From Scrubs to Aprons: A Chef’s Incredible Journey from the ER to the Kitchen

Embark on Chef Dawn's remarkable odyssey, transitioning from the fast-paced world of nursing to the creative realm of a Chef Instructor.

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December 4, 2023 10 min read

Sometimes we could all use a big wake-up call to get us back on the right course, or one step closer to that ‘destined’ path. For Escoffier Chef Instructor Dawn M. DeStefano, this revelation couldn’t have been more poignant. Her impassioned pursuit of purpose began after witnessing a traumatic event that ultimately shifted the course of her entire life.

But what ensued afterward was a voyage that transcended borders, cultures, and professions—weaving together a vibrant tapestry of life experiences that define the remarkable “multipotentialite” she is today. This is the story of Chef Dawn—a story that illustrates how curiosity may lead to ‘big magic’ and a purposeful career.

Leading With an Altruistic Heart

Ever since Chef Dawn graduated from high school in the bustling city of White Plains, New York, she knew her career needed to revolve around her intrinsic sense of purpose: to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. With a heart of gold, brimming with compassion, she knew it made sense to join the Marines, become an ER nurse, and help save lives every single day.

That first step — joining the Marines — happened right after high school, and Dawn first landed a post working on aircraft as a fighter jet mechanic. But she left the military after a few years to become a nurse. Dawn was certain that diving headfirst into this purpose-driven work as a nurse was her ‘one true calling’ in her life, but she could never anticipate the “turn of events” that would eventually ensue.

An Unforgettable Catastrophe and New Beginnings

At 8:46 a.m. EST on September 11, 2001, the life Dawn ‘once knew’ was forcibly turned upside down. She’ll never forget answering ‘that call’ to get into scrubs as quickly as possible to serve the frontlines as an ER nurse of an unfolding catastrophe at the World Trade Center. Dawn felt overwhelmed with emotion. But she knew this was a mission she could never turn down, as the lives affected were ‘familiar faces’ she passed riding the subway, neighbors with whom she engaged in casual weekday chats, and even family members she loved the most.

Now, the responsibility fell upon her to save their lives.

Although she courageously answered that life-altering call that Tuesday morning in New York, Dawn couldn’t have foreseen the profound physical and emotional toll that would accompany those trying times.

Dawn M. DeStefano in hospital scrubs, working as an ER nurse.

Dawn M. DeStefano holds an unwavering passion for helping others as an ER nurse.

After enduring countless hours of witnessing unimaginable trauma, she yearned for a new rhythm in her life—one that would carry her far from the frenetic pulse of New York City, miles away from the terrible event etched into her memory.

I just needed a break from everything,” Chef Dawn said.

An “Eat, Pray, Love” Moment Across the Globe

Still rattled with fear and doubt, Dawn held on tightly to two facts: 1) She knew she needed a new pace of life 2) The call to go “back to her roots” was growing louder and louder.

As a resilient, Italian-American woman, it didn’t take her long to realize the love for satiating cuisine that ran deep through her DNA. In fact, her ‘Nonno’ was a seasoned pastry chef at his own restaurant in New York. A lightbulb went off—perhaps she needed to explore her passion for culinary arts in an enchanting land where her ancestors dwelled… Italy.

“The world has food in common. We are all a part of each other.”*
Chef Dawn DeStefano
Chef Dawn DeStefano
Escoffier Chef Instructor

So with a quick “culinary classes in Italy” internet search, Dawn packed up a few belongings, dusted off her passport, and started her own ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ quest. Within seconds of landing, she inhaled freshly baked bread and the aromatic rush of homemade pesto pasta. All five of her senses dialed in—watching close friends engage in conversations over endless pours of vino, exchanging words in a sweetly melodic language…all amidst an ancient backdrop lined with colossal statues. “How do you not fall in love with that place?” she recalls.

Needless to say, she settled into her new life in Italy with ease, taking culinary classes in the largest food mecca of the world.

A quaint, cafe-lined street in Europe.

Italy can be a quintessential location to explore the vibrant world of culinary arts.

Coming to Terms with ‘Reality’

Soon, looming doubt started to creep in and reality started to rear its ugly head. Was Dawn’s new fairytale life in Italy actually sustainable or was this just a small ‘blip’ in her journey?

Although she could certainly envision herself dwelling in Italy full-time, she knew she had to ‘face the music’ and take a flight back home to the U.S. for financial reasons.

Soon, she was back in New York, working again as a nurse. The work was as important as ever, but with every patient chart she examined and medication she administered, memories of Italy were tugging at her heartstrings. Even though she still found deep fulfillment in nursing, that inner calling to ‘come back to Italy’ was invading her every thought.

Teaching Through a Cultural Lens

So, in an attempt to travel across the Atlantic Ocean once again, she wrote a letter to her Italian Chef Instructor, pleading to take an internship opportunity at the culinary school. Dawn knew this was a complete shot in the dark, but she had to follow her intuition. To her surprise, she received a letter back, and the rest was history.

After completing her internship, and flying back and forth to America a few times, she finally accepted a position teaching pastry arts to international students at the Italian Culinary Institute in Staletti, Italy. Fast forward to today: Chef Dawn still teaches in Italy, but also splits up her time, living half of the year in Florida, where she teaches Baking & Pastry Arts online at Escoffier.

Traveling from country to country has enabled Chef Dawn to explore the depths of international cultures and cuisines—both inside and outside of her classroom.

The ‘Wick’ in the Candle of Learning: Endless Curiosity

Even though Chef Dawn has spent the majority of her adulthood absorbing the rich, cultural traditions of Italy, she’s still curious and ready to learn something new every day. During her most recent visit to Italy in the Spring, she sought out a chef who could teach her how to make Su Filindu—a delicate pasta that floats in a warm, soothing broth. The exact translation: “Threads of God.

Only a select few from around the world are Su Filindu experts since it requires so much precision. The chef who taught Chef Dawn proudly told her in Italian, “It took me three whole years to learn how to make this pasta.”

Chef Dawn and another pastry chef making Su Filindu pasta in a kitchen in Italy.

Chef Dawn DeStefano learning how to assemble Su Filindu pasta in Italy.

“When I left, [my pasta instructor] gave me a five-kilo bag of semolina flour! She said, hey, here’s your gift. And she wrote the recipe down on the bag for me. The recipe is straightforward…it’s 50% flour with 50% water. But it’s all about the technique,”* Chef Dawn exclaimed.

Even though Chef Dawn only had limited time to observe and take part in this delicate art form, she was ecstatic to relay some of her newfound knowledge to her students.

A Multipotentialite, Through and Through

It’s safe to say Chef Dawn believes that you don’t have to just stick to one single career. You can chart your own, multi-dimensional path and be a ‘multipotentialite’ — a term Emilie Wapnick coined in her book How to Be Everything. A person who exhibits multipotentiality typically has multiple interests and creative pursuits, just like Chef Dawn.

Although Chef Dawn continues to thrive in these two polar opposite worlds and teach pastry arts in Italy and the U.S., that desire to help others in dire situations has never died. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Chef Dawn didn’t think twice about putting her hospital scrubs back on to aid as a nurse during the emergency nursing shortage. “I took a nursing job in Brooklyn,” she said. “I’m still an ER nurse. I’m a trauma nurse. It’s New York… it’s my home.”*

Chef Instructor Dawn DeStefano, smiling with hands folded.

Chef Dawn DeStefano, an Online Baking & Pastry Instructor at Escoffier

In fact, on top of teaching and nursing, she’s in the process of finishing her Master’s Degree in Nutrition. Chef Dawn considers herself a powerful combination of “a nurse, chef, and the nutritionist,“ she said. “We really need this combination of things.”*

Chef Instructor Dawn DeStefano interacting with a culinary arts student at the Italian Culinary Institute in Staletti, Italy.

Chef Dawn DeStefano teaches students in the U.S. and at the Italian Culinary Institute in Staletti, Italy.

She also mentioned that living in Italy has inspired her to become more hyper-aware of the foods we eat. “The food in Italy is simple…just a few ingredients—clean, unprocessed, and made fresh.”* Chef Dawn proclaimed. Passing on this very European, ‘clean food philosophy’ to her students, family, and friends is something that she’s very passionate about.

Chef Dawn’s Motto: Have a Cookie, Make People Happy

Chef Dawn’s journey, marked by travel and interactions with individuals from diverse backgrounds, resembles a vibrant mosaic masterpiece—layered with so many enriching experiences. But her main takeaway from all of these experiences is quite simple:

“Humility is the cornerstone,” she said. “Because we’re all just humans trying to get by. You know, we all just want to have a cookie. So if you’re walking—walking anywhere with a cookie—you have a friend. I go through TSA and pass out cookies.”*

She also exclaims that being a nurse and in the military for so many years, life can be too short to keep things so serious. You can still be motivated to pursue your dreams but enjoy the ride too—even the unknown parts. And for Chef Dawn, the future ahead will certainly involve Italy, as she’s in the process of securing dual citizenship. Stateside, she’s ecstatic to continue teaching Online Baking & Pastry classes at Escoffier…all while indulging in a cookie here and there with her students.

If you’re excited to potentially learn from Chef Dawn’s instruction, contact our Admissions Department to take the next step!


*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.

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