This is long. But it kind of has to be. There is important context that needs to be laid out that will help you understand how we’ve gotten to this place as an industry, and what I’m convinced will happen moving forward. If you’re just interested in what it will take to become a successful chef in today’s world – just scroll down to the bottom, however I strongly encourage you to spend a few minutes getting a good understanding of the groundwork.
I can already see Escoffier rolling over in his grave as I begin writing this article. I can also see the reactions of the seasoned kitchen veterans who’ve busted their asses, working the crap jobs early in their careers and working their way up the line, to then eventually having the opportunity to run their own kitchens – mad props to all of those who paved the way for those of us that are trying to pave our own ways now.
The fact is, we live in a different world versus fifty, twenty-five, or even ten years ago. The way in which we consume media, which is now on our iPhones didn’t exist back then, and the rate at which technology has and will continue to evolve is staggering. Hell, a lot of us can use those same handheld devices to create schedules, check sales, and double check inventory.
Another fundamental change that has had a profound impact on the industry as a whole over the last quarter century is the increased popularity and sex appeal that kitchen work has generated. This really started with Food Network in 1993 which was a risk – the idea that a channel could air TV shows 24 hours a day strictly related to food was something foreign, even to the executives. This, though, lead to increased awareness and the next wave of blockbuster shows like Top Chef. This alone wouldn’t have been a big deal, however, unlike most reality TV, the cooking shows seem to hit a lot closer to home, because after all, everyone eats and most people cook, at least on some level. This renaissance in culinary interest helped spur along the Farm to Table movement, which was started by Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, back in the early 70’s – it really just kind of plugged along in different pockets of the country, until there was an increased awareness.
The increased awareness led to a couple imporant things:
1. It created a more discriminating consumer base and a new segment of he dining out market, which was the mid-tier restaurants that provided an upscale, yet relaxed environment which, by no accident, coincided with the recession in 2008 – consumers didn’t have the same disposable income as in prior years.
2. This huge, newly adopted interest in chef and kitchen culture, glamorized an occupation that until very recently wasn’t glamorous in the least. This, as most of us have seen, brought unprecedented interest in the up and coming generation’s desire to become a chef. Now, you could go to your parents as a senior in high school and convince them culinary school is actually “real” school, and not just some glamorized trade school like it had been previously written off as. The glamorization of the industry made restaurants the booming industry that it is today. This, in hindsight became a bit of a disservice – the old school mentality of slowly progressing one’s way up the ranks, was now being challenged and met with an influx of excited, young culinarians who had unrealistic expectations (if you’re basis is previous generations of workers) as to what one should expect as a kitchen worker and what the trajectory of a career in the culinary arts might look like – whether trained in culinary school or not.
Now, with such massive growth and the creation of a huge new segment of the market that didn’t exist before – a cross between fine dining and friendly neighborhood restaurant – there was now a demand for the young talent that was waiting in the batters box, so to speak. In fact, unlike ever before, youngsters were opening up restaurants without having really worked their way up the ranks in the traditional sense. A new wave of dining was upon us and it was ushered in at the same time that Facebook surpassed Myspace and was then joined by Twitter a few years later – all of these mediums made it possible for brands to communicate unlike ever before. This made it possible for those with a point of view – something to say – they could say it, if they wanted to. That’s what I decided to do, and I created my first blog in 2008, nearly ten years ago.
So, the idea of social media influencers personal branding became commonplace – branding, branding, branding everywhere, and thanks to social media, now everyone has a microphone. None of this existed before – there was no need to leverage media in the earlier years of the industry, because it only came from a few places – newspaper, magazines and local television. No one had a voice that extended beyond a circle of friends.
All of this is a very long-winded way of saying – chefs weren’t seen as rockstars in the past – there was no reason for them to be rockstars. They were cooks and as long as they took care of their guests and their food costs, they were safe and employed. To be fair, there were obviously top notch restaurants before the 2000s came around, but it didn’t matter as much – each community had their own, and the type of diner that these restaurants catered to were typically either business dinners, or couple with some wealth. But, even so, there just wasn’t the abundance of restaurants, let alone different types of restaurants. Growing up in Atlanta in the 80s, we had a handful of French restaurants, a handful of steak restaurants, and hotel restaurants that occupied the higher in segment of the market.
We’re ten years removed from the first season of Top Chef, and now social media progressively redefines the way we communicate as companies and as individuals.
So, what does the successful modern chef look like moving forward?
It’s not going to be the traditional chef who swears by the brigade system, a way of operating that dates back more than 150 years to Auguste Escoffier. It’s not going to be the traditional chef who had to pay his dues, and I use the word “his” here intentionally, because the industry is no longer a fraternal organization, as women are stepping up to the plate and proving that they’ve got the chops to be among the elite.
So, the modern chef – the one that’s going to thrive in his or her career for an extended amount of time – what do they need to do to create real success for themselves? Well, let’s be clear – there’s no substitute for being a crappy cook, or even a marginal cool – you’ve got to be a really good cook.
And yes, you do have to put in your dues to an extent, but nothing like before, however, the real shift in what will make the modern day chef successful versus what it took for those in generations prior is directly related to what initially brought on the massive growth in the industry – the shifting media and primary modes of communication that have changed drastically over this last decade, which will of course continue to evolve.
Thus, the modern chef needs to look at how the media is now ever-present and that’s something that they can and should be tapping into, in order to build their personal brands as chefs. When I was writing my book, Making the Cut: What Separates the Best From the Rest, I interviewed chef Fabio Viviani, and he is a great example of someone who was able to standout from the crowd and leverage the tools and platforms that are at all of our fingertips.
When Fabio was on Top Chef Season 5, he was the fan favorite – he’s a very likable guy – has the Italian accent that chicks dig and hell, he’s pretty good looking. That all helped him be a fan favorite, but the part about his story that most people aren’t familiar with is that between Top Chef filming and the actual airing of the show, there was a 9 month lag. Fabio saw this as a 9 month opportunity to get a jumpstart on really creating his brand. So, he learned social media hacks on sites like LinkedIn and Twitter so that by the time the season aired, he already had some media traction around him. Then, when the show ended, which he was on for the entirety (he competed and lost on the final episode) he used his new found fame and ran with it!
How many Top Chef contestants does the average viewer remember from a season? Maybe a couple, if that? Fabio is without a doubt the most famous of all of the Top Chef contestants, and HE DIDN’T EVEN WIN – most of the winners (like with American Idol) don’t create a brand around themselves that people are able to connect with, and they end up disappearing after a few years.
Thus, and this is my thesis statement and I truly believe this, except for one caveat, a bit further down:
In terms of longevity and sustained success for a chef’s career moving forward into the future – one’s ability to build a brand and market themselves is now more important than the actual cooking execution of the craft of cooking, which was the focal point of the “trade” for over a century. I get it – I can already hear feathers ruffling, but if you go back to the Fabio example – he wasn’t awarded the best chef, but we all know about him and recognize his face. Fabio currently owns a handful of restaurants, a winery, licenses his name out to other brands, speaks all over the country, is still very active on TV, has a number of cookbooks, and the list goes on. Yes, he can cook, really well, but he’s not a certified master chef, and wouldn’t pass that grueling exam if his life depended on it – and this is where the caveat comes in.
The one caveat to my thesis is this: the cooking and execution side of the business which is a big part of what makes us chefs, is still more important than a chef’s ability to create a relevant brand for themselves, if the cuisine they are executing can stand on it’s own – at this point, the cuisine becomes the brand and it attracts attention because of how remarkable it is. Examples of this are most of the chef/owners of Michelin Star restaurants – Thomas Keller, Dominique Crenn, Grant Achatz, Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi and many others – all of these chefs pushed the boundries and created new paradigms for the industry and as a result, that is how their brand began to come together – for these masters of the craft, it’s always been all about the food and nothing wins out over a good product…. unless, that product never makes it out to the world and chef/owner can’t become financially successful from it.
Long Story Short: You need to either be an elite chef who’s cuisine speaks for itself, or you need to build a brand around yourself – you’ll need either one or the other.
Whether you like it or not, the world we live in now rewards people that are able to get people’s attention – I’m not telling to strive for super famous like Fabio. This exact mindset is exactly what will create new opportunities as you work your way up through the industry. If you’re applying for a sous chef job, and the executive chef is staring at your resume right next to someone else’s and they look virtually identical – what is there that could distinguish you from them? Maybe the chef hops on Instagram and if you have some kick ass plates on there – you win. So my suggestion for you is this: figure out what you stand for in this industry (sustainable seafood, local farms, the whole animal, a really specific Asian Fusion) – what cuisine and storylines in the industry are important to you – what road do you want to go down – what do you believe in? You need to start being intentional about where your career will eventually lead to over the next ten to twenty years. Use social media to bring awareness to your food, to your perspective and culinary point of view. Use TV or Facebook Live to share more about your world, letting your diners, or dare I say, fans, into the behind the scenes, and do the same with Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter. Learn how to carry yourself in a way that makes you look put together and articulate. Network with people in your community and around the world – no longer are we confined by proximity. Create a website, get a nice head shot photo of you sporting your chef coat and knife roll, and start laying your culinary footprint out into the world. Social media and Google will soon take the place of resumes – so find a way to bury those photos from spring break in Cancun, and at the same time, start building awareness around yourself as much as possible.
As a whole, the food no longer speaks for itself – unfortunately, there is just too much noise and clutter out there that the word of mouth side of things is only super effective when someone absolutely has to share an experience with their circle because of how remarkable it was and it goes viral – but that’s the essence of remarkable – worth making a remark about. So, what makes you remarkable? What makes your food stand out? What will people know you for?
The future and I’m not just referring to the culinary industry, is going to be made of the individuals that chose to stand up for themselves and their career and make an active effort to distance themselves from the crowd. To be unique and creative and put themselves out there, in order to stand for something – that something tells the world something about you. You can do that with your food, which is as foolproof as anything, but you can also do it by building a brand for yourself, over time using the same tools Fabio used and the same tools that I’ve used.
What do you think brought you to my website, reading an article that I wrote? The only reason why you’re here, is because I decided to build my own personal brand five or six years ago. There was something inside of me that had something to say – through my food, and through words. The “building” of it wasn’t much to look at in the early days, but if you fast forward to today – I wouldn’t trade it for much of anything – it’s something I get to continuously build on and take with me for the rest of my life. The more I think about it, the more glad I am that I decided to step out and take a chance.
The million dollar question is – are you ready? I sure hope so. If not, what are you waiting for? The good news is that I’m here to walk you through it.
If you are ready, I invite you to take my 10 Day Chef Brand Building Challenge – You can sign up for free by clicking HERE. I’ll be sharing with you (in an email over 10 consecutive days) the tools, tactics and strategies I used to create my own personal brand in this industry, which has led to so many opportunities and ways to generate income outside the kitchen. You will see that you can do it for yourself, too. See you inside!
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