In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Kareen “Chef Coco” Linton who believes “You are the CEO of you.”
Kareen “Chef Coco” Linton is an Escoffier Chef Instructor as well as the founder and CEO of A Dash of Coco. She is the recipient of multiple awards, including: Disciples d’Escoffier, National Cutting Edge Award by the American Culinary Federation, and Top 100 Leaders in Education Award by the Global Forum for Education and Learning.
Listen as “Chef Coco” Linton talks about taking control of your professional career, relating food and fashion, and how the culinary arts are much more than cooking.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Kareen “Chef Coco” Linton, an Escoffier chef instructor with 30 years of experience. Chef Coco is a recipient of multiple awards, including Disciple d’Escoffier, the National Cutting Edge Award by the American Culinary Federation, and Top 100 Leaders in Education Award by the Global Forum for Education and Learning.
She graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and later became founder and CEO of A Dash of Coco. She was the first female named as second VP of the ACF Atlanta Chef’s Association, and also received their Humanitarian of the Year 2015 Award.
Join us today as we chat with Chef Coco about her trailblazing culinary journey, her love of fashion and food, and how she opens doors for the next generation.
And there she is. Welcome, Chef. How are you?
Kareen Linton: Thank you so much, Chef. It’s an honor and pleasure to be here with you.
Kirk Bachmann: This is super fun. You’re smiling. I’m smiling. I’m exhausted from the intro, can I just say. There’s a lot going on. So Cutting Edge. I’m going to ask you to speak to that. I see a beautiful encased knife just over your shoulder with the ACF logo. Talk a little bit about that real quick. We’re going talk about all the accolades today. You’re going to be smiling for the next half hour. Can you tell us about that knife?
Kareen Linton: Sure. First of all, I want to say Hello to everyone out there in podcast-land.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it.
Kareen Linton: This knife right here, it is the National ACF, which stands for American Culinary Federation Cutting Edge Award, number six, by the way. I was honored with it back in 2015. To be honest with you, I thought they made a mistake.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, stop!
Kareen Linton: When they sent me the email. They said, “You’re nominated.” Coming from working within the entertainment industry, when you’re nominated for a music award, it’s you and a few other people. I actually thought it was for certified Master Chef Daryl Shular. Then he confirmed it was actually mine.
You just go. I just went. I thought it was some other people being nominated, and they called my name. I wasn’t paying attention at the time. Someone said, “That’s you!”
Kirk Bachmann: Go get it! Go get it. I love it.
Kareen Linton: I was honored for it.
Kirk Bachmann: And tell me, Cutting Edge, it recognizes your contributions to the industry that are innovative and above and beyond.
Kareen Linton: Exactly. I am a chef, but also a fashion designer, stylist. That was my prior life. It’s still with me, and the entertainment industry.
Kirk Bachmann: That doesn’t go away.
Kareen Linton: It does not. It’s like riding a bike.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Is there something special – we’re going to get to the book in a minute – I know you must feel this. I know I do. I need a lot more help, so we’re going to talk fashion in a minute. There is something about putting on a beautiful starched, clean chef coat before you go into the dining room, into the classroom, to an event, to an ACF conference. Is there any feeling that’s better than that, prouder than that?
Kareen Linton: It’s a great feeling. I don’t know. I’ll tell you what: when you put on that chef coat and you’re going out to meet a guest, a guest that’s enjoying the food that was prepared by you, and they are so honored that you came to their table. I learned about visiting the tables when I worked at Windows on the World, former Windows on the World on top of the World Trade Center.
Kirk Bachmann: You know, it’s an interesting – it’s a whole other podcast. You just reminded me, too, this age of the celebrity chef. Over the last two decades. Thank you Emeril and others. Chefs really have to love your customers more than anything, and you have to be comfortable in your chef coat out in the dining room because they want to see you.
Kareen Linton: They want to see you. I actually brought fashion with me. I tapered my chef coat. Do you know what I mean? They need to fit properly because we were still fashionable. That’s how I see it.
Kirk Bachmann: And be comfortable. Yeah. On the website. Gorgeous jacket. Are you working with a vendor, or are you designing your own chef coats now?
Kareen Linton: Actually, I was receiving another award back in 2019. Lucien…
Kirk Bachmann: A NewChef. NewChef.
Kareen Linton: Lucien from NewChef Fashion, he saw my social media about the award. He reached out and said, “Kareen, I think you should give me a call. I would love to do a chef coat for you.” So when we finally spoke, I said, “Under once condition.”
He said, “What’s that?”
I said, “I design it.” He didn’t know I was a designer. We talked about doing it in sequins.
Because really a chef coat is what we used to call a Mandarin style jacket. That’s basically what it is. So I took that and I played with it. The reason for the sequins, there were three different versions of it. I truly believe, like we chefs do in this industry, that nothing goes to waste. Nothing should have one purpose. That’s also my Caribbean upbringing. So the sequin part, I always loved Diana Ross. I would wear the sequin jackets when I’m doing certain presentations, but I also had the same jacket done in cotton for the back of the house. It’s entertainment.
Kirk Bachmann: Such a great story. What a wonderful company and a great man.
Kareen Linton: Oh, he’s awesome.
Kirk Bachmann: I’ve known him for years. Really, really neat.
Oh my gosh, I just keep getting sidetracked because there is so much stuff. How does a girl from Barbados fall into fashion and cooking and style and entertainment, and becoming an author? Was it is something you dreamed of as a girl? And then you moved to Brooklyn, right?
Kareen Linton: Brooklyn, New York. What I remember is when I was about five years old. I had a dream. The dream showed me what I believed, in my five-year-old mind, was America. So I mentioned it to my Aunt Day, who you’ll read about and she said, “You could be and do anything you want to.” I had the audacity at that age to believe her. So I’ve been moving and looking for this thing ever since. I was always very inquisitive. I’m the middle child, so I’ve learned how to play by myself and use my imagination.
But as far as designing – I hate using the word “step-child” or “step-daughter” – her daughter was a designer. No patterns. Made anything. Gorgeous outfits. And she also crocheted and all of that. That was one influence.
The other influence was her son. He was an artist by every sense of the word. He would draw nude bodies of women or landscapes. My brother and I would take our little notebook paper, sit on the floor, and replicate it. I moved towards the shape of the body. He did more landscapes. Believe it or not, I realized both of them were perfect teachers for me.
Kirk Bachmann: So the teaching started early.
Kareen Linton: Very early.
Kirk Bachmann: Such a neat story. Take me back. Your five when you relocate to New York still?
Kareen Linton: Actually, I was nine when I came to New York.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, wow! So still very young, impressionable. What does New York mean to you? What does Brooklyn mean to you?
Kareen Linton: Oh my gosh! Everything. Brooklyn, New York is where I took everything, and started cooking up the stew that I’m living right now. Brooklyn is family, culture, the world.
Kirk Bachmann: Diversity. It’s busy. Totally agree.
Let’s not delay any longer. I got an email from you early this morning letting me know that something was available. This is your platform, Chef. Let’s hear it. You’ve been working on it for a long time, right?
Kareen Linton: Yes. I’ve been working on it for a few years, and I am officially an author now.
Kirk Bachmann: Bravo! Bravo!
Kareen Linton: Thank you so much. And I’ve chosen the Ultimate Dish to inform everyone.
Kirk Bachmann: Announce it! Yes! Wonderful.
Kareen Linton: Dish, get that pun, dish. We use dish in several ways.
Kirk Bachmann: The name of the book is “Turn Your Sours into Sweets.” It’s available on Amazon, by Chef Coco. Tell me about it. The title is fascinating. My mind wanders, but it’s not a recipe book, right?
Kareen Linton: It’s not a recipe book, but of course, I’m a chef, and to me, what I’ve learned on my journey from a student culinarian was to appreciate the techniques, but more so to understand the ingredients so that you can manipulate them to higher heights. There’s that saying, when life throws you lemons, make lemonade. As a chef, I’m not just making lemonade, darling. Alright. We use everything within it.
The journey hasn’t always been smooth, but like a knife, every so often you have to be sharpened. To me, that’s the journey I took so that now I can sit back and reach out to many people. Students, what I used my life to let them see, anything really is possible, like my aunt said. You just have to believe and work towards it. So its the name of the book. But overall, it’s about Kareen taking all of life’s ingredients and flipping them. Because it’s about serving other people. That’s what we chefs do.
Kirk Bachmann: Hospitality. Do you have to become incredibly vulnerable when you open up, if you will, and start sharing? It’s not a pamphlet; it’s a book.
Kareen Linton: It’s a book.
Kirk Bachmann: There’s a lot there.
Kareen Linton: It’s not even all of it. But yes. In doing the book, it took me back. It took me back in several different ways, several different places. Now, I can really, truly appreciate them because – I use a lot of food analogies – think about being in a pressure cooking, the pot. There were times I was in the pressure cooker, but I refused to give up because I still feels there’s greater. And because of that belief, I can sit here with you right now and talk about this.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re at peace. You’re in a good place. Really, like that.
So we’ve talked a little bit about – I don’t want to get off this fashion chat just yet. We’ve talked about how amazing it feels to be in a beautiful chef coat and what that means and the history behind the chef coat. I’m really interested in your perspective of bringing food and fashion together. Is there a series in the making, here? If this was Hollywood, what would the pitch be? Food and fashion.
Kareen Linton: Food is your vehicle. We all need it. And fashion, too! Food is fashionable. When we prepare food, we’re thinking about the people we’re serving. Who’s coming to have this food? When people go out to dinner, especially women, we get dressed. We’re not just going to eat the food. We’re sashaying into that restaurant because we’re modeling this attire.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s about the event, the experience.
Kareen Linton: The experience. That’s why I say this is entertainment that we do.
Kirk Bachmann: Couple that with your upbringing, Barbados to Brooklyn, the lessons you learned, the drawing, watching your aunt. What parts of that journey, what’s the lesson that you believe will resonate the most with young culinarians, and why? A lot has gone on in the last several years. The industry has changed primarily due to the pandemic, but we could even suggest that the industry started changing a decade ago. For the better. Everything for the better. How does your vision resonate with the next generation – which is so important to you – of culinarians?
Kareen Linton: The word that I continue to hear, whether physically being told or in a message, you’re inspirational. I constantly hear that. I just really want to live to see what my purpose is. I’m there. I enjoy the journey, and that’s what I want people to understand. It’s a journey. No matter what you’re doing. But within it, you have to know that it’s a process, and appreciate the process every step of the way. Smile if you can. Do you know what I mean?
Kirk Bachmann: Well said. When I think about and read about you, and how important it is for you to feel connected to the industry and the success of others, that resonated well with me, is the success. It’s a true teacher, a great characteristic of a teacher. Caring about the success of your students. Or a parent, of your children. Talk about that a little bit. Why is that so important to you?
Kareen Linton: It’s extremely important. This is in the book, too. I was a teenage mom, at 16. You talk about nurturing. I nurtured my daughter. I wanted her to have the best possible experience. Period. So when we have guests, whether it’s someone coming to our establishment to dine, or if they’re coming to your home, or even if it’s students, first of all, I need to show them that I care. That’s what hospitality is. Then, whatever it is that you’re doing for them, let them see your passion within it, because your passion overflows and they can be filled with that alone. When they go to have the meal, what you imparted into that dish has no boundaries. They will feel it.
You embrace people with the food if that’s what your platform is, because everyone has a different platform.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s powerful.
Kareen Linton: That’s mainly what it’s about.
Kirk Bachmann: Let’s talk about you for a minute. Lots of accolades. Lots of recognition. Lots of love. And I know as well as anyone, in order to receive recognitions, it’s give/get. You’ve given a lot of yourself. You don’t receive a nomination or recognition by the ACF for not giving back. You’re selected by Smithfield Foods and the American Culinary Federation as one of forty chefs nationwide for their Partners in Culinary Excellence Program. Can you talk about that a little bit? I love the title.
Kareen Linton: Yes. That, again, kind of shocked me. You have to understand, I’m really just this little girl from Barbados who dared to dream. Many times, you just kind of watch the dream as a viewer. I’m living that dream. I want to share it.
When I received that email, again, I thought they made a mistake. I love being on a journey and have or receive what I call little kisses from God. Because I didn’t set out to achieve any accolades. I just really wanted to understand what my purpose here is, and then reach out to others to help them along their journey. I believe that’s what I’m supposed to do.
Kirk Bachmann: Is the Partners in Culinary Excellence Program, is that through the ACF? Is that a formal program?
Kareen Linton: It’s a combination of ACF and Smithfield. They joined together to do this. They selected the 40. Actually, it was like going into COVID. They pulled it back. Basically, what it is, you could – based on their food – use their food to do presentations around the country.
Kirk Bachmann: First female named New Chef Elite by New Chefs. First woman sworn in as the second VP of the ACF Atlanta’s Chapter. You’ve also sat on the ACF Atlanta board of directors. Your other professional organizations, what we call WACS – World Association of Chef Societies. La Chaine, Disciples of Escoffier. Chef, when it comes to representation. Historically, the kitchen has been a male-dominated environment, but over the years in our lifetime we’ve seen that change drastically. Case in point: Escoffier’s student population is 60 percent female to 40 percent male. Is it important that you’re the first female named, or is it equally important that you were just named?
Kareen Linton: Both of them are honors. Again, totally caught me by surprise. I feel both of them are great because – it’s not about being first. I just feel they need to see what it looks like, because it’s achievable for them. They may not do it the same way I did it, but it’s achievable.
Back in March, I was in Dubai to do a keynote. It’s just so incredible how the world is so large but it’s so small. As I’m doing the keynote, speaking to the audience, I asked a wonderful audience member to describe a dish the way she would make it. I’m standing there, holding the mic, looking at her, and in my mind, I’m saying, “She reminds me of me.” Then I said, “Wow! You described that so beautifully. You have all of our mouths salivating.”
And she said, “I learned it from you, Chef.” So I looked at her. She was one of my students online here at Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. She was over there to receive an award also.
Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t that something? How does that feel? Does it validate the work that you’ve put in?
Kareen Linton: Yes. But to be honest, I’m not looking at the work. I’m just having a good time. That little girl, whenever I have a dream, I’m living it out, because I want to prove to myself and maybe the Most High, it’s possible.
Kirk Bachmann: I love the words you used earlier, inspiration. In my mind, you’ve got inspiration and you’ve got motivation. Both are great. Motivation makes somebody do something. But inspiration makes somebody feel something. That, to me, is beautiful and really important.
What would you say to a young culinarian, up-and-coming talent? What are some general recommendations? Game-changing recommendations that you would give, without letting everything out of the hat. Are there some go-to’s for you? Remember this, don’t forget that?
Kareen Linton: To all culinarians, especially the young ones, I’m going to share with you what my mentor, world certified Master Chef Reimund Pitz shared with me.
When I crossed over into the world of culinary, I was 46. I felt a little on the old side. He said to me, “Hone your skills. Hone your skills, and network, network, network.” You do have to physically do both. You can hone your skills, all of them. You know Chef Pitts. He’s serious about his business. One thing: I didn’t want to let him down or my other mentor, Joe Hardiman down.
Kirk Bachmann: No one wants to let Raymond down. Can I just say? He is serious. Period. A true professional.
Kareen Linton: The other part of it that I feel as a chef. You have to know that you are the CEO of you. As the CEO, you need to know how to market yourself also, and that’s what he imparted into me.
Kirk Bachmann: Great advice.
I’m going to take you back a little further. Fast forward beyond your education. You spent some time working with a good friend of mine at the Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. You did some work with their career services team, which is so important. It’s kind of the end of the journey, but the beginning of the new journey. Any cool stories that really stay with you from that time where you saw somebody just do what you envisioned for them?
Kareen Linton: Oh my gosh. My students, all of them, past and present. At Le Cordon Bleu I think we connected because they knew I also was an alumni. I was in their shoes. I sat in the chairs. I wanted to give them such an experience. We talked about ACF – American Culinary Federation. I went to every meeting. When I went up to Atlanta’s campus, Terrell Anthony was there. He was my boss ,under certified Master Chef Daryl Shular, another mentor. I said to Chef Shular, “You know, I go to the meetings. Would you mind if I took my students with me?
He said, “Oh, that would be great.” It was an outing for them, but these culinary students, just like here, at the end of the program they go out on externship. You need to come out the kitchen sometimes. And you need to meet potential employers. So I taught them how to see themselves as not just a chef, but the person that’s going out to market themselves. Their uniforms had to be a certain way, because these are potential opportunities for you.
What I asked them, when they returned back to class the next day, they needed to have no less than three business cards. And they needed to be in a picture with me there. That’s how I took attendance.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I was just going to comment that it’s really obvious that advancing your career as a chef, as an industry professional, that networking and building relationships is really, really important to you. And it seems like you’re very good at it. You seem to thrive there.
You started to answer this question. What is it about professional associations – number one, number two, number three – that partners with career advice for students? Just emphasizing how important those relationships are. Is that something that you just fell into? You’re in culinary school. Who helped you down that path to understand the importance of professional organizations that would stick with you today?
Kareen Linton: Like I said before, I came from working from within entertainment. I watched entertainers stand onstage and command, in such a subliminal way, the audience. I learned from that era how to market. I felt it’s important. No matter what industry you’re in, marketing exists.
The associations were perfect because I needed to see what this looks like. So I went to the people that were already living it to hear their stories, to get advice from them. No matter what industry you’re in, you should have a mentor.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. The social piece is great, too, right?
Kareen Linton: Yes. Because you’re breaking out of your shell. You can get ideas.
Kirk Bachmann: Currently, you’re considered a prominent mentor within our Escoffier family and our community. What is it that you hope aspiring culinarians understand when they take your class? Is it important for them to stay in their lane, or are you asking them to look over in the other lane? Because one, you’re their teacher so they have a responsibility. But you’re also looking out for their future. How do you manage that?
Kareen Linton: I manage that in this way. Like I said, I share with them. First and foremost, I had to learn that I’m the CEO of me. You can stay in your lane, which you should, but you can always look to the side. You need to look to the side because you can learn from those people. You can also see he’s coming up behind you. Some of the people that are coming up with you can actually encourage and inspire you. It’s like iron sharpens iron.
Being on this platform, I’ve lived that life. I believe you should go forth because you didn’t just come into this industry just to cook food. It’s so much more than that.
Kirk Bachmann: it’s so much more. Speaking of your role as CEO. You’re the founder and the CEO of A Dash of Coco, which from what I can tell, encompasses much, much more than just cooking. It’s an interior design. It’s fashion. It’s styling. There’s so much information on the website. It’s hospitality. It’s event planning. It’s a lifestyle brand.
In your words, what was the vision of A Dash of Coco? What’s it all about? What do you want people to say about A Dash of Coco once they visit?
Kareen Linton: The vision for A Dash of Coco was simply a lifestyle. I brought the two things that I love together. The Dash relating back to food, we put a little dash of something in it. When you put a little dash of something in it, you’re kicking it up. Because that’s the way you bake.
Kirk Bachmann: I like that.
Kareen Linton: Just a little bit, to take it. The Coco, if we’re relating to food, we know what cocoa is. But there’s a flavor profile with that. When you think of cocoa, you think of chocolate. You don’t think of anything sad. You tie them together, as a chef, my fashion background allowed me to envision presentations or platings. The plate is simply just a canvas for this artist to create something incredible out of my mind. The fashion did the same thing. A dress is simply fabric molded or shaped with ornamentations on it.
Every dress maybe needs a little airing. The plate has a little garnish. That’s how they’re related. So it gives them the full presentation of beautiful creativity on a plate.
Kirk Bachmann: The passion is so obvious. I just love it. You’ve been smiling since you got on.
So many accomplishments. Congratulations, Chef, honestly. We know about the book. What’s next? Thank you for the work that you do with Escoffier students. Don’t you dare go anywhere. And the book. Is there a series of books? When you’re looking over in the other lane, what’s next for Coco?
Kareen Linton: Well, I’m actually there. Not just the book. Last year, I started doing speaking engagements.
Kirk Bachmann: I’ve noticed that.
Kareen Linton: Even though, with covid, just like Mr. Larson had this vision to do online school, Zoom became very popular for speakers. I was approached by a company in Indian named Forethought India. They wanted me to be one of the guest chefs on a podcast. So I did that. Unbeknownst to me, they said that all nine regions of India were represented.
Two days later, I received an email saying, “Kareen, there was Scotland, England, the Philippines, people representing from these countries.” I said, “God! You took me international in an hour!? Oh, it’s on! I’m an international speaker!”
You speak it. Speak it and move with it. As far as the speaking part, one of my former colleagues who is also a colleague here, Miriam Guillory in Career Services, back when I was in Atlanta, I had just completed a food presentation for some guests. She happened to be in the room. When I returned, she said to Career Services, she said, “Kareen, I see you doing speaking engagements. It’s the way you say mise en place.” Now, we know mise en place simply means everything in it’s place. I realized that I had everything in its place to become that little girl. That little girl wants to be seen. She wants to help people. She wants to do all of these things.
Now I am a speaker. When I spoke of Dubai, I was invited to be a keynote speaker in Dubai back in March, and I also received an Outstanding Leadership award. Before I left for Dubai, the organizers called and said, “We love what you’re doing.” They invited me to speak at the conference in Las Vegas.
Two weeks ago, I received another email from the WYN Conference – it’s their international conference – they also invited me to be a keynote speaker in Croatia. So I’m going. Before Croatia, I’m going to New York for the same conference, WYN, to speak to the International Congressional Women’s Empowerment Expo 2022. I’ll be in New York in July, and then August to Croatia speaking on food processing and packaging.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Full circle. How important is that to you that you end up – that little girl – ends up back in New York?
Kareen Linton: I want to tear up right now.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s pretty obvious how it makes you feel.
Kareen Linton: It’s an amazing feeling. I feel like the prodigal daughter going home.
Kirk Bachmann: I just love that. You deserve all of that.
Before we let you go today, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. You’ve been around the world. You’ve met a lot of people. I am dying to hear, Coco, what is the ultimate dish?
Kareen Linton: Oh wow! In honor of my mom, who’s no longer with us. She was actually the chef, and I feel that torch was passed on to me. In honor of my mom and my country, Barbados, I have to represent. We have a national dish named cou-cou and flying fish. Cou-cou, if you know polenta, it’s sort of like polenta. It’s just firm. My grandmother, my aunts, they would make that. And my mom. When you think of that, I get the warm and fuzzy. It takes you back home.
But besides that, I love roasted duck and sauteed mushrooms.
Kirk Bachmann: There’s nothing wrong with that. I love the idea that you started with a childhood memory, though. Those are always the best, the best dishes.
Kareen Linton: They don’t go anywhere.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s more about the memories than anything else.
Kareen Linton: And that’s what I mean. Somewhere along the line as I’m speaking, maybe something I say connects with someone. To show them they can do it. Especially those teenagers. I had a child at 16. I graduated at 17. My daughter is my inspiration, even to this day. She’s 40 now. I can continue to live out my dream and want her and all of my ancestors to be proud. But I really want to continue to encourage people to go beyond this thing that we call fear. It’s really not there. It’s not there. Go on out and just live.
And if you can travel, when you travel, even if it’s to another state, until you can go further. I truly believe traveling broadens your horizon and it takes you on an educational journey like nowhere else.
With food as my vehicle, I can no go out, spread the word. Escoffier, Dash of Coco. And be this author and speaker now to help others.
Kirk Bachmann: And also spread your love. We’re so fortunate to have you with Escoffier. Our students are fortunate. Thank you for the work you do, and thank you for the smile.
Kareen Linton: Thank you. It’s been an honor and pleasure. See you all somewhere out there in A Dash of Coco land.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.
And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.