By Bryan Hay

Armed with her Lafayette mechanical engineering degree, Emily Egge ’08 took a traditional and stable management job at the e-commerce company McMaster-Carr in 2008.

It was an appealing place to start a career, with a generous benefits package that included tuition reimbursement in any field or degree program. At the time, Egge, who has always loved food, cooking, and eating, began getting lost in cookbooks at night and watching the endless array of programming on the Food Network.

While still performing her corporate day job, she took advantage of the tuition benefit, accepted her epicurean calling, and enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in New York City in August 2009.

Not initially looking to move out of her secure gig at McMaster-Carr, Egge, equipped with her newly acquired master chef kitchen skills, found herself presented with opportunities on a Mexican island, a new path that would combine cooking and entrepreneurism with a pinch or two of Lafayette mechanical engineering.

Over the summer, Egge took a brief pause from her work managing Cozumel Chef, started in January 2010, which offers private chef services, cooking classes, and culinary tours on the island of Cozumel and in the coastal resort town of Playa del Carmen. She talked about her unusual career path and shared stories, including how she developed an appetite for insects.

After your training at the French Culinary Institute, what led you to relocate to Cozumel?

My husband and I met working in the corporate environment. His mother was living in Mexico, running a vacation rental business and looking to retire. Around that time, both my husband and I were looking to do something different and new. 

I thought, what am I going to do in Cozumel? I can’t use my engineering degree on a small little island. So I was like, I guess I’ll try this chef thing. I finished my culinary program, started working on menus while still in our New Jersey apartment, and opened Cozumel Chef in 2010. At the time, I was just cooking for people in their vacation rentals and trying to build up reviews.

How did your current business model take shape?

Cozumel gets a lot of cruise ship passengers, so I started food tours and took people to local eating spots. I’ve always loved food. In high school, I worked at a small sandwich shop in New Jersey. And that’s where I fell in love with the idea of owning my own business, because my boss was a small business owner who loved to feed people. And then I discovered all sorts of different foods at Lafayette. From there, it just took off. I’ve been running this business for over 10 years and now oversee a talented team of chefs and food guides for our visiting guests and clients. 

With two babies, I’ve had to step back. I’m the booking agent and run the business from home, sending chefs to vacation rentals in Cozumel and Playa del Carmen, and organizing food tours there. I also sell cooking classes with chefs whom I’ve networked with over the years, and so my website now is just like a food tourism hub for this region of eastern Mexico. Of course, I still cook for my family and friends. 

You wasted no time diving into local cuisine, even trying insects. How would you describe that experience?

Insects are pretty fantastic. I’ve had crickets and ant eggs. It’s just part of the culture here. Most Americans are not used to them, but insects are a typical street snack that you can get at a local market. It’s like having popcorn in a paper bag. They’re crunchy and have a roasted flavor, and the ant eggs are slightly salty, similar to caviar. 

What are some of the misconceptions Americans have about Mexican food and food culture?

The big one is Cinco de Mayo. It’s not a thing in Mexico at all. No one goes out to have margaritas. It’s just another day. The other one is cheese on tacos, which I find really funny. Most Mexicans do not put any form of cheese on tacos. And it’s nothing but corn tortillas here, no flour tortillas. Spaniards brought the wheat products to Mexico. 

What’s your favorite Mexican food?

Tacos, hands down. There are different tacos you can eat throughout the day with a variety of ingredients depending on the region—breakfast tacos to dinner tacos. My favorite is made with cochinita pibil, a traditional braised pork that’s wrapped in banana leaves and slow roasted in a pit. There are places that open on Sundays, first come, first served. If you’re not there in time, you’re out of luck. 

What’s your favorite dish to prepare?

I hate cooking things more than once because I just like trying new things. But my favorite things to make are stews or soups where you develop flavors over time. You spend time chopping the onions and sweat them in butter, and you just keep adding more flavors, more spices, and eventually your proteins. And then at the end of the day, you have this really good home-cooked meal. 

Do your mechanical engineering degree and your training as an executive chef complement each other?

From an analytical standpoint, they complement each other very well. Together, they keep you organized. That was one of the big things I learned in culinary school. You’re working with a small amount of space, and you have to keep your station clean. So the way you prep items has to be in a particular way. From that standpoint, I’ve always been very analytical and organized. Mechanical engineering supports me in many ways. 

How did Lafayette prepare you for your unique and exciting career journey?

Lafayette brings together students with different backgrounds, so you have these mind-expanding opportunities where engineering, psychology, biology, and music majors all work together on a project. Working with different minds and people with different backgrounds really prepared me for what I’m doing now. It opened my mind to meeting new people and helped me adapt to new environments.

What advice would you offer to young entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?

Just start. The idea can be big or small, but you need to start somewhere. Cozumel Chef started in my New Jersey apartment. I documented and tested a menu that I would sell and made a very basic website and just went from there. Success doesn’t happen overnight. Along the way, you can teach yourself new things. You also need to be prepared to pivot and adapt to changes. The vacation rental private chef business that I started later down the road became more of a food tourism site geared to cruise ship passengers. With entrepreneurship, things keep evolving.