Not long after I started at The Prairie Schooner, I accepted a position at The University of Utah, teaching a class on cultural aspects of food in the Department of Nutrition. I taught Monday afternoons, which was my day off from The Schooner. The class had previously been taught once a semester, and was capped at 26 students (which was rarely ever met). Let me back up a bit, though. I think some background on this class is important to the story I’m about to share. I want you to keep in mind that this was a touchstone moment – my paradigm about food was shifting. You see, I believed that being in food service meant that I worked in a restaurant, worked restaurant hours, and made restaurant pay. Teaching this class at the U shifted that paradigm, and got me to question other paradigms I’d held about my passion, and food service in general.
While I was still working in corporate America, I attended a 4-day meditation retreat and met Rachel Jones. We had several friends in common, and we hit it off pretty quickly. One of the activities at the retreat, following a deep meditation on the future path of our lives, involved creating a collage of pictures clipped from magazines, resulting in a highly visual map, or vision board, of our deepest desires for the future. Now remember, I wasn’t involved in food service or cooking in any way, shape, or form at that time. For whatever reason, I grabbed every food-related and cooking magazine that was there, and started clipping away, cutting out pictures of spices, gas ranges, fruits, vegetables, tables set with crystal, china and white linen, and so on. I carefully arranged all of these onto my board without really understanding or even fully conscious of what was appearing before me. As we each began to share with one another what the images on our boards represented, I was clueless about mine. It had more or less taken shape of it’s own accord, and I didn’t have any deep or profound insight, or any inkling of what it all meant. Rachel was particularly curious about what I’d composed, and admired the images I’d chosen while asking very pointed questions about them. I didn’t really have any answers for her, and fumbled through some explanation of what it might mean, but why it couldn’t happen. When I returned home that evening, I explained to Megan that I didn’t really know what the board was all about, but hung it on the wall nonetheless. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first glimmer lighting the path of where my passion would take me.
As the retreat drew to a close the next day, I wanted to stay connected to Rachel. At the time, she was adamantly against social media, so at the end of the retreat, we hugged goodbye, and I figured I’d likely never see her again. A few months later, she sent me a request on Facebook, I accepted, and we began interacting on a wide variety of topics. Then, in August of 2011, she sent me a message: “Want to teach a class with me at The U?”
We messaged back and forth, hammering out all the details. It was a paid gig, one day a week, co-teaching a course titled “Cultural Aspects of Food”. Basically, my job was to bring a group of students into the food lab on campus, and teach them how to cook a culturally authentic dish from somewhere in the world, while at the same time, teaching them some basic cooking skills. I mean, what college kid wouldn’t jump at the chance to eat free food, and at the same time, learn how to cook something other than ramen, right?
The dean of the College of Health, a kind and friendly man with an easy laugh, was openly excited about the idea. One or two of the other faculty shared his enthusiasm, but the majority of my new co-workers were skeptical at best, and aloof and distant at worst. The department admin (the lady that basically kept the entire department running, and ruled with an iron fist), was one of the latter. I don’t feel like she went out of her way to make my work there difficult, but she certainly didn’t do anything to make it any more pleasant, either.
Once again, it was an echo of my first stage at The Met – no open hostility, but not much in the way of a warm welcome either. I got the lesson this time: Not everyone I knew was invested or even interested in me being successful. I know, that sounds like I believe(d) that everyone should be interested in MY success. It’s not that way at all, I never felt that way. But that being said, this particular lesson was all about me realizing that if I wanted something, it was up to me to get it. I had to do the work, no one else could. Along with that realization, came this one: just because they weren’t actively campaigning and supporting my success, didn’t mean that they were against it, either. I guess the best way to express it is simply this: Not everyone is your friend, even if they act like it. Likewise, not everyone is your enemy, even if they act like it. Realizing this, I started to pay much more attention to those that wanted to align themselves with me, or “hitch their wagon” to my success, as it were. And I also started scrutinizing those people around me that seemed to be against me in some form or another. What I found was that allies and supporters come in many different varieties and flavors, and by spending a little bit of time evaluating the relationship I have with someone, I can almost always find a way to give and receive value from them, even if it’s a cautionary “what NOT to do” lesson. The last thing I’ll say on this is that it’s easier to move forward when you’re moving in a group. The people in your group don’t have to be friendly or supportive, but if you’re all moving towards a common goal, you’re going to get there faster.
Back to school (see what I did there?) – The first semester was 14 weeks long. I had about 30 students, and each day we went to the lab and I cooked, and answered questions, and shared my passion for food, and I got them involved (at least, as much as they wanted to be involved). I shared food from 14 different cultures from around the world, many of which this group of students had never experienced before. It was refreshing and even reassuring being able to witness the student’s world view actually change and shift before my eyes as they’d eat and share food from another culture very different from their own.
Well, word got out that the Department of Nutrition had a course that counted as an International Credit (every student is required to take a few International credits, regardless of their field of study or their major), and there was food that was prepared by a real chef, and it was AWESOME. Halfway into registration for the next semester, they had to change the room the class was held in, because they’d received an overwhelming interest in the class. They made the decision to triple the class size to 75 students. The room they found had a capacity of 77, so it would work out nicely.
On the first day of the semester, Rachel and I were informed that there was a waitlist of around 150 students. When we arrived at the classroom, about 15 minutes before class was scheduled to start, every seat was filled, there were students standing in the aisles, and there was a large group of 40 or so students waiting outside in the hall, unable to get inside. Rachel and I let all the students that were waitlisted know that we would absolutely let them know if there were any cancellations or drops that opened up a seat in the class. Immediately after that class, Rachel and I marched to the scheduling office to see if there was a time slot and a classroom available to make a second class happen. After a few hours of searching, phone calls to other departments, etc, we came up empty handed. There would be only one class this semester, filled to capacity. There were some logistics to work out, since the food lab would only accommodate about 30-35 students, but we figured that out by allowing the students to choose which labs they attended with me, requiring only that they attend a total of three labs. As you can imagine, there were plenty of students that attended more often. I was supposed to regulate that, but the truth is, I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to prohibit a student from coming to a lab that they really wanted to experience, even if it’s just because they were hungry.
Preparations were made for the next semester, and we expanded to two classes – Monday and Wednesday. The semester following that, we expanded to three classes each week, and then four, and then five. At one point, Rachel and I taught the most popular class on campus, eclipsing even History of Rock n’ Roll (yes, that’s actually a class offered at The University of Utah, look it up). When we added the fourth and fifth classes, it was necessary to add another instructor. Her name was Tahmina, she’s a refugee from Bangladesh, and one of the most fascinating and compassionate people I’ve ever met. She’s travelled the world, and knows more about food than even God. More on her later…
So when we added the second class, I made the decision to leave The Prairie Schooner. I enjoyed teaching a whole lot more, and there was the promise of it becoming a full-time gig with benefits. I helped Christian find and train my replacement, and left the restaurant in capable hands, ready to focus on my teaching career. Before we added the fourth and fifth classes, I had some extra time on my hands (I was only working about 6-8 hours a week between the two classes), so I kind of let my mind explore the possibilities of what else I could do. I’d had a few catering events that had gone well, mostly from word of mouth referrals, but I didn’t necessarily want to be a caterer. This was kind of a pivotal moment for me, because I had free time, passionate drive, and once again, my paradigm was becoming a little more malleable, and was shifting a bit. I was starting to look at opportunities, and envisioning ways that I could take advantage of them.
The food truck scene in Salt Lake was in it’s infancy, with about 6 trucks forming a small community and working more or less together to grow the industry and make a living, and I’d had this idea for a food truck kicking around in my head for a bit. I told Megan that I wanted to start a food truck, and she wisely suggested that I go work on one first. So I tracked down the Chow Truck, which was the first one on the scene in Salt Lake. Megan and I went there, had some dinner, and let me tell you, it was sublime – the quality of food was not just surprising, but damn near unbelievable, and these gourmet tacos and sliders were coming from a truck?! I was blown away, and knew that this was the truck I needed to work on. I hit up the owner, a petite Asian lady with a warm smile and a sharp eye for detail, SuAn Chow, and asked her for a job. As it turns out, she was hiring, and so I started working for her a few days a week. It didn’t take more than three weeks for me to realize that owning a food truck was NOT what I wanted, but working on one was pretty damn fun! Of all the kitchens I’ve worked in, that tiny gourmet kitchen-on-wheels holds a very special place in my heart. That’s another story, and we’ll get to it in the next chapter.
As I was starting to recognize opportunities around me, one fell right in my lap. During the second semester teaching at the U, one of the nutritionists came to me with a question. She had two clients that she was working with, both doctors, that wanted to eat healthier but had no desire or interest in learning to cook or prepare meals for themselves. She asked if I’d be interested in working with her to help the two of them reach their fitness goals by providing meals for them.
This was another golden opportunity, and I recognized it immediately. I met with the two of them, discussed their eating habits, likes/dislikes, food allergies, etc. They were exceptionally easy to please, only requesting that I avoid cauliflower and not prepare too much fish. I charged them $12/meal, provided lunch and dinner 5 days a week,, and delivered all of the meals in a cooler every Tuesday. It was a pretty good gig, and brought in an extra $240 each week, which was nice.
Things continued like that for about a year, with me teaching 3-4 days a week, working on the truck 3-4 days a week, and prepping meals for these two clients once a week. I’d settled into a routine, and my paradigms had likewise settled in. It was time for a shift, and that shift came in the form of me hiring my first mentor, Christopher John Stubbs. Well, I eventually hired him…
You see, my mindset still had me stuck making around $50k/year, working three jobs to do it. Don’t get me wrong, I was loving my life, but I’d seen glimpses of more, and wanted to find a way to get there. The first conversation I had with Christopher lasted about an hour. He completely opened my mind to some possibilities that were right in front of me. The most important one, and the most immediately actionable, was expanding the personal chef business. He asked me how much more effort it would take to prepare meals for 10 people, rather than just two. “Not much, really, when it comes right down to it.” was my reply.
“And how much more effort to double that again?” he proceeded to ask.
“A little more effort and perhaps a kitchen upgrade.” I replied, as the wheels in my head began to spin faster and faster.
“And how much to double THAT?” he continued.
By now, my brain was running at full steam and reeling with the possibilities – I could see how to turn this ONE thing I was doing into a SIX-FIGURE INCOME.
The only problem? He charged $500/month to work with him, and there was no way that I could afford that. Christopher saw something in me, though, and so he made me an offer – I do the work, I figure as much out on my own as I can, and then I reach out to him when I’m really and truly stuck, and he’ll help to get me unstuck. The catch? I had to be respectful of his time, and REALLY do everything I could think of before calling him, and he wasn’t going to spend any more time with me than necessary, so I absolutely had to be open, vulnerable and teachable when I called him.
Well, I set to building this personal chef business up, and there was plenty of hard work, and frustration, along the way. Christopher helped me out a few times before I eventually had built a thriving business, and could now afford to hire him. That’s where things REALLY started to explode on my culinary journey!
The lesson here is simple: we are only limited by our own beliefs and imagination. I started out as a line cook making $8.50 an hour because that’s what my beliefs about food service were at the time. I got the pay I asked for as a chef at The Prairie Schooner because that’s what I believed at the time. Every time I shifted my beliefs, or sometimes even just opened myself to the possibilities, my world shifted entirely, and I “leveled up” into the new paradigm, and more money, and more of everything else, too. That’s the way it goes. When you BELIEVE, when you DO THE WORK, when you become who you need to be to make your vision a reality, THEN you will have what you desire.