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.

catch of the day: my life in sourdough

In the world of "food television", there's not much I like to watch. I'm easily bored by cooking shows, get aggravated by nearly all reality television (thought I did have my Top Chef moment), and am wholly persuaded by Michael Pollan's observation  that more time spent watching food TV inversely correlates with more time in the kitchen (not to mention general culinary proficiency).

But I am an avid fan of culinary cinema, works that seek to tell a story beyond who can quickly bang out canapés for 500 guests and actually delve into the story behind the food—see Hiro Dreams of Sushi, Toast, or Kings of Pastry. That said, I don't often have the time to watch a two hour film, and wish there were more short-form cinematic food programs. 

Enter My Life In Sourdough , a just-launched cooking show by filmmaker Marie Constantinesco, a French transplant and baking aficionado living in Brooklyn. Admittedly, if there was an equation for things that are likely to please me, Food + French + NYC would be a pretty good bet. But there's an elegance and quirky honesty to Marie's work that speaks to both an intelligent, subtle French sense of humor (that I very much appreciate) and the wondrous absurdity of being young today in Brooklyn.

I had the pleasure to meet with Marie and speak about the series, her own experience with cooking and the differences between home-cooking culture in New York and France:

What inspired the series, and how did it come to be?

My Life In Sourdough was inspired by my love for food and film. I wanted to do a new kind of cooking show involving a narrative and decided to tell the story of a girl looking for food and for love in NY. Food was going to be the link between the characters. The series was developed as an independent study at NYU (I'm a thesis student in the Graduate Film Program) and we started shooting the series with a really small budget and a tiny crew of very talented fellow filmmakers.

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Is this your first foray into the food world?

Prior to the series, I had already been playing with food themes in previous short films (Too much strawberry jam, which involved an intense making out/bread kneading session) and I have been shooting food and blogging about food for a while—but food was never really the sole focus. So yes, the series is my first real food world adventure.

Any particular funny/interesting stories about the production of the series?

There are a few! From shooting at 6 am in Choice Green  in torrential rain (It was literally raining in the store and, if you look close enough, you can actually see the rain in the scene with the made-from-scratch  guy!), to feeding the crew prop food to save money (we used the pasta we made in the scene for lunch!).

For episode 4, we also needed one shot in the waiting room of an ER. I scouted a grungy hospital, but there was a lot of security and I thought we would never get away with shooting there without permission. On the day of, we went in with a tiny camera. We sat down quietly, I hid the microphone in my handbag and we stole the shot in less than 10 minutes. The security guards couldn't care less.  

What’s already in store for the future of the show/where would you like to see it go?

I’m planning on shooting another season in the fall in NY – it’s my favorite season on this side of the Atlantic and I can’t wait to shoot in corn fields and apple orchards. A season in Paris is also on my mind. Eventually I would love to develop the series in a longer format. I’m currently looking for producers and investors.

Are there any food films/series that you particularly like and respect?

I love In the Mood for Love, which is not a food film per se, but I particularly like the slow motion scenes where Maggie Cheung goes down the stairs to buy her daily dose of noodles. The sensual atmosphere that comes with slow motion was an inspiration for the food videos of My Life in Sourdough, shot by Chananun Chotrungroj who brought her great sense of framing and aesthetics to the series.I also really like Rachel Khoo’s BBC series, and while not a film, Clotilde Dusoulier’s series on French food idioms is quite fascinating!

When and how did you start baking?

I started baking and cooking fairly young, watching my parents cook. My Romanian grandmother was also a serious baker, and I would make hundreds of biscuits with her every Christmas. My first cookbook was called La cuisine sans maman (“Cooking without mum”), but my first cooking endeavors quickly became family gatherings over mini-disasters. I once attempted to make some powered sugar and mint syrup candy balls that would refuse to come into shape. My mum invited along the postman to help out, and the green liquid paste magically turned into candy—but they tasted horrible. 

The kitchen has always been a place of exploration for me. It’s the place where I go when I’m down, and I’ll make a rhubarb jam to cheer me up. The place I like to invite friends—to cook with me or eat the new cheesecake I’ve just made. It’s also the place where I can close the door, turn on the radio, and create something. I also love how you know very quickly when it’s working or when it’s a fail, and sometimes I wish making films would resemble that process.

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How would you compare home cooking culture in France vs. New York?

Typically in NY people have less time—they drink or eat their breakfast on the street, and tend to eat out or do take out for dinner. The tradition of home-cooked meals is not as rooted as in France, but it's changing, as there is a growing movement towards home-cooking in NY, and farmer's markets are becoming more and more popular.In France, where a croissant used to be the only thing that was acceptably eaten on-the-go, people now tend to devote less time to eating lunch. For instance, the two hour lunch break has often been reduced to one hour, hence more and more sandwiches eaten on the street. However, it seems that the tradition of family dinners remains somewhat unshaken, even though the communal table is often facing a television.

Eventually, the main difference is that in France, people are so obsessed by food that they can't stop talking about it. Even in a "non-foodie" family, it's not rare for a dinner conversation to focus exclusively around food. Reminiscing over extraordinary food experiences makes the best dinner conversation!

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seen and heard: supper studio

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo

As a food writer, most of the time, my job includes avoiding open nights. Even in the better, faster, stronger culture of social media, the most serious critics still give new food businesses 4-6 weeks (and 2-3 visits!) before writing a first review.

On the flip side, in the music industry, there has long been an appeal of being the person to "discover" a band. While heading to a new restaurant is often a major risk on opening day, a great many music stories revolve around being present at the first public performance of a song, or even getting a sneak peak of a band's studio time.

Preparing the duck prosciutto and polenta fry appetizer.

Preparing the duck prosciutto and polenta fry appetizer.

At the brand-new venture, Supper Studio, these two worlds—music and food—delightfully collide, with all their disparate quirks and appeal. The event's organizers, Laura Leebove, Tracy Candido and Ben Wygonik, are no stranger to this mash-up, as Laura's longtime blog, Eating the Beats, features recipes inspired by various musicians.

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Such was the format for Supper Studio, with local band Pearl and the Beard as the inspiration for the evening's ambitious eats. As Pearl's guitarist, Jeremy Styles recalls, the group actually met Laura through her blog, when she featured their Bon Iver cover of "Stacks" alongside a fanciful stack of pancakes.

This seasonal dinner series launched on a humid night near City Hall. Curiosity ran high, as well as excitement. $35 for dinner and a concert certainly seemed like a bargain rate, so I was both anxious and excited to see what the night would bring. A glass wall was all that separated us from the kitchen—an exciting detail, from my perspective, but certainly one that raised the stakes for the kitchen crew.

Laura Leebowe explains the inspiration for the first course.

Laura Leebowe explains the inspiration for the first course.

We were promptly served small cups of polenta fries with duck prosciutto, roasted asparagus and horseradish mustard. It was a tasty, indulgent snack, if a bit difficult to eat. Upon hearing the dish analyzed by the cooks, Pearl's Jocelyn joked, "Our voices have never been compared to prosciutto—that's some expensive meat!"

As the band geared up to play their first set, the kitchen served a second appetizer of smoked almond tart with eggplant, vine tomato and ricotta. My co-diners especially liked this course, which we savored, settling into the intimacy of watching one of our favorite bands from 3 feet away.

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As someone who regularly hosts a supper club, I was impressed that the kitchen was accommodating for food allergies (a generous, but time consuming move, in my experience). The decision to serve the three final courses seated also created a significant delay, given the event's limited staff.

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Despite the delay, the other courses were well prepared—a refreshing watermelon radish and butter lettuce salad, creamy macaroni and cheese with salmon and zucchini and a sweet vanilla tapioca with strawberry rhubarb and shortbread cookie crumbs.

During dessert, Pearl and the Beard performed a second set, and any disappointment caused by the dinner's delay instantly faded. The band played a brand new song—so new, in fact, that they had yet to agree on the name. It was in that moment that I recalled how different the value of "newness" is in music and food. We forgive the experimental among musicians—the false starts, the jokes when they do mess up—in ways that we do not forgive cooks.

Pearl and the Beard's sultry cellist, Emily Hope Price.

Pearl and the Beard's sultry cellist, Emily Hope Price.

Which is why I would recommend Supper Studio to other fans of music and food. For a first event, the food was well prepared—an ambitious feat, especially given the team's small, makeshift kitchen. To boot, unless you work at NPR's Tiny Desk, it's nearly impossible to see a band (especially a great band!) in that intimate a setting. So keep an eye out for Supper Studio this fall. I'm sure they'll return with tastier timing.