Tastemakers on Food Culture
On October 18, Babson hosted its seventh annual Food Day! This event draws food industry leaders and entrepreneurs to Babson’s campus each year. Babson Food Day is hosted by Food Sol, an action tank within Babson’s Social Innovation Lab. Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, who has served as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Babson since 2012, led the events. He expressed to the audience how grateful he was to be here and how he looks forward to visiting Babson all year for this event.
One of the Food Day events was a “Tastemakers on Food Culture” fireside panel in which 13 successful local chefs and restaurateurs candidly discussed the challenges they have faced during their time in the industry. Andrew shared his personal journey of balancing four businesses while being married and having a child with developmental disabilities. Last year, he took 90 days off of work to enter his son into an institution that cares for him. This incredibly challenging experience taught him that being honest about failures and sharing these experiences is part of human commonality. He then opened the floor to the panelists.
Jody Adams (Porto, TRADE, Saloniki, Top Chef Masters) began. She shared how in recently, her sister had died of cancer, several of her chefs had quit, and her restaurants were losing money. Ms. Adams took initiative to meet with her investors and be transparent about her needs. In order to adapt, Porto has now closed for lunch and the menu is simpler. Making these changes was not easy. However, Ms. Adams has been working on accepting the things she cannot change, having the courage to change the things she can, and being able to tell the difference. She recommends letting go of who you think you have to be. It’s hard to articulate when things in your life aren’t working, but you have to face what you perceive as shameful in order to heal and grow.
Skip Bennett (Island Creek Oysters) spoke next, saying that in business, we face setbacks every day. For Mr. Bennett, the biggest setbacks were early because he didn’t have capital- he only had sweat equity. He was digging clams, which is not very profitable. After graduating from college in 1990, he started growing clams because he wanted to try aquaculture. This was pre-Internet so he didn’t know anyone else growing shellfish. In 1991 and 1992, the northeast suffered from massive storms that devastated his clams. By 1995, he was making money from the clams, but later that year his farm had the first breakout of clam disease ever discovered. All his clams were wiped out. He had put his heart and soul into his clam farm. After these nearly back-to-back tragedies, Mr. Bennett reset his expectations. Aquaculture became a lifestyle he was passionate about and something he would have done for free. In 1995, he started growing oysters in Duxbury Bay, Massachusetts. At the time, there were no oysters in this bay. 22 years later, there are now 25 oyster farms in Duxbury. Duxbury now produces more oysters than any other town in Massachusetts!
Michael Scelfo (Alden & Harlow, Waypoint, Longfellow) talked about how he always wanted to be a chef. In 2001, he and his wife moved to Boston from New York and Mr. Scelfo became an executive chef in Arlington, Massachusetts. The restaurant opened in July and two months later, received a three-star review from the Boston Globe. He was 28 at the time and thought he had hit a home run. In September of that year, however, the restaurant closed and his wife was pregnant with twins. He worked multiple foodservice jobs between 2002 and 2005 but was fired from them all because he wouldn’t take directions. He found another restaurant job that gave him insurance because he had another child on the way, but this particular job was unsatisfying because the scope of what he could create was limited. Mr. Scelfo worked at that restaurant every day for three years but quit because they would not let him take one day off to see his son being born. He took another job in the financial district but he still was only cooking American food basics. He would go home and write menus at night, but nobody would give him the chance to bring them to life. In 2009 he decided to work in a small restaurant in Cambridge where he could be creative and it went extremely well. He opened his own restaurant before age 40 and loves how the possibilities are now endless.
Tony Maws (Craigie on Main, Kirkland Tap & Trotter) said that he has gone through almost everything people had discussed in the panel. As a business owner, his staff looks up to him whether or not he deserves it. It’s his responsibility to report to investors, work with the crews, and make sure the food is coming out right. Mr. Maws said that his biggest failure was that he was mean to everyone and although he recognized this bad habit, he didn’t do anything about it. He was getting awards and people were going to the restaurants but his staff didn’t like him. He was ego-driven. It was impacting his business because he was losing opportunities and key employees. He felt that the only way to be successful was to do everything his way. He eventually convinced himself that the business wouldn’t suffer if he relinquished some control and let others have a say. Now, he looks forward to going to work and seeing his staff. It has been a powerful transformation.
Kristen Kish (formerly chef de cuisine at Menton, Top Chef) opened up about how she has dealt with anxiety and depression her whole life and struggles with judgment and self-worth. These habits started at a young age. As she has grown, she has become more aware of how these habits impact her life in an unhealthy way. After graduating from culinary school and moving to Chicago, she struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. She spent some time at home in Michigan before moving to Boston. She still struggles with questioning her self-worth every day, but when she finds herself feeling this way, she switches the narrative. She reminds herself that she is fulfilling her responsibilities and making money, and that everything is okay.
These chefs really opened up at this event and showed the audience that even though everything looks good from the outside, everyone has their own struggles. Regardless of the industry, we will face challenges that seem insurmountable but we have to keep in mind that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. We are so grateful to Andrew Zimmern and all the chefs that spoke at this event, and hope to see them again next year!