Pooja Jhunjhunwala's (Pastry & Baking ‘16 and Cake Decorating ‘16) culinary journey has taken her across the world — which is why she's also known as The Global Vegetarian.
With hundreds of thousands of followers across Instagram, and TikTok and Youtube, features on The FeedFeed and partnerships with major brands like Laughing Cow, Pooja has made a name for herself in the food content creation world. Though Pooja is now a globe-trotting, recipe-crafting food personality, her journey started out like so many professional pastry chefs — baking cakes and desserts with her mom at home.
Upon making a deal with her father to complete her undergraduate studies first, she held him to his half of the bargain of being able to pursue her passion for food, starting with a formal education at a top tier culinary school. After researching schools across the world, Pooja took the leap, moved 12,000 miles from her home in Kolkata, India, and started the Pastry and Baking Arts program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.
“There was a fear — like, is this something that I'm good at? Am I good enough? If I were to open a shop? Would people be interested,” Pooja says, remembering just how scary it was to take that leap.
Her fears were quickly assuaged once she set foot on campus.
"[The admissions team] was always really nice — and the teachers were amazing. The facility was amazing,” she says. “I mean, scary was different. I had a couple of scary things in my head...I'm leaving home, I'm going to new place. So there was a fear of that, but I think ICE as a place made me really feel at home. In like a matter of two or three weeks, I was at ICE from morning to the afternoon, helping [and] doing whatever I could.”
Pooja threw herself into every opportunity the school had to offer, including volunteering with chefs to help with their speciality classes outside of her regular program. She also ended up volunteering for non-ICE events the school hosted, which eventually gave her the opportunity to work alongside nationally-recognized chefs in a Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America event.
Pooja was inspired. She eventually found herself as the student nominee to compete in the US Junior Pastry Competition in 2016.
Preparing for the competition saw her spending even more time on campus, and getting one-on-one coaching from ICE Creative Director and James Beard Award winner, Chef Michael Laiskonis. Pooja recalls being intimidated at first.
“[I thought] 'He's a genius and you don't know what's going on in his head.' But when he says things it makes so much sense and you're just like why didn't I think of that? How [is he] so smart,” she says.
But all the time spent paid off, seeing her take home second place and becoming the first Indian to ever place in the national competition. It also gave her a chance to develop a rapport with Chef Michael.
“When Chef Michael [called] me a ‘good one’...[in] that moment, when he told me that, I thought, okay, this is really something,” she says. “If a chef who's done so much is recognizing me in my little time as a ‘good one,’ then it means I have something.”
This confidence carried with her through her second program, honing her cake decorating skills with Chef Toba Garett in ICE’s Art of Cake Decorating Program, and remained with her as she returned to Kolkata after graduation and almost immediately started her own business: Cake by Pooja.
Finding herself newly married (with several classmates and a few of her chef-instructors on her wedding's guest list) and back in NYC in early 2020, Pooja was ready to hit the ground running to find a job at a bakery — just in time for kitchens to start closing their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So Pooja did what many did in situations like this: she found comfort in cooking, even while considering changing careers. She spent her days working on a user interface design course.
“Okay, maybe I should look at a profession that requires a laptop. [In] restaurants, you can't work from home — if you're not there, you're not there,” she says.
But even with that on her mind, Pooja started posting on her Instagram page and newly formed blog more and more frequently.
“I enjoyed it. But I didn't love it as much [as cooking], and simultaneously, the blog started taking off,” she says.
Her spark of inspiration and focus for her blog came from her experience in life and her experience at ICE.
“Coming from India, traveling here and having been lucky enough to travel a lot of the world, also a lot to do with ICE where I met people from different countries," Pooja says. "I did all [I] could at ICE, helped all the chefs. They would talk about food, I would hear so much about different cuisines from different countries and the kind of different ingredients you can mix and match. And I said, 'Okay, you know, [I'm] opening the world up to myself. So I can use any cuisine in the world, just make it vegetarian.'”
It was at this point her friends and family came in to offer their support and ideas. First was to change her name to something easily recognizable for what it was, and the handle ‘The Global Vegetarian” was born.
“I had a mini panic attack the entire night because I thought, ‘I don't know if I've done the right thing or not,’” she recalls. “But it was the right thing. Because now people know the name. She's talking about vegetarian food — globally. So that's enough.”
From there it was all about being consistent, and finally finding brands to work with, hustling her way into food partnerships big and small, developing a relationship with YouTube Shorts and eventually getting onto TikTok to expand her brand, while always going back to her ICE community for advice and support.
“[I still text] Chef Kathryn,” Pooja says. “It can be late and I can reach out to her and say, ‘Oh, I don't know what to do about this’ and she’ll help me through it. She's amazing.”
Nowadays, content creation is Pooja's full-time job, and she has advice for other people considering making the shift to follow their dream in the food world — even if they don’t quite know what that looks like.
“That fear of ‘is this the right path,’ ‘am I making the right decision,’ ‘am I good enough to be in this field?’,” she says. “What I think is, if you don't take the [first] step, you won't know."
It’s the same realization that many students have — you never know where your love of cooking can take you, but the passion for food and community opens doors you’ve never thought of. Pooja's support and connections made during her time at ICE helped her in every step along the way — the key is to never stop growing.