At Grainful, our team is like family. As the first in a multi-part series, we’re excited to introduce Chef Jeannine Sacco, Grainful’s CFO: Chief Food Officer. After 15 years in the food industry, Chef Sacco began collaborating with Ithaca-area entrepreneurs to develop a business focused on great tasting, healthy and convenient meals. Several delicious concepts later, Chef Sacco became the culinary genius behind our steel cut oat entrees!
What is your role as Chief Food Officer?
I am responsible for every food-related aspect of the business—from production to development and research. I’m typically in the kitchen testing out new ingredients, or on the road talking to vendors, building relationships and learning about the manufacturing process. It’s definitely not a boring desk job!
Describe your experience in the culinary world.
My career started humbly - shucking hundreds, (maybe thousands!) of clams and oysters at an oyster bar. Even though the hours were long and the work was hard, I quickly discovered that food was my passion. I was the first one in the kitchen and the last one to go home, a work ethic that has served me well over ever since.
After a brief hospitality stint in Florida, I moved to New York and became a food buyer and Director of Café’s for Dean & Deluca where I was exposed to a fantastic array of ingredients made by passionate people. I later took a job with Restaurant Associates and was excited to be in the Wall Street area and wear a suit every day. Eventually, I felt like I couldn’t go any further in the retail world, so I picked up the phone and called the CIA (Culinary Institute of America).
That was the best decision that I ever made. Going to the CIA at 32-years old was a bit untraditional and most of the other students were half my age, but that didn’t stop me. I felt more motivated than ever. My prior experience gave me a lot of focus. I took everything more seriously and got so much out of the program. The CIA had an alliance with the Hotel School at Cornell University, so I applied and completed my Bachelor’s degree there. During my last semester at Cornell, I began working with a group of local entrepreneurs. Those ideas and relationships eventually led to the creation of Grainful!
You were also an intern at The Food Network and had the opportunity to work alongside amazing chefs. Tell us a little about that experience.
My favorite show to work on was Boy Meets Grill with Bobby Flay. I have a lot of respect for Bobby. He insisted on cooking everything. His hands were in every recipe. He was very friendly and was there to teach. I also enjoyed working with Emeril Lagasse. Even though he had a crew of about 100 people, he would always say, “Hello! How are you doing today?” By the end of the first week, he knew my name. During his fifteen hundredth celebration show, I got to come on set and bring him an enormous sifter. He introduced me to the crowd as ‘Jean Jean the Dancing Machine’. It was a blast, and I learned a lot.
What led you to start cooking with oats?
I was making jambalaya at home one night and realized that I didn’t have any rice. I started searching the kitchen for an alternate ingredient. I had acini de pepe (little ball-shaped pasta), but I thought they would absorb too much liquid. Then I found some steel cut oats and decided to give them a try.
The dish was a hit! I had to keep stirring the pot and could not walk away like I would while cooking rice or pasta, but the flavors and texture came out great. I thought, “Wow, we’re on to something!”
You follow a gluten-free diet. How has this influenced your cooking/perspective on food?
For me, it’s really about clean ingredients and clean cooking. I eat out less and cook more at home. I read every single food label. I’m also exploring bolder flavors like Indian and Thai spices. This has benefited Grainful as well. Whenever I try something new, I always think about ways to incorporate steel cut oats.
If you were stuck on an island and could only eat one Grainful flavor what would it be?
It would be Unstuffed Pepper—hands down. There was a month where I ate it every day for lunch, and I didn’t get sick of it. It’s hearty and savory with just the right amount of spice. And the Pecorino Romano cheese that we use on top is the perfect finishing touch.