Podcast Episode 64

A Chef’s Secret to Building a Thriving Personal Brand

Chris Hill | 43 Minutes | October 18, 2022


In today’s episode, we speak with Chris Hill, a marketing executive turned entrepreneur and chef, who helps culinarians build brands that reflect their personal careers (all while avoiding burnout).

Along with sharing career lessons in Making the Cut: What Separates the Best from the Rest and TEDx talks, Chris continues to share his best-selling books, travel the world as a public speaker, and consult at the Culinary Institute of Virginia.

Listen as Chris shares how he grew his personal brand to 100K followers (and growing), sold shares of his own sandwich bistro, and his work-life balance tips in the culinary industry.

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with Chris Hill, a marketing executive turned entrepreneur and chef who has parlayed his passion for cooking into a personal brand with over 100,000 fans and growing! And he’s got a fan right here. After five years of cutting his teeth in the culinary world in his own establishment called 3 Way, a sandwich bistro in Norfolk, Virginia, Chris sold his shares and began pursing other ventures, culinary ventures.

Today, Chris is a best-selling author, globe-trotting public speaker, and a consultant at the Culinary Institute of Virginia.

Join me today as I chat with Chris about his transition into the kitchen, building a successful personal brand, and his passion for inspiring culinarians through writing and speaking.

And there he is. Good morning, Chef! How are you?

Chris Hill: I’m great. Thank you for having me.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Where are you? Are you in Virginia today?

Chris Hill: I am. It looks like it’s about to rain outside. It’s starting to feel a little bit like fall. No complaints.

The Importance of Branding

Kirk Bachmann: It is. I’m here in Boulder, and everybody’s talking about fall, but it was 95 yesterday, on Labor Day. It was just insane.

Before I dive in, I’m super excited to chat today. This whole idea of building a successful brand. Boy, I’m seeing that more and more. My kids are talking about it. “Don’t mess with my brand!” Where is this going? Is this real? Do you believe the idea of creating a brand is more important in the culinary world than every before? Lots of eyes on chefs these days.

Chris Hill: For sure. I think it started with the Food Network coming along, and then obviously social media playing a big role. The way I look at it – I actually wrote a book on it. I think it’s free on Amazon, “Crush Your Career,” but it’s all about…if you and I are both looking for an investor for our oyster restaurant and you are a great chef. You know all about oysters, but you don’t really have anything out there that explains it, versus I have a blog where I have recipes. I have different articles where I talk about the different brininess and where different oysters come from. I’m out there showing what I can do and what I know. If I’m looking for an investor, it’s very obvious what I have to offer. But also for customers, it’s just one step that’s a little big more compelling than just being out there.

Drawn in but Needing a Path

Kirk Bachmann: It’s intentional and it’s important, more than ever before, particularly with social media.

So much to talk about today. I’m super, super excited to have you on the show, Chris. I’ve really enjoyed learning about your journey, mostly through this incredible book, which is really beat to heck. I’ve been showing it to a lot of people and moving through it. I’ll get to that in a minute. What I’m so appreciative of is – it comes through in your written word – is your respect for the craft of cooking and the industry that we both love. That is so, so clear and appreciated, so thank you for that.

You spend much of your time talking to others about the industry, and I’m really excited to get you on the hot seat today. I’m going to ask your personal perspective on the industry today. You’ve been called a “modern-day renaissance man” – love that – “who is equal parts chef, entrepreneur, speaker, writer” – and more than anything, you call yourself a student. I was saying to Mo earlier, can there be any more perfect guest for Escoffier on The Ultimate Dish. This really says it all. We talk about entrepreneurship. We talk about being able to communicate in the thoughtful way. What really resonates with me, Chris, is your “thirst for knowledge” and your mission to make the world a better place by studying the best of the best of the culinary world. So respectful! Absolutely love that.

So that’s where we’ll start. As I understand it, you transitioned from a career in marketing – and a lot of chefs think they’re a marketer, myself included – and to this journey of becoming a cook, a chef. You said that food was always a big part of your life. I love that position because for so many of us, food is important, and the stories are amazing. Cooking professionally, in particular, became a real passion for you.

Can you take us a back a little bit for those you haven’t met, even before the University of Alabama – roll Tide! – did you always have a passion for cooking? If you did, who or what was the major influence for you in the kitchen when you were younger?

Chris Hill: Yeah. I always have. I can’t pinpoint one place, but I can tell you, even going to Walt Disney World when I was ten years old, looking at all the grandiose restaurants. “Wow! I want to own one of these one day.” Obviously, the way I look at the industry has changed a lot since then, but I’ve always been fascinated with it.

Yeah, I grew up in a big family. It was kind of “fend for yourself.” I was making egg drop soup at eight years old, out of those little packets where you just kind of whisk in the egg. Very [easy] things, but I always loved cooking. My siblings and I would create menus and we’d charge each other based on which chores we didn’t want do. That was kind of my childhood with cooking. Growing up in the South, naturally, I think there was a connection to food and family and tradition.

Then, my first restaurant job was in high school at the Atlanta Fish Market. Huge restaurant. If you’ve ever been to Atlanta, in Buckhead, there’s a huge copper fish out front. There’s the restaurant side. I actually worked on the market side where I got to learn a ton about fish. I sold fish and was kind of a prep cook. I loved the energy, and obviously, it attracts a lot of us to the industry.

After that, I went off to college. I got a Master’s in marketing. You said my marketing career; I don’t know if I’d call it that. It was a very short-lived career, a year and half, maybe. I left there, really, because my boss. We really didn’t get along. I probably would still be doing that if I had a boss that was a little bit more of a leader versus someone that was pushing papers at me.

I ended up moving out to Virginia where my cousin owned some restaurants. We opened one up together. And here we are.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. What about during college? A marketing moment versus career is better than no marketing moment at all, I’ll say. I’m curious; back at the University of Alabama, was cooking something that followed you through your years there as well? Were you at the place everybody came to dine?

Chris Hill: I would say yes, but more just restaurants in general. I did a little bit of everything. Cooking, for sure, but also front of the house, primarily fine dining. It was almost 20 years ago, but fine dining in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was a little bit different than big market fine dining now. Even when I was doing the marketing, my brother and I were doing high-end dinner parties on the side. I kept getting drawn back into it. People joke that so many times people try and leave the industry, and it keeps sucking you back in. That’s kind of how it was for me. And I finally said, “Let’s do this.”

Kirk Bachmann: There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s that passion. It’s not terribly different. I grew up in a very restaurant-centric family. My father came over from Germany. He’s a master pastry chef. He was kind of on the pastry shop. I did the same thing. I went off. I went PAC 12. I went to the University of Oregon, just trying to find myself. Majored in business and all of that. But if it’s in your DNA somehow, some way, it kind of pulls you back in.

What was that profound moment? For you it’s not just cooking. As I go through your book a few times, you’re talking about Dominique Crenn, like you say at the top, “the culinary elite.” This isn’t just the place down the street. You talk about Gavin and others. I’m just really interested. When was that profound moment when you thought – you hooked up with your cousin, you open up a restaurant – when did you know that you wanted to be a chef? It was more than just cooking. It was, “I want to know everything about this industry.”

Chris Hill: When the Food Network launched, back in the day it was actually cooking shows. It wasn’t the reality TV stuff. I watched it. I remember vividly, I’d come home from class and at 3 o’clock was Tyler Florence and at 3:30, it was Michael Chiarello. 8 o’clock at night was Emeril Lagasse. That was when I really was excited about cooking. I think we were all exposed to it in a little bit of a different way.

Then, when I knew for sure. Consulting, I wasn’t happy. I wanted to do cooking, but I didn’t really see a path. I felt like I had to do this 9-to-5 thing. Then I saw my cousin at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party. He said, “Hey man! Just so you know, if you ever want a job, I’ve got one for you here in Virginia.”

“Oh. Okay.” I thought for about two days, and I texted him. “Hey.”

Kirk Bachmann: I’m in.

Chris Hill: I needed a path in and he kind of gave that to me, which I’m grateful for. For sure.

Kirk Bachmann: We all need mentors. That’s an interesting story. Are you glad that you did it the way you did: college first, understood what was available to you, and then you got drawn back into the industry? I’m always grateful that I did do that, because I could have easily just got behind the bench and always kind of wondered what it would be like to be a Duck fan. I’m always grateful that I experienced the whole thing. It sort of completed me, as I got back into the industry and I was able to add some additional knowledge. Is that how it felt for you? Really happy that you went to Uni first?

Chris Hill: Yeah. I always think about, “What if I hadn’t? What if I’d just gone the culinary school route?” I know I would be in a different place, who knows where. I always look back. You know the Steve Jobs quote, “You can only connect the dots looking backwards.” People look at me and say, “What a waste? You went to college. You went to grad school for marketing.” Whoa. I was an English major. I use that for writing, understanding the language. Marketing, building your brands and everything.

Absolutely. A lot of times when you look from the surface, it seems like, “What a waste?” But if you really look back and think, everything that you did in the past leads to where you are today.

A Unique Angle to your Brand

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. It’s all part of the journey.

You mentioned building your brand. Marketing to the kitchen, building your own personal brand. Again, for so many interested culinarians, our students at Escoffier that ask about this go through our entrepreneurship program, so on and so forth – what was the vision, for you specifically, behind building your brand?

Chris Hill: First of all, for a lot of folks out there that are listening that might be students or maybe even further along: we all start somewhere. They’ve got eight vies. My first blog post and writing, it was my mom and girlfriend at the time, and sister. She probably refreshed it a couple of times to make me happy. It’s a process. My first blog, actually, it was called The Epicurean’s Dilemma. It’s out there somewhere. I hope nobody actually googles that and reads anything. But I spelled the dilemma wrong in the title of it. You don’t have to get it right the first time.

I think the key is getting yourself out there. For me, when we opened up the restaurant, nobody knew who I was as a chef. I wouldn’t have even really called myself a chef when we first opened up. But I started doing a lot of local TV. I started writing about the industry. Slowly but surely, I started building a following.

I was listening to Chef Andre have a conversation recently. He was talking about [how] he doesn’t need to do cooking and recipes, because there are a lot of people that do that. He found his lane of being the culinary mentor. I think I was able to do the same thing. Originally, I had a studio kitchen and I was doing a lot of recipes. It was cool and fun, but how many more tuna tartare recipes do we need out there?

I wrote a couple of articles that connected with people, and I said, “Wow! People actually want to see this. I think having a perspective, having your unique angle – and that obviously applies to how you see cooking as well. That’s why I think culinary school does a really good job of preparing you. You get to see different types of cuisine. You get to see all different angles. As you go through, and maybe it works for a couple of people, you start to figure out, “This is going to be my cuisine.”

I think understanding that you have to have your own perspective and something that is kind of unique to you: your history, your family, your traditions, all those things. Otherwise, you can get a sushi recipe anywhere.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that conversation. That’s probably a whole other podcast. Thanks for bringing up Andre. We spend a lot of time over the years talking about things like this. This whole idea that the majority of the world thinks that they have to pull that recipe out and they have to follow it. It becomes awkward in the kitchen. You’re trying to cook over here, and you’ve got it on your phone, and then your phone times out, or you print it.

I’ve always been – and maybe that’s the rebel in me a little bit. It probably drove my father crazy as more the scientist, the pastry chef. The whole idea for me was – and it sounds like the same for you – a list of ingredients just kind of gets you going. You can be intentional about whatever you want if you understand the technique, if it’s a grilling recipe or a sauteing recipe or a poaching recipe, or whatever. Be true to that. Auguste Escoffier would appreciate that. But the recipe itself? Have some fun with that. Personalize that.

I can’t believe I’m even saying this, Chris, because it’s the one thing we have to keep the reins on our students with all the time. That’s exactly what they want to do. Think about what they’re seeing on TikTok and Instagram and social media. It’s immediate gratification. “Oh, God! I saw this recipe on TikTok the other night. I’m going to make it at school today.” That’s where we always have to [pull back]. “Well, what’s the technique? What sort of ingredients are you thinking about?” Are we going to put it on the menu?

I can remember asking Curtis Duffy, “I bet a lot of the people in your kitchen get excited and try writing the recipe themselves.” So I asked Curtis, “Do you let others build the menu?”

He just said, “Yeah, no. I don’t do that.” A lot of work goes into that, right?

Chris Hill: You and I can both go to a restaurant and have a certain dish, and not even look at the menu and know how it was put together.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m not fluent in French, but good enough to read a menu. That’s what I love about true French menus, because they kind of tell you what’s happening in the description of the dish. If you’re able to enunciate that and understand it, it’s probably going to be that technique.

Chris Hill: Versus now, in any modern American restaurant, it’s ingredient, dot, ingredient, dot, ingredient. That’s kind of what it is.

Getting People to Watch

Kirk Bachmann: It’s kind of a surprise, right? How are they going to put this together? Really good point.

Chris, the world that we live in today, if you have the right marketing skills, or the team behind you with some social media expertise, which I think is number one. Then you create that niche that you’re willing to invest in. It sounds like you can build a brand that can, in fact, reach the masses. Are there some really, really important steps? We make it sound so easy. “Just go out there and build your brand.” But what are some of those things you wish you could have a do-over, or things that you can’t forget? Things that are super important as you build a brand, and most importantly, you scale that brand?

Chris Hill: Scaling is key. Scaling, whether it’s your marketing or your systems, but being able to take it beyond what we have here.

I’ll tell you one thing, when we had my restaurant, 3 Way Cafe, it was a gourmet sandwich bistro. We did a couple of hundred people every lunch. We had some really interesting sandwiches. We had a fig-glazed pork that we slow roasted and sliced, with smoked Gouda and a pesto aioli-type thing. And we had specials every day.

I was always busy putting the specials together, putting them on a plate, getting them ready for the staff to try. I wasn’t really able to focus on the social media part of things. We would always share what our specials were. They, instead of taking pictures of the specials, they took a picture of this board where we wrote them up there. We had the food right here? Why would you just take a picture of the writing of what it is? That’s an example where you have to give something that people actually want to see. That people are actually excited to see.

When you think of food, like your dad in pastry, the one thing we all see on our social media feeds that we enjoy seeing, whether we’re a chef, or in culinary school, or just a normal person, is cooking. It’s like you said, the TikTok videos. But it has to be something that people want to see and engage with. There’s too much boring stuff that isn’t going to get somebody to stop. I think you have to ask yourself, “What gets me to stop? What gets me to watch this TikTok video?” Maybe it’s about cooking, but if you’re running a kitchen, it could be introducing them to your staff, or walking them through the specials. Maybe you have a conversation with one of your purveyors that gives a little insight into the duck farmer that you have down the road.

There’s a lot of interesting ways to approach it that demonstrate who you are as a brand, as a company, or a unique individual that give the person viewing and seeing it a full view of what you do and who you are.

Kirk Bachmann: You brought up a really good point that I hadn’t even thought about. Go backwards to the Food Network. That was quite the phenomenon. All of a sudden, these big names got bigger. I can’t remember if I watched the Food Network for the sheer enjoyment of Tyler and Emeril and so on and so forth, or was I thinking, “I can do that!” Do you think things have changed from then, 20 years ago, to now, TikTok? Again, there’s no grade on this, but do you believe that most people are just watching these sorts of images and videos for pleasure, or replication, or education? I never even thought about it until you brought that up. Why are they watching all this stuff?

Chris Hill: It’s a good question, and I’m not sure I have the answer to it. I know for me, back in the day I was watching to learn. I hadn’t gone to culinary school or anything. For me watching these things now, its different because I know how to cook now. But for the average person at home watching, obviously it has to be entertaining. You can hop on YouTube and see how to set your video up in a way that’s going to get it more traction. The title, the intro. There are these formulas, like a recipe, a formula that you can pay attention to that will help you get more engagement, more eyes.

I do think there’s a certain entertainment value to it. I remember before I sold my share of the restaurant, we would do specials. I had cooks come in and say, “Hey, I saw this on Instagram.” TikTok wasn’t around. “Hey, I saw this on Instagram.” We’d play around with it a little bit. Maybe it’s the old school chef in me, but I’m not going to take some guy that’s living in his mom’s basement, take his recipe for cinnamon roll pancakes and follow it to a T. I can take the idea and kind of work with with.

It’s a good question, though.

The Difference Between a Cook and a Chef

Kirk Bachmann: Appreciate that. I’m curious, too. We’ve talked a little bit about how you built your brand. If you can take us back again to when you were working in the restaurant and such, what was important to you to build your culinary skills? Was it a combination of everything we’re talking about, or just hard work?

Chris Hill: It was both. When we opened up the restaurant, I was the chef partner. I wouldn’t have called myself a chef until probably year three. I was the person running the kitchen. I knew how to build recipes, but I didn’t know how to run a kitchen. There’s a different between being a cook and being a chef. There was a big learning curve that I had to grow into. I picked up different pieces along the way in different restaurants. By then, I’d probably worked in a dozen restaurants.

I encourage students all the time. If there are events locally you can volunteer with, it’s a great opportunity to work with really good chefs. Also, get on their radar. Also, one of the fortunate things I had was a commercial kitchen. We closed early, so a lot of times at night I would have the kitchen to myself and I could literally play around with new recipes. I’d pull out the French Laundry cookbook and try recipes above my pay grade at the time. I got to see what my mentors from afar were doing. I kept pushing myself. Try molecular gastronomy. At the time, there wasn’t anyone locally that was doing it, but I got to figure out different ways of doing things.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that, and I love the nod to the great Thomas Keller. You had a great post on your Instagram or your podcast, but Thomas Keller. That book! If that book’s not in your house, it should be in your house immediately. That original one. That, in my house, it might not be as tattered as yours, but we used it. We brought it to the school. We brought it to the restaurant when I had that. We couldn’t always follow it. The ingredients were incredibly expensive. We just used the theme of what Thomas was doing. Gosh, I love that reference.

I also love the reference – and our audience will probably think that we scripted all this, but we didn’t! This idea of working hard and working when the doors close and working in a dozen restaurants. It all comes together. It’s not literally watching a TikTok video and off you go. There’s a lot of work underneath the surface. It’s a calm bird floating on top of the water, but the legs are going crazy underneath. I just appreciate the passion of your response, because it’s very similar to what we share with our students every single day.

Chris Hill: As much as I love all the attention out there in mainstream media with cooking. There’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Top Chef,” they do a little bit of a disservice to our industry, I think. There are certain kids that want to go to culinary school because they want to make it big and get on “Hell’s Kitchen.” If you can do that, more power to you, but for the other 99-point-whatever percent of us, there is a path that is going to be a little more traditional where we have to start as a dishwasher. Then you’re a prep cook. Then you’re pantry. You work your way up.

At some point, ten years down the road, you look down and say, “I’m actually in charge of some people here.”

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. You address it in the book. You have one chapter called, “The Reason You Can’t Skip to the End.” I have that question later, too. We’ll come back to that.

I want to jump in between. I read on the internet some interesting content around the Bachelor Kitchen. Was that before the restaurant and before becoming a consultant? Can you help me with the timeline?

Chris Hill: Opened the restaurant in 2011. I started the Bachelor Kitchen about a year and half before. The blog that I created before that that I misspelled the name, it was gaining some traction, but then I had this idea. “I’m a younger guy. I’m a bachelor.” Going back to the marketing, what can your niche be?

I really thought I could use that to bring attention to me as a chef, and then, in turn, to bring attention to the restaurant. That was right before the restaurant, but we had been talking about it nine months out. It was part of the intentionality of bringing people to the restaurant. Nobody knew who I was the first six months. It was crickets. But once I started getting more traction, there was a direct correlation between that and the restaurant getting traction and getting busier.

At Day’s End, Be Done with Work

Kirk Bachmann: I love the connection, constantly, back to the branding, the marketing. Every step of the journey made sense. I’m curious. You opened up Three-Way, your restaurant. I’ve read that you were living very close by, and that brings up the whole idea that a restaurant or any business can take more than it gives if you’re just constantly there. Particularly if you, like Andre Soltner, you live above the restaurant, you-never-really-leave-the-building type of thing. Any thoughts around that? Or advice, operating a business that takes so much of your time. What you read about today is trying to find that balance between work and life. Was that a difficult time, or did you stay committed to keeping that balance?

Chris Hill: I can only give advice looking back at what I didn’t do. Like a lot of cooks and chefs, it’s hard. The sheer nature of the hours is one thing. When your name’s on the wall or on the sign or the bottom of the menu, there’s a certain kind of ownership you have to it.

I remember the first time I took any days off. I went back home to Atlanta for Thanksgiving. I was so nervous. “My place is going to burn down.” I came back, and there was no bad Yelp reviews or anything like that. Everything was just fine. Which taught me a good lesson; you can actually take some time off.

Now, I didn’t do that, and I wish I would have because my new girlfriend at the time, now wife, our relationship suffered because of it. You see that a lot with folks in our industry.

I think it’s also important to have other interests outside of cooking. For me, the one thing I did do was I made sure I got a good hour to be able to work out every single day. Even though you’re kind of running around the kitchen and getting a decent workout, being able to just disconnect for a little bit and not worry about phones coming in or vendors trying to sit down with you, that was always helpful for me.

I think once you get done with work at the end of the day, be done with work. One good thing, I think, that we’ve seen a lot. I try to talk about it in “Making the Cut,” as much as I love Bourdain, I think for a lot of folks like me that came up when “Kitchen Confidential” came out, he had the whole rock star, party. I did some of that. When you look at all the successful chefs out there now, maybe there are some exception, but for the most part, the ones I write about in the book are really put together. They get up early. They maybe work out. They have a decent family life. They have their priorities in line, versus burning the candle at both ends. I think it’s important to think about those kind of things.

Connecting with People and the Work

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. We had a very similar conversation with Curtis a few weeks ago. Family is important. Exercise is important. Balancing it all because it’s a lot of hours. You try to get away for vacation or a holiday with your family, and you’re thinking…. You might as well just stay, because you’re thinking about it so much.

What was the motivation? You’re in the restaurant. You’re doing your thing, kind of like Bourdain. There was a point where he realized he could put pen to paper. A really good author. That first book was insane. When did you know, “Hey, this is the route I’m going to go. Consulting is really important. I want to help others. I’m a good public speaker. I’ve got a message. I’ve got a lot to say, and Heck, I can write really well”? Was that a push or a pull? Was it really natural. Was that something your wife asked you to do, that sort of thing?

Chris Hill: Definitely makes it easier on home life. You’re not working at all hours. Then, as you get older. We don’t have any kids yet, but you have Father’s Day, Mother’s Day. Holidays are important, especially when you have kids. That’s something maybe down the road.

I think I still have a restaurant left in me. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the article I wrote called, “Dear Chefs.” It’s kind of an ode to kitchen work. When I wrote that, it went kind of crazy viral. It got a ton of views. I probably got 1000 emails the first month it came out. The emails were from mothers from culinary school students, and they were from spouses, and grandparents, and also cooks and chefs. When I saw the kind of response I was able to get, I knew, Here’s an opportunity to connect and touch more people.

That was a big part of it. Yes. Not having to work the crazy hours of the restaurant seemed appealing at the time because I was trying to work on my relationship with my wife. I think I saw an opportunity based on some of the writing I did. That led to a TED talk. The audience grew, and I said, “I have this big audience. Is there something they would like to buy?” Then obviously the book, and it kind of goes from there.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Can we talk a little bit about the transition to the TED talk, doing what you love, leading like a chef? That scenario. How nerve-wracking was that for you?

Chris Hill: I’ve done three now. I’ll say two-and-a-half. The third one was TED Santa Barbara, which was just an online thing, kind of like this. The one that’s out there is a TEDx Tuscaloosa. That was technically my second one. My first one was TEDx Hampton Roads here in Virginia, but whoever did the media screwed it up. They screwed up the recording, so it never made it out there, which was a great thing. That was the first time I ever gave a talk in front of people, so it was a good trial run.

In that talk I talk about the transition from being in the office to then into the kitchen and doing work you love. One of the real keys there that I talk about is connecting with the work. Doing work that you love. Like you said before, if you’re going to spend so much of your working hours doing it, make sure that you love it. When you look at the covid where a lot of restaurants have obviously been struggling with staffing, one of the good things that came out of it was that some people that weren’t meant to be in our industry maybe moved along. Because if you don’t love it, go drive a FedEx truck. Make the same amount of money or more, have your weekends off, get your benefits, all that type of stuff. Really having a connection to the work. That’s where I found myself.

Kirk Bachmann: I always try to tie it back to any kind of brief advice for students. It’s that whole notion of, “I saw this on TikTok. I watched Chris on TED talk. I’m going to do the same thing.” It’s important that you experience every moment along the way. You didn’t just go from zero to sixty. You have an almost scripted path that you took, and it all made sense. Any brief advice for students who think, “I like what he does. I want to write a book”?

Chris Hill: Like you said, it looks like everything is neat and trimmed and put together, but when we had the restaurant we opened up. At the same time, which you don’t see, is I was always working at my cousin’s other restaurant about 30-40 hours a week to pay the bills. I didn’t get paid by the restaurant I was a partner in for the first three years.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s important to work in the industry first, to have the stories to share, to tell.

Chris Hill: For sure. I don’t think any of the stuff that I’ve written, whether it was the book or the articles, would resonate with anybody if it didn’t come from a place that they had been through that themselves. Which was a long three years. While driving through the tunnel that was two bucks, I was thinking of it when I talk to students. You have this mountain in the distance, and the question is: are you moving closer to it or further away? And some days, you’ll move a number of steps, and some days you’ll move backwards, but overall, are you doing the things that are moving you towards the goals you have. Know that it’s going to be an uphill climb. I don’t know anyone in our industry – I can’t imagine you do either, Kirk – who has had an “easy” path to being an owner or being an executive chef and those kinds of things.

Kirk Bachmann: You have to put in the work, without doubt. I appreciate you sharing that. Very humbling. Very sincere. I would be remiss if I didn’t gush a bit about the book. I learned about this book and you from one of our head pastry chefs, Chef Anne. You did a little session for our students. Belated thanks for that.

But I have to say – and here’s the plug. “Making the Cut.” There’s so much. It was probably very natural for you, but for me, a couple of things. The scratch notes in the back. Brilliant. Chef’s are always doing things like that. Every book should have an area for scratch notes.

Chris Hill: That was also to make it feel like it was a little bit of a thicker book.

Learn One Thing Every Day

Kirk Bachmann: Get a few more pages in there! But these are the kind of books, like Andre. Andre put his PSA book out. I ordered a ton of them, and I literally just passed them out. I said, “Chefs, chef instructors, this is for you. This is not for student consumption just yet, because it’s a little strong.” But this will be the next that I pass out. It’s really a fun read. A couple of things that really resonated with me: page 72, “What’s you’re excuse?” Love the challenges. Attention-getting chapters, for me, “The Power of a Decision,” when you talk about Chef Gavin.

Oh my gosh! I already mentioned I love the Steve Jobs quote, and I’ve got to share it. “You’re work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” So profound, so we’ll both thank Steve Jobs for that. Absolutely amazing.

I was hoping that you could summarize a little bit. I think my favorite chapter is “The Reason that You Can’t Skip to the End.” I mentioned it earlier. What a great lesson for students, for my 12-year-old boy who plays baseball and thinks he can start for the Cubs next year. There’s a reason you can’t skip to the end. Can you speak to that just a bit?

Chris Hill: To take the sports analogy, having gone to the University of Alabama, our coach is Nick Saban had The Process. What they call The Process is, We’re not going to focus on winning championships. We’re going to focus on what can I do on this play in this moment, in this practice in April that’s going to then help impact us in January when there’s a championship game.

When you think of that, and if you apply it to the kitchen, what can I do this shift that’s going to make me a better cook not just today, but tomorrow. And the good thing about that, too, is compound interest. What you learn today, you build on and grow on for the rest of your career. Hopefully, you walk around with a journal in your back pocket. If you write things down, and if you take one thing every day, that’s 200 things over the course of a year. Over the course of your career, that’s a lot of things you’ve learned.

Like I mentioned a few minutes ago, one of the things the “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Top Chef” type world has done a little bit of disservice is try to get people to skip those first couple steps. First of all, you have to get through them to learn how things actually work to be a better cook, a better chef. But then, once you actually do get to run your own kitchen, and once you get to the end of your career and you’re teaching, like you and I are kind of doing now, you appreciate the journey a lot more. I think you lose sight of that if you try to skip too far ahead. Not that you don’t want to push yourself, because that’s an important piece as well. The journey, that’s what it’s about. And I think you lose sight of it if you try to get there too fast.

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Really good advice. Again, to your point, this is what I have in the kitchen. I don’t know if you can see that. It’s called The Chef’s Journal. I got a hundred of them, different colors. Literally, it’s just what cooks do, what chefs do, what managers do, I guess. Constantly writing notes down. Again, just brilliant.

Chris Hill: And for anyone out there that hasn’t seen it. I’m not sure, Chef, if you have or not, but Rich Rosendale, there’s a documentary on his Bocuse d’Or journey. It’s called “The Contender.” They go back and interview his chef instructors from school. They talk about back when he was in school he had all these crazy journals, notebooks of every thing he’d ever learned and discussed. They were interviewing him at the end, actually before the competition, and he talks about, “The medals, they signify something I’ve been through. But what is meaningful is who I’ve become along the way.”

Connecting Through Writing

Kirk Bachmann: Brilliant. “The Contender” is amazing. Ironically enough, Rich is going to be on the show in a couple of weeks, so we’ll talk about you as well.

We’re getting a little close to the end, but I’ve got other things, at least a couple of additional questions. I’m really curious: English major, University of Alabama, marketing, cooking. What is it about writing, particularly writing about food and the people in the food business that resonates so much with you?

Chris Hill: It’s interesting, because the process of cooking and seeing someone enjoy it, there’s a certain kind of high to it. Then, there’s the side of thinking about the industry and connecting with people. It’s kind of like the idea of getting off of work and you have a shift drink together and you talk shop about how the shift went and everything. I think that’s kind of what I’m doing through the writing part of it. I’m acting like we’re all sitting at the bar, a communal table, talking about the shift we just had together.

There’s a certain kind of connectivity to it and camaraderie. It’s one of those things where you’re a cook and you’ve been through some of these things and some of these challenges, then hopefully, you can connect with it. It’s my way, too, of giving back to the industry in a way. We talked about before: I don’t think we need another tuna tartare recipe, but if I can connect with people in a different way, I’m more than glad to do it.

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Really great job on the book. Can’t wait for the next one.

Chris Hill: I don’t know when folks are listening to this, but if any of the students or whoever wants to read it, it’s going to be free from October 28 through November 3. Hop on Amazon, ebook version.

Chris Hill’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. There’s going to be 8000 students that find out about that.

Before I let you go. Such a great chat. Really great to get to know you. But before I let you go, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. In Chris Hill’s mind, what is the ultimate dish?

Chris Hill: Having grown up in the South, having spent my summers visiting Charleston every year. That’s where I got engaged, and the place I’m just super fond of. Obviously a great culinary scene there. Shrimp and grits is my go-to. I could eat grits by themselves every day, but then you add some shrimp, some bacon fat, some pork fat to it, you can’t go wrong. Some sort of shrimp and grits.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love that you stay true to the South as well. We had a leadership conference in Nashville a few months ago. We had the good fortune of eating with Chef Brock and it was beyond spectacular. It was unbelievable. He was incredibly gracious. He was there with us the whole night. Super cool.

Chris Hill: Very cool.

Kirk Bachmann: What we expect from the South. Yeah.

Chris Hill: Yeah, that’s right.

Kirk Bachmann: Chris, thank you so much for joining us. We’ll have to chat again. Best of luck to you. We’ll be in touch. I’m going to get your words in front of our students real quick.

Chris Hill: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Kirk.

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.

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