Take care of your teeth! You most likely will have food in your mouth most of the day. Unfortunately, you can’t brush your teeth during service as it will mess with your taste bud and you will not be able to properly taste your food and check for seasonings. So, don’t go to bed without flossing and brushing. And definitely don’t skip out on your dentist appts.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Dakota Weiss. She was born to take classic American dishes, implement a French twist, and hone praise by reviewers for her comforting and unpretentious plates of deliciousness. Blame it on her roots, which are planted deep into American history from her mother’s Revolutionary War ancestors to the suffragist ancestor from Chef Dakota’s birth father’s family line. Inspired by her travels across the country, she was compelled to put her mark on the ultimate mac ‘n cheese or classic hamburger, so she quit studies in international business and enrolled at Scottsdale Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School). All of her rich culinary experience has led her to her newest venture, Sweetfin, an all-raw fish, casual dining restaurant in Santa Monica, which is sure to please everyone from Westside locals to food lovers from around the globe.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
I’ve always been a bit of a misfit. I hated school, I was “sick” a lot. I truly did everything I could think of to avoid going to school, doing homework and most importantly being told what to do. On the other hand I have always been a very social person. So the days I would con my mom into thinking I had a stomach ache I would have major FOMO. But…As my mom was a single parent most of my elementary school years, she would have to drop me off at my grandma’s house for the day while she went to work. Now, in no way was my grandma an amazing cook, she actually was the queen of boxed foods and canned goods. She made a mean mashed potato from some weird looking flakes that she shook out of a box! Regardless of that, she was always cooking. I loved helping her and especially loved it when I got to lick the spoon clean of raw cookie dough. Now my mom was the exact opposite…she is an amazing cook as well, but she would NEVER dream of cooking anything that came from a box or a can. She has always had huge vegetable gardens that my sister and I would help harvest when we were younger and she made the freshest food ever. What I noticed is that I loved watching them both cook. I also loved whenever we would be at a family gathering everyone always hung out in the kitchen. Once I was old enough to handle a knife my mom gave me one night a week to cook the family dinner. I loved it! My hatred for school stuck with me through high school. So much so that I was kicked out of two schools. So I got my GED a year earlier than I was supposed to graduate and went off to college…yup, I still didn’t like going. So I found myself working at a cute little café where everything was made from scratch. The chef asked me one day if I wanted to do some baking one morning and I happily came to work with my red and white checkered Betty Crocker cookbook and I went to town! I baked so much, and the guests really liked my creations. This got me thinking that maybe I should try to make this my career. So I dropped out of college and went to Culinary School. I was floored that finally, I found a school that I wanted to go to. I didn’t want to miss a single day of it as this was for sure the best way to spend my time. Fast forward 25 years and I still love this “cooking thing”. ☺ So to sum it up…what inspired me was the love of cooking both my mom and grandma had, the fact that it takes a team to cook in a kitchen and the endless amounts of pure creativity that I have playing with food.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on?
I really like to cook everything. There has never been a cuisine that I have tried and not liked. But, I really love to cook with seafood. It’s such a delicate protein, both fin fish and shell fish.
What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food?
While I was working under Chef Bruno Menard at the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead, I had the chance to work with some of the freshest seafood in the world. We got in some truly outstanding product. I would spend an hour shucking fresh diver scallops, carefully scraping them off the shell and removing the guts, making sure not to rip or damage the main mussel. I would breakdown 80–100# whole halibuts. I really learned how to respect food from all aspects while there. But the seafood station was the station to be on, when you were finally ready to tackle that station you knew you were on your way to becoming a chef.
Can you share a story about that with us?
One of my fondest memories from working with Bruno would have to be how we all worked day in and day out as a team. We would get in huge boxes of bay scallops that would easily take 1 cook a whole day to clean up. He had all of us no matter what station we worked meet at the prep table in the middle of the kitchen and do it together. While we all stood there shucking scallops he would tell us of his life as a young chef in France and what he learned. It was so magical and I miss that so much.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur?
I would have to say the funniest story would be on my way to becoming a chef. I was in my first block at culinary school. We were all sitting in the class room and the chef instructor asked each of us what was the most exotic thing we had been able to eat (we were all mostly young in the class). One of the students said that his parents took him to have a 5 course truffle menu. I started to giggle a little bit, loud enough for the chef to hear. He asked why that was so funny. I said that I also LOVED truffles and would have lost it my mind if my mom did that for me. I mean come on! 5 courses of chocolate, I couldn’t think of anything better. At which point most of the class started to LOL. I was so confused why that was so funny. Once the chef gathered himself, he had to explain to me that Truffles were in fact a type of mushroom, a very rare and expensive mushroom. MIND BLOWN!
What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
After that, I made it my mission to eat everything as quickly as possible. I also made it a point to devote a few hours a week reading culinary magazines and cook books so that I knew as much as possible and never would get caught in a situation like that again.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Being a chef is definitely not the easiest job out there. The hours are long, the pay is low and it’s a very high pressure / intense feeling in the kitchen, especially during the rush of the dinner hour. But after time on both a mental and physical level you almost crave that intensity and pressure. But it can overwhelm you for sure during the holidays when you’re working a 16-hour shift on Christmas and your family is at home enjoying some down time and eating a tasty roast beef. It’s something that takes some time getting used to.
How did you overcome this obstacle?
I’ve seen lots of cooks quit because of these reasons and issues. Many days throughout my career I have had to make the choice of work over family. I’ve always been ok with it overall as my hopes were to work as hard as I could while I was young to hopefully be able to take it a bit easier in the far-off future or at least own your own restaurant where you can determine if your opened or closed on a holiday.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
The perfect dish to me means it needs to have a perfect balance of acid, salt and sweetness. But not everyone is like me. Creating a menu that’s diverse in flavors and ingredients is the key to making a happy guest.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
For me the perfect meal is a loaf of crusty sourdough boule, a few different types of gooey cheese, thinly sliced salami and a bottle of Champagne or a dry Riesling.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
I have always found inspiration all over the place. I can be inspired to make a dish from the seasons or a color, a piece of art or even music can inspire a new dish.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Right now, the restaurant world is in a bit of limbo (as are a lot of businesses). I don’t have anything new I’m working on other than keeping Sweetfin on top of its games and staying ahead of the trends and always keeping it fresh and exciting.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Work hard when you’re young. Stay focused and don’t give up when it gets hard. Once you are happy or content with your career and the direction it has gone then you make the time for some self care, some seriously needed and well deserved “me time”.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
Relationships are going to be hard!
It’s no secret that most restaurants have many good but much more failed attempts at relationships. Cooks date the servers, Managers date the bartenders, the list goes on and on. Most the time it’s a casual “no big deal” kinda thing but it makes sense. We all live at the restaurant. The only way we will ever meet anyone is that they most likely have to be working at your restaurant or some other restaurant that you all meet up with after service for a beer. 95% of all my relationships have been coworkers. They just “get it”. #restaurantlife. ☺ And yes, my boyfriend …we met at my restaurant.
Most likely you will never be rich!
Restaurants are notorious for paying low wages. The higher up as a chef you get the more expensive the tools you will need.
Invest in good shoes!
You will 100% be on your feet for at least 14 hours a day if not more in the beginning of your chef career. Buy good shoes that support your arches and are good for your back. I unfortunately always wanted to look cool and wore allllllllll the wrong shoes…but damn did I look “dope”.
Take care of your teeth!
You most likely will have food in your mouth most of the day. Unfortunately, you can’t brush your teeth during service as it will mess with your taste bud and you will not be able to properly taste your food and check for seasonings. So, don’t go to bed without flossing and brushing. And definitely don’t skip out on your dentist appts.
Don’t forget to eat a proper meal at least once a day!
Most chefs snack all day long. It tends to be whatever is lying around under the heat lamp (fries mostly). Or we are often found in the pastry section scavenging some bread or sticking a spoon into the house made ice cream. I’ve always found it funny that we create some beautiful dishes over and over all day long and yet we eat like total crap. What I’ve noticed is now that I am not in the kitchen all day like I used to be…I just want to snack all day. Sitting down and eating a meal is foreign to me. But as I am getting older…it’s vital to my health I break this habit…so hard to do!
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Spicy Tuna Poke Bowl Hands down my greatest creation in all of my 25 years of cooking is this sauce. Creamy Togarashi, it’s like my version of the spicy mayo you see at sushi restaurants…but soooooo much better.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I focus a lot with food driven charities. Most restaurants have so much food waste. It breaks my heart to see any food go to waste. Now this is not new news. And there are several amazing food driven charities out there. So I encourage all of the young chefs I work with to be extremely focused and aware of how they treat the product and minimize the food waste to almost zero. At the same time we are out there working events for No Kid Hungry. I have done several classes with kids on how to prepare a full meal for a family of four for under 15 dollars. Teaching them about fresh fruits and veggies and leaning towards eating those over store bought candy and chips. Also really focusing on my local community and seeing what their food needs are then going back to my team and doing our best to hold events to get our families in need of some groceries and even fresh prepared meals they can just heat up.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!