Chef to Chef
How Chefs Can Build A Personal Brand: Chef to Chef MIA
September 23, 2022
BentoBox’s nationwide dinner series continues with a stop at Miami’s Swan.
On Monday, September 12, BentoBox’s nationwide Chef to Chef dinner series stopped at Swan, a playful restaurant from hospitality mavens David Grutman and Pharrell Williams in the heart of Miami’s Design District. Professionals from around the Miami dining scene came together to take in a discussion on one of the principal trends to take over the hospitality industry in the last generation: personal branding.
The discussion was hosted, as always, by Chef Hong Thaimee, owner of New York City’s Thaimee Love and someone quite familiar with a high-profile personal brand. Joining her were Miami restaurateurs Jennifer Kaminski of 2 Korean Girls and Chef Allen Susser, a local culinary legend whose many credits include advising Kaminski and her sister in the creation of their business.
In a restaurant industry defined these days as much by TV personalities and social media as by cooking, the panel meditated on the importance of having a personal brand and how to make sure it elevates, not overshadows, the hospitality and cuisine enjoyed by guests. Here were a few highlight takeaways.
A chef needs to have a personal brand
Chef Allen Susser, who has built a prominent name for himself in the food world and in Miami, knows a thing or two about establishing a brand. According to him, it’s a necessity for a purposeful career in the kitchen.
“Building a brand is having a story,” he said. “A chef has to have a story, because a chef’s story is their point of view. Without a point of view, you're just cooking.”
“The difference between a cook and a chef is that a chef is someone who has a point of view, who wants to bring something to the table and wants to share something with the community. It’s someone who has something to say. Ultimately, that's what a brand is: suggesting that you have something to say or represent.”
Nowhere is this lesson more important than for a chef opening a restaurant, according to Jennifer Kaminski.
“With social media, digital marketing, everything going on today, I think a new chef needs to be thinking about launching a brand versus launching a restaurant,” she said.
Skills first, brand second
As branding in the culinary world has taken on more importance than ever, it’s led to a common misconception that branding is the extent of what a chef needs. Not so, said Kaminski.
“To someone just starting out, I would say you've got to be patient. You've got to put in the time and learn your craft and cook. You need to master the basics and so much more than that as well. Learning how to manage a kitchen, how to organize it, being able to understand the flow of what makes a successful setup: These aren't things that you just innately know. They have to be built.”
Get started by getting a job
Kaminski cited the experience of working with Susser in setting up her business as a necessary education in becoming a restaurant proprietor.
“There are a lot of things you don't know until you know them. Chef Susser would come in and ask us: ‘Why would you make so much food? Why would you buy so many groceries?’ And then when you run out of food, and you're stuck, you're like, ‘OK, this is why you prepare and organize. This is why you set a foundation before you even start cooking, and set all the benchmarks you need in order to be successful.’”
Precisely because experience is the best teacher — and because a career in restaurants is not what it looks like from afar — Susser is not a big fan of gaining this type of experience the academic route.
“People ask me how you start a career; how you know what school to go to. Here’s my advice. If you really want to become a cook, go to your favorite restaurant, knock on the back door and see if you can work for a weekend. Save yourself $50,000 or more. See if you're up for it. Because it's not the glamor that it looks like on TV.”
Build your brand around your joy, not your market
Chef Thaimee offered a poignant reflection on her own personal brand — and where it really came from.
“I was born and raised in Thailand, but I was sent to school here in the U.S. And I've been living in New York for more than 10 years. So I'm not 100% Thai anymore. I cook seasonally according to autumn harvest, or winter cranberries, and I’m not worrying about how I can ‘make it Thai.’ I make it my own.
“So that’s my goal right now: to really be confident that people are not eating Thai food, they’re eating my food. Authenticity is not about a specific cuisine anymore. It's about who you are.”
Kaminski’s story was similar. When asked whether she adapted the brand of 2 Korean Girls to the culinary market of Miami, which does not have an abundance of Asian cuisine, she replied:
“I think we’ve stayed true to who we are. We talked about this during recipe and menu development: ‘Do we put citrus in this? Do we fuse Miami into our menu? Do we give people what they’re familiar with?’ And we decided no, we can't do that.
“That’s where I think the branding comes in. If people open up their minds a little bit to what we're putting out there on social media, they’re more likely to say, ‘Maybe I'll try this’ in real life. Or, ‘I've never heard of this before, but maybe I'll give it a go.’”
Chef Susser agreed, offering a universal rule to apply to the question of how to redefine one’s brand.
“It’s important for a chef to be able to redefine their brand over the course of a career,” he said. “And the question to ask in redefining yourself and understanding yourself, is, where are you going to find the joy? Where are you going to find the joy that'll help you get up in the morning and get you through the day?
“Because there will be frustration. There will be days when the refrigerators break and the stove’s down and the sewer's backed up, and the health department is coming today and shows up right on time. Getting through it takes a lot of energy and courage. Finding the mission that gives you enough joy to push through that — that’s what your brand needs to mean to yourself.”
BentoBox’s Chef to Chef dinner series continues next in Atlanta on October 24th. To request an invite, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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