“Finding something that has that “cravability.” With Chef Vicky Colas, Michael & Kwini Reed

Michael: The key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about is finding something that has that “cravability.” I start with the simplistic components of what the dish should be, take those, and find ways to showcase the quality of product. You do not want to over complicate it or add too many ingredients […]

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Michael: The key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about is finding something that has that “cravability.” I start with the simplistic components of what the dish should be, take those, and find ways to showcase the quality of product. You do not want to over complicate it or add too many ingredients to it, but instead make it simplistic so it is familiar yet elevated and with a twist.

Kwini: You need to learn business. If you are going to be a restaurateur or entrepreneur, you need to learn business. You need to learn accounting and understand how taxes work. It will save you a lot of trouble. The worst thing would be to start a business where you have a great idea and you didn’t take time to learn what it means to run a business or what certifications and permits you would need. It can cost you a lot of money and your business in the long run.

As part of our series about the lessons from Inspirational Black Chefs & Restaurateurs I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michael and Kwini Reed.

Husband & wife duo Michael and Kwini Reed are the owners behind Poppy + Rose, the beloved Downtown Los Angeles eatery serving classic American comfort food made with fresh ingredients. Michael is the Executive Chef and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Prior to Poppy + Rose, Michael worked in a number of restaurants in Los Angeles and New York, including Osteria Mozza and Sona. Kwini oversees accounting and human resources for the restaurant.

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?

Michael: I have always loved food; my family spent a lot of time cooking and growing vegetables together. My dad used to teach me things like how to make pies and jams as well as best grilling techniques. Then I went to college at University of California, Santa Barbara on a running scholarship. My junior year, I broke my foot. Additionally, I was not really in love with school. I opted to drop out, go to Santa Barbara Community College, and take culinary classes. I loved what I was learning, so I transferred to the Culinary Institute of America and began working at high end restaurants. I fell in love with food even more. After graduating, I returned to LA where I started working for Michelin Star restaurants and honing my skills.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

Michael: I am classically trained French, but I really liked working with Nancy Silverton at Osteria Mozza and using all the Italian ingredients. Lighter fare is great for California because it fits in better with what people are eating. You can make so many different fillings and a variety of textures. There is so much hard work that goes into making handmade pasta and sauces. I like focusing on California, farm to table cuisine, utilizing seasonal and local ingredients, keeping it on the lighter side.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Kwini: My favorite life lesson quote is one my father would say all the time from my grandmother — “you can always say where you have been but you can never say where you are going.” This has two meanings for me. One interpretation is that you should always have empathy and sympathy for other peoples’ situations because one day that can be you. Another interpretation is that we know where we have been but have no clue what the future holds, so we should always be optimistic. We can always change what we want and pivot. For me, I pivoted my career and have become a restaurateur with Michael. You can have had a full fledge career before in something else.

Michael: My favorite life lesson quote is “slow and steady wins the race;” you do not become a seasoned chef overnight. My grandad would say you have to wake up every morning and put the work in. If you want something, you must put the work in. Due to the high pace of the industry, chefs can burn out really quickly. I find passion in the long hours by doing it slow and steady.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Michael: Three years ago, Kwini and I got married and we opted to do the food ourselves for our wedding. As a chef, you definitely have the skillset to cook for your own wedding, but in reality, you don’t exactly have the luxury to oversee a kitchen and taste test while you’re in the process of saying “I do.” Plus, all my sous chefs that I trust were guests at my wedding, so it was really challenging to find cooks at that high-quality level. We managed to pull it off and the food was incredible, but my advice is do not cook your own food at your wedding. You need to allow yourself to fully enjoy the day.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

Michael: I have had several obstacles over the years. I bounced around for a few years working Executive Chef roles at different restaurants. I would do two years here, two and a half there. I spent a lot of time trying to solve the problem the restaurant was going through at that moment. It was difficult because simultaneously I had a busy catering company and was building my own restaurant, Poppy + Rose. I would look at what I was doing at my restaurant and then attempt to recreate that at a preexisting restaurant, which already had its own culture and reputation. That was much harder than I thought it would be. There were older line cooks that did not want to change their ways, owners that didn’t want to change their minds. Even though they would hire me for my knowledge and expertise, they did not necessarily want to hear my recommendations. To be honest, a lot of the times we were unable to overcome the obstacles at those restaurants. Now with full ownership of Poppy + Rose, I am able to run the restaurant exactly as I see fit and it’s doing incredibly well.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

Michael: The key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about is finding something that has that “cravability.” I start with the simplistic components of what the dish should be, take those, and find ways to showcase the quality of product. You do not want to over complicate it or add too many ingredients to it, but instead make it simplistic so it is familiar yet elevated and with a twist.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Kwini: Anything cooked by Chef Michael Reed! But really, in all honesty, some of my favorite dishes happen when I open our refrigerator, say there’s nothing in there, then he goes in and creates an incredible multi-course meal. To me, it is about the ingenuity of the dish. How the person thought about it. You can really feel and tell how the food is executed.

Michael: The perfect meal for me all depends. When I go out to eat, I am looking for the chef to have creativity that sparks interest in me. Places like Alinea and Juniper & Ivy are where I go to get inspired, get my creativity, and see what they are using seasonally. On the flip side, when I want something simplistic, Tere’s Mexican Grill is my go-to. Her carne asada burrito has perfectly seasoned meat and includes all the accoutrements I like in my burrito. It’s just done so well, and I’ve been eating that for years.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

Michael: We have a couple of different projects we are working on. We have our upcoming Poppy Supper Club, which will be more of an elevated concept that will offer anywhere from four to six courses, some full plated and some family-style. It will be a great opportunity to showcase our creativity and what else I can cook in addition to the comfort food found at Poppy + Rose. We will be partnering with Black-owned breweries and wineries, and plan on bringing in other Black chefs to collaborate with me on the menu. Our goal is to break bread and build a stronger community.

Kwini: Due to the pandemic, we have really needed to think outside of the box so we can not only grow our brand, but also impact the community in a positive way. Right now, we’re working to help one of our homeless neighbors who sleeps outside of Poppy + Rose. Our goal is to help him get into a transitional facility because we believe if we help one person at a time, we can make a change in the world.

Additionally, we are trying to make positive changes to the restaurant industry by bringing together like-minded people to discuss what is happening in the world, and how we can help. We want to create collaboratives and coalitions so we can start putting a stamp on the world. Hopefully, it will have a positive impact on the industry and help a lot of people who are in need.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Kwini: I would have to say TAKE VACATIONS. Self-care is needed. This is advice for anybody — not just a restaurateur, but an entrepreneur or anyone grinding, working many hours, trying to get ahead. Taking time to sit back, relax, and detach, especially for people in the creative realms like being a chef. It gives you time to reset, retune, and allow those creative juices to flow. When I first met Michael, there was no such thing as vacations. I made it a point not only for the sake of our relationship but for the sake of us as people to take vacations every year. How has that affected you Michael?

Michael: I am much happier. My advice to not burn out would be to take the time to invest in people. In this industry, we expect people to just pick things up. However, you are only as strong as your weakest link and when you are running busy service, you need people who will come together and go to bat for you. You need to teach them, train them, show them new things, encourage them, and motivate them, not just tear them down. When I first started, some chefs would yell, throw things, and were always angry. It was an awful, toxic environment. Take time to invest in your staff. The more time you take for your staff, the better results you’ll get because they see you spending time on them and in return, you’ll have an easier time running the restaurant because they will actually have the passion and skillset to do it. Be patient with them, even though it can be frustrating at times.

Do you have any advice for “up and coming” young chefs who are in need of guidance to become successful in the culinary world?

Michael: Pay attention to your mentors and older chefs. Try to get jobs where you feel they are actually teaching and changing their menu, so you are always being stimulated and growing. Food and techniques are ever changing and ever growing so always continue to read cookbooks and blogs. Just because you have the title as chef does not mean you stop learning. I am still learning today.

COVID-19 has been a trying time for all of us. How are you growing your business during COVID-19? What advice do you have for any chefs who are trying to stay relevant during this time?

Michael: Slow and steady wins the race! Prior to COVID-19, we offered delivery via third party systems. It was not a huge part of our business model, but it was there. It is one thing to know how to do delivery, but it’s another to really make it an experience for the diner. It is so important to pay attention to packaging your food, plating it in a to go box, and making sure it’s still aesthetically pleasing while also being familiar for repeat customers. You want it to look like the photos they see online and not just things thrown into a box. Pay attention to your branding and packaging. That will make the difference during this trying time to keep your business afloat.

Kwini: Like Michael said, slow and steady wins the race. I think a lot of people need to change the way they think. COVID-19 is a disaster, but it could also be a blessing for some people. It has given some of us the opportunity to analyze what we are doing and figuring out what it is we need to be doing. I think if people get quiet and really reflect, restaurateurs and chefs can figure out what they need to do and/or what they have been wanting to do. Now they have the time to be able to execute it and do it. I think if everybody stays as positive as possible, keeps their minds open and, like Michael said, continues researching and looking at what other restaurants are doing to stay afloat, there is a lot of creativity that can come from this. For us, we have created new menu items, we are figuring out how to expand, we’re being a lot more conversational, and Michael is about to start filming teaching videos for cooking. There are a lot of avenues to stay afloat that are not just running your restaurant, so you must start thinking outside the box.

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.

Kwini: Here are my five things I wish someone had told me when I first started off:

  1. Find your path. Find the right path for you. Know that every path is not the right path and just because someone went to culinary school or went to college does not mean that you must do things that way. Some people just have a knack for things, so they don’t necessarily need to follow the same path as everyone else, meaning culinary school might be necessary for some people but not others.
  2. Make sure that you take time to breathe and smell the roses. Look back at how far you have come and remember the things you have accomplished. That will keep you centered and hopefully not frustrated.
  3. Do not be afraid to take risks. You are going to fail. Starting a business and being a chef and restaurateur are very scary things. It is an unknown territory for everyone when they start off, so don’t be afraid to take risks.
  4. Always believe in yourself. Do not let anyone tell you that you cannot do something or that you need to do something else. You know yourself better than anyone.
  5. You need to learn business. If you are going to be a restaurateur or entrepreneur, you need to learn business. You need to learn accounting and understand how taxes work. It will save you a lot of trouble. The worst thing would be to start a business where you have a great idea and you didn’t take time to learn what it means to run a business or what certifications and permits you would need. It can cost you a lot of money and your business in the long run.

Michael: I think Kwini really nailed it, so I’ll include my comments on her points:

  1. Find your path: I did go to college, but I dropped out. I did go to culinary school and then graduated. I got a better education at the city college that was basically free than I did at the culinary school. I had mentor chefs that did go to culinary school and one of them told me don’t go to school, just work for me. The point is, there are so many different paths and you need to choose what is right for you. I could have saved the money I spent on school and started a restaurant with it. I do think you can go to school and use your degree, for what it is worth, but more importantly, find people that are actually passionate about the industry and learn from them.
  2. Learn business: the number one thing to learn as a chef is business. Yes, you need to have the passion and be creative, but you also need to be able to manage your costs. How are you going to afford ingredients while also paying your staff on time? Learn how to read a P&L. Make sure you create a safety net and cushion. The IRS does not mess around. Understanding that is crucial.
  3. Take care of yourself: even though you are an entrepreneur, sometimes you need to be selfish. As much as you might want to be there every day at the restaurant, that is not necessarily the healthiest thing for you or your staff. You need to teach and train your staff so you can rely on them. It can be scary to leave your pet project in the hands of someone else, but if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll end up running yourself into the ground and burning out sooner than later. You do not want to be in that position, especially if you are truly passionate about your project and want it to be around for a while.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Michael: Our fried chicken and waffle.

Kwini: Oh, that’s so hard to say… pulled pork hash is high up there, but the smoked beef sandwich is good too. It really depends what you are in the mood for! But Michael is right, the one thing that knocks everybody’s socks off is the fried chicken and waffle. We also have some great lighter fare, like our new acai bowl or our watermelon salad.

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.

Kwini: I would say transfer of information. We had a dinner the other day with a couple that are both entrepreneurs. The woman said she wants to branch out of what they are currently doing and open a brick and mortar and I told her I was so happy to help her. There is space and room for everybody at the table, and there is really no reason to keep my information all to myself. I believe if we are kind and generous with the information we have, we will break down institutionalized and systemic racism. We will start to break down biases against each other because the reason we have all these problems is due to fear. People are afraid others will take their insight and either use it against them or succeed before they do. I think if we can open the lines of communication and transfer of knowledge, we will be able to teach each other. We can make a huge impact and difference in this world if we share our information.

Michael: I like that! For me, I would start by healing our communities that are so disjointed by not understanding food or not having access to it. Magic happens when you are sitting around a dinner table talking instead of just running into a fast food joint and grabbing something fast. Having well-balanced meals and feeding people that do not have food can bring a community from a lower position to a higher position by eliminating that hunger.

Kwini: So, with that, we should start a movement because a lot of restaurants and grocery stores have waste, but there are a lot of people who could benefit from that excess food. If we could start a movement, it would be to find a way to share our excess food with people in need. We know there are incredible resources for homeless people, but there are also people who are not technically homeless but need to decide between paying rent and electricity bills or having food for their family. We should not be throwing out food everyday when there are so many people in need. We must figure out a distribution that gets food in the stomachs of people in need. If we could figure that out, we could put something in place that would have such a great impact on the world.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can follow Poppy + Rose on Instagram at poppyandrosela

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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