Making food fresh to order as a vendor is not easy. And doing it over 50 miles away from your food distributors or any food market that you frequent is even harder. What if you run out of your specialty ingredient? Well then, you’re stuck. In my opinion, whatever idea that you come up with you should always try to stand out. Anytime I prepare for a festival I always ask myself if my menu pops. Meaning, can it hold up its own. Without relying heavily on a niche. I don’t really think about competitors around me I just focus on my ideas at hand and if they are realistic in execution, will they keep a customer’s attention and will I still be able to put out the quality that I’m used to putting out.

 

When you’re cooking in faraway locations where people may not have the access to the type of food that you are providing, I think you have a responsibility to serve them something as authentic as you can. Of course we’ve all frequented restaurants where we felt the cooks didn’t try because maybe they thought they could get away with it. If you call yourself cooking original Mexican cuisine in a restaurant and you are serving it in an area that where people may not have exposure to authentic Mexican cuisine then maybe you can get away with serving subpar food because people may not know the difference. BUT I don’t think it’s right. Besides, there will always that someone who has tried authentic Mexican food and believe me; they will call you on your bullshit. Which leads to my chicken story. For some dumb reason I decided to do a bunch of festivals back to back (I’m still sore). I added a few new menu items. My chicken sandwich was partially new because I served it (with success) at Bierwax. I came up with the idea of making my own gourmet version of the popeyes chicken sandwhich and not so cleverly naming it the  “Not Your Popeyes chicken Sandwhich”

Double Stack Creole Chicken Sandwich

 

I thought to myself. What the cluck? Does it taste like my Mothers and Grandfathers version? Hell, I’m actually Creole with New Orleans roots and I’m a chef. Shouldn’t I know what this damn sandwich is supposed to taste like?

This was my rebellious response of people going apeshit over a $6 chicken sandwich which has led to mania,  violence and potential world wars. Yes, Friends. All of this over a freakin chicken sandwich. Depending on the frustrated hungry person you ask. Not to throw shade on popeyes because I think they’re great and they have good products but why should they be the only people capitalizing off of a similar chicken sandwich recipe that has been passed down my family for generations?

I thought to myself. What the cluck? Does it taste like my Mothers and Grandfathers version? Hell, I’m actually Creole with New Orleans roots and I’m a chef. Shouldn’t I know what this damn sandwich is supposed to taste like? Isn’t it my duty to school the masses and actually let them know what a really good Creole chicken sandwich is supposed to taste like? I know. I sound cocky but something had to be done. So, I made my own gourmet version of a chicken sandwich. And at the end of it all. I just called it a –Wait for it. Creole Chicken Sandwich. This wasn’t about the batter. It was about the bun, how the chicken was prepped hours before and the aoili. I did have reservations though because I didn’t want to be forever known as the chicken man. Use your imagination here.

 

I wanted to make something that people could remember. Also when your cooking chicken breast to order it takes a  long time to cook. Well, it takes a long time for people who think all food should take a minute to cook.

It takes a real chicken breast About 7 to 8 minutes. And that can vary based on the size. Customers were shocked that they had to wait that long. But I stuck to my guns because I didn’t want to make preorders and loose quality. Having cooked fried chicken sit does some something to the texture and if you’ve been to any fast food place, you know what I mean.

My next “smashingly Brilliant” (or Dumb) idea was to make Gumbo using an age-old recipe. And if you know about gumbo. It takes a long ass time to make and requires at least 22 ingredients. So I had to prep for days so that set up would be easy during the festival and customers would receive their orders quickly!

 

And this goes back to me saying that if you call yourself authentic, represent it, to it’s fullest. There aren’t a lot of Creole Cajun places in New York so my goal is to make sure that people were delightfully surprised when they tasted my Gumbo. After eating it a few customers told me that they had no idea that Gumbo tasted so rich and good. My Gumbo started with a visit to my fish market (1:30 am) and getting fresh Crab and Wild Shrimp but what was different is that I chose to cook a Roux for 2 1/2 hour in a HUGE cast Iron Skillet. People who make real gumbo know that this is common.

Gumbo

I also used Butter to add to the richness and flavor of the Roux. A more expensive choice but well worth it. I realized that Andouille sausage is hard to purchase in NYC. I mean, you can get it but usually, it’s in small portions or only sold in specialty stores. So I had to hustle a bit more in order to get the right quality sausage. What’s funny is after all of that. My Gumbo was our top seller and sold out early. It’s the little things and I think people notice that.

October 21, 2019 0 comment
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So its a known little secret to my close friends that I enjoy spinning Vinyl and Djing at home so this past Fall when I got a chance to do a collaboration with the people at Bierwax in Brooklyn, I was all over it. Also, a little drinking beer and cooking over an open fire with hot oil what could go wrong? Kidding. I only had a beer after I was done for the day.  Full disclosure I’ve DJ’d at BierWax before and let me tell you, it surpassed my expectations.

Outside of BierWax

It’s kind of daunting cooking and Djing in a place that’s been visited by a few hip hop legends you grew up listening to. Knowing that the place regular Dj’s like  Theodore Grand Wizard, (who has worked with numerous MC’s including KRS-1), and radio show personalities Stretch and Bobbito and so many classic MC’s I can’t even list.   The wall is peppered with cool Art including some Wu-Tang art and the Craft Beers are great. And no this isn’t a plug. Their beers are delicious!

Wu-Tang Art

My goal was to compliment the BierWax menu so I made sure that my Wild Shrimp and Crawfish Croquettes made use of their house IPAs. I ended up serving my specialty Beer Battered Wild Shrimp and Crawfish with aoili. I was a bit nervous that we would run the risk of bringing too much food inventory since the owner warned me that the previous vendor still had food left over.

It’s kind of daunting cooking and Djing in a place that’s been visited by a few hip hop legends you grew up listening to.

Me doing the Happy dance after things were selling

Luckily we sold out. Come to find out people who arrived Saturday called up their friends and told them that my crew and I were in town so we did well.

But I had so much fun on Saturday because I got a chance to hear one of the Dj’s spin later that night after we finished cooking.

 

 

September 15, 2019 0 comment
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Well, technically we sold out of our food items and that’s a good thing! It’s been a long time since my last post due to working in the kitchen and preparing for upcoming festivals. I just finished the Worlds Fare in Queens and I have to tell you it was an adrenaline rush.

The menu consisted of  Beignets, Crispy Salmon, Wild Shrimp and Crawfish  Croquettes  patties with crispy tempura crust and Crispy Tempura Beer Batter Soft shell crab accompanied with a Chipotle Aoli and two different types of Hot sauces on the side and Glidden Point Jumbo Oysters Fire Roasted with Creole Butter.

The menu consisted of  Beignets, Crispy Salmon, Wild Shrimp and Crawfish Croquettes  patties with crispy tempura crust and Crispy Tempura Beer Batter Soft shell crab accompanied with a Chipotle Aoli and two different types of Hot sauces on the side and Glidden Point Jumbo Oysters Fire Roasted with Creole Butter.

But before I get into that I have to take you back to where some of our work started. It’s 1 a.m. and Mara and I are grabbing a bite to eat at a partly empty diner on the Upper West Side of New York. Partly groggy and partly filled with adrenaline because we’ve been through this routine before. The routine of taking a nap and waking up early to Drive out to the ginormous fish market in the Bronx to try and get the Freshest live Softshell Crabs possible. There’s something very raw and traditional about visiting this particular fishmarket that I’ve always loved. Also  I love haggling. Even though I kind of suck at it.

The Bronx Fishmarket is wondrous and at times can be intimidating due to the grandness of the whole thing. On our ride there,  I decided to play an eclectic mixture of music. I’m a Hip-Hop kid myself but during our Drive I’m playing David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars – Moonage Daydream) I try to catch up with my 15 minute long rock songs during times like these. Up Next.  A few songs  Radiohead’s OK Computer, some Hip Hop from J Dilla and Westside Gunn, Bo Diddly (Bad Side Of The Moon) and afterwards to lighten things up; Pop from Bruno Mars and Cardi B. Now we’re ready. The moon is full and we’re on a desolated road at 2:30am, when we finally reach our destination to the fishmarket Warehouse.

My crab guy barely remembers my face and some of the fish mongers go about their hustle and bustle but most don’t remember me. Why would they? They’ve been working with the same customers for 50 years or more. My compadre (Sri- Lankan) and I  (African American) mostly go unnoticed but I think every time we visit we become less annoying to the workers because we know what we want and we’ve learned how to get out of everyone’s way while negotiating price. I always liken that fish market to a place where time stands still. And for some reason we are both wide awake.

 

After Getting the goods then the real work comes in. Painstakingly Dressing (cleaning and seasoning) each Crab which can be backbreaking but very satisfying work.

Prepping live crabs makes me appreciate what I’m serving and it’s always good to understand every aspect that goes into preparing a crab and not taking it for granted.

Luckily the weather was nice on the day of the festival so we got a chance to set up correctly after a few tries. What we didn’t anticipate was a rush as soon as we were set up.

Craziness ensued and we were soon able to work out a system that worked well for everyone. One of the first items to go was the Oysters.

My Jumbo oysters were specially delivered from Maine. And my oyster farmer is pretty awesome so I’m lucky in that sense. The Worlds Fare has so much history and it was great to be a part of it.

We got extremely busy but the vibe was still laid back.  For some reason I think New Yorker’s (including myself) are extra extra chill on the weekends. That may not be the case when I have to cook  for the next festival in the Financial District this June but I can only hope. 😉

May 22, 2019 0 comment
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Silence of a lamb

Since I stay uptown I make it my goal to eat great food everytime I visit Brooklyn. I’m an uptown guy and I love visiting every borough just to find hidden food gems.

I admit that I can be a bit extreme when it comes to discovering new food or when I have my heart set on something. Fact is that I use to drive out to Jersey just to eat one of my favorite hero sandwiches.
And on a good day, I’d be willing to drive to Philly just to eat a Cheesesteak in all of its delicious glory. I digress, so back to Brooklyn. I was pleasantly surprised when a friend suggested that we meet at an upscale Mexican restaurant. I have to admit that I had my reservations. I mean would there be some hipster chef in the back spouting off how the eggs he or she uses is laid by a local cruelty-free chicken who only dines on gluten-free muffins and kombucha?

Well, I was wrong about all of the above. Shame on me for being judgmental.

The dish that stood out to me was the lamb marinated in Mexican Coca-Cola. Mexican Coca-Cola uses real sugar instead of corn syrup and personally, I think that it packs more of a punch. After annoying the waiter by asking him how the Lamb prepared he told me that the lamb was broiled, quickly flash fried and then marinated in Mexican Coca-Cola.

 

I have to admit that I had my reservations. I mean would there be some hipster chef in the back spouting off how the eggs he or she uses is laid by a local cruelty-free chicken who only dines on gluten-free muffins and kombucha?

After thanking the waiter for being accommodating, In my head, I immediately called bullshit. The lamb was way too soft to be broiled. Broiling it would have made it chewy and or tough. There was no way the cook could have broiled for a short amount of time and get the meat and fat so tender. Flash frying it would have probably melted some of the fat but toughened it. My first thought was that the lamb was marinated in the cola for a few hours. But in order for me to duplicate the recipe, I would have to marinate the lamb in cola and then slow cook it for a few hours. Afterwards, I flash broiled it to add a crispiness and then basted it in a coca-cola and pineapple sage sauce.

Since I was at the farmer’s market earlier I picked up some pineapple sage to make the cola (pop) no pun intended (well, maybe) added spicy chipotle sauce, salt and simmered.

After the lamb was ready I generously brushed on my cola sauce. For the pickled radishes, I thinly cut the radishes and made a sauce using brown mustard a bit of brown sugar and a teaspoon of freshly grated ginger.

I added the radishes to the ginger mustard and refrigerated for an hour. The mustard pickling sauce was able to absorb into the radishes since the radishes were so thin.

The result was a tangy slightly mustard, pickled ginger flavor. The pickled radishes alongside the lamb gave it a great balance. The lamb turned out pretty good.

May 21, 2018 0 comment
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Specialty Food. What’s really behind the curtain

Usually when you want to do something that you love you end up doing a lot of things that you hate first.

If you told someone that you were interested in starting a business that requires gargantuan start-up cost, a rent lease that may go up 500% after you try to renew, has a ridiculous amount of competitors, lots of paperwork, requires you to work at least 12 hours on your feet, may kill any love life that you currently have and will take at least a year for you to make a profit. That person would probably look at you like crazy and ask why.

But if you told that very same person that you are opening a catering business or restaurant he or she would probably say “Wow. How exciting!! That is so cool!!” I know. It’s messed up.


 But the hard truth is that opening starting your own restaurant or catering company from either the ground up is intoxicating. I’ve done both. And it’s not easy.

There aren’t any rulebooks and guides on starting a food company. Sure there are suggestions, guides, and books but the paths are many and they can either lead to success or failure. Most people get into the food business because it’s either all they know how to do, they are driven by their passion, the venture seems exciting or all of the above. 

I grew up in the food industry. My Grandfather owned a restaurant. My Grandmother owned a garden, various fruit trees, loved pickling and making homemade ice cream. My Mother taught me how to cook at a very young age and made a large number of Creole style dishes. Down the line, I began working in restaurants and cooking exposed me to a few layers of the restaurant business but there was a lot more behind the curtain. There was a lot more that I needed to learn.

When I was around 12 years old I was told by a friend that I could work at a fancy boat club washing dishes for the owner. In my mind, this was easy money. No more raking leaves for my neighbors only to make some change or a few bucks. This was big time. I’d be making a good amount of cash and I wouldn’t have to ask my tight father for money. No more going Trick or Treating over Jesse Jackson’s house only to receive 4 fucking tootsie rolls (yes this actually happened). So what if my new job broke every child labor law known to man? In my eyes, I would be able to buy bags of snickers. Because really. What child craves fucking tootsie rolls when there are snickers and milky ways around?

 When I walked into the Kitchen of my new job it was like a hellish boarding school. My friends worked quietly and almost mouse-like in the kitchen. After I looking at my friends I focused on the sink. There was an obscene amount of dishes almost stacked to the ceiling. I had  never seen that amount of dirty dishes in my life but I was willing to go to task. My friend instructed me to rinse while he washed. I peeked out into the dining room area and there I saw the half scraggly looking owner pouring a nice glass of lemonade for a gentleman in crisp khaki shorts and docker boat shoes.

The owner was quite pleasant to the man. I thought to myself. This is what rich people must do after a long day of double-crossing and making the stock market crash. They drink lemonade together, ride in boats and pay questionable amounts of money for shitty food. After an hour of washing dishes, the owner walked into the kitchen. The nice respectable gentleman that he appeared to be in the dining area was gone. His smile slowly turned upside down like the Grinch character who stole Christmas. This man looked different. This man was a lunatic.
 He began raging about how we were taking too long washing the dishes and that’s when the pots and pan started flying against the wall as he sweared. As the owner raged one of my friends gave me a look and smirked. I knew that was my friend’s way of saying “Oh he’s just playin” Just playing? This lunatic threw pots and pans against the wall with children around. That my friend was full on pissed.
I collected my money,  went home and never returned to that place. That event changed me. It taught me what not to do. It taught me how not to influence people and how not to build the character of a person.

Sure, I’d encounter other events as I got older. Like the time I got fired and then rehired from McDonald’s for calling my manager Grimace (a McDonaldsland character) and accusing her of eating all of the cheeseburgers in stock. She was brutal to the employees and sarcasm was my only comeback. Or, getting threatened to get thrown across the street if I didn’t quit messing around. Or getting fired in front of everyone for eating food while there was still a hot and yummy Burger King chicken tender in my mouth. Or having a fishmonger at a fish restaurant I worked in hit a catfish over the head with a huge mallet, then turned to me and say “now that’s how ya kill em”. The catfish wasn’t dead. Catfish are hard to kill. Think of them as the terminator of fish. Even when they die they have a nervous system like an Ox.

And my favorite. While I was staging at the famous Blackbird restaurant in Chicago being asked by the chef “do you cut onions like that at home?” when I replied yes, he responded “well you’re not at home, you’re at a restaurant. How can we serve customers when you’re chopping so slow? Let me show you how it’s done” And he then proceeded to show me how to effectively cut onions. Afterwards, he taught me how to make a basic French white wine sauce and cut artichokes effectively. He was patient, yet stern. Bullshit free. But able to joke. His crew was professional but territorial. I learned a lot in the short time I was there and it lasted a lifetime.

 

Sketch idea for caramel apple specialty snack

After working in restaurants for years I became fascinated with specialty foods. You know those high priced local or imported food items with the cute and cool packaging that contain high-quality ingredients. Specialty items usually cost more than conventional staple items due to the labor involved, packaging, ingredient cost and often food politics.

I loved visiting the specialty store and checking out the cool food items. Every time I visited a specialty store I would size up each product and think to myself “I can do that” Having no idea of the ridiculous labor that was involved. From maraschino cherries to beautiful sandwiches that used free-range meat to cookies that used a few ingredients. When I saw those items I always felt that they were doing it right. They didn’t make homogenous products. They made unique products that stood out. I felt that a lot of the specialty purveyors had the integrity to care about the ingredients that they used and have close relationships with the farmers or ingredient providers that they dealt with. When I ran a restaurant most of the items I got were from suppliers that I trusted. But this was a bit different. If I were to get into the specialty food business I would have to make a consistent product based off of my suppliers and play a major role in product packaging development.

First Draft of Packaging

So I decided to dive in and start a catering company that would grow into a specialty foods provider as well. Luckily, there are always people willing to taste your food experiments. I was already pretty good at candy making so my first step was perfecting a Brazillian Rum Caramel corn recipe that I was toying around with. Afterwards, I started going crazy with inventing flavors like apple pie caramel corn with pie crust, rocky road Ice cream caramel corn, vanilla chocolate cherry, spicy chipotle cheddar, Honey truffle ect. Some of them successful, some not so successful and some became my signature dessert. Afterwards, I started working on my savory products. Turkey sandwich and vegetarian wraps. Using what I felt were the best bakers in the industry I had a good source of bread. Being a professional cook is not all about cooking but finding the right sources. And having the ability to find a good purveyor is priceless. It takes networking, some common sense and getting to know your source. Lastly, it just feels right but it takes some investigation.

Caramel Bacon Cachaca Crunch

Most people who work in a shared kitchen follow a sort of anarchism. They are territorial, most are friendly but there are lots of egos floating around. 

When preparing the turkey I knew that there was a significant difference in taste between truly free-range turkey and the Frankenturkey that you buy at the grocery store. Most of the instructions on the packaging of a store bought turkey instructs you to overcook it and compensate for the dryness by injecting it with some sort of saline solution. If you use the right turkey and it’s cooked appropriately you shouldn’t need to inject brine into it in order to make it juicy.

 

Before I chose a farmer who delivered, I would drive hours away to a farm that I trusted in Michigan. This is what I mean by putting in the work to get the right purveyor. My example is a bit extreme but you get the point.

I would pick up the turkey, drive my ass back to the city and take a day to prepare the turkey with honey and rosemary. It was definitely painstaking but worth it. When my first provider ran out of turkey I would go out to my second farmer where he would meet me in the city to and give me some great free range turkeys. I felt like a secret agent when we made our exchange. He was proud of the birds he provided and he had a great farm.

One of my favorite farmers

Soon I was selling sandwiches and snacks from out of my house to different businesses, people in various neighborhoods, co-workers, close friends, and family. People couldn’t get over it. How could a boring turkey sandwich and snacks taste so different? What black magic was I conjuring up in order to create such a thing? But there was no magic. When people would ask me how did I do it I would change the question to “Maybe we’ve lost our way when it comes to creating good tasting food because we’re focused on the bottom line?” I mean, how can you taste good mayonnaise, cheese or vegetables when the very thing they are has been altered in order to become bigger, provide a greater shelf life and increase profit. When items are treated this way they become bland and taste goes out the window only to be dominated by profit.

When you make specialty foods you cook at a loss because usually, you are making a product that won’t have a long shelf life since preservatives are not used. You are creating a product that goes against the current system in which common food products are made. Which means a big restaurant supply truck is not stopping by your kitchen to provide you most of the ingredients that you need. If you were creating standard food items then that wouldn’t be the case. But when you’re creating specialty food you have to do way more running around just to select the supplier you need.

So there are a dizzying array or supplies and inventory that you must order, organize and maintain in order to make sure that they arrive in a timely manner and that you have enough.

Again those high-quality ingredients cost a lot. So if you see a specialty product item that seems a bit pricey, you are more than likely paying for:
• Local manufacturing machine cost
• A decent wage for the employees who make the product
• Quality ingredients and or material
• Some schmuck who doesn’t know how to calculate price correctly so they blindly mark up the price in order to cover losses

I remember creating a honey and rosemary turkey sandwich with dill aioli on a tomato focaccia bread. Since the bread, turkey, and aioli contained no preservatives the sandwich needed to be sold and eaten in a day or it would go bad. That’s the risk. Even my caramel corn didn’t last long because it didn’t contain preservatives. I had to come up with creative ways of packing my product in order for it to last long. I was even more challenged when I decided to make a rum or whiskey caramel corn with uncured bacon. The bacon needed to be crispy, dehydrated and carefully candied in order for it to last. The packaging had to help seal in the flavor. One of the manufacturers that talked to at Snyders was a Godsend because he gave me some great tips on how to use the right packaging.

My first packaging design for a free-range turkey sandwich with smoked gouda and dill aioli

After selling enough products I was ready to move to the big time and make my business legal. I updated my business plan, passed the Mental Hygiene Health sanitary test ( I’ve taken both for both Chicago and New York), got a business license, leased a commercial kitchen, got inspected by the Department of Agriculture and by the Department of Health, Filled out multiple tax forms and payed stupid amounts of money for start-up cost.

If you have bags and bags of money you can lease out or build your own commercial kitchen for production. But most people (including myself) are forced to share a kitchen with a few other people when starting out.

Most people who work in a shared kitchen follow a sort of anarchism. They are territorial, most are friendly but there are lots of egos floating around. You need to be tough quick and protective of your area, supplies, and employees. I’ve seen equipment come up missing, ingredients that were thrown out without permission and very heated arguments. It’s like taking a bunch of restaurant owners and putting them all in one room. Everyone thinks that they are the best at what they do and it takes a lot to navigate through the sea of egos.

Behold the kitchen product!

Shared commercial kitchens are also where you’ll learn more about the food industry. The do’s and don’ts. How to navigate through the bureaucracy, and getting your products on the shelf. You’ll see a lot of people fail and only a few successes. You’ll have to humble yourself and learn how to shut up. The way you organize everything, who you hire, how you create your crew and how you assemble your product could be the life and death of your business. Once one of my employees packaged a large number of my snack products upside down. I had to rip through all of my packaged items and repackage each one. Another time we ran out of product and we had to serve at least 200 people vegetarian wraps for an event. Multiple times someone “borrowed” a few ingredients from my kichen without telling me during crunch time. So you have to be ready for any and everything that could happen.

 

 

Commercial Kitchens are massive. Think at least three times the size of a restaurant kitchen. With huge ovens, multiple burners, walk-in freezers, refrigerators, cooling rooms, candy rooms and inventory space. Every piece of space is efficiently utilized and could intimidate even the most seasoned professional. Step into someone’s space and prepare to get yelled out or politely “moved” out of the way. It’s no wonder why so many different personalities are drawn to a business like this. There is a realness to it. A comradery between workers. A magic that happens that’s hard to explain. Mastering the chaos of a commercial kitchen in order to create your product gives you a feeling of accomplishment and joy, and walking into a grocery store and seeing your product on the shelf makes you feel that it was worth it.

First store that took me in

 

When I created packaging for my product I was there every step of the way. It took me about a year to save the money.

Old days of painstakingly putting together packaging

 

I decided to uses a kickstarter/ indigogo campaign when I started but then realized it would be easier to just take the time to save the money myself. I then connected with a great designer in Sweden where we proceeded to go over various design concepts.

 

Moving quickly with my turkey

Hiring

I wanted to make sure that I was giving back to the community so I mostly talked to the staff at the unemployment office in underserved communities. Sometimes it would take me an extremely long time to speak with a real person because my calls were always forwarded or I was placed on hold for a long time. I always thought to myself that if I’m an employer and I have to go through all of this red tape to hire someone. What must it be like for a person looking for a job? It had to be frustrating.

Word got out and I was able to hire some great workers.

I have a few rules in hiring staff. I strongly believe that you can’t teach someone home training, how to be polite or good manners. You can teach them how to fake it but that usually doesn’t last and the real person reveals him or herself. It has to be in them. It’s something that they learn growing up. If someone has a shitty attitude and they’re rude there’s nothing that I can do about it if they aren’t open to change. But I can teach a person who knows how to be polite, how to cook, prepare food and service customers because they get it. Some people don’t understand that their attitude is as important as the food that they cook. Once I had an employee who constantly disrupted other workers. She broke the flow. And when you break the flow some of your best workers aren’t working at a 100%. They become babysitters. I had to intervene promptly and swiftly. After talking to her I realized that she wasn’t trying to be an ass, she just didn’t know how to deal with other people. It always amazes me when I see people in the front of the house who shouldn’t be there. People who don’t know how to deal with other people. People who can’t take the pressure. When I see this, I never just blame them. I blame the owner.

Making a decision that is right for you to excel.

I once had a well known big box grocery store tell me that my Caramel Cachaca Crunch and Honey Truffle popcorn was great but they thought it would do better in the cheese section of their store. They suggested that I use boxes instead of bags to package my product. Easy enough, right? I only had a bag manufacturer because when I first started my business, I spent endless hours online and on the phone going over prices, shipping and labor laws with packaging and printing companies in China. I was told by others who were in the food business that getting packaging made overseas “was the way to go” and out of my own naiveté, I listened, instead of finding my own route.

I wasn’t comfortable with that decision and I decided to go my own route. I started talking to small business owners whose business model and ethics (using local and sustainable quality ingredients and utilizing local manufacturing resources in their area whenever possible.) were aligned with my own. These business owners worked hard, they were proud of their labor and it showed. I wanted to carry that pride and stand by something that I believed in.

It just made more sense for me to spend a few more extra dollars and purchase packaging from companies in the US. My decision helped me follow my rule of utilizing local manufacturing resources in my area, helped set me apart from big box store products and aligned with my ethical viewpoint of running a sustainable business.

Second round of Final Packaging

My “Production” week

Monday

I start with strong coffee and create a task list of the day. Mondays is when I check my inventory. What items are running low, packaging, what items I need to order, ect. I check the schedule of my three employees. Usually one of them can’t come so I have to beg my girlfriend to help (remember how I mentioned that this business strains a relationship)

By 4 p.m. I’m in the kitchen prepping along with the rest of the staff while the caterer next to us keeps walking into my area and turning my music down (I use music and coffee to keep everyone up). We get into an argument. I tell her that I don’t come in her area to turn down her shitty music. This happens daily. Although we hate each other musical tastes we respect each other as cooks.

I decide to utilize a great system that my line cook put in place.

By 10:30 pm we are packaging all of our products. Weighing, heat sealing and checking labels

By 1:00 am we are breaking down boxes, cleaning, doing dishes and I’m back on inventory.

2:00 a.m. I realize I need more inventory so I’m making more sandwiches and packaging more caramel products. Afterwards, I make sure the kitchen is cleaned and the dishes are put away.

3:00 a.m. Hit the bar with my girlfriend and drink until 4 a.m.

Tuesday thru Thursday – Repeat Monday

Friday
Visit the Farmers Market. Improve a recipe. Improve my system. Do Paperwork. Visit city hall and go to a food fair.

4:00 p.m. Recieve a call from a law office and they place an order of 900 bags of snacks
4:05 p.m. Panic. Order more inventory check employee schedules.

6:00 p.m. Find out that vanilla prices in Madagascar have gone up. This may alter the price of my snack product.

6:30 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. Prep, Cook, package, Clean 2:30 a.m. make the wrong decision to go to a bar even though I need to be up by 10:00 a.m. to do a tasting on Saturday.

Saturday

  • Allow people to taste my product while slightly hungover.
  • Allow people to criticize me
  • Allow people to tell me how they love my product and how it can improve
  • Allow people to come back for 4 or 5 samples without having any intention of buying a box. I’m flattered and pissed at the same time
  • Feeling relieved when people purchase a box

Sunday

Stop at specialty grocery stores, contact distributors to get products placed and prepare to mail potential grocery stores and distributors product Monday.

I know It’s a lot. And it absorbed a lot of my life.

 

Product Promo

I personally feel that when you focus on one thing constantly you risk the chance of your ideas becoming stale. I felt that it was important for me to get out of my element and get inspired by people, places and things outside of my field. Way too often when entrepreneurs get stuck on a goal (without adjustment) and they forget the simple joys that come with life which sometimes are the things that help inspire. I speak from the personal experience being an ex-workaholic. After my food stint, I moved to Paris. Think of it as a work vacation that allowed me to clear my mind. Although I wrote about food while I was there, most of the time I put my laptop away, drank wine, enjoyed the farmer’s markets and cooked.

 

Near my apartment

When you focus too much on one thing it can throw you off and you get this tunnel vision view of your goal. Nothing else matters and it can become unhealthy and affect the people around you. Especially the ones that you love. Running a catering company single-handedly is not for the faint of heart.

After years of consulting and improving catering dishes, it can force even the most dedicated person to come up for air. So you have to have a good work-life balance.

Veal and Bay leaves

When you get to a point in your life where one minute you’re on the phone talking to a farmer about how he treats his vanilla beans in Madagascar, Africa and the next minute you’re talking to a farmer in California about organic rice syrup. You feel good about it but you’re also burned out.

The more you learn about the business that you’re going into the more trials and tribulations you may encounter. And you have to be ready for it. The tough thing is that no one will really know what you’re going through. So you have to be vocal about it. Not overbearing but vocal enough so that your peers will know that you are busy and can offer support.

When I started a catering company I had no idea of what I was doing. I felt that I had an excellent product idea, the vision to see it through and the drive to implement it.

Browning my Veal in France

Luckily I was able to have some success with it even though I went into it naïvely. I didn’t think about how my life could change or how my love life would suffer due to the late hours and the unrealistic dedication that I expected from her. We’re friends now but it was tough. And it’s something that people should think about before getting into the industry. You should always ask yourself. How will this business affect me? There are some great aspects of working in the food industry but just like anything else it’s good to prep yourself and ask realistic questions in order for your business to succeed and be scalable.
Also, make sure that you align your self with positive people that you can learn from or people in the industry. I’ve worked at several restaurants for free just so that I could ask questions about the business. Or learn from someone who can motivate or be an inspiration.

 

A writer letting me know that he enjoyed my snacks

There was once a guy that I kept trying to connect with due to his experience in the food industry. He was pretty popular. I kept getting the “We’ll let him contact you if he’s interested. A few weeks later I received a phone call and It was the guy that I had been trying to catch up with. Although he didn’t want to invest in my new venture he was warm, friendly and gave me words of motivation. That guy was Jerry was Jerry Greenfield from Ben and Jerry’s. And he gave me the encouragement to push through some dark times.

Me looking tired after a few takes 😉

 

All in all, owning a food company is not for the faint of heart. Actually, you have to be a little crazy to do it. But with a little perseverance, you can definitely succeed at it.

March 26, 2018 0 comment
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One flew over the quails nest

I went to the market this weekend and picked up some merguez (North African) sausage which is my favorite. Made from Lamb and beef. Tangy and rich in flavor with cumin, chili pepper or harissa. I figured that I’d be able to create something cool with it.

While preparing my dish last night I broke a lot of rules. One of my rules was that I would never use a foam because I use to feel that it was more of a than a niche than anything. Or maybe some sort of molecular modernist cooking that justifies the cost of an expensive dish.
I believed all of the articles that I read shunning modernist cooking foams instead of indulging in modernist cooking and truly understanding it.

Basically, I was wrong. By pretending that I was taking the higher ground by not using foams. I was a self-anointed purist. And by doing this I became what I accused other cooks of being. A pretentious shmuck who thought my way was better because I chose not to indulge in using foams. It was my blanket. A judgemental way of me saying that I was doing it the right way and other cooks didn’t have a clue because they hid behind molecular gastronomy tricks. Which in reality was just me being a hater because I really didn’t know how to do that shit. In reality, I didn’t understand the purpose of molecular cooking.

Basically, I was wrong. By pretending that I was taking the higher ground by not using foams. I was a self-anointed purist. And by doing this I became what I accused other cooks of being. A pretentious shmuck who thought my way was better because I chose not to indulge in using foams.

Food can be like theater. From presentation to plating to consumption. And foams definitely have their place. They can change the texture of a dish, add lightness, thickness, change flavors or just enhance your dish in general.

Various foams can add beauty to a dish. The look, smell and texture of a dish all affect the final outcome and experience of consumption.

Also, there’s some hardcore science behind creating different types of foams. With that said I don’t think that you should hide behind gastronomy foam gimmicks or niches but foams do have a place!

The Breakdown

Quail egg with potato, fresh mozzarella, North African sausage (Merguez) fresh beet and Thai basil foam topped with radish sprout.

March 13, 2018 0 comment
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It starts with one ingredient

Most of the time when I’m thinking of a new dish to create I usually start with an ingredient.
When the focus is on one ingredient I get to build around that ingredient instead of focusing on one dish as a whole. This forces me to think about other ingredients that can work with my main ingredient. I get to dive deeper and ask myself “Ok what works with this ingredient and how can I make it work with all the other ingredients without jeopardizing the flavor. This forces creativity even when I’m feeling stuck on ideas. The ingredients that I focused on today was blood oranges and Roman cauliflower. I will be posting the final outcome after this post.

I’ve always found blood oranges fascinating because of their unique flavor. Rich, complex, deep in flavor, beautiful in color, sweet and tart with a just enough bitterness that makes it perfect for sauces and cocktails alike. It’s beautiful appearance and adds a level of sophistication to most cocktails if made properly.

My next ingredient of focus was the roman cauliflower. A beautiful vegetable with its logarithmic spiral shape. It truly looks like a vegetable from another planet. Upon first glance, I thought that surely it was made from some type of modern, fractal genetically modified engineering but it’s not. It’s been grown in Italy since the 16th century. How does it taste? Subtle Nuttiness. A bit like broccoli and cauliflower mixed with a crunchy texture.
Although I’ve never liked cauliflower this one is the exception. I decided to create a nice hot Béchamel sauce to compliment my space cauliflower.

You can view the final dish here at: http://www.chefjimmythomas.com/featured/scallops-and-blood-orange-sauce/

 

July 10, 2017 0 comment
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Loving Cocktails!

I’ve always had a great love for a good cocktail. Forget brown versus white liquors. When it comes to a good cocktail I believe that kind of noise is inconsequential and prevents you from focusing on a really good drink because you’re too busy worrying about colors instead of the flavors.

My cocktail of choice depends on my mood and unfortunately, that can change on a whim.

I remember visiting the Violet Hour bar ago in Chicago. The deep dark colors, the rich ambiance, the magnificent showmanship any the dramatic velvet curtains that draped high against the entrance. I was in awe. Not only were the theatric surroundings a joy to embrace, they also made my drink experience more enjoyable. I love a good show. The Skylark bar was different. Deliberately no-frills but the cocktail craftmanship was one to be reckoned with. It’s a place where I was introduced to my first Pisco Sour

July 10, 2017 0 comment
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Wavy Hippy Matcha Tea Mousse Cake

I love a good challenge but I am still kicking myself asking why “On earth did I make this?” The result was good and I enjoyed the process but I’ve always considered baking to be a bit nervewracking. I’ve always appreciated and admired people who can bake and also take pleasure in doing so. I hate baking

Baking is precise. Once you mess up a baked good there’s no salvaging it. Put too much yeast in Bread, you’re finished. Start over. Put too much sugar in a cake. You’re finished.  Start over. Over knead your pie crust dough? You don’t deserve a pie, eat that cake you baked with too much sugar.

Anyways, since I like a good challenge (cough, torturing myself), I decided to make a mousse cake tea cake. But not just any mousse cake a wavy gradient mousse cake. Which is pretty much a matcha mouse cake with multiple shades of green created using matcha tea powder. Why did I do this you ask? I’m still asking myself that question.

One of the things that have always saved me is that I measure using the metric system. Not because I’m trying to be fancy but I find the metric system to be more precise while baking. This method tends to save me also using a scale to measure my ingredients.

July 10, 2017 0 comment
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Blending Rosemary Polenta with Creole Shrimp

Years ago I made a bombshell of a discovery. My Great Grandmother and Grandmother were from New Orleans. I already knew that my Grandfather and Great Grandfather were from Louisiana and of Creole decent but to find out that my Grandfather, Great Grandfather, Great Grandmother, and Grandmother on my Fathers side were all from Louisiana was strange because I never got the full story. I even found out that my Great Grandmother spoke Creole and knew very little English.
I was given clues based on the cuisine that I grew up with. By probing my Mother and asking her some tough questions about my past (that she wasn’t always ready to answer due to the history connected to it) I was able to get some answers.

I discovered that my Mother learned how to cook from my Grandfather. She unwillingly learned from him how to cook Rabbit, make a homemade roux, Gumbo, dirty rice, Jambalaya, create a homemade a barbeque sauce, prepare Frog Legs, duck, bake and use all parts of a pig. None of it was accessed from recipe books. I figured that her understanding of how to cook collard greens was past down from either her Father or other family members. I’ve read that Africans and Native Americans shared ideas on how to cook a variety of food, including collard greens. This is evident if you’ve ever eaten hot water cornbread ( AKA a Johnny cake). A Native American food that is a delightful crispy cornbread patty made from boiling water, a bit of oil, cornmeal, and patience. Although the ingredients are simple there is definitely an art to making them. The water temperature, cornmeal measurements, and oil need to be damn near perfect.

A lot of things clicked. It suddenly made sense why my Mom knew how to make so many Creole dishes from scratch. She ate Frog legs, fed me homemade souse on crackers (a type of cold cut made for the head of a pig, tongue, feet or heart to start that’s seasoned and bound with gelatin from within the skull) Yeah, it’s some hardcore shit. It’s said that people have been making Sous around the world since the middle ages.

So knowing all of this Creole/African/French/West Indian influence and loving all things New Orleans but being born and raised up North I felt inspired. I felt and feel that it’s my duty to keep the cooking traditions that I learned while growing up and to create traditional dishes that have my own personal touch. Basically, I don’t want to bastardize a dish. Like making a New Yawk version of gumbo. Or putting cheese on top of shit that doesn’t need cheese.

 

July 10, 2017 0 comment
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