City Folk: Chef and acupuncturist Idalee DiGregorio helps people find their destiny

City Paper

Laying out slabs of raw chicken, Idalee DiGregorio shuffles a few feet to the right, pushing her tray to the far end of the counter before heavily striking it with a silver meat pounder. On the other side of the counter, DiGregorio’s friend and co-worker Lisa Hillring is setting up a veggie platter, which they try to keep as far away from the chicken as possible.

The sporadic pounding fills up the small kitchen for the next five minutes, and with the chicken adequately flattened, DiGregorio maneuvers her way past tables and shelves to the refrigerator, in search of eggs. She carefully places a carton onto the counter, quickly cracking seven into a large glass bowl.

The eggs, from her own farm in south-central Pennsylvania, serve as the first ingredient in her chicken breading. DiGregorio prides herself on only cooking with raw ingredients. She says nothing she uses is prepared, giving her more control over the nutrition and quality of the food she serves as a chef. DiGregorio has been working at the 14 West Hamilton Street Club – which she describes as primarily an “old-school” lunch club – for the past year, since she was brought in by Hillring.

“I’m going to bread the cutlets!” she shouts to Hillring, before dipping thin pieces of chicken into the mixture of eggs, salt, black pepper, garlic, and oregano. DiGregorio and Hillring have been friends for years—they’ve been dubbed “IdaLisa” by many—spending time together as catering partners even before DiGregorio began at the club. And Hillring was also DiGregorio’s first acupuncture client.

Now a chef and acupuncturist, DiGregorio’s life has been full of re-created identities. She started out as a self-described theater kid at Baltimore’s Bryn Mawr School. After college in the Midwest, she wanted to be a chef—but she says it wasn’t the time. “I decided that I should have a ‘real job,’” she says.

DiGregorio tried a Ph.D., returning to Maryland for a degree in child psychology at College Park. She worked until her externship, when she realized clinical psychology wasn’t the future she wanted. Looking for a more hands-on job, she left the university with a master’s and headed down a 17-year trajectory in Human Resources. Though DiGregorio progressed into a high position as a vice president, she became disillusioned with how little she felt she could help people in her managerial role.

Then, while going through a tough divorce, one of DiGregorio’s friends suggested she get acupuncture. DiGregorio says most patients turn to acupuncture when they’ve tried everything else, and she was no different. She admits to being skeptical her first time—and afraid of needles. “We don’t talk about it hurting, we talk about it being exciting,” she says, adding wryly, “Certainly there are points that are more exciting than others.”

After her first appointment, she knew acupuncture was something she wanted to continue. Around the same time, she was having trouble finding another HR job and her acupuncturist thought DiGregorio’s background in psychology and her interest in health made her a perfect candidate for acupuncture school.

She’s been working in acupuncture at Ancient Arts Wellness in Mount Vernon for almost four years now. She specializes in helping people go through transitions, including anything from concrete life changes such as divorce to more general anxiety. Ideally, DiGregorio says her role as an acupuncturist is to help her patients find their “destiny”—which is what she believes acupuncture did for her.

“I don’t make the money I used to make; I will never make the money I used to make,” she says. “But I am having a blast. It’s just fun!”

Acupuncture encouraged DiGregorio to do things she loves—which included finally pursuing her dream of becoming a chef. And acupuncture informs her cooking, too. DiGregorio says she’s a “five-element acupuncturist,” using the elements wood, fire, earth, metal, and water to guide her patients’ treatment. Much of the theory relies on following the seasons, in terms of eating, sleeping, and working habits.

Because of this, she tries to buy locally as much as possible, and refuses to use any food that is out of season. “In acupuncture we talk about the fact that you should only eat what is available in nature at any given season,” she says. “So eating salad in the middle of winter is not good for you, because it’s cold food and it’s already cold.”

DiGregorio’s parents bought a farm in south-central Pennsylvania when she was 10 years old, so she was taught to raise and cook her own food from a young age. She took over the farm a few years ago, after her father had a stroke and her mother developed dementia. “I thought about stopping the farm, but it didn’t make sense to me,” she says.

“That was the lifelong goal of my dad and my mom, for us to get to the point where we could sell,” she continues. Today, she’s put in the work to fulfill this goal, selling the farm’s eggs, chickens, and produce to individuals and retailers, including Parts & Labor.

Between the farm and her two careers, DiGregorio doesn’t have much free time. Still, she sees herself sticking with acupuncture and cooking for the long run—though some are unconvinced after her many career transitions. “I’ve remade myself so many times, it’s hilarious,” she says. “Everybody’s always like, ‘so what’s your career now?’”

But both cooking and acupuncture force her to continue to learn and teach herself. Back at the Hamilton Street Club, DiGregorio and Hillring have left the windowless kitchen for the second-floor porch, where they’re enjoying the 70-degree weather while planning meals for the following week. For the past half-hour, they’ve been looking over pork, risotto, and carbonara sauce recipes, skimming through cookbooks, cooking magazines, and smartphone searches.

“This is kind of weird. You cook it in milk,” DiGregorio muses out loud, while reading a recipe for cod. “Fish is something I need to learn more about. No doubt about it.” ν

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