A glimpse into the daily lives, inspirations, and stories of the leaders, changemakers, and community members who call Charlottesville home
Founder, Owner, and President of Culinary Concepts AB
"Just call me Chef"
Hometown: Niagara Falls, NY
Years lived in Charlottesville: 5
Favorite small business: Forezee Marketing
"Most patronized" local restaurant: La Michoacana Taqueria & Restaurant
What is your educational and professional background?
I’m a graduate of the Culinary Center of America in upstate New York, and a graduate of the Greenbrier Apprenticeship Program, which is a three year apprenticeship. I spent the last 15 years travelling nationally and internationally with the philosophy of really understanding culture to give me a better understanding of cuisine. On that journey, I’ve been a teacher, a mentor, and an educator through cooking. I found that I gravitate more towards that aspect of the kitchen. I love building teams, I love building people, and that’s really what’s allowed me to travel and do what I’ve done. I got pretty good at it over the years. So fast forward to about three and a half years ago: I saw a problem in our industry, and me being as passionate as I am about teaching, saw it as a great opportunity to launch a company that provided training for folks who wanted to be in the industry.
I always like to refer back to, at some point in my life or my career, someone gave me an opportunity. Regardless of if it was a teacher giving me the opportunity to join a culinary competition, which led to me going on to college, or if it was me being a dishwasher and a chef giving me an opportunity to work the line, or the general manager giving me the opportunity to spread my wings through hospitality. Throughout my career, there have been individuals who have opened my eyes to the different facets of this industry. Those opportunities are what allowed me to really grow, travel, and achieve my goals. My organization is all about giving individuals opportunities, so it’s extremely important for them to be able to recognize what an opportunity looks like and how it could help shape them in this industry.
What's the origin story of Culinary Concepts?
When I launched my company, it started with the question: Are there any training programs or organizations out there designed to give people the foundational skills to become a professional and have a career pathway in culinary? When I really dove into it, there were only 3 organizations nationally (that I could find) that were doing anything remotely close to what I wanted to do. I said, “What if I created an organization here in Charlottesville that focused on giving people opportunities and giving employers qualified individuals to work in their kitchens?” I stepped away from my job as Executive Chef and launched a company. After the first 3 months, I had my first program off the ground, and after 4 months, I had my first class graduate. From there, the rest was history. It just took off.
What does Culinary Concepts offer?
When you look at the organization as a whole, my mission statement is “reach one, teach one.” Because everything that we do is about education and helping people connect to resources. Regardless of if that’s a training program or a workshop or a cooking class. Anybody that comes to Culinary Concepts can expect to get three things:
We’re going to educate you
You’re going to have a lot of fun
We’re going to give you some tools to help you on your culinary journey
Whatever facet you come to us (training program, workshop, or cooking class), we want to make sure that you leave with an abundance of value and feel empowered to do more within your culinary journey.
Why are you passionate about your work?
Going back as far as when I first started, there’s always been a shortage of qualified people to work in the kitchen. What I found was that, over the last 5 years, that’s been amplified so much because people aren’t really interested in working in kitchens anymore. When you look at how the industry has been diversified with the Food Network and all of these different positions available for people to work in the industry, but not necessarily in the kitchen, there is a new generation of cooks who don’t feel like they need to be on the line anymore. A lot of the folks that are in kitchens, it’s low-hanging fruit. They needed a job or they had an opportunity to work the line and enjoyed it and they're there.
How would you like to impact the Charlottesville community?
When I moved to Charlottesville, I didn’t understand the lay of the land. Charlottesville has over 500 restaurants in a 10 mile radius. It’s third per capita with most restaurants in the nation. That’s comparable to New York and San Francisco. When you look at the workforce, we don’t really have an educational system that’s designed to pump out qualified individuals. A lot of those folks in the industry in Charlottesville don’t want to go to college, they’re just looking for a way to take care of their family or increase their skills, so they can continue to live the lifestyle that they want to live.
When I decided to launch my company, it was purely based on what I was seeing. I had a kitchen full of people that loved cooking, that were passionate about cooking. Some people had been in the industry for 5 years, some people 10 years, but they only had station-specific skills. And what I mean by that is they could work pantry, they spent 5 years in the industry working pantry, and now they’re making $5 more than what they started at, but they’ve only learned one skill set.
Who is inspiring you right now?
Tanya Holland is doing some really cool stuff. She started out her podcast with Questlove! Like who starts with Questlove? That’s freaking awesome! Her philanthropic side is huge. She’s on the James Beard Foundation, like on their board. She’s a part of some national organizations that are creating true impact, nationally. I think that as chefs, a lot of the time, we work in silos. Not a lot of chefs have the mindset to find creative ways to connect with their community. They just focus on their customers. I think Tanya’s perspective and education and background, all that wrapped together has created a powerhouse of personality, a motivator, and an icon that could really inspire a new generation of people.
To hear more from Antwon and Tanya on the hospitality sector, watch this!
What's something you are looking forward to?
When Covid hit, I launched an online platform where we’re doing online cooking classes and I partnered with a company that works with local farms so we get fresh produce for our classes, so I still get to do things with the community and do what I love to do. I would say I’m super excited about the fact that right now, hospitality is in crisis mode. When your back is against the wall, in any industry, something comes out of it. I think about my business... When Covid hit, all my stuff stopped. My back was against the wall and it pushed me to get creative and go back to the drawing board to find a way to make it happen. Hospitality is a billion dollar industry. It’s not going anywhere. It’s just going to change and evolve. I’m really excited about the possibilities of what can come from that. I’m really proud to see so many for-profits and nonprofits, and even government organizations and schools, working together to solve a common problem. I’m excited about where we’re at and I’m excited about where it’s going.
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