Podcast episode 1

From Engineer to a Plant-Based Private Chef

With Shane Witters Hicks | 27 Minutes | June 22, 2021

In this episode we speak with Shane Witters Hicks, a private chef, plant-based culinary specialist, and Escoffier graduate. Shane completed his undergraduate degree in physics with a minor in computer science and environmental sustainability, then worked as a power systems engineer before switching his career to the restaurant industry.

After graduating from Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in May 2020, he started his own company, The Soulful Spread, which offers two primary services — delivering meals as a private chef and teaching virtual cooking classes.

Listen as Shane shares about his experience as an entrepreneur, and how plant-based cooking is shaping the culinary industry.

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi, everyone, my name is Kirk Bachman, and welcome to the very first episode of Escoffier’s podcast. In today’s episode, we’re featuring Shane Witters Hicks, an Escoffier graduate, who decided to leave behind a career as a power systems engineer after realizing his true passion was in the kitchen. Join us as we hear how Shane has embarked on a unique career transition from the science lab to becoming a chef with an emphasis on plant-based cuisine. Shane, welcome, thank you for being here today. It’s so good to see you. How are you?

Shane Witters Hicks: Hey, Chef Kirk, thanks so much for having me. It is a delight to be on the podcast. I’m doing so well.

Kirk Bachmann: Are you staying healthy?

Shane Witters Hicks: Sure I am.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, it’s been a long year, right?

Shane Witters Hicks: It has. It’s been a crazy time for everyone. And yeah, grateful to be here. Grateful to be in beautiful Boulder, Colorado, and looking forward to the future.

Kirk Bachmann: It is beautiful today, in particular, fresh snow on the ground, blue skies. I absolutely love it.

Shane Witters Hicks: That’s right. I know, my roommate was saying he’s not from Colorado, and he was talking about how he thinks the winter is over. And I was like, “Not yet”, you need to give it a little more time. Colorado is a little late in the winter department.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, it’s great. I don’t know if you ski, but it’s great to get some late season snow. Absolutely get up and get a few more runs. I think the the season is about over. Are you a skier?

Shane Witters Hicks: I used to be a skier, and guiltily, unless there’s a direct motivation, like friends literally pull me out to go downhill skiing, I will not. But that being said, I am a pretty avid Nordic skier, and I do cross-country skate skiing. Fun fact, I’ve been cross-country skiing at a YMCA, it’s called Snow Mountain Ranch, every year since I’ve been born. My first year I was born, my parents pulled me in a backpack.

Kirk Bachmann: No way! Over by Winter Park, right?

Shane Witters Hicks: Yep, you got it.

Changing Careers and Culinary School

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, that’s an awesome place. Very, very cool. Well, let’s talk food, buddy. I’ve spent so much time over the last…people don’t know, the couple of years that I’ve known you, right, talking about food and your experience at Escoffier, and next steps and all that. And I realized, as I was thinking about our time together today, that I never really asked you why you made the move from a career in engineering to culinary arts. What fueled that decision?

Shane Witters Hicks: Yeah, gosh, I guess we never did talk about that transition. It was the big one for sure, as I’m sure anyone who has made a big career change can relate to. I got my bachelor’s degree in physics, and directly after my college experience, I started working at one of the Department of Energy labs called the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, doing power systems engineering. So working in that field of renewable energy, I am still very passionate about that subject. I still think it’s very important, and my line of work was related to how we’re going to transition our electric grid, which is very dated and archaic essentially, to a more modern electric grid. You’ve probably heard the term smart grids before, and so it was related to that kind of work, and I was more involved in the computer programming aspect of that.

So again, very good work, I’m very passionate about that still. But you know, I just spent a lot of time sitting at my desk and thinking, “Shane, what the heck, you are spending way too much time thinking about food.” I was thinking about what I was going to be cooking that evening, what projects I wanted to tackle in the kitchen, instead of projects I wanted to tackle related to renewable energy and electric grids. And it just became, to be quite honest, ultimately clear after a couple months that I was devoting too much thought energy in the direction of the culinary industry, and not enough thought energy into my actual work. And although I was getting work done, I was still fulfilling my job role. I just felt like if I can make a go of a culinary career, I would love to find out sooner rather than later. I would not like to put this off.

So one day after I finished that job, I actually stayed up all night really just kind of wrestling with this idea and redid my resume completely. If anybody has made this kind of a similar transition, they probably have encountered the dilemma of like, “Okay, how do I make myself sound credible enough to get hired on a resume, even though I have no actual professional experience?” I’m on my resume like, “Okay, how do I make it sound like I have more experience than I cook in my mom’s kitchen?”

Kirk Bachmann: Is that where it started? Did you cook a lot at home with your family? Is that where the passion came from? While you sat there at your desk thinking about food instead of renewable energy?

Shane Witters Hicks: You bet, you bet. The original story is absolutely in my mom’s kitchen. She’s a fantastic home cook. I have great memories of having a flour-dusted face when I was like two years old, rolling pastries out and things like that. Nothing too fancy, but I definitely did develop the love for it there. And I think it really blossomed in college. In between my physics projects, I’d get relief, I’d come up for air by going into the dorm room kitchen with friends and whipping together homemade pizzas and calzones and pastas, and just really fun comfort food.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that story. And it’s a very common story among a lot of great cooks and passionate cooks that they were there in the kitchen with their grandma or their mom. And that’s a beautiful story, I love it. So cooking in college, what came first: Escoffier or the industry? Did you go into the industry and do a few odd things in the kitchen and then came to Escoffier? Is that how it worked?

Shane Witters Hicks: You got it, yeah. I was actually pretty passionate about that point. Culinary school did occur to me – I’ve always considered myself a big student at heart. I love learning; I know I will be a lifelong learner. And so I felt like…I actually originally planned to go to higher education for physics, because you can’t do very much with just a bachelor’s in physics; you really need to go on to get your master’s or a PhD to actually do some solid research. So higher education was always, I think, in the cards for me.

And so when I made the transition to the culinary school, absolutely I was thinking, “Okay, how am I going, what’s the next step as far as education?” But after doing some research, I really felt passionate that I don’t want to just jump in – what’s the expression? “Green behind the ears” – very inexperienced, essentially, in the culinary school, because I’d heard too many stories of people having absolutely no restaurant experience and going to culinary school thinking they’re hot stuff. And no offense to them; I think a lot of people do that, and it probably ends up working out just fine for them.

But I think the issue is that a lot of people do that, and then they leave culinary school, go into a restaurant setting, and find that they had no idea what they were in for. I really wanted to get some solid experience in a restaurant kitchen before I went to culinary school. So yeah, I worked for about a year and a half in the industry, which I know isn’t a really long time, but it definitely allowed me to get my hands a little dirty in the restaurant industry and see what that actually feels like. Feel the burn of the lye before I actually went in and got the theory, the academia behind it all. I think it was a good way to do it.

Shane Starts His Own Company

Kirk Bachmann: It’s brilliant. Yeah, there’s a lot of value in getting a taste of it, pun intended, before you fully dive in. So now fast forward, you’re an entrepreneur, which is super, super cool. Let’s talk about The Soulful Spread.

Shane Witters Hicks: The Soulful Spread, sure.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s your company, right?

Shane Witters Hicks: That’s right, and it’s still pretty new. It hasn’t been around. It still kind of feels like my thought child even though it’s definitely been up and going for a couple months now. Gosh, it was pretty deep into the pandemic. I think I created it in September of 2020. So just a few months after I officially graduated from Escoffier. Escoffier, as listeners might know, requires you to do in a real industry externship out in the field. And I conducted mine as a pastry cook at a farm-to-table bistro here in Boulder. And I continued doing that for the months after I graduated, actually. I was really grateful that even during the COVID-19 pandemic, they hired me and were willing to take me on.

So I was just super grateful to have some form of work baking pastries, baking sourdough. I loved that I got that skill. But I just felt like the structured 9-5, Monday through Friday, it just…I wanted to try something different. It’s not that that structured lifestyle didn’t work for me. I’ve done that before and I do enjoy aspects of it. But I just kept learning more and more through experience that I operate best in my home kitchen. When I’m my own boss, I control my own schedule. And as I’m sure entrepreneurs out there listening can relate, when you have that flexibility in your life to be your own boss – it comes with a lot of perks. It’s really nice.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s super motivating, right? It’s hard to believe, Shane that over a year has passed. I can recall you did a few classes for us – plant-based classes on the weekends – and you and I were talking a lot about Portland, Oregon, and sort of the plant-based-centric scene up there. And we were talking to a few places, and then the pandemic really kind of settled in. So what kind of planning went into…that’s how you adapted to the pandemic, you had the entrepreneurial spirit, wanted to do your own thing, you were motivated. Was that your sort of outlet to adapt to the changing world around you?

Shane Witters Hicks: Yeah, it’s funny that you bring all that up…Portland. What Chef Kirk is talking about is that I wanted to work in a plant-based restaurant, like a fine dining plant-based restaurant. That was my goal for my externship at Escoffier. I really wanted to get that experience under my belt. And I think I still would like to do that, at some point, see what the real plant-based experts are doing. If you haven’t learned by now, that’s where my passion lies, and plant-based cooking and eating, and plant-based food innovation in particular. But yeah, I guess I’ve never really defined The Soulful Spread as like my adaptation to the pandemic. But you’re not wrong about that. If things had been different, I probably would have ended up in Portland. But as it became very clear, it just was a wiser choice to stay put where I was, to continue working at that farm-to-table bistro. And it was through that experience working here at home that I learned that I liked to work from my own home. And that’s where the private chef company started. So The Soulful Spread has two components, if you don’t mind me just explaining.

Kirk Bachmann: No, absolutely.

Shane Witters Hicks: It’s half a private chef services company. So I cook for clients here in the local Boulder and Golden area, the Denver Metro area, and deliver meals to them. And the other part of it is virtual cooking classes. And I think the virtual cooking classes are real adaptations to the pandemic because I found, during this time, that people have become much more interested in cooking in their own kitchens. People, who perhaps previously were not interested in cooking, I think, had become a lot more interested in “Oh, how do I make good food from home?” because suddenly, they have to. They’re suddenly responsible for making three meals a day for their kids, for their partners, for their families. And it’s become a lot more important to a lot of people to become skilled in the kitchen. And yeah, I definitely capitalized on that interest and started offering these virtual cooking classes, and I found that there was an interest, and people started taking me up on it. So through Zoom, I started offering tailored, customized cooking classes to individuals, to families, to couples, things like that – which differed from my previous offerings, which was in-person cooking classes, like you mentioned.

I loved teaching in-person cooking classes with Escoffier – that was such a blast. Really grateful to you for making that a possibility and making that a reality. And before that I was teaching cooking classes on a volunteer basis at Alfalfa’s Market here in Boulder, I was a Chef Instructor at Food Lab, where I taught a lot of kids how to bake cakes and make homemade pasta and things like that. So yeah, cooking classes, teaching, has been a part of my life for a couple of years now. Really, ever since I got started in the industry. And I found that I just love doing that. So that’s kind of the story behind The Soulful Spread.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, and you’ve got such a talent. I’ll get you back here in the kitchens teaching eventually. That I promise you.

Shane Witters Hicks: Fingers crossed! I hold you to it.

Experience of Being a Private Chef

Kirk Bachmann: So I want to go back. You’ve mentioned private chef a couple of times. I think it’s a fascinating outlet. I think it’s a fascinating job path. How is that different? The entrepreneurial piece of it – you’re doing the ordering, you’re doing the menu design…speak a little bit more about being a private chef as a career path for our listeners.

Shane Witters Hicks: Totally. It’s a fun learning curve. As any entrepreneurial opportunity is, it’s a steep learning curve, but I found it to be really fun, if you’re into that kind of thing. Suddenly you go from working in restaurants where all the food is ordered by the executive chef or the sous chef, and everything’s taken care of there. You go from that large scale production to a much smaller scale production, but suddenly you’re in charge of it all. And, yeah, ordering product, doing your own shopping weekly – you become very acquainted with your local supermarkets. It’s just been fun developing relationships with them, developing relationships with suppliers for to-go containers, whatever serving vessels that you decide that your clients like. I went with 100% compostable, recyclable serving containers because I was doing food delivery, whereas a lot of private chefs will actually cook inside of their clients homes. But this being pandemic era, it just didn’t seem like the wisest choice to do that. So I offered delivery, and clients seem to be very happy with that option.

So ordering your own to-go containers is a fun thing. Packaging things, making them look pretty, and making them look pretty even when they arrive at the client’s house – which is a whole other process in itself, which I didn’t even anticipate. I’ve never had to think about that before. How do you make a dish not only pretty on the plate when you make it, but to make it hot, ready, and appetizing, and delicious looking after it’s delivered?

Kirk Bachmann: Was that the toughest part? Having to sort of forecast out? What does this look like when they open it, 20 minutes after I drop it off?

Shane Witters Hicks: Definitely one of the more difficult parts. But honestly, that whole thing, I view that as kind of the fun of it all, thinking through that process. I’ve always kind of been inclined toward food photography and making things look nice. So I think, because I enjoy that part of the process, really making sure it looks beautiful for the client, is just something that I enjoyed. But definitely challenging for sure.

Kirk Bachmann: The marketing piece, too, right? Because you’ve got to do the website yourself or all the photos. I’ve been on your website a million times. So all the photos of food, that’s all you, right?

Shane Witters Hicks: Yeah, it’s not done by a professional, or anything – all done taking pictures with my phone. To be honest with you, I really want to get better at the food photography aspect and the marketing aspect. For anybody who’s listening who is interested in being an entrepreneur or a private chef, I want to make it clear that this was all just kind of learning as I go. And I feel like there’s still so much to learn. There was no structure behind the learning. It was just like, as a challenge presented itself, I realized, “Oh, I should probably learn how to do that better,” and then I learned how to do it better. It’s just like one thing led to the next another thing. So it’s not like you have to go into this whole thing pre-planned. Certainly you wouldn’t be hurt by a little forward thinking. But I went into it without any kind of forward thinking mindset, and I just kind of tackled things as they came, and it ended up working out pretty well. Which is tough for me, honestly, like with a physics and scientific background, I feel like I need to pre-plan everything. So this whole experience was actually really uncomfortable for me, just kind of thinking on my feet. But I think it was really good for me as well doing that.

Kirk Bachmann: Well, it feels organic, it feels whimsical. That’s good for all of us. Right? It’s good for the soul to do that. Right?

Shane Witters Hicks: Yeah, you’re catching on to the name there.(laugh)

The Growing Trend of Plant-Based Cuisine

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, see how I did that? (laugh) Hey, let’s pivot a little bit. I want to come back to the plant-based. You know, we’ve talked about it a lot. My family and I, for maybe four years now, we’re plant-centric. What does that mean? That means that we eat more plants more often – call it 80/20, 70/30 – that sort of thing. And I think you’re about the same, right? At least you’re kind of dabbling back and forth. But what is it about plant-based cooking that is super exciting to you?

Shane Witters Hicks: Oh, gosh, great question. You know, Chef Kirk, I think there are very few silver bullets in this world. And by silver bullet, I mean, like a catch-all solution to a lot of problems. There’s so many challenges that entrepreneurs and anybody can work to solve in the world today. A lot of them relating to climate change. And climate change is just one piece of the plant-based puzzle, I think. But going back to that silver bullet, I kind of break plant-based eating down into three main components. You either transition to a plant-based diet, or a more plant-centric diet, as you mentioned, for one of three reasons. There are like three gateways, and I think one of them is health. You might be motivated with health reasons to adopt a more healthy, plant-centric diet. You might be motivated through animal welfare. I think that’s another big issue in the food industry, is just the treatment of animals and the oppression of animals essentially. And the third gateway into a plant-based diet might be the environment.

Like I mentioned, climate change is just a monumental issue that seems, honestly, larger than life, a little bit too big to handle, and I think a lot of people are kind of scared away, just even trying to grasp the enormity of the issue. And so by a silver bullet, I mean that just by eliminating…I won’t even say eliminating – by incorporating more plants into your diet – I don’t want you to think about this as a narrowing of anything as a restriction of anything. Rather, I’d like to think of it as an enlargening thing of your creative capacities. That’s often how I describe a plant-based diet. I think that just by doing that simple incorporation of more plants into your diet, you are tackling three very, very large issues: animal welfare, like I mentioned, health, and the environment.

You’re doing a lot. There are so many statistics, and you can look up the numbers on your own about how just that simple switch can do so much for the world, and I think it’s learning about these issues, learning a little bit more about them, and how much you’re doing just by altering your diet a little bit, that’s the motivation. That’s my motivation for personally adopting a more plant-centric diet, and also being motivated to show people that it’s not a scary thing. It’s an exciting thing, something that’s enlargening of your creative capacities rather than than a shrinking of them, or a restriction of your freedom.

Kirk Bachmann: So brilliant, Shane, I mean, so well said – the gateways, the silver bullet, not a restriction. We’re not taking away, we’re sort of expanding. I’m so proud of you. I just love the way you articulated that. In the few minutes that we have left, still on the plant-based piece, do you see some advantages for new cooks, young cooks, chefs in the industry, who have really been focused on animal proteins for a long time? Do you see a shift occurring in the industry? Is there an advantage for our cooks today to better understand a plant-based diet?

Shane Witters Hicks: Yeah, that’s a great point, Chef. I think there is definitely an advantage, 100% yes to that. But I think there is still…I’m a little hesitant on the meat-centric chefs, the traditional chefs are used to doing it that way. There’s a lot of resistance still against the idea of a plant-based diet. I’ve worked in several restaurant settings where the executive chefs, the sous chefs still see it as a burden, a really big burden, to accommodate vegetarian and plant-based, vegan diets. It’s usually more in jest than in seriousness, and they’re just like, “Oh, why do I have to cook for this vegan customer?” So there’s still a resistance to it.

But to answer your question, I think it’s slowly melting away. And I think as society becomes more excited about this topic, which it definitely is, in many clear ways, I mean, just look at the amount of plant-based companies popping up around the world – I think people are having to accept the reality. People are starting to play with the idea that there might be a better way of doing things than just the traditional meat, dairy way of cooking. They’re finding that more and more chefs around the world are playing with plant-based ingredients with more vegetables, and society is accepting it. And that’s the driver for the change. I mean, customers are demanding, and as customers start demanding it more, chefs will need to accommodate them. So it’s really consumer-driven. It requires both sides, consumer-driven and chef-driven, but the consumers are the ones, I think, who convince those chefs who are a little more resistant to change, for sure. But it’s exciting. It’s so exciting to be in the restaurant industry and seeing these changes happen pretty quickly.

Shane’s Future Plans

Kirk Bachmann: It’s an exciting time; very thoughtful answer. I appreciate it. It is nice to see some moderation, some tolerance – our society, the culture is shifting a little bit. And it’s great for tomorrow’s chefs to be ready for what the customer wants. I’m so excited. I’m gonna put you on the spot. Here we are having this wonderful chat. And what people don’t know is the frenzied behavior that’s going on behind the scenes because tomorrow, as I understand it, you’re heading East, right? Talking about plant-based companies. What’s next for Shane? Can you share just a little bit?

Shane Witters Hicks: Sure, yeah, thanks for the opportunity to share, you can probably see I have boxes in my background. I am all packed up and ready to go. Actually, right after this interview, I’m headed to grab a U-Haul truck. And yeah, really exciting. I’m headed to the St. Louis area. I recently accepted a position as the culinary specialist for a company called Hungry Planet Foods, which is a plant-based protein company that’s been around for a long time. But they’re just starting to get really big. And I think there’s a lot of potential with them. It’s kind of funny because we’ve been talking about The Soulful Spread this whole time. But that’s not going to end – I still plan to offer my online virtual cooking classes – probably on a more intermittent basis. But yeah, starting next week, I will be back in that 9-5, Monday through Friday structure.

But I’m so excited to make this transition. Because essentially, the things I’ll be doing are all roles and responsibilities that either I love doing already, for instance, recipe testing, recipe development for plant-based foods, or things that I wish I was doing at this point, and feel like I would really enjoy. So that’s more along the lines of being a culinary ambassador, potentially traveling around showing consumers how to use this new plant-based protein product, and possibly doing recipe demos, which I’ve dabbled in a little bit before, but I’ll probably be doing a little bit more, maybe doing a little bit more of a social media for them. So it’s a very multifaceted role. There’s a lot of different things that I’ll be doing, but they all sound super exciting. And thanks again for letting me share a little bit about that.

Kirk Bachmann: Here’s another word – awesome. It’s an awesome opportunity and shamelessly, I’m so excited that you’ll be working with one of my dearest friends, Chef Ron DeSantis, Certified Master Chef and Escoffier Board Member. He is a wonderful, wonderful person, but congratulations on that chain. And thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts with us on our first podcast. I am so unbelievably proud of you and excited about your future. We’ll have you back. Okay. Is that a promise?

Shane Witters Hicks: I’ll hold you to it, Chef, I appreciate that. This has been a lot of fun, thanks so much.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Absolutely. Thanks, Shane.

Shane Witters Hicks: Alright, take care.

Kirk Bachmann: We’ll see you next time.

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