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With Her Own Two Hands

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After five years spent living in the public eye as a chef, author and TV personality, girl hunter Georgia Pellegrini is on a mission to reconnect with what matters most in life: herself, her family and the followers who’ve helped turn her lifestyle into a brand.

By April Cumming, Photos by Philip Edsel, Styled by Ashley Hargrove, Hair and Makeup by Laura Martinez, Shot on location at Cabin 71 in Spicewood, Texas

It was the summer before her senior year at Wellesley College when she got the job offer. The world of private-car services, personal stylists, fancy dinners and free tickets to Alicia Keys concerts was at her fingertips, and all she had to do was say yes. And that’s exactly what she did. For the next year, Georgia Pellegrini would be treated like a queen. It became a routine. In the morning, she would walk onto the trading-room floor at Lehman Brothers and sit next to soon-to-be Chief Financial Officer Erin Callan, and at the end of each strenuously long workday, she would walk home late at night, often in tears.

At the time, Pellegrini, now 35, was haunted by something she had overheard Callan say in response to a question about life-work balance.

“I only have work,” she had said, sans elaboration. Even at her impressionable age, Pellegrini was precocious enough to know that something about that statement wasn’t right.

“I thought, ‘I don’t want to be her when I grow up,’ ” Pellegrini says. She knew the longer she stayed at Lehman Brothers, the harder it would be to leave. “People around me were creating these lifestyles that they were now having to sustain, so, I left. I waited for my bonus to clear and I left.”

As the crow flies, she was living less than 30 miles from where she grew up, but the breakneck speed of her life on Wall Street couldn’t have been any further from the slow, rural rhythms of how she had been raised. To this day, her parents still live on her grandfather’s 100-year-old farm in the calm, charming suburb of Sparkill, N.Y., and growing up, Pellegrini never hesitated to get her hands dirty, often accompanying her dad to the creek, fishing pole in tow.

“I wasn’t raised with a lot of fear of things. I wasn’t taught that things were dirty or full of germs or something to be afraid of,” Pellegrini says. “Of course you get your clothes dirty. That’s what life is about. I never thought twice about digging in the dirt, pulling a fat worm out of the ground and pushing it right onto that [fishing]hook,” she recalls. “I think we live in a world with a lot of fear now. Everything is overprotected, and I think I was lucky in that I was given a lot of opportunity to run free.”

The granddaughter of a fashion photographer and model, and the daughter of an actress, Pellegrini grew up in a family of free spirits, creative thinkers and entrepreneurs.

“I think part of being a strong woman has a lot to do with the female influences in your life,” Pellegrini says. “I’ve been fortunate in that every woman in my life has been a total renegade. My grandmother, my great-aunt, my mother: each [were and are]incredibly strong women.”

Her parents saw the value in having choices in life, which meant pursuing a solid education, something Pellegrini still appreciates, to this day. She attended an all-girls private grade school and studied cello at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music before making her way to Wellesley College, where she majored in international relations.

“Growing up, she was always the one winning accolades and getting all of the awards. She’s always been very accomplished,” says her brother, Gordon Pellegrini, four years his sister’s junior. “She was someone I looked up to, somebody that would guide me.”

The year was 2002.

Pellegrini had graduated from Wellesley and was close to celebrating her one-year anniversary at Lehman Brothers. The economy was booming and the only thing ill-advised for anyone in her position at the time would have been to leave the high-risk, high-reward world of investment banking behind.

“I remember the conversation where she told me she was leaving,” says Marissa Reibstein, Pellegrini’s longtime friend from college. “We were walking down a street in Midtown when she said, ‘You know, I think I’m going to leave Lehman, and I think I’m going to go to the Culinary Institute. I need to pursue something that I love and I’ve got to do it now. Who knows where it’s going to lead me?’

“Working on Wall Street, that was the epitome of Georgia not being authentic. She’s always been a positive person, but she wasn’t happy. She was wearing suits, and that’s just not her. She’s the girl who comes to the party in a unique outfit that’s an expression of all her creativity, not the woman that comes to work in a suit.”

Pellegrini followed through with her idea, enrolling in The Culinary Institute of America. Soon, she started working in some of New York’s most prestigious kitchens, manning the grill at Gramercy Tavern and rubbing elbows with the esteemed Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the famed farm-to-table restaurant stoically situated on a Rockefeller estate in upstate New York. It was there, at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, that Pellegrini made her first visceral connection with food.

“We had to kill turkeys for the kitchen one day, and it was a watershed moment for me because it was so emotional and intense,” Pellegrini says. “I thought, ‘This is what it is to be a meat eater. If I’m going to be someone who butchers and cooks, I need to learn to kill it too, pay the full karmic price of a meal.’ ”

In that moment, Pellegrini decided she wanted to learn how to hunt.

“I think there’s a stereotype that hunters are people who go out into the woods and shoot at things and tell dirty jokes, and they’re white, middle-aged men. I was a girl from New York who didn’t look like that,” she says with a chuckle. “I was looking at everything through the lens of food and how we were eating.”

The last thing she wanted to be portrayed as was Barbie toting a gun.

“I decided to hunt because I thought, ‘Our grandmothers used to go out and they’d kill a chicken in the backyard for dinner, and they’d weed and dig and burn.’ It was about living off the best that your own two hands could produce,” Pellegrini says. “I think we’ve started to rely too much on others to produce things for us, and so much of us are suffering as a result: our health, our mind, our livelihood, our well-being. When you think about it, we’re relying on people to make food for us, and our health isn’t as good. We’re relying on others to provide stable jobs for us, and they’re fraudulent and going under and going bankrupt. We have to come full circle.”

The ethos of being connected to the land, of understanding where your food is coming from, and being able to shake the hands of the farmers who raised your meat and harvested your produce was stressed to a degree of indispensable importance at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

“Part of being in this cycle of life that we’re all in is that everything has to die,” Pellegrini says, explaining what she refers to as the field-to-stream-totable movement, a cooking methodology that lay at the heart of Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ identity. “Everything dies. We eat animals and plants. Animals eat plants and each other. Plants feed from the dirt, and we all turn to dirt. If you’re going to eat, something has to die, whether it’s an animal protein or a vegetable protein. There’s a cycle of life at play, and in order to eat, something has to die.”

For her, connecting with her food source is a form of connecting with herself. It all goes back to the idea of self-sufficiency, a characteristic Pellegrini considers “the ultimate girl power.”

“Food is experiential. It’s about how you interact with it. The more that we learn to do things with our own hands, the better off we’ll be,” she says.

On paper, working as a chef and working in the world of investment banking sound like polar opposites. Those career paths, however, have two key commonalities: insanely long hours and intense, hard work.

“The great poetic irony is I was working crazy hours, making below minimum wage, but it didn’t feel like work in the same way,” Pellegrini says of her shift from black pantsuits to white apron strings. “I was happy. I felt so energized and excited. It was screaming and abuse but, at the end of the day, it just didn’t feel like work in the same way.”

“She was calm and soulful and creative and happy. She was in her element,” Reibstein says.

The year was 2008.

Pellegrini had started working at a Michelin Star restaurant in the South of France when she heard the news of the crisis that hit Wall Street.

“When I heard that [Lehman Brothers went under], it was a sign I had made the right choice,” Pellegrini says, reflecting on her decision to shift career paths. “I couldn’t have been further from my life in New York, but I knew it was the right thing. The silver lining to doing something that makes you unhappy is that it forces you to think about what you’re doing when you’re happiest. For me, it was using my hands. It was food and cooking. It was what I call my manual literacy. I wanted to find a way to get back to that, and get back to the land, get back to the roots, the way that I had grown up.”

At the time she received the news from Wall Street, Pellegrini was living in a rundown house in France. Three frogs had taken up temporary residence in her bathroom and, at night, she would pull a makeshift tablecloth-cum-comforter up to her chin and listen to them bellow as she fell asleep. In the few hours sandwiched between the lunch and dinner rushes, Pellegrini would make the trek home, trampling through a field of dead sunflowers to pour herself a glass of rosé and pull out her computer. Each afternoon, she would take a seat beneath her favorite quince tree outside and write, occasionally journeying into town to send email updates to her friends and family back home. It became a routine.

It was during such a flutter of emails sent back and forth that one of her friends suggested she write a book. He knew an agent in New York and decided to connect the two.

“I sat under the quince tree one day, on a picnic table in the garden, and I just opened a Word document and put down some bullet points for my [book]idea and sent it off,” Pellegrini says.

In her off hours, she taught herself how to piece together a book proposal.

It was 2011.

Pellegrini’s first book, Food Heroes, was published.

“It was pretty wild, serendipity, I think. The poetic nature of the fact that Lehman Brothers went under at the moment that I was getting my first book deal, I just think it was a sign that I was going in the right direction. Every step of the way, all the signposts kept telling me that it was the right choice,” Pellegrini says.

She was using her hands again, exercising her manual literacy and returning to her roots. She felt a creative resurgence, and her innate entrepreneurial spirit was catalyzed to do more. She bought a home in East Austin, a space free of clutter, bright with natural light and a small waterfall in the backyard for her pet turtle, Spencer, to play in.

“When I first came to Austin, I loved the feeling that it had, that small-town feel within the culture of a larger city,” Pellegrini says. “That balance was really appealing to me, and, as a creative person, I always found it hard to be in really intense, friction-full cities. I always need a little bit more mental space around me to write and to create, and Austin had that wonderful balance.”

The more she set out to do, the more she accomplished. And the more she accomplished, the more she was catapulted into the public eye. It was a new career. Her life was consumed with navigating the nuances of airport terminals, speaking on book tours, appearing on Today Show segments in the morning and cracking tongue-in-cheek jokes about the taste of squirrel meat with Jimmy Kimmel at night. Throughout the course of the next four years, she would publish two more books, Girl Hunter and Modern Pioneering, and launch her Adventure Getaways, a semi-annual series of wilderness retreats for women.

The recipe for one of Pellegrini’s covetous Adventure Getaways looks something like this: Start with a three- or four-day weekend spent rejuvenating in a beautiful, bucolic setting. Mix in a rifle-shooting lesson, followed by a field hunt, possibly tracking wild game like pheasant or axis deer. Add in a bird-cleaning class, a 30-minute mozzarella-cheese-making session, an off-road horseback ride or fly-fishing excursion, an art-gallery visit and a group dinner, followed by star gazing and roasting s’mores around the campfire.

Not even Pellegrini herself could have predicted how much of a hit the getaways would become, and she’s quick to quiet any assertion that fame or celebrity were on her mind when she started them.

“I was just living my life,” she says, when, in 2011, she started to receive emails from some of her followers. “I’d wake up every morning and I would have emails and the subject [line would say]things like, ‘I think you can help me.’ People would pour their hearts out to me. They would tell me their personal stories of struggle, of where they were in life, of cancer, of abuse, of divorce, of struggling with alcoholism. A lot of them would say to me, ‘I want to go on an adventure with you. I want to step outside my comfort zone. I want to feel empowered. I want to experience life more viscerally.’”

With each email, Pellegrini became enthralled by the idea and, thoroughly convinced, planned a spontaneous excursion to Montana.

“I’ll never forget the moment when I realized what it had become,” Pellegrini says of her Adventure Getaways. “I was walking out onto the porch of the cabin during one of these trips, and a New York Times writer was there. He came out of his cabin, looked over to my porch and he asked, ‘How are you?’ I said ‘I’m OK. I’m very tired, but I’m OK.’ He said, ‘It’s hard being an empowerment guru.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You realize that’s what this has become, right?’ I hadn’t. I hadn’t realized. I wasn’t planning to have that role, but I was showing by doing, not showing by telling.”

Illinois native and mother of two Karen Gelb says her first time attending one of Pellegrini’s trips was a lot like the first day of kindergarten.

“You’re nervous, you’re excited and there’s apprehension,” she says. Now a three-time Adventure Getaway veteran, Gelb grew up on a farm, regularly eating wild game. For her, the getaway was a reconnection to a person she hadn’t known for a long time. “When you’re able to get out of your daily routine and move into something that’s very different, it helps you to come back to your daily routine and be even better. It will make you a better person.”

Gelb adds that the trips empowered her, at the age of 50, to go back to school for her master’s degree.

Reibstein hesitantly set out to join her friend and watch Pellegrini in action in 2013. Her divorce had just been finalized and she was eager to take a trip.

“I had never touched a gun. I had never ridden an ATV,” Reibstein says. “And I have to say, it was a really transformative experience. I did things I had never done before. I learned to shoot clays. I did a pheasant hunt. I did fly-fishing. I rode on a horse, which I was petrified to do. And other women were doing this too. [The trip] made me expand my boundaries. That’s something you take back with you. You say, ‘If I did all these things that I didn’t think I could do, I can transfer that to other areas of my life. I can be a badass.’ ”

Fear of hunting affirmatively behind her, Reibstein has made Pellegrini promise to take her on a wild-boar hunt.

“I really want to make wild-boar prosciutto,” Reibstein says, an air of unfiltered enthusiasm in her voice.

Fast-forward five years, and Pellegrini needs more than two hands to keep count of the number of Adventure Getaways she’s hosted, from Kohler, Wis., to Meadows of Dan, Va., to her upcoming getaway Oct. 13 through 16 in the Texas Hill Country, just outside of Comfort, Texas.

“She’s created this incredible life,” Reibstein says, “just because she went and followed her passion. She trusted it was going to work out and it did—in a huge way. Now she makes it a point to help other women who want to make similar transitions.”

The year is 2016.

Pellegrini’s daily work life is somewhat hard to explain.

“There’s no other job that I can compare it to,” she says, searching for an explanation. “It’s wonderful, but also hard to wrap your head around. It’s multitasking to a degree that’s almost insane. I always joke that when I’m working on a task, my brain is already three tasks down the line. I think you actually learn that in professional kitchens. When your work is your life and your life is your work, you don’t have that paradigm set up in your mind where [you’re like], ‘OK, I’m clocking out and now I’m going to relax.’ ”

She strives to not make work her sole priority, though, and is adamant about prioritizing life-work balance and remaining true to herself.

“I’m not really interested in doing anything in the name of publicity any more. I’m not really interested in doing anything for the purposes of celebrity, or being more known. For me, it’s really about what am I contributing to the world, to the conversation, to improving people’s lives,” Pellegrini says. “I want everything that I put out into the world to be a true, honest extension of who I am and what I want to contribute. There’s plenty of things in this world that are fake and manufactured, and I want to be producing things that are real and lasting and tangible.”

In the past year, she’s placed an emphasis on stepping back, taking a breath and establishing a slower, steady pace.

“I’m at a stage, this year, especially, where I really want to invest in my personal life and nurturing that,” Pellegrini says, “traveling more for me, not for my work. It doesn’t all need to be Instagrammed. I want less noise in my life. I want fewer superficial interactions. I definitely want to have a family, and that’s part of it too. I need to carve out more space for that. There’s areas where I have to pull back in order to give to my family.

“For me, it definitely has been an intentional choice, especially in the past year, to really slow down and focus and commit to fewer things, but to commit to them really well and not spread myself too thin, not being afraid to say no. I recharge from my quiet time. I recharge from being calm, and not being on. I realized my priorities were to live a good life with the people that I love and care about around me, and I realized, in order to do that, I was going to really have to slow down and make space for that.”

One of the ways she recharges is through entertaining friends—those she’s made both near and far—at her home in Austin.

“I love my house. I love that I’ve created a sanctuary for myself that feels like you’re in this oasis. I love entertaining and having people over and hosting dinner parties,” Pellegrini says, the pupils in her deep-blue eyes widening from excitement. “I love cooking for people. Just having the door open and the fire going, and listening to the waterfall, and eating delicious food and drink, it recharges me. I’m able to nurture them and serve them through my skill sets, which [are]cooking and food. [That’s] me at my most calm, my most happy, my most energized. It’s really about the people you are with.”

Pellegrini’s trusted business advisor, Somers White, whose other clients include business professionals at corporate industry giants like IBM and Hewlett-Packard, says Pellegrini has a knack for recharging others as well.

“She is one of the most delightful people to be with,” White says. “When I put down the phone [with a client], I’d say 99 out of 100 people drain my battery. Only one out of 100 charge my battery. She is a battery charger. You feel better after talking with her.”

Reciprocation is a character trait that comes naturally to Pellegrini. Part of the fun in hosting those Adventure Getaways, she says, is teaching women how to be in the outdoors and experiencing numerous firsts with them.

“I think, unfortunately, most people associate having to do these outdoorsy things with male roles. People assume that you have to act like a man and dress like a man. You don’t have to be that way. You can still be a feminine woman but choose to selfeducate. I think that the more we self-educate, the more invigorating our lives are going to be.

“It’s experiences and the way you are able to experience and live life and interact with life that ends up ultimately being the most meaningful,” Pellegrini says.

In the same ease with which a pheasant might escape her grasp, Pellegrini holds onto things loosely.

“It’s people, relationships and experiences that I hold much more closely. It’s about making memories, and you’re not going to make memories with things,” she says.

If history is foreshadowing the future, Pellegrini appears to be on the hunt of her life. And if her brother’s predictions are right, she’ll continue to become more of a household name.

“Georgia is somebody that has a one-of-a-kind, impeccable internal drive,” Gordon Pellegrini says. “When she puts her mind to something, or decides that something is worthwhile, she really goes after it. Her making it into a position like where she is now is something that I’ve always felt was in the cards for her. It was just a matter of time.”


WHAT’S ON GEORGIA’S MIND?

Spirit animal: “A little, pink pot-bellied pig.”

Favorite flower: “I love the smell of pineapple bush, or peonies, or hydrangea trees.”

Role model: “Martha Stewart. She’s taken a lot of flak, but she’s impressive. She was a pioneer on so many levels.”

Daily routine: “Pretty much every single day, I eat the same thing for breakfast. I eat eggs and avocado almost every morning for breakfast. I’m a big hot-sauce fiend.”

If she could have dinner with one person, living or dead, it would be: “Michelangelo. There’s a book about him called The Agony and the Ecstasy. It’s mind-blowing.”

Favorite kind of meat: “Squirrel. It’s the best meat in the woods. It’s very buttery naturally because of what they eat.”

Least favorite kind of meat: “I’m really not a fan of chicken breast. [It’s] kind of dry and flavorless. I find it to be pretty depressing.”

Three items she always carries in her purse: “Ray-Ban sunglasses, Rohto eyedrops and Aquaphor lip ointment. I always feel like if my eyes and my lips aren’t feeling good, then I’m just antsy.”

Favorite quote: “My dad said, ‘Mastery doesn’t create passion. Passion creates mastery.’ I think that has set the tempo to my life.”


GEORGIA PELLEGRINI’S SIX WAYS TO BE MORE SELF-SUFFICIENT

1. Learn how to change your own tire.

2. Every time a repair is done for you, stand there with the person and have them explain what they are doing to fix it and how it happened in the first place.

3. Practice manual literacy. Get your fingers off the keyboard and into the dirt. This is the antidote to our fastpaced, modern life. Knit, make a loaf of bread, weed, scatter a fistful of rose petals onto a cake.

4. Commit to learning the name of every plant that is growing in your yard or windowsill.

5. Stop relying on stuff that holds you back. Having it around clutters your mind and creativity.

6. Every time you want to buy something, ask yourself whether you could make it instead, or how much long-term value you will really derive from it.

To learn more about Georgia Pellegrini and her personal consulting and speaking-engagement services, visit georgiapellegrini.com.


HOW TO MAKE GEORGIA PELLEGRINI’S JALAPEÑO-INFUSED BACON MICHELADA

Excerpted from Modern Pioneering by Georgia Pellegrini, copyright 2014. Published by Clarkson Potter, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House.

Jalapeño-infused Bacon Michelada
Serves one

“This is an ode to Austin, Texas, the town that introduced me to this drink. It is typically made with beer, but good things are meant to evolve. This drink is savory, spicy and rather refreshing.”

Ingredients
1 lime, juice reserved Sea salt
1 ounce jalapeño-infused vodka, well chilled (See recipe below.)
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
Dash of soy sauce
Dash of Tabasco sauce
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black peppercorns
6 ounces seltzer water
1 crisply rendered piece of bacon for garnish

Directions
1. Rub a lime wedge around the rim of a glass and dip the rim into salt on a saucer.
2. In the glass, combine the jalapeño vodka, lime juice, Worcestershire, soy sauce, Tabasco and cracked peppercorns.
3. Add about 1/4 cup crushed ice and the seltzer water, and stir.
4. Drop the bacon strip into the beverage as a stirrer and garnish.

Jalapeño-infused vodka
Makes 4 cups

“This is a fun concoction to have on hand when you want to spice up a drink and give it a savory qual­ity. You could also use a canned chipotle pepper in this recipe for a smoky flavor. Taste the liquid after several hours to gauge the taste and heat. And if you are really worried about too much heat, remove some of the seeds of the jalapeño before dropping it into the bottle.”

Ingredients
4 cups vodka
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and sliced in half

Directions
1. Pour the vodka into a resealable container, such as a large mason jar. Add the jalapeño halves and reseal the jar. Shake it well, then place the jar on a cool, dark shelf.
2. After 6 hours, taste the vodka to determine if it is spicy enough for you. If not, let it brew longer, even overnight.
3. Remove the jalapeño from the jar with a fork and strain the liquid into a fresh container to remove any seeds and debris. Store it sealed in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Chill well before serving.

Michelada photo by Georgia Pellegrini.

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