From Immigration Lawyer to Private Sailboat Chef: Meet ICE Alumna Leslie Lipton
Leslie Lipton had just closed her family law office when she saw a sign — a literal sign announcing ICE’s new campus — and said "to hell with it, I’m gonna go."
That decision changed her life.
"I was a little older, but I found my niche," she says. "You can take your culinary education and your experience and morph it into something good for you.”
Upon graduating from law school, Chef Leslie followed in her family's footsteps and joined her mother’s law practice. After decades of specializing in immigration law, the practice that had grown to two offices took an abrupt downturn when immigration laws changed drastically after September 11, 2001.
In the mid-2010s Leslie realized that it was time to close the last remaining law office.
“It got to the point that, if you were an honest lawyer, you couldn’t even help anyone," she says. "The bills were far exceeding any money that I would be making — it was no longer a viable business.”
As Chef Leslie strolled her lower Manhattan neighborhood contemplating what to do next, fate lent a helping hand.
"I walked home from the office one day and I saw a ‘Coming Soon: Institute of Culinary Education’ sign in Brookfield Place, and I said ‘Ooooh I want to go there. I’ve always wanted to go to culinary school,'" she says.
Soon Chef Leslie found herself clad in chef's whites alongside students of all ages in her ICE kitchen classroom.
“It was me and another guy in our 50s — it felt like everyone else was in their 20s, but we did it anyway," she says. "I had a great time in school, and I still keep in touch with the majority of people in my class. We swap recipes, or we think of something that happened in school and text each other silly things…the experience itself was so much fun and you meet such great people."
Beyond the enjoyment of her classmates, her time spent in the kitchens at ICE was preparing her for an entirely new career and, unbeknownst to her, providing a preview into the "dream job" she would eventually land as Executive Chef and Catering Administrator for Manhattan by Sail.
“I have fond memories of being at ICE and looking out the window [to the marina] and watching the boat go out at six o’clock, right as I was starting class," she says. "And here I am, working on the boat."
In between school and her current role, Chef Leslie gained invaluable experience in kitchens throughout New York City. Her favorite was the externship her Career Services advisor helped set up at The Peninsula Hotel, a five-star New York institution.
"It was really hard, seven in the morning until seven at night, three days per week," she says. "But I learned an incredible amount there, and I still use the things I learned today. How beautiful their [plating] was — I make my plates [just] as beautiful. I was in love with working in a five-star hotel.”
Chef Leslie spent the next several years honing her skills at a variety of popular restaurants including Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke, Mario Carbone’s Parm, the Condé Nast Cafe and the IPIC Theatre, a luxury dining and entertainment venue in the South Street Seaport.
Chef Leslie eventually found herself working for high-end catering company Olivier Cheng.
"We worked fancy events. I did The MET gala a bunch of times, things like that, and it was good," she says, noting that she could make the same amount of money in two gigs that many other chefs would make in a week elsewhere.
Like many in the hospitality industry, Chef Leslie was out of a job when the COVID-19 pandemic hit — but she didn't sit idly by. Instead, she used her downtime to put her experience and recipes to paper, and published "The NYC Quarantine Cookbook," which she describes as "funny, and a little off-color."
When lockdown ended, Chef Leslie was thrilled to go back to her usual haunts, including sunset sails on the local chartered sailboat "The Shearwater." Being back on the water moved her to tears.
It was on that sail around Manhattan that the next chapter of Chef Leslie’s life and professional career would unfold.
"I’d been going on the boat for years since it docks so close to my condo and [I] had made friends with the owner, Tom," she says. "So we’re on that first sail back and Tom said, 'I need a caterer to do the private charters, wine and cheese sails, that kind of stuff. You’re a chef now, do you want to do it?' and I just said ‘Yes. That would be a dream.'"
From that moment, things took off. Chef Leslie and the captains collaborated to make what she describes as a sailboat-friendly menu.
"No sauces, no things like sesame seeds, berries, the kind of stuff that falls on the deck and makes a mess," she says.
The menu, and Chef Leslie’s presentation skills, came together to instant success.
By the time the second boat, "Clipper City," was back in the water, the demand was overwhelming — it was time to bring in some backup. After interviewing several catering companies Chef Leslie moved from the role of Executive Chef to Catering Administrator. She still gets to be hands-on with some of the smaller sails, but largely oversees the menus and foodservice executed by the caterers for the hundreds of sails per year chartered through Manhattan by Sail.
While her position is now more managerial, she is still intimately involved in the day-to-day needs of both boats and feels it’s not so different from being back in a kitchen. "Instead of 'Yes, Chef,' it’s 'Yes, Captain.'"
When asked what advice she would give to a career changer who is thinking of pursuing a culinary education, Chef Leslie doesn't hesitate.
"Do it," she says. "Chase your dream. I took out a home equity loan on my condo and I would do it again if I had to. When people ask me, 'You quit law and now you’re a chef on a sailboat?' I’m like, 'Yeah, [and] you can put that on my gravestone. I’m proud of it — it’s the dream of my life."