“Food is universal – it brings together family, friends, and even complete strangers,” says New London native and personal chef Erika Gradecki. The 35-year-old owner of Food For Your Soul, LLC grew up with an interest in cooking, pursuing that interest at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School, graduating in 2001 with both a high school diploma and certification in the Culinary Arts.
After high school, Gradecki attended the University of Connecticut to study journalism, but never stopped cooking. “My friends and I always got together on Sundays, where a handful of us would cook our specialties. It got so popular that we would pack in at least 30 people in my friend’s apartment weekly.” Even at home, she was always happy to host friends and and family for get togethers with food as the focus.
She says she fell in love with writing at a young age as she “was never big on expressing herself verbally, but could do it on paper.” After graduating from Uconn, Gradecki initially interned at the Westerly Times, eventually getting hired on staff for the Mystic Times to cover general news, human interest and — of course — food.
Deciding to shift her course, Gradecki took a job teaching English in Japan and lived there for a year, giving her the opportunity to finally meet her maternal grandmother, uncles and an aunt there, and see where her family came from. Moving back to the US for a job offer in Chicago, she stayed there for a few months before choosing to come back to her roots in New London.
Working in the catering industry, Gradecki worked for local companies where she was once even the only female chef in the kitchen. She worked long, hard 60-70 hour weeks until her daughter was born in 2014, when she resigned to be a full time mom. Gradecki says “I couldn’t sit still even then, and spent long hours researching industries to see what I could do to bring income into the household.” She eventually met a woman who said she didn’t have time to cook, and the spark for Food For Your Soul, LLC was lit. Gradecki did her research, even calling the American Personal & Private Chef Association to ask questions.
Food For Your Soul, LLC offers private in-home meal preparation, party and event services, and a wide range of cooking classes, including children’s classes and camps and adult classes through Ledyard Parks and Recreation, New London Adult and Continuing Education, New London Recreation and Waterford Recreation and Parks.
Gradecki admits it has not always been easy. She says, “Success doesn’t come overnight. Everyone has a story, including me, and those that become successful in life have had to overcome a slew of obstacles to get to where they are.” She says her biggest challenge has been forgetting about her own needs, she says she’s always had the reputation of “running herself to the ground” and not getting enough rest.
She has turned down business if it didn’t coincide with putting her family first, and has built her business from the ground up with sweat equity. Despite that, Gradecki has always taken the time to give back to her local community, dedicating time to friends, students, acquaintances, and just about anyone that needs a helping hand. She has given free cooking demonstrations to local youth, senior, and mental health organizations, and serve as a guest chef for fundraisers and events put on by non-profit organizations in the area. She also volunteers her time with local youth duathlons and triathlons, which are hosted by the Parks & Recreation Departments of New London, Waterford, and Ledyard, cooking for the kids, their families, and spectators.
Brenda’s Note: This profile is part of my “Small City, GREAT Women” Photo Project, which celebrates the women of New London, CT who are doing great things. If you know a woman who would be a good fit for the project, NOMINATE HER HERE.