The corporate side of cooking: Interview with Emery Whalen

One of my favorite things is talking to "food people." When you think of food jobs, you usually think about the people preparing the food – whether executive chefs, sous chefs, line cooks, pastry chefs or bartenders. Maybe you also think about the waitstaff, or the host who graciously shows you to your table. But there's a whole other side to the culinary world: The business side. Food lovers may think cooking is the only way to build a career in the culinary industry, but people like Emery Whalen show us otherwise. Emery works in New Orleans for Chef John Besh, as both the Executive Director of the John Besh Foundation and as the Director of Communications for the Besh Restaurant Group. I caught up with her in January to ask about her career and was intrigued to learn more about the corporate side of the food world.

Can you tell us about growing up in New Orleans, including whether food had any special significance to you?

Growing up in New Orleans has probably impacted the arc of my life more than anything – and especially the food culture in New Orleans. I think it has informed most of the decisions that I’ve made in my life. I grew up in a big food family; my grandmother taught me everything I know about cooking. I saw the magic that my grandmother created and I just wanted to be a part of that — of sharing food and sharing experiences over food.

When you were a student at Princeton, did you have any interest in doing something food-related after graduating? What lead you to the positions you’re in now?

I’ve always loved food, but I never thought that that would be a career for me. I went through a brief time where I considered culinary school, just because I love food so much and I just wanted to study it more.

But I actually went into teaching after I graduated. I was a French and Spanish teacher at public schools in New Orleans. And almost all of my lessons were themed around food. I found it really got the kids to pay attention. We talked about the French influence on New Orleans, and I would bring it home for them using examples of French influences on the food of New Orleans. It was something that would really make sense to them, and relate to things they ate in their homes. Linking that back to our history and our culture was really a powerful thing for me.

What exactly do you do as the Executive Director of the John Besh Foundation, and as the Director of Communications for the Besh Restaurant Group? Do you actually have two jobs?!

I don’t actually keep track of the number of hats I wear, because I think that might drive me crazy! But I love what I do. Basically, I get to be a part of everything that Chef Besh does. So, whether it’s telling our story to friends in the media, or going out in the community and spreading the word about our scholarship, or brainstorming with John about recipes for the next restaurant.

How did you transition from teaching to what you’re doing now?

I was brought on to help John start a foundation because my background was in nonprofits. And I had started a foundation before, I knew the ins and outs, and that was the real reason that I was hired for the company. But the more I learned about what we did, the more I wanted to be a part of everything. And opportunities have just come up through the past three or four years and I’ve jumped at every single one.

How closely do you work with Chef Besh, and how does the collaborative and creative process work between you two?

We talk all the time. He knows everything I’m doing and I know everything he’s doing, and I can basically function as an umbrella and keep him abreast of what’s going on with our various projects – including our micro loan program and our scholarship program. He’s an incredible mentor and I’ve learned so much from him and from his business partner, Octavio.

Your career has many different facets – you handle business matters, communications, and then there’s the food aspect, with things like product launches and serving as a mentor to burgeoning chefs as part of the Chefs Move! Scholarship program. Does any one aspect of your job appeal to you more than others? What drives you the most?

It’s almost like picking a favorite restaurant, picking what part of my job I love the most. But I love our scholarship program. We have a scholarship program for minority students living in New Orleans to go to culinary school in New York City. The idea behind it is to diversify the upper echelon of kitchen management so that the diversity of New Orleans is reflected in the diversity of kitchen leaders. I get to go out and meet young cooks and find students that will be perfect, who have the passion and drive and aptitude to go to New York and take advantage of the $65,000 scholarship that we’re offering them, and soak everything up that they can and then come back to New Orleans and really be a leader in the kitchen and in their community. I get to share so many life-changing moments with these wonderful students, and that’s really special.

Can you tell us about some of the food-related perks your job offers?

Oh, there are so many! The food perks are great. You have to love to eat to work in this industry. You have to really enjoy it, and you have to love every bite and every moment in the restaurant and every sip of wine or cocktail. I love, love going out to eat in our restaurants and being fed by our chefs. That is absolutely the coolest perk. They will cook for you — you just put away your menu, and they send out whatever they want you to have that night. It is the coolest dining experience.

Do you cook often, or do you tend to eat out a lot? Any favorite recipes?

I love cooking at home, actually. For the longest time, because my grandmother taught me how to cook and she had five boys, I only knew how to cook huge pots of things. I could only make red beans & rice for twelve. I learned through working with John and through reading cookbooks how to actually cook for a normal-size group of people like four, or two even.

When I first started working I was so intimidated by everything that I saw happening in the kitchen that I stopped cooking for a little bit. But I’ve gotten over that. And one of the best parts about my job is watching John cook. I think the most meaningful cooking lessons have come from just watching him in his kitchen.

People are more interested than ever in the food world, and there seem to be new, interesting things happening. What are your thoughts about food-related careers? Do you have any advice for people who love food and want to integrate it into their career?

I try to explain to someone what I do from time to time, and I think, “This is so cool.” I think the most important thing is to just get in there. Get in the door as a hostess, a server, a dishwasher, whatever it is, get in a restaurant and figure out if that’s something that you really want. Because it can be a crazy industry; it is so much fun and so exciting, but it’s not for everyone. So, if you want to be noticed by somebody in a corporate office, you shine at the hostess stand. Or you be the best server. I’ve hired two hostesses away from our restaurants, and they work for me in the office. They showed initiative and creativity, and they understood the restaurant, so what more did I want?

So even if you don’t aspire to become a chef, you’re saying that starting in a restaurant is a good idea even if you want to end up on the corporate side?

Yes. The smartest thing that John and his business partner ever did was ask me to work as a hostess in the restaurant when I first started. At first I was a little surprised, but it was the best thing they’ve ever done for me, because I get it now. I have a true understanding — most of the time — of what it means to make the decisions that I make.

Do you see yourself staying in the restaurant world? Do you have an idea of what your next step would be, or are there any projects you hope to take on soon?

I do see myself staying in the restaurant world; I love it. The hardest part of my job is I don’t think I could ever let go of a piece of it because it’s so much fun, every single bit of it. For my next steps here at the company, I’m really focusing on keeping my employees happy. I want them to feel like this is the best place to work and that they want to continue to grow with us.

Projects? I want the foundation to continue to make a difference in the communities in New Orleans, and there’s so much more to do. Every time I talk about the scholarship program with someone they’re like “Oh, well why don’t you…” and my response is usually “That’s awesome, I totally want to do it and I’m going to!” I want to, and I know I will because John is so supportive of everything we do. And I want to add another scholarship program, I want to do a fellowship for students here in New Orleans that can’t leave to go to school, but shouldn’t miss out on the kind of experiences that we offer through the scholarship. We have tons of ideas and that is just so darn thrilling.