ICE alumna and chef Sarah Sanders

Sarah Sanders Left Her Animation Career to Follow Her Food Dreams

The ICE alumna and mother of two recently competed in Carla Hall's Favorite Chef competition

“I look at the plate the same way I looked at a blank piece of paper when I was in animation, and I think, ‘ok, how can I use this as a medium to make this me.’”

It was Sarah Sanders' passion for putting personality on a plate that took her from enrolling in ICE Los Angeles’s Culinary Arts program in the fall of 2021, to being a top contender in Carla Hall’s Favorite Chef competition (previously won by ICE alumni Sémone Hopkins) this summer.

While many students dream of attending culinary school from a far, Sanders happened to share a hometown with ICE's LA campus in Pasadena.

“Culinary school was something I always wanted to do," she recalls. "I’d pass by [ICE] on Green Street and think ‘someday, I’m going to go to that school.’”

After getting married and having two children, Sanders realized the life of an animator was no longer for her and, with the support of her family, finally followed that dream and enrolled at ICE in the fall of 2021. 

From her very first visit to ICE, Sanders had a clear vision of what she wanted from school.

“I wanted to squeeze everything there was to learn out of this place," she says. "I wanted to gather everything I could, soak it all up.” 

While the desire to learn was a driving force, having never worked in the industry before meant she had some trepidation, especially about the externship component of the program.

“I knew I had to work in a restaurant, that that was an important experience, but I was intimated," Sanders says. "That’s not something I ever saw myself doing, but I thought ‘things don’t happen overnight, if you want something bad enough, you have to pave your own way to make it work.” 

Chef Sarah Sanders

And make it work, she did. While balancing home life, parenting and school, Sanders started the process of finding an externship site, eventually landing at Chef Tim Hollingsworth’s Otium in Los Angeles.

“I locked that in with the help of my amazing counselor at ICE," she says. "She really guided me through and helped me lock in my first choice site. Otium was the top of my list.” For someone hesitant about working in a traditional restaurant, Sanders surprised herself in how she took to the work. “The first day I staged I was peeling asparagus and thought ‘What in the world am I doing here?’ But the people there were amazing. We laughed, we talked, we joked — it was the best vibe ever. And I thought to myself, ‘You know what? I can see myself doing this, I can see this as a learning opportunity for me.’”

What started as an externship turned into a job offer and for over a year Sanders thrived in the kitchen at Otium, from staging to commis, and eventually becoming a line cook, manning the garde manger station and raw bar. She even got to try her hand at butchering. “I got a good background of what happens on the line at a restaurant. I purposely [changed stations a lot] because going there my mindset was ‘I'm not just gonna go and cook. I want to know what happens behind the scenes on the line and learn the order of things.’ So, Otium was great. They were like a family.” 

Around the same time Sanders was embarking on her time as an extern, she was competing in a pan sauce competition where the victor was granted a one-on-one with Chef Monti Carlo. Famed for her time on "Master Chef," Chef Monti now acts as a judge and host across various food TV shows and has presented at the annual James Beard Foundation Awards.

It was Chef Monti that encouraged Sarah to pursue food competitions, an idea that had been initially introduced to Sanders by Chef George, one of her chef-instructors and mentors at ICE.

“He was the first one to say, ‘I could see you in food media or in cooking competitions,’ and I thought ‘no, I couldn’t,' but that was a day that I'll always remember. He sparked this in me and it aligned with my  initial love — and why I came into culinary school — to learn and to share that knowledge with others,” she says. 

With these supporters behind her and the confidence of having spent a year in the kitchen of a top Los Angeles restaurant, by the time Sanders came across the Favorite Chef competition, she was ready to throw her hat in the ring. The nationwide competition saw a thousand chefs from professionals to amateurs and everyone in between.

“Otium had made me a little daring," she says. "So I kind of just went for it — I didn't know much about it other than it was a culinary competition and I had to plate. I thought oh, I love plating, YES. So I signed up, I made my profile and I thought to myself, well, I'm already cooking and plating, so I can just do what I do and take a picture of it.” 

Sanders's long-standing love of putting personality on a plate served her well, never dropping below third place in her designated group through a combination of skill and support and votes — from friends, family, ICE classmates and Otium coworkers — not to mention the Food Network chef who provided guidance throughout the competition. Unfortunately, a last minute spike in donation-based votes knocked Sanders out of the running, but the experience wasn’t for naught. The exposure Sanders received from the competition has already resulted in her being reached out to by such shows at "Guy’s Grocery Games" and "Chopped."

In the meantime, Sanders will continue to work on her personal food blog, which she envisions as a collection of recipes, restaurant reviews and a place to share general cooking knowledge with a wide audience. You can follow Sarah at @MrsSandersian on Instagram.

So what advice does Sarah have for those considering starting culinary school?

"Don’t be intimidated and don’t get in your head about things," she says. "Remember culinary school, and your externship, are a time to practice. You will make mistakes, don’t be discouraged — the biggest thing is to have humility and be teachable."

Beyond the lessons, her biggest takeaway from her time spent in professional kitchens was the importance of cleanliness, organization and owning your station.

“Prep, cook, clean; there is a joy and a sense of satisfaction from doing all of it — it’s not just cooking," Sanders says. "Do it with a happy heart and let it remind you why you’re there in the first place — if you love what you do you come to love all of it.”


Add new comment