Cooking Up a Career in Nursing

While running a Michelin-star restaurant, Akiko Moorman enrolled in a College of Nursing master’s program — and applied that health knowledge to safeguarding food workers and diners during COVID

March 9, 2021
Akiko Moorman wearing a uniform shirt from EL ideas

Depending on the season, you might find oysters on the menu at the restaurant El Ideas. One of the restaurant’s co-owners has managed make the world her very own oyster.

Akiko Moorman thought of baloney as an exotic food when she was growing up in seafood-rich Alaska. Before long, she was assisting celebrity chefs in New York and running a Michelin star-rated restaurant in Chicago. A career in nursing wasn’t exactly a natural next step.

But despite her restaurant success, Moorman enrolled in the Generalist Entry Master’s program at Rush University College of Nursing in fall 2019 to follow her dream. Shortly after, she was using her nursing education to help keep her restaurant and customers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moorman recently talked about her event-filled journey and how she plans to join her passion for nursing with the food industry.

Tell us about your background.

Akiko Moorman: I was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska. It’s the state capital, but it's a tiny, isolated town. The joke is you can only get there by boat, plane or birth canal, and I took the latter. When there was a rare sunny day, we would get half days off from school to fly kites in the park. We ate a lot of salmon and other seafood. I remember begging my parents for things like baloney, which we would see in commercials and think was so exotic.

My family eventually moved to Washington, D.C. I finished high school there before moving to New York City in 2000 to attend Columbia University, where I earned a nonfiction writing bachelor’s degree with a concentration in anthropology. At that point, I was already considering going back to school for nursing, but student loan debt and living in an expensive city didn’t make it possible at the time.

I also had an interest in cooking, so I started working as a line cook — preparing ingredients — at places like Momofuku Noodle Bar and several other restaurants. I also did a lot of food television work, working as a food stylist — arranging food for the camera — for celebrity chefs and playing a role in two seasons of the TV show Dinner With the Band starring Sam Mason.

How did you end up in Chicago?

AM: I attended a wedding here, and that’s when I met my husband. Then in 2013 I took over all operations for El Ideas, my husband's restaurant. It opened in 2011, and 2013 is when we got our first Michelin star, so things were going swimmingly. That was actually a big impetus for why I applied to nursing school.

I had a successful restaurant, our children were in middle school and more self-sufficient, and I was getting nervous about both my husband and I working not only in the same industry but also in the same restaurant. I wasn't clairvoyant. I clearly didn’t anticipate the COVID-19 pandemic. I was more thinking about factors like economic downturn or a fire.

How was the restaurant affected by the pandemic?

AM: We first had to close our doors in March last year. At a Michelin star level, all of our food is fresh — not frozen — and we have a lot of it. We needed to figure out how to sell it before it went bad, so we pivoted to curbside delivery within 72 hours.

Being in the nursing program at Rush — having completed a public health class — really helped inform what I needed to do for the restaurant. I knew contact tracing was needed even if the city didn't demand it. It was the right thing to do. So I built a contract tracing system that included texting health questionnaires to customers.

When we were ready to reopen we redid our service to be completely contactless. We ran at 25% capacity from June through October to make sure our team and diners were protected. But after we had to close down again, we knew this was going to be our reality for a while. We had to build something more sustainable.

I had been obsessing about barbecue for years. I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with some of the most amazing barbecue pitmasters across the country. So that’s what we turned to: barbecue.

We opened Boxcar BBQ, which has a curbside pickup concept. I never imagined I would be opening my dream restaurant while in school full-time. El Ideas has also reopened, but barbecue is something we can maintain and do well no matter what is happening.

What drew you to nursing?

AM: I was a firefighter and an EMT for a while after I graduated from Columbia. There were always bandages and boo-boos to attend to. I realized I was comfortable helping people when they’re in pain. That includes day-to-day with my kids and the staff in my restaurants. People are always getting hurt in the kitchen. I always felt comfortable helping, so nursing seemed like a natural place to go.

Are there any fulfilling projects you’re working on at Rush?

AM: I’m in charge of the NICU hearts program at Rush. I love the idea of sewing little hearts for mothers and their newborns to keep them connected through the sense of smell. With the stress of the pandemic and school, I find it fulfilling to do something for others.

With social distancing today, I think we all now have more empathy for what some of these parents are going through when they’re not able to be with their child. When I was asked to take over the program, I made a commitment that this would be part of my legacy. I want to make 1,000 hearts before graduation and seek out more funding through grant support so that the program will continue when I leave.

You must have some amazing time management tips.

AM: You have to prioritize yourself. Sleep, exercise and nutrition are so important. You can’t borrow from one to support the other and not have everything pulled down. But I also want to temper that. I have a lot going on, but I feel like I do an OK job at everything. If I had, let’s say, one thing to do, I feel like I would really be killing it!

What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?

AM: I love everything. Every clinical rotation I do at Rush, I'm like, “This is best!” I knew going in that the ICU, emergency department and trauma care are areas I can see myself in. I'm also passionate about hospice, but I that might be in more of volunteer capacity.

I am interested in how I can use both my restaurant background and nursing education to protect restaurant workers and customers. Currently, all food regulation and policies are really about foodborne illness and not about communicable disease.

We really need to reimagine how we operate restaurants. Not that we can stop pandemics, but how can we shore up restaurants and service and restaurant workers to ensure that the financial devastation that happened won't happen again? Whether that's rethinking how we design kitchens and dining rooms, or the air flow. As more research comes out, we see that monitoring CO2 within a space in relation to your HVAC system is probably the best way to make indoor environments safer.

This is an area where I can immediately be an asset, because there's not a lot of people that have a foot in both worlds.

What advice would you give to someone considering an untraditional path to nursing?

AM: Do it immediately! If you're in a place where your current career is not invigorating, if this pandemic has affected you in a negative way and you want to do something about that — then yes, do it!

It is the most rewarding thing I've ever done. The connections I make with patients are so fulfilling. There's nothing else that I can think of that would bring me this level of satisfaction.

I want to give a shout out to all the moms in my program. There are a lot of career changers in my group. We have an incredibly diverse group, and they're all amazing human beings.

So, yeah, don't be afraid. Do it.