Chef BJ Smith
Adding a little smoke to the fiery culinary scene, Executive Chef BJ Smith has spent most of his life harnessing the craft of flavor development in fine dining.Read Bio
Share with us the driving force behind Indie Chefs Week.
The original iteration was born from a desire to meet the chefs across North America we started seeing all over social media. Once Twitter blew up, we began to get exposed to restaurants using it as their "PR" and there were suddenly all of these chefs we'd never heard of that looked to be putting out incredible food in cities that weren't normally known as culinary hotbeds. We wanted to get all of these chefs together to finally meet in person and hang out. From there, it turned into this event that was part conference, in the loosest sense of the word, part vacation and also a big party.
Another force that helped push us to start ICW was the celebrity chef and PR culture that had started to infiltrate the industry. Every time you turned on the TV or opened a culinary magazine, newspaper, or website, you saw the same 15-20 chefs over and over. This is not meant to disparage those chefs. They've put in the time, sweat, and made just as many, if not more, sacrifices than those chefs that participate in ICW. But, there is so much bandwidth available with all the food centric media outlets that exist today that there isn't any reason they shouldn't be able to spread that exposure around. We wanted to help facilitate that.
Explain your process for selecting the talented, up-and-coming chefs to participate in the annual Indie Chefs Week events. Does social media play a role in your chef scouting?
Social media was originally the primary source of scouting since that was literally why we did the event. As time progressed, we wanted to expand our reach and started asking other chefs for recommendations. We'd ask former participants, co-workers and anyone else we knew.
Ned Elliott has always taken the lead on this and leaned heavily on his time in NYC, Portland and the network he has from time in those cities. The reality is that although social media can be a huge help, you don't really know the caliber of chef without tasting the food, hearing about their history and work ethic as well as confirming that they've put in the time to actually learn how to cook.
During Indie Chefs Week, the chefs come together to create a collaborative meal. Describe the process for developing the menus for these events.
Outside the reality of putting on an event like this, and keeping food costs reasonable, there are no restrictions. For all the dinners, we let them cook whatever they want. The chefs will give us an initial iteration or idea for their dish and we'll take those and post them on a forum that allows all the participants for that night's dinner to see the full range of food.
Next, we put the dishes in an order that seems to make the most sense to create a progression of food that will be best for the guests. If we see the menu is heavy on a certain protein or doesn't have a coherent progression, we'll request some changes.
Specifically, with the collaborative dinner, we pair up the chefs in teams ourselves. Typically, the goal is to pair two chefs with radically different styles because that’s what creates the fireworks and something truly unique. We introduce the partners over email about a week in advance of the event and let them take the menu planning from there. The rest of the process is similar to the other dinners; they give us the dish, we post them and all of the chefs review the other dishes to make sure there's some sort of cohesion between all of them.
How do you determine which spices and seasonings make it into the Indie Chefs Week Pantry?
By this point, we typically know what we're going to need as staples way in advance. As we start receiving the dishes from the chefs, we start adding the additional spices we need for the order.
Having McCormick as a partner for ICW has made life a lot simpler for us during the food ordering phase. When we have these events at a functioning restaurant, they typically have a good selection to start from and we don't need to add much. When we hold them at a non-restaurant, like the Vice Media, having a one-stop purveyor that produces almost every spice and seasoning imaginable is a tremendous resource. It also doesn't hurt to know you're going to get the highest quality products.
So, what's next for Indie Chefs Week? Where do you hope to expand in the future?
We're in the process of planning the next 2 years and have stockpiled a ton of ideas on ways to evolve and expand the event without sacrificing the original mission.
I think the main goal is to evolve the chef-attendee experience into something more valuable from a learning perspective while expanding the experience for guests. We definitely want to try some new markets and figure out a way to get more chefs involved, even if it doesn't mean all of them cook at the dinners. We're definitely excited for what the future may bring!