One Part Chef, One Part Model: How MasterChef's Paige Jimenez Pursues Multiple Passions
In a commercial model casting, New York’s most exquisite beauties line the walls as they wait their turn to meet the associates who will decide if they’re right for the job. One by one, they file in, presenting their comp cards and portfolios, and answering questions about themselves and their experiences. When asked what their hobbies are outside of modeling, they shuffle through a selection of traditional answers. “I’m also an actress,” one says. “I’m starting a fashion line,” replies another. Some attest that they’ve thrown all their hats into the modeling bag.
Not Paige Jimenez.
The Hawaiian-native fashion model has just completed her culinary arts training at the International Culinary Center.
She may be a pretty face in magazines and on runways, but that part of her hardly defines the totality of her aspirations. And her career is just beginning.
The road to discovering her dream has been long, and filled with a myriad of experiences. After graduating high school a year early and testing the waters at the University of Hawaii for a semester, she picked up and moved to LA. Six months later, she had appeared in the final 20 on MasterChef, and decided the next move was to New York, where she could best combine what she found in the kitchen with what she knew as a model.
The First Course: Defining the Dream
When I arrived at Paige’s East Village apartment, she informed me that she had just moved in the week before. It doesn’t appear that way, as she has already transformed it into a comfortable and stylish home. The walls are adorned with vintage model cutouts from old editions of Harper’s Bazaar and Playboy. The fireplace framed a collection of large, colorful candles, unlit, but dripping with wax. A small dining table is pushed against the wall, covered in a lace table runner and decorated with a large centerpiece of wildflowers and smaller candles, the flame of which illuminates the corner of the yellow-tinted room. The table is set, and it seems the first course is just about ready!
“This is arugula, goat cheese, blood oranges, and I made a little blood orange vinaigrette because they’re in season.”
It looks incredible. It tastes even better.
I ask Paige what she’s been up to lately, since finishing school. She’s just made a big decision to not accept a job at one of New York’s finest restaurants. After her “stage” (pronounced STAHJ; French for a trial), she was offered the position, which would be minimum wage and 60-hours a week of commitment. She’d definitely have to cut back on, if not cut out entirely, her modeling career, and sideline her plans for her personal brand. “I thought about it, and my intention is to become like a Martha Stewart, Chrissy Teigen type of public figure. And nobody’s going up to Chrissy Teigen and asking her to show her culinary degree or what restaurant she’s worked in. Or Martha Stewart, for that matter. Or Rachael Ray.” She was criticized by her peers in the industry for turning down such a coveted opportunity. “It was an eye-opening moment because I was like, maybe this isn’t my dream job. Maybe I just wanted the offer, and that was the challenge in my mind.”
As Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” plays off a classic rock playlist in the background, we enjoy our salad. The blood oranges are to die for. “I only buy cookbooks that are organized by seasons. So if it’s fall, you turn to the fall chapter and it tells you what’s best to cook with.” I tell her that I always wished I could cook. “You can. Everyone can cook.”
The Breakthrough: A Big Break
“My apartment [in LA] was right off of Hollywood Boulevard, and I booked the apartment, because I was only 17, through Airbnb. The entire time they thought I was 22. I paid to have my car shipped there, and was essentially just out there alone, and then one day I was walking on the street and [the MasterChef scouts] came up to me and were like, ‘Hey, do you cook?’ I was like, ‘I mean, kinda? Yeah? I’ve cooked my whole life but I’m not a professional. I don’t know how to debone a chicken or anything,’” she recounts to me. “I had liked cooking before. But I had never thought of it as an actual career because you don’t really know about female chefs.”
After three months of auditioning, the casting team narrowed the group down from 80, to 40, to the final 20. She had made it. On the fourth episode of the eighth season, Gordon Ramsay approached her at her station.
“I may be one of the youngest competitors in this competition, but I’ve always known to set my mind to things, and I always do them.”
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to this day,” she tells me, “but it definitely made me realize that I wanted to cook for a living.” And thank goodness for that. Her agency, Nomad, had stuck with her through the experience, and now she wanted more. Luckily, that opportunity was handed to her. “I didn’t really enjoy LA. I wasn’t really doing much or making any money. I totaled my car one day, and my Airbnb booking was ending in the same two weeks.” With the money she acquired from her car insurance, she moved to Brooklyn.
It was a rough transition. “I wasn’t used to being catcalled when I’m walking to my door,” she recounts of her first neighborhood. It happens to women all the time; one might be gifted with Paige’s model-gorgeous looks, but blessings most of the time double as curses, and New York requires quite a skin in order to adapt. It’s a wonderful city, but can be really tough for young women unaccustomed to its difficulties, including the harsh and crude behaviors of so many its inhabitants.
But now, two-and-a-half years later, she’s relieved she made the move. “I think it’s the only city in the world that merges so many different industries. And there are very few places that would appreciate both the chef and model aspects of me.” And with that, she enrolled in culinary school with the intent of mastering her new craft.
The Second Course: MasterChef-turned-Master Chef
Paige reaches into the oven with her bare hands to grab a hot foil pouch that’s been inside since before I walked in the door an hour before.
“Oh my gosh! Are you not dying right now?!”
“This is how you know I’m a chef.”
She plates the contents and serves her masterpiece main course. “These are twice baked potatoes. I boiled them and then I smashed them and roasted them in the oven. And there’s a gremolata on top. It’s like a dry sauce. It’s mustard, jalapeños, parsley, and garlic. And then salmon. Super easy.” It looks far from, and tastes further. It’s divine.
Paige credits her success and her degree to the assistance of one of her greatest mentors—her grandmother, with whom she grew up cooking and who lent her the money to attend culinary school. Being a non-traditional certification program, it’s not considered an education for which a loan could be taken on. She considered fundraising, but ultimately received a partial scholarship after being highly recommended to the institute by Christina Tosi, one of the judges on MasterChef. Her grandmother helped with the rest.
Two weeks after she received her degree in September, she returned to Hawaii to cook a meal for her family; something she had never done before solo. “I did it at my grandma’s house, and she was really trying to not tell me how to cook,” she laughs.
Her program at the International Culinary Center was one year of rigorous training. “It’s 25-hours a week, three nights a week. So I’d get out of school at midnight, which sucked when I would have 8 a.m. shoots the next day. At the end of nine months in the kitchen, you spend three months working in the field, doing an internship.”
Paige elected to work at one of the best catering companies in New York, where she would spend two or three long days a week, leaving time on the other days for her modeling jobs, which were footing her bills.
“I actually catered one of my photoshoots once. It was really funny. I booked eBay and I remember being in the kitchen when I got the confirmation that I booked it. I looked at one of our orders and it was eBay and I was like, ‘I wonder if this is mine…’ I showed up on set the next day and I’d literally prepped everything from start to finish.”
I’m baffled. At this point, Paige was 19-years-old, essentially working two full time jobs in addition to her studying. Still, after passing her final, she completed her degree in September. Now, she’s looking ahead at the next steps in manifesting her dream.
The Third Course: Shaping Her Destiny
Paige has a lot of ideas, and now has the tools to turn them into realities. She’s ruled out working on a line in a restaurant. She doesn’t plan to fashion model forever. She wants to start small, and find her audience. “I really just want to create and capture my cooking and teach people my age that you actually can DO things pretty easily and cheaply and correct—things that are so well respected. Eventually I’d like to do my own cookbook, and from there, I could totally see myself doing my own pots and pans and cookware,” (á la Chrissy Teigen).
In the meantime, she’s setting up her brand, and staying busy with regular modeling clients through her agency in New York. She’s been selling t-shirts that she designed with phrases she loves that she’s seen on vintage graphic tees, and taking pictures of the dinners she makes for her friends. The exposure she’s received from MasterChef and her various modeling campaigns have certainly helped along the way, but Paige is very much building her own future in her own time and fashion.
“If it happens, it happens. And when it happens, it happens. All you can really do is keep working and sharing and hoping something comes of it,” she explains of her process.
The path she’s chosen is not, and will not ever be an easy one. “Do not feed the models.” We’ve all heard the trope. Despite the fashion and beauty industries having been more progressive in the recent past as a whole, opening runways to models of all shapes, sizes and colors, there is still a stigma surrounding models regarding their appearances, attitudes and lifestyles. And then, there’s Paige Jimenez, using her modeling platform to humanize the silhouettes that we see on the runway. Her success as an industry beauty has led her to her passion for cooking and food, and she hopes that her dual-passions can be an inspiration to young women everywhere, and help to de-stigmatize the industry that has given her a platform to achieve her dreams.
“There are a lot of psychological aspects to being a chef that I think people don’t talk about. You almost have to enjoy a certain type of abuse, which you can read so many psychological studies on. But I think a lot of chefs that are famous and working these insane hours and cooking only to be told that their food isn’t good enough… I think that mental illness that is extremely common in this industry that people ignore just because they ARE cooking amazing food. One of the first things they told me at culinary school was that being a chef is so hard because if you cook well nobody says anything, and if you cook bad everyone says something. Good food is expected.”
While her two professions are extremely different from one another, they hold hands when it comes to the criticism brought on by the masses. The fact that she’s dealing with the difficult stigmas surrounding both worlds in a rough-and-tumble city like New York doesn’t do her mindset any favors. Still, Paige doesn’t let any of this get to her head by any route other than constructiveness. It is that principle that keeps her creative and driven every day, be it in the kitchen or on the runway.
Behind the Scenes
If you could cook for and share said meal with anyone, living or deceased, who would it be?
Anthony Bourdain. He’s a legend, and he’s one of the first people ever who made it possible for chefs to be considered celebrities. Before him there were two or three celebrity chefs, and he kind of opened the door of the kitchen.
Who’s on your power playlist?
The Talking Heads. I feel like they’re a really good example of a fusion of genres. They were one of the first to do it. They had electronic, Jamaican drums… and the longevity in their name is insane as well.
What’s your favorite restaurant in New York City?
That’s SO hard. My favorite restaurant of all time… if I have someone coming into town, I’ll definitely bring them there, is Lucali. It’s a pizza joint. They only have pizza and calzones and they only take cash. It’s in Carroll Gardens. They have no menu. They come up to your table and they say all the toppings they have, and they only have like six toppings, but it’s amazing. They don’t take reservations. They start taking names at 5pm and you physically have to go to the restaurant to put your name down and they say “Ok, cool, come back at 10pm.” But it’s worth it.
If you could grace the cover of any one magazine, which would you like it to be?
Bon Appetit. I feel like that would curate both sides of me very well.
Do you have a personal mantra?
“I’ll try anything once. Maybe twice.*