Know when to pay an opportunity cost. — When you are trying to grow your name and service and “get some skin in the game”, you will come across work that, on the surface, may not meet your price or your business objectives. Look closer and you will certainly find an opportunity to give back, be introduced to more or different clients and to push your boundaries out and up. Only you can determine an opportunity cost.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Kysha Harris who has a joyous passion for food and a never-ending curiosity for the business of food. From farmers and purveyors to cooks and chefs to consumers and the industry as a whole, Kysha’s appreciation and respect cannot be denied. This is always her inspiration for what she does.
After a decade in entertainment and advertising, working with top creative and business executives at Def Jam, Universal Music and Pictures and Deutsch Advertising, Kysha began her almost two-decade, entrepreneurial food career with SCHOP! (shop+chop), a personalized in-home food business offering weekly menu planning, shopping, prepping and cooking service in the New York TriState area.
While cooking for celebrities and titans of industry at SCHOP!, Kysha worked with James Beard Award winning chefs, served as Culinary Producer for network television (most recently, Hot Ones the Game Show) and cookbooks (Melba’s American Comfort), as brand copywriter for consumer packaging (Steve & Andy’s Organics) and for the annual Harlem EatUp! festival created by chef Marcus Samuelsson and Herb Karlitz for which she is now the Associate Producer. Kysha continues her 15 year tenure as columnist and Food Editor at The Amsterdam News, the nation’s oldest African American newspaper, highlighting food makers, small business, hospitality and her unique voice.
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?
Thank you for having me. This is going to be fun.
To uncover what inspired me to become a chef, we will need to go back to what inspired my love of business and my entrepreneurial spirit. The answer is a little movie starring Melanie Griffith as a NYC native wanting more for her life, navigating the pitfalls of business and finding love for herself and her capabilities in a gray skirt-suit and briefcase. Yes, Working Girl was my inspiration to be a “business woman” and my education from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania was the place that fortified it.
After a decade in the music, film and advertising industries, and post 9/11, it was time for me to breakout and explore my entrepreneurial dreams. The questions I asked myself centered around passion, capabilities and low start up costs. It came to me in a Yiddish dream…SCHOP!, shop and chop. I would offer a personalized in-home cooking service for busy professionals and here we are, nineteen years and a varied career in food later.
I also find inspiration through my role as Food Editor for The Spruce Eats, where I work with a talented team developing recipes and cooking guides for the everyday chef. Our recipe developers, food writers, and content creators use years of experience and hands-on work to provide recipes, tutorials, and tips that are accessible to everyone.
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?
I cook whatever my clients want to eat. My food of choice centers around new American, Mediterranean and Asian. I appreciate straight forward cooking with minimal quality ingredients allow each to shine and come through.
Like most chefs and cooks, we draw relevance to our food from our heritage and history mostly in the form of our elders for which I was always watching intently if not the sous. My maternal grandmother from Louisiana was a restaurant owner and held all of our Creole family recipes from gumbo and headcheese to fried chicken and pastry. My godfather was a master baker and cook and my stepfather cooked and baked Caribbean foods. Plus being a native New Yorker, I was exposed to myriad types of food as a child and recently learned my affinity for Mediterranean food is innate after taking a DNA test and uncovering I am 25% Italian.
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?
After 19 years of being in business, the most interesting story is being in business for 19 years. The takeaway is to not chase checks, to do what you love, love what you do and money will come.
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?
Starting a business from the ground up is no small feat no matter if it is brick-and-mortar, a product or, like mine, a service. My biggest difficulty was establishing myself and my service. I overcame this obstacle by first tapping into my coterie of family, friends and colleagues with approachable a la cart packages and pricing. It allowed me to do the research on time, production and customer service plus build up a sustainable client base.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
For my business, the key to creating a dish that my clients are crazy about is the simple act of asking the right questions in a consultation and asking for feedback. Knowing a client’s likes and dislikes and the root of each — taste or texture — feeds my creativity with clear boundaries. My curiosity and the collaborative nature of my service is what produces the best product.
At The Spruce Eats, we hone into the years of experience that we collectively hold as professional chefs, experienced home cooks, cookbook authors, culinary school graduates, and more to develop impactful recipes that any new chef can master and enjoy.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
I would do a disservice to all of my favorite foods here by picking the perfect one. Instead I offer one of my favorite games to play with food friends (that I made up) is “Your 3-Course Meal” where I ask what courses would make your ultimate meal. As a mostly savory person, for me it would be a double appetizer and entrée, but recently a cheese course could knock out an appetizer. Play with your friends and watch the conversation fly.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My inspiration for creating comes from experience and just being interested in the “how to” and “what is” of life. A rich understanding of traditional flavor pairings and food memories that sparked joy also feed a moment. Let us not forget, sometimes learning from failures too produces genius.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
My new and exciting project is my job as the Food Editor at The Spruce Eats, working with a team of talented and passionate people creating food content with purpose. I remain as the Food Editor of The Amsterdam News (the oldest Black newspaper in the country) food section, AmNewsFOOD, now bringing on a staff of young writers in food, beverage and hospitality to carry my fifteen-year legacy with the paper forward. Additionally, I still cook for a patron client of fifteen years which continues to foster a symbiotic relationship with my editorial work.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
My advice to chefs to thrive and avoid burnout is to find balance and trust your passion will not wain when you are not actively working on it. Find other ways to express your passion for food. It does not always need to be over a stove, at the pass or on the plate. It can be written on the page, through philanthropy and volunteering at a local organization, consulting for others, public speaking and so much more. Expanding your scope makes room for others to see your capabilities. For me, this means expressing my passion through in-home cooking services with my SCHOP! clients, the written word at The Spruce Eats and The Amsterdam News, and my daily experimenting in the kitchen.
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.
- Know your worth. — Being an entrepreneur there is a question we inactively ask ourselves when negotiating our pricing, if not a daily act to drive business, “what am I worth?” The answer is not always clear, mostly muddied with self-doubt or overconfidence. Spend some time with this self-analysis and know, like everything, it’s an evolution and journey with no end.
- Get some skin in the game. — I am an idea person. I love to conceptualize a final product and work backwards to gather what I need to produce it. When I was in the music industry around creative people, my untamed ideas became a source of frustration until I spoke to a, then, respected music pioneer. He said, “no one will listen to you until you do one thing very well.” I took that lesson to the creation of my business, SCHOP!, and from that I manifested other ideas and opportunities in my career.
- Get out of your own way. — The limitations we put on ourselves are not necessarily the limitations we should put on our business or our customers. I am a bit of a miser when it comes to money and thought one of my selling points of my service was the ability to save money. I uncovered my real selling point was time, time clients get back when not having to worry about feeding themselves or their families. Our motto: “Time is the new currency. Spend it wisely.”
- Determine your “core competence”. — Forgive this business school term, but do not forget it. Whether you are a chef, a lawyer, freelance, employed or an entrepreneur, determine your core competence or your core expertise and use it as the nexus for all that can be created from it. Mine is “the business of food”. From that core competence I found and created opportunities as a chef, culinary producer, food editor, writer, consultant, spokesperson, events producer and more.
- Know when to pay an opportunity cost. — When you are trying to grow your name and service and “get some skin in the game”, you will come across work that, on the surface, may not meet your price or your business objectives. Look closer and you will certainly find an opportunity to give back, be introduced to more or different clients and to push your boundaries out and up. Only you can determine an opportunity cost.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
While I do not have an establishment for customers to visit, I have been on a wing journey after being the culinary producer for Hot Ones the Game Show in late 2019. You want exceptional wings that you can taste even through ghost pepper hot sauce? I am your woman.
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 would inspire a movement for international travel for underserved children and young adults. I think the more we travel outside of our home countries, the more we learn about ourselves and others and can foster understanding and compassion and inspire change.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!