5 Expert Tips for Aspiring Food Entrepreneurs

While the New York City Wine & Food Festival may be best known for hosting walk-around tastings and private dinners with the industry's most innovative and established chefs, an increasingly present—and interesting— aspect of the festival is a growing roster of panel discussions and lectures. Among those I attended at this year's festival was "Pitch Me: How to Turn Your Love For Food Into a Successful Culinary Business," featuring insights from established entrepreneurs on how to build a brand in this increasingly competitive business.

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Recognize your brand. When the Food Network brought on Rachel Ray, they were looking for a can-do home cook. But even as her star has risen, Rachel has kept that message—accessibility—at the core of her brand. For her, a large part of content creation is ensuring the audience can see themselves in her show and feel a part of a community.

Put everything down on paper. Restaurateur Luke Ostrom says a key mistake most restaurant owners make is that they don't think thoroughly enough about their concept and logistical planning. You need to exhaust your ideas and analysis, because there is an art to choosing when to go into debt.

Everything has a "sell by" date. If spending seven years on television taught Chef Tyler Florence one thing, it's that food programs, businesses and products have a shelf life. His was a career built on celebrity, and when the bottom fell out in 2008, he realized that a single-faceted career was no longer a sustainable reality. His advice to aspiring food personalities? "Make TV and media a spoke in your wheel, not your [whole] wheel."

Know your audience. Having grown up in Ohio, Senior Vice President of Food Network Bob Tuschman knows that what works in New York doesn't necessarily work for the rest of the country. He sees his Midwest upbringing as an asset in itself, as he has more respect for and interest in the national perspective.

Consider your timingQuirky founder Ben Kaufman asserts that "the best ideas in the world aren't actually in the world, they're in people's heads." His own invention, the Mophie for iPhone and iPad, went bust in its early days, but just a few years later was earning 300 million dollars in sales.

behind the knives: anthony ricco of spice market

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

It’s said that those who can’t, teach. But when it comes to cooking, Spice Market’s Executive Chef Anthony Ricco is a master at both.

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Before enrolling in a Culinary Arts program at the Institute of Culinary Education, Ricco was working as a prep cook at the China Grill. He says, “My brother forced me to go to ICE because I was holding on to the brochure for almost a year, and he knew I had talent in the kitchen, but I was wasting it. ICE helped me find my culinary voice by giving me access to quality product and excellent teachers who are very talented chefs.”

After graduation, Ricco worked at a restaurant in Long Island City, then found a position at Jean Georges, where he spent three years working every station in the kitchen. Then, he received an offer to work at one of Jean-George Vongerichten’s other New York restaurants, Spice Market.

Chili tapioca

Chili tapioca

When considering whether or not to take the position, Ricco recalls being motivated by one detail—or rather, one dish: tuna ribbons with chili tapioca, asian pear and lime in a chilled lime-coconut broth. Last month, fifteen lucky students had the chance to relive Ricco’s sense of culinary discovery, in a “Light Asian Flavors” class at his alma mater.

Plating tuna ribbons with chili tapioca and asian pear

Plating tuna ribbons with chili tapioca and asian pear

It wasn’t Chef Anthony’s first time teaching at ICE. This past winter, I was one of a handful of students who he taught to prepare the “Signature Dishes of Spice Market.” Despite the complexity of the restaurant’s recipes, it was clear that there were intensely flavorful components that I could recreate at home. From the restaurant’s signature chili oil to a spicy, tangy ginger vinaigrette or a crunchy garnish of garlic chips, each element was a clear and accessible entry into the processes by which professionals layer flavor to create a winning dish.

Seasoning chicken with an Indonesian spice rub

Seasoning chicken with an Indonesian spice rub

Needless to say, when I showed up for my second class with Chef Anthony, it was no surprise to see that I wasn’t his only repeat student. This time, I was charged with making white pepper ice cream and a spiced passion fruit simple syrup. Being more of a savory cook, it was a challenge outside my comfort zone, but involved techniques that I was eager to learn.

In fact, that’s where Chef Anthony’s strength lies. He understands that the flavors and culinary style he works with every day are foreign to most American home cooks, and makes sure that every student, no matter what recipe they are personally assigned, has the chance to learn the techniques behind the various elements of each dish. That’s how I ended up not only making ice cream and simple syrup, but also breaking down a chicken and a red snapper (both for the first time).

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And of course, given that he manages a staff of more than sixty at Spice Market, it was no surprise that Chef Anthony was able to supervise and motivate our motley crew of amateur cooks to churn out such advanced dishes. After four hours of cooking, that was the ultimate reward: to be transported by pungent, spicy, sweet flavors to the far reaches of Asia—or at least, Spice Market, which is a destination in itself.

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Tuna and Chili Tapioca with Asian Pear
*Adapted for home cooks by Chef Ricco

Tapioca (about 20 servings)

  • 7 oz. large pearl tapioca
  • 5 shallots peeled and sliced thin
  • 2 ancho chilies toasted and chopped
  • 9 chipotle peppers toasted & chopped
  • 6 dried thai chilies
  • 4 tbs. Annatto seeds
  • ¼ c. Grape seed oil
  • 1 tsp. Cloves toasted
  • 4 cinnamon sticks toasted and smashed
  • 1 tbs. Sichuan peppercorns crushed
  • 4 tbs. Salt
  • 3 tbs. Sugar
  • 7 c. Water
  • Chili oil
  • 1 tsp. Salt to finish

Sweat all but tapioca, sugar, salt and water in oil until golden. Add water, salt and sugar and bring to boil, simmer for 30 minutes then strain thru a chinois. Bring back to a boil then add tapioca and cook, stirring until clear. Drain under cold running water until cool. Put in a container and just cover with chili oil, then season with salt and reserve.

Lime-Coconut Broth

  • 5 stalks lemongrass
  • 40 kaffir leaves washed & chopped
  • 1 green finger chili washed & chopped
  • 3 c. coconut juice
  • ¾ c. coconut milk
  • ¾ c. lime juice + 3 oz to finish
  • ¾ c. sugar
  • 1½ tsp. Salt

Clean, crush and finely chop lemongrass. Combine coconut juice, milk, chili, lime juice, sugar and salt and bring to boil. Add lemongrass and kaffir, mix well and let cool, uncovered. Strain through chinois and finish with lime juice.

To Serve

  • Tuna
  • Tapioca
  • Asian pear, peeled, cut into ¼” diamonds
  • Jicama, peeled and cut into ¼” diamonds
  • Red bell pepper char grilled, peel, cut in ¼” diamonds
  • Scallion greens cut on bias
  • Lime coconut broth

Slice tuna into 1” long, ½” wide and ⅛” thick pieces. Serve 10 pieces per plate. Arrange in a chilled shallow medium size bowl and fold each piece in half. Season tuna with salt then scatter with chili tapioca, then with jicama and pear. Sprinkle with scallions and then scatter with red pepper. Cover halfway with coconut-lime infusion and serve.

behind the knives: urban oyster

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One of the most exciting aspects of working in the contemporary field of food is the constant influx of unique projects and organizations. Among them, Urban Oyster, a Brooklyn-based tour company that serves up edible adventures across New York City. From craft beer crawls to the ethnic fare of the city's many immigrants, founder David Naczycz and his staff of knowledgeable, passionate guides are revolutionizing our understanding of the city's food culture, one tour at a time.  Brewery-Winery-Distillery_036What was your involvement in the food world before launching Urban Oyster?

I was a consumer only, a lover of eating and drinking. One of the reasons I liked living in NYC was the amazing selection and quality of food you can get here. Otherwise there was no professional involvement. I did wait tables in high school and tended bar for a year in my mid-twenties but both those stints were not at places that served haute cuisine.

Where did the name Urban Oyster come from, and what distinguishes your tours from others?

Our company name was really inspired by the story of oysters in the city. New York used to be the main supplier of oysters for the entire world (You can read about this in Mark Kurlansky's great book, The Big Oyster). The harbor was a very rich marine environment in pre-industrial NY and was teaming with all kinds of sea creatures and millions upon millions of oysters. They became a staple food of the city and were so plentiful that they even poor people could afford them. The first street vendors were oyster and clam vendors, and they were a treasure of NYC. However, years of over harvesting and pollution eventually killed the beds, and by the 1920s commercial fishing of oysters had ended in New York harbor.We created Urban Oyster to connect people to NYC's neighborhoods and local businesses. The city has tons of amazing neighborhoods and businesses but we are starting to see them disappear underneath a tide of multi-national retailers, banks, etc.  When we read Mark's book we thought the stories were very similar. No one set out to destroy oysters.  People just didn't realize the impact of their actions. So our goal with our tours and events is to inform people about exemplary small businesses and how we can support neighborhood commerce. That way, NYC communities and small businesses won't go the way of the oysters.

Urban Oyster guide Allison Radecki and one half of Stinky Bklyn's husband/wife team, Patrick Watson.
Urban Oyster guide Allison Radecki and one half of Stinky Bklyn's husband/wife team, Patrick Watson.

On the Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill tour, I was impressed with the genuine relationships my guide had developed with purveyors in the community. How do you select the sites you feature on the tours, and what is your process for forming those intimate relationships?

We look for a number of things when determining what to feature on our tours. The focus is always on a neighborhood so we look for unique stories that are within walking distance of one another. For the stops, we pick the ones that we think best represent the community and also the ones that we think people will enjoy most. We feature some of the most delicious food purveyors and products in the city, however it's not our goal to be another arbiter of who is the best of this or that. Rather, our tours are designed so that you get to discover outstanding small businesses and the stories of the people that own and operate them. Stinky Bklyn is a great example. They are an amazing cheese monger, as well as a gourmet shop. Are they a better than say Murray's or some of the others in the city?  We let our tour goers decide that.  But you will meet the people behind the counter, learn about how the owners Patrick and Michele have contributed to Smith Street becoming a food destination, and learn why it's important to have small, local cheese and charcuterie shops.

Cobble Hill's 61 Local manifests its philosophy with a map of local purveyors.
Cobble Hill's 61 Local manifests its philosophy with a map of local purveyors.

The neighborhood’s history was also a significant aspect of the tour, and not just in relation to how it shaped the food culture. We never wanted to be one-dimensional as a tour company. Our tours are the most complete that I know of, including history, food, drink, architecture and more.  The reason being that we try to give people the most complete picture possible. How can you appreciate the new places in a neighborhood without knowing the culture and history that they inherited and were influenced by?

What have been some of the most surprising aspects of organizing food tours?

To be honest, each step in the process was new to me as I hadn't run a tour company before or even worked in the travel industry. I think the most surprising moment came with our first tour - the Brewed in Brooklyn Tour - about the beer industry and its past and present in Brooklyn. We assumed the tour would be most popular with men due to its focus on beer. However, 75% of our tickets for that tour were purchased by women. This is true of all of our tours. Often they are often bringing their boyfriend, husband, father, etc. but not always. What we soon learned was that women are more inclined to organize and plan outings for couples or friends. In our case, that’s great, because part of object of our tours was to introduce new things to people and many women have discovered a love for craft beer on our beer themed tours.  I'd much rather give a tour for them then for a bunch of beer snobs any day. I prefer to preach to the un-converted.

The famous "lobster tail" pastries at Caputo's Bakery in Carroll Gardens.
The famous "lobster tail" pastries at Caputo's Bakery in Carroll Gardens.

How do you see Urban Oyster and other forms of alternative food education playing a role in the contemporary food movement? 

Tours are a great educational tool and, frankly, they are under-utilized and under-appreciated by the food industry.  People turn to tours for fun, which is how all learning should be, so you get a lot of people that are not familiar with issues like local production, biodynamic food, slow food, etc.  The key for the food movement is to move beyond people who are informed and provide that information to a wider audience, in the hope of changing some patterns of consumption.There is always more for us to cover, and we are working on new tours and events that will expand us into new locations and new types of food. But, in the end, all of it is the same: encourage people to buy and eat local by connecting them to small purveyors and sense of community. Whether our guests live in the neighborhood - or are visiting from Kansas or even another country – we hope the value of local commerce is something they can take with them.