Chef Sandra Mallut has endured a lot of bad luck in the decade since she graduated culinary school, but she has never let that dampen her spirit or her drive.
The latest came on August 17 while she was serving as culinary coordinator for Life Is Beautiful. Mallut was walking down her front steps when her shoe got stuck and she lost her footing. She shattered the bones in her left hand in the fall, resulting in surgery and the insertion of three pins.
Mallut tried to keep working, hoping the injury would heal in time for the festival. But when her doctor told her that the bones weren’t fusing properly, requiring another surgery that would only be more complicated if she delayed it, she told her boss. “‘I don’t know what to do. I’m not going to be able to do the job to the best of my ability. It’s too big an event.’”
So, less than two weeks before Grills & Guitars, the festival’s kickoff party that Mallut was helming, she stepped down from the position. But she’s still positive about the future. Because over the course of her life and her culinary career, the chef has faced other setbacks, crises and even tragedies and used them as inspirations to move forward.
When she was 35, while working as a mortgage broker in Southern California, Mallut began moonlighting with pastry chefs at friends’ restaurants simply because she loved it. But when her mother and best friend were both diagnosed with terminal illnesses, she had an epiphany.
“When you’re faced with that, you’re like, ‘OK, if there’s anything I want to do in the world, what do I want to do?’ Because you can make that choice.” She’d always loved cooking, so after seeing a TV commercial for Le Cordon Bleu, she quit her job as a broker and went in to apply.
After graduating from the school in 2005, Mallut began working with a French chef in a tiny pastry shop. “And I ended up falling in love with doing wedding cakes,” she says.
Some other pastry work followed. But eventually the chef’s interest turned to event catering—particularly for TV and movie sets. A friend, engaged to someone working on Grey’s Anatomy, suggested she contact the show’s craft-services coordinator.
“It took me five months to get the guy to actually let me come visit him on set,” she says. “And I came in with seven culinary students and enough food for 300 people. No one ever does that. I walked in there, and I said, ‘I’m gonna get this account.’ Because I knew it was my best shot. So I brought all kinds of goodies. I brought gluten-free, I brought vegan—all kinds of crazy stuff. And he hired me on the spot.”
Other Hollywood gigs followed. Mallut’s company, Henrietta Poodlestone’s Bake Shop (the name inspired by stories Mallut’s grandfather told her as a little girl), provided food to the sets of Desperate Housewives, Private Practice and Weeds, among other shows. “In fact,” Mallut says, laughing, “for Weeds I had some special orders, which was fun, because I used to knock them on their butts.’”
Building on that success, Mallut was preparing to purchase her own bakery when tragedy struck once again. On January 9, 2010, she was in an auto accident in which she broke her hip, ankle and arm. As a result, she was unable to walk for a year and a half. While she healed, her injuries convinced her to shift her career into event planning. Her new company, the Culinary Butler Consulting Services, was involved with such events as the Disney Food & Wine Festival, the World Pastry Championships and the Las Vegas Food & Wine Festival.
In October 2013, Mallut was asked if she would be willing to move to Las Vegas to take over as culinary director at Southwest Career & Technical Academy. “I’d never taught class. I’d never wanted to teach class.” Nonetheless, she sent in her résumé, and within three weeks found herself helping high school juniors and seniors prepare for careers in the culinary world. Under Mallut, the program was intense, but successful. Graduates have gone on to jobs at Bazaar Meat, Freed’s Bakery, the Bacchanal Buffet and other notable Las Vegas restaurants.
So, what’s the future hold once her hand heals? Mallut is already back to work, developing a new culinary program, classes and a largescale barbecue competition for Galaxy Outdoor kitchens in 2016. “I’m rethinking it now, like when I broke my hip,” she says. But even as she rattles off ideas, there’s no doubt that, having changed her course before, this determined chef will find her way—or blaze a trail—once again.