began working as a chef for Restaurants Associates in New York City, a hospitality company that provides food services and catering and that has more than 100 locations in the eastern U.S. and Canada.

In the future, inspired by the close bond she formed with Constantino, she hopes to become a high school culinary instructor, she said. “Growing up, I didn’t have a dean in my life,” she said. “I want to be that dean figure in high school. I want to be a motivator for kids, and I want to show them how much it really means to cook, and what it means to have passion.”