Semolina pasta

How a Career Changer Followed Her Heart to Pasta Production

Health-Supportive Culinary Arts grad Denà Brummer's new career proves shutdown-proof as pasta business booms.

Denà Brummer (Health-Supportive, '20) landed an externship at Semolina Artisanal Pasta, four miles from ICE’s Los Angeles campus in Pasadena, California, where she continues full-time. Semolina Founder Leah Ferrazzani posted the open position among ICE’s job listings, and Denà joined the traditional, small-batch, slow-dried pasta operation in February.

Little did they know, the steadily inclining pasta business was about to boom. Denà’s role of producing and packaging dried pasta has intensified weeks into her new, now full-time, position as a production team member.

As a culinary student, Denà was actively engaged in the school’s extracurricular activities, including the four-part K-Pop Korean cuisine series with ICE alum Yoon Hee Kim (Culinary, ’05). For Denà, authentic Korean cuisine was not only something she had an affinity for, it was something she sorely missed.

“My father was a percussionist in the United States Army Band for 20 years,” she says. “As a kid, I moved almost every two to three years and as an adult, continue to do the same.” Denà's overseas upbringing included stints in Germany, Italy and Korea, and in 2019, she traveled back to South Korea and made a pilgrimage to the Baekyangsa Temple to cook with Zen Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan.

Armed with an undergraduate degree in Mass Media Arts and Journalism from Clark Atlanta University and a master’s in Public Administration and Crisis Communication from the University of Delaware, Denà became the public affairs officer at Georgia’s Emergency Management Agency where she headed the “Ready Georgia” campaign and was the deputy director of communications for the Georgia Department of Community Health. Eventually, she founded her own digital marketing firm, Yellow Brick Creative Studio, in St. Louis, which she sold a few years ago when she moved away to Los Angeles, from her client base. That opened her up to a new career move, one in the world of food.

"Cooking has always been my happy place, my love language, my creative outlet and therapy, so I decided to follow my heart for a change and not my logical mind," she explains. "One of my friends in the industry advised me to take a test ride first before signing up for culinary school. She gave me the opportunity to work with her company to see if cooking was really the career path for me or just a hobby."

Denà spent two years working part-time with a catering and private chef company while teaching business to high school students. “I was looking for a culinary program in my area and was happy when ICE opened at the former Le Cordon Bleu location,” she says. “I ‘dated’ the school for a year by attending various open houses, but the arrival of Health-Supportive Culinary Arts was the missing ingredient that pushed me to finally commit to going to culinary school.”

Dena's Health-Supportive Culinary Arts class
Denà's Health-Supportive Culinary Arts class

Denà planned to use her education to start a career as a performance chef, specializing in nutritional support, and further down the road, launch her own product. Then she saw Career Services' job posting. "I was drawn to Semolina because it is honest food — two simple ingredients: semolina and water," she says. "It's really rare to find companies that have successfully launched honest and sustainable food products on a mass-market level."

Denà also values that the position is “a unique opportunity to learn firsthand the ins and outs of taking a product from a commercial kitchen to the shelves of grocery stores,” she says. “In more ways than one, it is like an apprenticeship on how to make pasta and learn the business side of the culinary world.”

Dena makes pasta at Semolina
Denà makes pasta at Semolina

Before Los Angeles shutdown, Denà kept regular business hours, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. “My days consisted of making and packing fresh and dried pasta for wholesale and retail and assisting the owner with logging production and inventory,” she explains. In addition, she offered service to customers that entered the retail portion of the storefront.

As the pandemic crisis grew, the demand increased. “My role is more intense,” Denà says. “We are running pasta seven days a week to fulfill orders from grocery stores throughout Southern California. Right now, it is an endless cycle of making pasta, drying it for 12-plus hours, packaging it up and sending it right out the door for delivery.” The bulk of the pasta produced prior to the city’s shutdown went to Whole Foods and Semolina’s restaurant clients like Hippo, Osteria Mozza, The Bellwether, Love & Salt, Heirloom LA and neighboring restaurant, Lincoln.

“Shortly after Mayor Garcetti issued a shelter-in-place order, our storefront and online store were slammed with orders,” Denà says. The shop sold out, and we had to shut down the storefront and online store to catch up on inventory. “The whirlwind of COVID-19 ushered in a wave of everyday consumers who were eager to get their hands on pantry provisions during the frenzy,” she explains.

Along with most food businesses, Semolina strategized to deal with additional consumer cooking desires while its community was staying at home. “We are working on issuing a limited run of a pantry provision box with two pastas, tomatoes and a couple other provisions,” she says. The provisions boxes meet consumers’ desires, and it’s clear that the core business model, pasta, is bulletproof as both wholesale and public consumption has climbed. “Our sales have literally tripled in three months,” Denà says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers can only purchase Semolina pasta online. “Safety is a big priority for the company so the shop is currently closed to the public,” Denà says. “When it comes to cleaning and sanitizing, ICE provided me a solid foundation.”

Follow your heart to make your creative outlet a career.

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