At 15 years old, I was unsure about many things. I was trying to figure out my sense of fashion, navigate high school and work on my self confidence. The only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to become a chef and open a restaurant. I got my first restaurant job as a server at Amerigo in Jackson, Mississippi and eventually moved into my first cook position. 18 restaurants later, I cut the ribbons on my latest pop ups, Olilo in NYC and Wicked Eats in Raleigh. I've learned a thing or two about pursuing a culinary career and what it means to follow your dreams.
I owe a lot of my career to my education. So if you want to become a chef, I encourage you to go to culinary school. Following the advice of my late mentor, Julia Childs, I applied to The Culinary Institute of America and was thrilled when I got accepted. I spent the next few years trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible at the CIA.
I'm grateful for my education and realize that going to college or culinary school is not a privilege everyone has access to. If you're an aspiring chef and can't go to culinary school, your education will come from your jobs. Working in kitchens will be your master class. Cooking at home and teaching yourself techniques from books and youtube will be your homework. Before starting her Barefoot Contessa empire, Ina Garten was a budget analyst in The White House. She's just one example of a self taught chef who became super successful.
After graduating from the CIA, it was time to put my skills to the test. I went straight to France and apprenticed at two, three-star restaurants with Georges Blanc and Roger Verge. I knew moving to France would put me out of my comfort zone, but sometimes the space outside of your comfort zone is exactly where you need to be to learn and master your craft. After coming back to the states, I was eventually able to partner with Disney and open my very first restaurant, Kouzzina.
From Mesa Burger in Santa Barbara to Ocean in Singapore, I now get to open restaurants all over the world. Here are a couple photos from Mesa Burger. No matter how busy things get with openings, I always make time to work in the kitchen. That's where my heart is!
Even though it's nerve-racking, opening a restaurant is also exciting because I love tackling the challenges that come with each opening. From pop ups to airports, the locations of my restaurants truly shape the way I plan each opening.
I also love opening restaurants because not only do I get to create menus, recipes, and feed people but I get to employ, teach, guide and empower people all across the nation and globally.
The truth is that dreams don't come true glamorously. There's a lot of hard work that people will never see. I've logged thousands of hours chopping vegetables. I've gotten hundreds of burns working over hot flames. I create recipes and rework them over and over again until I've balanced flavors perfectly, no matter how long it takes. All of this is part of the dream. My advice to young chefs and anyone with a dream: Stay the course, never give up, always pay it forward and don’t be afraid to take risks. Nothing great comes easy, so work your ass off!
I also encourage you to stay true to your passion. Even though I trained in 3 star Michelin restaurants in France and I love being creative in the kitchen, I'm passionate about making dishes that are accessible, sustainable, healthy and of course, DELICIOUS!