Chef Naomi Pomeroy opened her third business in Portland, Oregon, last year. The space she found, just a five-minute drive from her tasting-menu restaurant Beast and bar Expatriate, wasn’t right for a restaurant, and so she didn’t open a restaurant. Instead, Pomeroy channeled a decade of experience arranging flowers at Beast into her very own flower shop, Colibri. At the time, she worried that people might think opening a flower shop meant she was done cooking. “The public perception that chefs should just be chefs is kind of annoying,” she says. “Maybe some chefs only cook, but I would imagine that a lot of chefs are multitalented.”
Restaurant work is often all consuming, but for many chefs and restaurant owners, life in the kitchen isn’t everything. For the highest-profile chefs, the platform that a restaurant provides can bring opportunities outside of restaurant work. For example, Mission Chinese’s Danny Bowien walked in his first fashion show in October, and Los Angeles chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo designed a line of sneakers for Vans back in 2016. For some restaurant workers, though, the creativity inherent to devising new dishes or designing a dining room lends itself to side projects that become more than just casual hobbies.
It’s not uncommon for chefs and restaurant owners to develop side hustles that solve problems they encounter on the job. Chicago chef Rick Gresh noticed that the chefs’ knife rolls — the bags that hold their blades when they’re not using them — on the market never seemed to fit the knives he carried. And so when he stumbled across his old leatherworking tools — Gresh has worked with leather since childhood — he decided to make a knife roll that perfectly suited his needs. Eventually, his coworkers took notice and started asking for their own custom knife rolls.
Similarly, Gresh took up woodworking at first to avoid buying furniture for his home — he figured he could make it more cheaply than buying it. And when his restaurant needed a wood board for presenting a dish, he was able to make one. “Again chefs started going, ‘Hey, can you make that for me?’ and next thing you know I have a full-blown woodworking business,” he says. Now he sells knife rolls and wood boards on his website and fills custom orders for restaurants and other clients, all while working as the executive chef at darts bar Flight Club and ping-pong destination Ace Bounce.
It can be difficult to balance restaurant work with a side business. Juliet owner Katrina Jazayeri says that, lately, the Somerville, Massachusetts, restaurant has kept her from dedicating as much time as she’d like to her apron business, Post Oak Aprons. Jazayeri started the company to fulfill a need she spotted for well-fitting, functional aprons. While working at Cambridge, Massachusetts, restaurant the Blue Room, Jazayeri says she “was struck by the fact that nobody — front of house or back of house — was wearing their apron as it was intended to be worn.” The one-size-fits-all models just weren’t working.
Jazayeri started out altering existing aprons before making her own aprons, each sewn by hand and custom-suited to a person and/or a particular job. Since launching the company a few years ago, she’s made the aprons for entire restaurant staffs in addition to the one-off custom work, all while growing Juliet restaurant group Bread & Salt Hospitality with business partner Joshua Lewin.
While some hobbies-turned-hustles exist in tandem with restaurant work, others may compete with it. Los Angeles-based Mori Onodera is both sushi chef and ceramicist. He’s been working on the wheel since 1992 and says it was a natural hobby to pursue for a sushi chef. “Any food needs a plate,” he says, “and especially Japanese cuisine has very unique pottery.”
Onodera made the dishes for his LA restaurant Mori Sushi. In 2011, he sold that restaurant because he was “tired” and wanted to dedicated himself fully to other projects — pottery as well as a rice-growing business in South America. He began making ceramic dishes for other restaurants, including California fine dining destinations Providence and Manresa. But in 2018, Onodera started working as a sushi chef again at Los Angeles restaurant Shiki, and although he still has his own pottery studio, he hasn’t had the time to produce pieces for anyone other than himself. “Unfortunately, I have only one day off right now,” he says. “Making pottery one day is not enough for me,” he says. Still, he serves his sushi on plates he made and thinks about pottery all the time. “I always think about my food and my plates,” he says.
Onodera made the choice to return to life as a chef, but having a side project can also be a path to a new career. Tilit founders Alex McCrery and Jenny Goodman met while working in a restaurant. The former chef and former front-of-house worker now produce apparel for restaurant workers, hotels, and more, and even have a retail store. And when David Mawhinney recently decided that he’d had enough of full-time chef work, having a hobby meant he had an off ramp.
Mawhinney worked as a chef for 15 years, most recently as the culinary director at cooking school and events company Haven’s Kitchen. But last year, he turned his woodworking hobby into a full-fledged business. Earlier this month, he launched Franklin + Emily, a line of designer-style chairs for children. And while on the surface, stylish child-sized chairs have very little to do with cooking food, Mawhinney says his previous career in food has informed his new company. “The approach I took was that kids should be introduced to design-forward objects at an early age, just as parents introduce different and adult foods at that age as well,” he says. “The goal is not to dumb down food or design for children but to elevate their experience in both.”
Mawhinney says he still does some consulting in the restaurant industry space along with private chef work “just to keep my knife sharp,” but he sees Franklin + Emily as his next career. “I think at this age I want to spend a little bit more time with my family,” he says. “In the current environment of restaurants, those two don’t jibe together all the time, or it’s really difficult to make it work.”
A side hustle doesn’t need to become full-time work, and in fact some chefs and restaurant owners see their other projects as improving their restaurant work. For Jazayeri, working on Post Oak Aprons and Bread & Salt Hospitality simultaneously helped develop her business acumen. “These two creative pathways… they existed in parallel processes and sort of allowed me to try out owning a business or running a company on a very, very small scale,” she says.
For Pomeroy, a flower shop has proven to be a healthy outlet. She thinks it’s a lesson others in the restaurant world could stand to learn. “I really feel like the cooking world can be way too all-absorbing, to its detriment,” Pomeroy says, noting that the somewhat-antiquated idea that chefs should be “hardcore” doesn’t allow room for them to do anything other than eat, sleep, and breathe cooking. “Doing something else outside of the box shouldn’t mean that you’re not as hardcore,” she says. “It should mean that you’re trying to diversify your brain.” And, she notes, it makes her cooking better, too.