March 23, 2021

Philadelphia Chef Jennifer Zavala on Birria Tacos, Food Media, Her Top Chef Experience and the Juana Tamale Pop-Up

Philadelphia Chef Jennifer Zavala on Birria Tacos, Food Media, Her Top Chef Experience and the Juana Tamale Pop-Up
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On this week’s show, I speak with Jennifer Zavala. Jennifer is a chef in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is currently doing a pop-up called Juana Tamale out of Underground Arts. We talk about a wide range of topics including her “illegal” tamale business, birria tacos, influencers and bloggers  vs reviewers, cooking with cannabis, getting death threats for making vegan meatballs, her time on Top Chef, and so much more.


Jennifer Zavala

Jennifer’s Instagram

Juana Tamale Instagram

Jennifer's Twitter

JL Jupiter’s visit to Jennifer’s pop-up 





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Chris Spear:

Welcome to the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast. I'm your host Chris Spear. On the show. I have conversations with culinary entrepreneurs and people in the food and beverage industry who took a different route. Their caterers research chefs, personal chefs cookbook authors, food truckers, farmers, cottage bakers and all sorts of culinary renegades. I myself fall into the personal chef category as I started my own personal chef business perfect little bites 10 years ago. And while I started working in kitchens in the early 90s, I've literally never worked in a restaurant. On this week's show I speak with Jennifer Zavala. Jennifer is a chef in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is currently doing a pop up called Juana tamale out of underground arts. We talked about a wide range of topics including her illegal tamale business that she ran out of a van. Better yet tacos, influencers and bloggers versus reviewers cooking with cannabis getting death threats for making vegan meatballs, her time on top chef and so much more. This is one of my favorite episodes, I think we had a great conversation. And Jennifer is an amazing person and chef. And once again, I recently started a Patreon to support the Chefs Without Restaurants organization and podcast. So if you love what I'm doing here, please check it out. You can go to forward slash Chefs Without Restaurants or the link is in the show notes. I really appreciate the support. And now on with the show. Thanks so much for listening and have a great week. Hey, Jennifer, welcome to the show. Thanks so much for coming on.

Jennifer Zavala:

Thanks for having me, Chris. I'm excited to be here.

Chris Spear:

I'm looking forward to talking to you and hearing about all the cool and interesting things you're doing in Philadelphia. I usually jump right in with like a bit about your culinary backstory. How did you get into food and cooking? Like, were you always interested in food? Is it something you've loved forever?

Jennifer Zavala:

So I've always been hungry. That's the most important part. Um, no, it wasn't. It wasn't my, my passion or my real interest. When I decided to grow up at some point, I wanted to be a professional dancer, I wanted to be on living color and be like, JLo like I had a real, I had a real excitement and idea that I'm in my head. That's what I was going to be as a backup dancer. And, um, you know, I, my life journey took me somewhere else. I started working in kitchens, and I was really young, like I was 16. And I just never stopped like ever since, you know, ever since then that's something I've always done in my life is cook. And even if I had the intention of moving on to be I don't know, an optometrist, I always felt like I had to work a lot in restaurant business, or what I was doing to be able to move on and I never moved on. So it pulls you in and like keeps you there, right? It pulls you it keeps you there. It's something that you can't and we eat all the time. And so and it's it's competitive, really internally A lot of times, right. So let's say you have a passion for cooking and you go to a barbecue, you go to a function and what's the first thing you're either going to go to or criticize is the food so you're always kind of in it. And I just never fully surrendered physically and like that actually out of it. So 26 years later, I'm still here. My hands still work, which is quite amazing.

Chris Spear:

So yeah, every once a while I get the little tingling of like a carpal tunnel type thing in my hands and think like when's going to be the day when my hand seizes up and I can't hold my knife. You know, I have to fall back on the podcasting or something, you know, unfortunately, I have no backup plan. You know, I was banking on looks, but that's getting up there and slowly. You're never too old to dance though you can go back to what's the modern day equivalent of in living colors or something like that, that still has backup dancers, you could find out what that is, there's nothing

Jennifer Zavala:

I'd have to work for, like, you know, be a backup dancer for like some local folk band or something. I think that's the level I'm at right now. So, so yeah, when I was cooking, you know what, so this was 20 some years ago. And you know, there wasn't social media, there wasn't such a big cloud factor and cooking. And so my reason for cooking was, I had a very kind of complex childhood, and being in a kitchen offered me discipline, Regiment, and structure and a meal, like I was guaranteed a meal for my shift, and, you know, little bites here and there throughout the, throughout the shifts, I knew it'd be full. And, you know, that's kind of how I was able to survive. And so yeah, I've really, it's just never, never went away. And then as I got farther and farther into it, like, accidentally, like, where does the time go, I just, you know, I got better at it. And I've always been, you know, I'm a Taurus. So I'm always been, like, competitive. And so in this business, you know, at the time that I was the only, like, one of the only females really doing this, not the only female in the world, but you know, there wasn't very many of us. And wherever I was going, I was the only girl for the most part. And so, I kind of felt like a responsibility, like, I have to show I have to be the girl that needs to be seen to show other girls out here. Like, you can do this. It's not it's totally sucks, you know, sometimes, but I'm still not gonna like compromise my feminine ways, I'm still a girl, I still wear makeup, I still work in kitchen, I can break down a 300 pound cow, or, you know, make a killer, French onion soup. Like, those are just kind of perks that come along with it. But I stuck with a survival, competitive passion. And for you know, acknowledgement for women to see other girls out here especially goes on with like me, you can do this, there's a place for you. And I think my position has always been, especially in Philadelphia is you don't really follow the rules of what kind of makes a success or what finds a success here in Philly, every place I've been in the world, there is a different definition of what makes you successful in that area. And for me here, I've always just kind of, you know, I'm a high school dropout, I dropped out in 10th grade. That's the farthest education I have. I'm a self taught cook. I've never worked for any French, you know, James Beard winning chef, I've always kind of worked for chefs, I just had passion and heart and have invested so much in it. And when you see people who invested their whole life, their family their time, like, that was something that I looked up to, and I deemed a success. A lot of times, you know, in progression as things have moved on. Success has been defined by awards, or like, recognition from a certain demographic. And I don't believe that's, that hasn't really been my way. And so I've kind of paid myself away here in Philadelphia by doing that, and being that just kind of my own my own success story, you know, yeah, we definitely get caught up in all these 30 under 30, sanpellegrino 50, best who's got the the Zagat awards, and the James Beard awards and all that stuff. But there's so many, you know, great restaurants and fantastic chefs who just, they're just cooking, they're just there to cook and make really awesome food. Isn't that why people used to get into it, like when I went to I went to culinary school, like I just loved eating and loved cooking and just want to make food and everything else you would hope just like came with that if you did a good job. And now it's like, you have to have a PR person. Like, I can't imagine having like a PR person to have to go out and tell the world about what I do. It's just like, I'm gonna go and do my thing. And you know, if you get recognition, awesome, and if you don't, I'm still you know, making money and making good food. Here's where I always again, like I'm kind of old school and my thinking like most of the people and I see this in the most loving way and because I am one like the most. Most of the people that work in kitchens have been to general like we are service industry people we are providing a service. And once you kind of come before you know the service that you're providing, you really lose the point of cooking and so much more work to become the character of who you are. And what has always made me feel comfortable in kitchens is acceptance like I have worked with the absolute what would be deemed as socially unacceptable human beings and they have been A huge, huge factor in who I am today. Like without those people next to me working next to me, like I honestly wouldn't be who I am. And I just, you know, it's a blue collar job, I've never wanted to go and you know, have to like be someone to be what I was doing, like my voice was at the plate, my face was at the plate, my personality was at the plate, and now I have to like, now it is selling yourself along with your food. And for me, for me, it just diems this point where like, it just means your food probably isn't that good. Because, right on whatever level that means for you personally, for outwardly amongst the masses. What that means for me is like you're putting so much work into being this person, this chef, this character that has to make up for the shortcomings in your dish. But you have to do it, like it's so complex now, you know, I mean, like, you have to do it. And so and I have to look at that in my as myself, too. I'm on social media a lot, like I'm very active in it. And what does that say about me, so it's so complex, and it's really hard. I wish that wasn't that element in there anymore because of clouds, a lot of things. But at the same time, it helps Jeff become creative. And, you know, a lot of things that wouldn't get seen before, a lot of people that wouldn't get seen before are and so that's the bonus side of it. But the cloud, a little pocket of it is, you know, I'm not a fan of it. Like I don't give a shit how many followers you have, like, I'm not giving you anything for free. Like, I don't know, like that doesn't, it doesn't mean anything to me personally. But it's nice that there are no gatekeepers anymore, right? Like, you just can go at least put your stuff out. And you don't have to sit back and wait to be chosen as the hot new thing or whatever. Like you put your stuff out there. And the people decide, you know, the whoever, whoever finds your Instagram can decide. And it is nice that we're seeing more diverse people in the food world now being recognized, they might not be recognized by the big name organizations, although we are getting there a little bit. But just in general, we're seeing these really diverse cooks, you know, they're not white American men necessarily anymore. I mean, there's still tons of them. I'm one of them, although I haven't won any awards or anything. But it is good to kind of see more of those people having a voice and sharing what they're doing in the cooking world. Yeah, absolutely. And the way that's getting shared to is also becoming different. Like, I'm so here in Philly, you know, and I again, I'm just critical of the system, I'm not critical of individual people, part of this system here that I'm at those people have names, and I have to reference their names is the system, not as problematics you know, so Craig LeBan, he's a wonderful person, he's exceptionally knowledgeable. But that is, you know, a white palette that's kind of defined Philadelphia dining for a really long time. And I appreciate that. And I'm totally honored to be able to cook for him and get feedback and critique critiques from him. Because they are they are knowledgeable, and they do come from an educated place. But you know, I don't know, like, I'm not going to bank my whole career on that. And the demographic that he's going to bring to me isn't necessarily the demographic that's going to pay my bills, you know, I mean, they'll pay his bills, but don't get me my bills. So what I've seen come out of this, for instance, there is a gentleman who has a YouTube channel called JL Jupiter, and he just won a silver award in YouTube for his following and you know, Is he back which is a which is a huge feat to do. And, you know, to make it in the YouTube world is really hard. And he's put out a lot of content. He is Asian, these Filipino and you know, he's able to go to a lot of the places that Craig liban like wouldn't be able to go and how he shares those people's places has been an absolute game changer. Like for instance, I knew when I saw he came he went to this one place uncle Bobby something it's up in like North Philly. When he shared that video, Uncle Bobby shared his line after that and his continue to share his line and he sells out and so I knew when jr was coming to do like a little video about me, I knew what was going to happen like I I was already doing pretty well on selling out but now it would become a whole different beast after he'd come to visit and shared. And I would say individually not collected orders. 800 tacos like before I was doing 500 and I was doing 800 to 1200 individual tacos, not complete orders and it hasn't stopped. My following was four or 5000 new followers on Instagram. The key has the ability to share and experience that doesn't have to be edited in any way and has put on so many local people and businesses. And that has been so exciting to see the power of social media and that way to organically pick a voice for a, you know, for the people, Philadelphia is like 43 47%, you know, black, and you don't hear about a lot of things and places from the black community on a regular regular basis, that would create a regular tone and customer base for those for those businesses. When jL from jL Jupyter came and comes. It's that demographic of people and he's talking to them in a way that they'll go. It's not intimidating, it's approachable. And I feel like that's exciting to see. Like, really the culinary industry, driving and defining itself. And I'm excited for that part. After this pandemic. I'm excited to see some new kind of game players. And it all happens because of social media. And organically.

Chris Spear:

Yeah, I mean, I don't think fine dining is necessarily going to go away. But I'm not even particularly interested in that anymore. I think the first time I had Ethiopian food was in Fishtown like before it was cool and gentrified a little bit, like when it was still shady, like probably 2005 or six or something. But you know, that's not a place that I ever heard of, in any kind of media, there's so many great places to go out dining, and just seeing that kind of the awareness of them grow has been nice.

Jennifer Zavala:

It encourages the diner to think differently about food, and like what is successful, right, like, going to Nick Elmi's restaurants makes you feel like a successful diner. But it's not just a one sided having getting to see all many different angles just really makes the guests more a more successful diner more experienced person and encouraged to go out and try other things, right, especially now after this pandemic, like everyone's so thirsty for one to not have to cook dinner wash dishes, but to but for an experience, and it doesn't necessarily have to do with table service, you know what I mean? So, I think the thirst right now is, is longing for something unique and different. And looking for that off off the cuff thing. So, you know, I just recently came back from California, I was doing some research and development for kind of my food what I've been doing and I lived out there and so it was nice to kind of go back and refresh my brain a little bit. But I noticed that a lot of people out there were doing like fruit from their house, like a lot. And it was very public, like very out there and um, you know, conditioned to be concerned about like LSI Li gonna do. And I found out that there is a program or, again, I'm not sure how the logistics of it. I just got like topical research on it. But you can apply to serve food, have you out of your house in California? I saw that a couple months ago, like there was a big article on you know, I think you had like a one time inspection or something like they just made sure like, you're kind of doing things the right way and then like you weren't going to be subject to an inspection every single month or anything like that. Right? And like during the pandemic, right, a lot of people couldn't go out or you know, there was so much fear going on. But also you know, chefs like no matter what the circumstances death, celebratory pandemics, you still have to you still want to cook and help and I live I share a block with um, Joseph Kala and Angela sakala. And during the beginning of this pandemic, Joe had built a fucking pizza oven in his backyard like just was like hey, you know I did laundry and clean my basement. He built a wood fire oven in his backyard. And he decided to just like pop up this pizza Pablo because Joe's pizza is his it's his the best pizza when he left Brigham Tessa It was super sad to lose his pizza. So he was doing this pop up and said a huge following. And they also had a huge turnout. Like we It was so crazy. It was like halfway around the block. So they did it twice. The second time, a neighbor called lni and they came out and shut them down and was gonna like it was a big deal like they were going to could have had their license pole that's a Kala and it was a big mess. And, you know, they weren't using this money to profit they were using this money to pay their staff but they just opened a restaurant so they couldn't pay them. So they came up with another way to do it. And I saw a lot of people starting to do this and just do it. So hesitantly because they're so afraid of lni and repercussions, and going out to California and seeing businesses flourish. Like we started off doing this out of our house. Now we have four trucks. Now we have a business like, was so encouraging. And, you know, I started to see that come out of the pandemic, was people starting to do this from their home. A lot of people ask me because I started doing it, you're an illegal tamale truck didn't use that the word on the street? I did, I just didn't i didn't have like any, you know, illegal. Yes, I didn't want to pay lni lots of money. So I winged it, but illegal in the sense of, you know, licensing and inspection, but not really illegal. And what I was doing has been done for so long. Like, that's how all moms started. So plates of food to get for fundraisers, like it's, I just, you know, I quit working restaurants, and I needed to take care of my kids. So I started selling tamales out of a van and became this illegal thing, because I don't want to have to pay Elena a million dollars to start a business and to have a dream, like that's so defeating. And so, yeah, it seemed to me like the illegal queen. And so when this like pandemic started, a lot of people were asking me, hey, how do you do it and go about it. And it's unfortunate, just to be like, risk it? Because there's a lot of risk, because lni is, you know, they can be brutal sometimes. So, yeah, I mean, times are tough. lemonade stands aren't even legal, which is ridiculous. I just saw an article in the paper the other day about how maybe it's just in my state, they're looking to make them legal. It's like, you don't have anything else going on, like, you're gonna crack down on this ring of five year old selling lemonade on the corner. I mean, I get it in theory, but it seems like we've taken it a little too far. Right. Like, you know, there's been tons of parties that I've been, I mean, look at the parking lot, and Eagles game. I mean, you know, I'm saying like, I think when you as you know, a food person, make the choice to pick a place to eat, you kind of take all risk, you know, when that place is a little unconventional. And I've even had cards in New York many, many times, and I'm still alive today. And, you know, I just, you know, I wish there was more opportunity for things like that to come out, because I think it would really change the landscape of a lot of places, and particularly here in Philadelphia, but you have to jump through a lot of hoops to have a business, and it's really defeating and unfortunate. So I feel very lucky and grateful to be able to have kind of skirted my way around that a little bit. cleans it into a much more


abiding situation, you know, so what are you doing now for work? Um, so, you know, before the pandemic, I was, I was catering and doing, you know, kind of random things I've always done. I've always done that was uncluttering, because I'm old, you know, it myself was old and 42 and a half, you know, with domestic queen. It'd be very picky, choosy on the events that I would do. But I was doing a lot of cannabis catering and dinners and stuff like that. For my regular catering business. I needed a commissary kitchen. So I started working with underground arts. And everything was going great. And then boom, pandemic hit. So I decided to do like a pop up there. And I started doing pop up tamales and pop up tacos. And so that kind of didn't go away. It just kind of picked up momentum. And it all happened in the way that we've just been talking about. There was kind of a movement that's been happening for a while called pedia. And a lot of people have seen it on Instagram. It's a tacos that you dip in a consummate, and you do the cheese poll. Right when the pandemic had hit about a month in, I was like, well, I can't tamales are a lot of work. And I'm not sure that's always a sell. People aren't always in Somali mood, you know? So, I started doing this taco. And there wasn't anyone doing it here in Philly at the time. So this is when most like April May. And I just kept doing it and doing it. And one day a week. I was doing it one day a week and it just picked up like a lot of momentum. And over the last like three months. video here has been everywhere. And so I just basically do talk Frozen tamales. And you know, some cannabis stuff like here and there. But um, yeah, I sell tacos and tamales, a cuisine I've been getting away from my whole life. And here I am. Yeah, I've been seeing those tacos everywhere here as well, we had one place that was doing it, they were only doing it on Taco Tuesday. And then it you know, it's really kind of exploded, I don't know if it's like tik tok, or Instagram or whatever that really got it, got it going. And now they're doing it more. And now we have another new place in town that's doing it. And now they're doing it as a ramen bowl as well. And it's just kind of like, it's crazy to see that, like, we haven't really seen them in mainstream places, ever. And now, like everyone has to have them on their menu. So my glance California, my main goal was to go and I've been following a few trucks for a couple of years. And I there was like four that I really wanted to try out there in comparison to my own video, because that's really where it's hot. And, you know, started in Tijuana and kind of moved its way up. And I wanted to meet the family that brought it here to North America. So my trip to California was to kind of see if mine measured up, right if I could, if I could stand have my own car in California, and I've eaten everyone's video here. And everyone here that's been doing it is a Mexican owned place, like from the truck to stand to little restaurant as all Mexican owned spots during it. So when I went out to California, it's still only Mexican spots during it, you didn't see it on a menu of a restaurant down in Venice Beach, like you just it was only specific to trucks and Mexican restaurants. Even out there, crazy lines. So it's, uh, it's still in, that's where kind of it's being pulled over here from so that's encouraging. And all of the trucks that I wanted to try, none of them were the same, like no one was the same. They all had similarities as far as like the California style. But overall flavors and textures. No one's was the same, just the similar out here. No one's is the same. So that was super encouraging that to go out there. And I couldn't compare myself to anyone's and vice versa, to just keep coming out here encouraging people to keep just doing their own thing. And, you know, keep supporting the Latino restaurants that are doing this, because, you know, I hate to say it this way, but you know, it just takes one dude, to kind of be like, I'm gonna come in and kind of water down. You see that with all cuisines? Right. You know, it's unfortunate that it, you know, we have like great Mexican places in town that are owned by people who've come over from Mexico, and then you just have like, these random Americanized versions of like a taco bar that open up, and they become like, the hot spot. And I hate seeing that. But yes, I hate it too. Like I honestly really do. I know. That can sound very bitter. And you know, everyone should should, should have these tacos and try it. That's not what I'm saying. Like in any way, shape, or form. And if you have a restaurant, you want to try them out, go ahead. But like it's a pandemic, right. And we've all kind of taken hits. And there is so much social inequity, that if the Mexican community has one thing to hold on to during this pandemic, can you just wait? And like let them have it until TGI Fridays, does it and you just want to compete TGI Fridays, but right now, it's, I don't want anyone to do that. You know what I mean? Like I've seen we have a, like a GoFundMe here for the Mexican restaurants here in South Philly that they're not operating at their full, full capacity, and they don't qualify for the grants. And for the loans, they don't qualify. So if doing this taco gets tons of people to go to their restaurant, like let them just have it just for a little while, because they really need it. And people always say to me, Hey, this person is doing it. And I'm like, great. If they're a Latino business, they are not my competition. I want to support them and put them on. But if you are, if you qualify for those grants, and you qualify for those things, leave the fucking taco alone and do something else. Like just let them have it. And really, this whole talk of movement came from Instagram from people wanting it and seeing it on Instagram. And, you know, someone like jL who did it before Craig liban shared it who did it before Philly mag showed it. He found a truck here in South Philadelphia went there. share their video tacos. And Chris, you you wait a minimum of an hour to get your tacos there. So when Craig liban has shared anything, he's never brought a result like that. And especially to these communities, you know, I'm saying like, these are other Latinos supporting these Latino businesses and people who are also really want to try these toggles like the crowd is so mixed. And that's super encouraging. You know, I do this one taco, everyone's doing it. So I'm probably going to change up my, what I'm going to do, but, um, right now, for me, that has allowed me to stay alive. And you know, support underground arts, which is a live music venue, there's 90 live music going on. So this is all this has been the main act for a year, for a year. So yeah, that's what I'm doing. I have no idea where I'm going, I have no idea what's gonna happen. But no long term plan at this point, just kind of getting through the next couple months. You know, every plan I've had is kind of gone to shit. So every day I wake up, and I'm like, I intend to do this. Let's see what happens. You know, certainly having kids being virtual schooled or, you know, being young, somewhat, you know, my younger son will get a cold like, there's, it's all it's so much more complex. Now, as far as like, creating plans for yourself, I'm sure. Did you intend to start this podcast during me like, you probably didn't, you're like, hey, and then it ends up kind of, you know, it was a side project that during COVID, because I work as a personal chef. And when I was unemployed for 11 weeks, like I had zero business, no one was having become in their house. So this kind of took on a new thing. Like, it wasn't just something I was recreationally doing every couple of weeks. I was like, well, I got to do something. And you know, it's a way for me to connect with people, like I'm sitting here talking to you, you know, other than my family, I don't really get to see people that often. So I really went deep into the podcast, like I was releasing sometimes three episodes a week during pandemic, because I'm like, well, I've got nothing. I've no customers, you know, I'm not worried. There's only so much r&d you can do. I mean, I've enjoyed cooking and doing new dishes, but I really want to figure out how to best do the podcast, and then share the stories of people doing interesting things in the food world. Yeah, same I didn't plan on, you know, this is pandemic cuisine, like this is, you know, something I thought was a great idea and kind of a fun thing for me to try out, but ended up blooming into a full on phenomenon, you know, I have no responsibility in that, like that, kind of navigated itself, I just played a part in it, you know, and it allowed all of the same reasons that you that you just stated, like, I could see people I could, you know, get myself out there, and it felt super old school, like, people were coming for this food, they weren't coming, because I'm crazy. You know, I mean, and I know, I can be like, I'm definitely an action packed character, I understand that. But it felt nice, to not be the center of attention. And I'm sure, you know, you have the kind of same kind of shared experience where it's not you coming up with a dish, it's not you having to figure it out. It's you just listening and hearing other people's experience and you kind of vibing with that, like, Yes, I don't have to panic about what I need to say, because this person is going to do all the talking and it gives you some, you know, kind of relief, the pressure is really off me now I just have to make a good Smalley. I have to make a good taco. And I don't have to be, you know the character anymore. I can just no one can see me in a basement. Like, I'm not seeing people like that. But I see their posts and I see them out there. And it feels so great. And super exciting. When I see it for every business with Joe's pizza or pizza gut solemate they have an amazing burger. like to see people go and wait and be excited about something is, you know, for pandemic food is hugely exciting. And I think it changes it's gonna change everything. This podcasts gonna change everything is what you're talking about. And you know, who you're interviewing, and it just grows and grows. And then what are you going to do, you know, like, you have a defining moment in your life, then go back to personal shopping, or I have this extremely successful podcast that I think people need to hear, you know, which, which is the better way to tell the next chapter of your life, you know, yeah, I love cooking. But, you know, I would love to just have one or two events a week where I did like really awesome stuff for like my dream clients, like the people who really love my food and get it instead of having a hustle, you know, five days a week. So figuring out you know, I'm looking at the monetization because obviously you have to If you want to keep going, you got to make money, right? And I'm not quite there yet. So anyone who wants to be a sponsor, if you're listening, great spot right here, we'll drop your ad in. But you know, it's something, it's something I really enjoy. But I never thought about that, you know? And that's why when people talk about goals, like yes, it's important to have like, long term and short term goals. But I think sometimes things happen. And you just, you know, like, again, I never planned this, I started this community of personal chefs and food truckers to kind of help each other out. And just one of the guys in the community said, Why aren't you doing a podcast? Like, out of the blue, like, he was helping as a food truck here in town, and he helped me with an event and he said, Why aren't you doing a podcast? You know, I'm like, I don't know. Because like, I don't know anything about doing a podcast, like it just had never come across my mind. So then you kind of run with it. And you know, it either works or doesn't, and you can stop whenever you want. I could tomorrow decide not to do it anymore. You know, the same with cooking, you can just stop cooking and move on to something else. But being open to like, whatever comes your way. Right, and it's your own, I think that's something I hope comes out of this pandemic, for a lot of people is that one getting over the fear of taking the leap, like getting rid of all the logical reasons, you shouldn't do it and just go for it. And seeing that things are not as complicated when you are your own. Right, like, the pressure, the expectation isn't isn't the same. And you are able to move with a little more confidence in yourself. Because you're just, you're going forward again, you're going forward again, you know, like, I hope that through this pandemic, that having people slow down a little bit and really kind of reevaluating their self worth is huge, and making steps to move forward to progress on into what you're doing. And if it's starting your own business, and doing your own podcasts are doing your own thing, like and it feels this free, I just encourage everyone to keep going and you will get there. If you really feel like this we want to do, it becomes fun, keep going with it. Don't make any plans, though, because against pandemic and she could get shut down tomorrow. So just try to have an organic experience with it. And I believe in my mind in the way I believe is that you get the best, you get the best back, you know, I'm saying just not putting so much pressure on yourself or expectation demand. I was very unhappily like unhappy, right, like my mental health wasn't the best. And after this pandemic, seeing all the toxic ways I was dealing with that. And it doesn't necessarily mean I was drinking or smoking. It was just really the harm that I was doing to myself mentally like I was really hard on myself and slowing down and just admitting like I have no idea what I'm doing. Like, everybody had to have that moment because we're in a pandemic rebellion before. We were all on the playing field for a minute, like I have no one has any clue what we're doing. The people you thought, who had it together who normally do in everyday life, like it was the great leveler, right? Like people who normally know how to pivot and adjust and keep calm. They weren't doing much better than anyone else. Right? Not only were they weren't doing much better than anyone else, but they seem to be lacking the skills of understanding, understanding the total, like everyone involved. No, unfortunately, I've had a lot of friends who have worked for people who, you know, show their true colors during whatever social unrest was happening or whatever. And for years, people, these same chefs, so people have got accolades. Oh, they're so community, there's so whatever. And then they kind of expose themselves, not knowing what they're doing, you know what I mean? Like, who they shit on, to kind of admit that they don't know what they're doing. Like, it's, you know, what I'm saying? I was really it was, it was really weird. And I'm grateful to have stayed stable and exactly who I am for this whole time, which, from many years ago, I have said, I have no clue what I'm doing. Like, I'm selling tamales out of a van. I don't want to put a million dollars out. Am I gonna get in trouble? Sure, but I don't know what I'm doing so, and you could always go open a vegan meatball shop? I can. So can you tell me you work with cannabis a little bit and do like dinners? What's that? Like? What are the regulations? The parameters? I don't really know, like, what Philly allows? Is that something you can even talk about? Yeah, I mean, I could talk about it. Um, you know, it's fully legal, by the legal definition. But it's not at the same time. Like it's just a weird like, you know, I don't know, it's more than money thing. You know, I mean, like accepting money for things and charging, being vocal about that. It's hard to be public about that. You know? Yes, I do a cannabis dinner. Yes, I do this, but majority of the stuff that I would have done ever if I did that stuff was for medical reasons, like I've had my own medical issues. I've, you know, by a few months to miss, you know, having a huge cancer issue, my dad had cancer. And you know, I've always thought of food is healing, so I've always smoked weed. So I just started doing those things and always been kind of low key about it just because of the federal regulations behind it. So the stuff that I would do is kind of private or tongue in cheek to kind of, you know, distracts people from the legal part of it. But it's a huge thing. There's so much innovation and creativity that comes with cooking with it. That it's it's been, it's super fun to learn. And I hope that it becomes a more regular thing in regular dining, you know, once the laws pass or whatever. But in the state of Pennsylvania, you can't buy any edibles at a dispensary. You can't buy roll joints at a dispensary, you can buy flour, or extracts and then do your own stuff. But if you get in, like pulled over with edibles, that's an issue, although people aren't, you know, there's not really a lot of penalty for, you know, recreational use. But um, the logistics of having edibles is very complex. So, you know, you can do your own thing. So I tried to like if you have a medical marijuana card, then I will provide a service for you or teach you. But it's super lame here. That's really all I can say about it. Yeah, it's really weird with all the states, like I can't even keep track of what's going on in my own state, let alone all over. But I see people doing different things all over the country. But you know, like, two years ago, I guess I went to the star chefs Congress in New York City, which is like a huge event and one of their main stage presentations was on this. So when you're really starting to see like, a mainstream, you know, supporter of the culinary industry, bringing well known chef's onto the main stage to roll this out to everyone and not just have it be like a very small corner of the industry. You know, I think it's something that's going to continue to grow. And I'm interested to see where that goes over the next couple of years. I just like my time in California, like there are edibles. There are chefs that come to your house and do dinners like there are some amazing, amazing things happening. And it's unfortunate that on the East Coast, we're just like, you know, well, thank God for Atlantic City. But you know, I mean, New Jersey, I say Atlantic City, because I know that's going to be a bumping area for cannabis use, like you can go and smoke 20 blondes on the beach, and there is no place in the world. That's going to be illegal cannabis beach, and that's going to happen to Atlantic City like I can't. But whatever happened in New Jersey is super exciting. Because just like California, there's going to be a new kind of cuisine that comes out of it. And it's going to be very profitable and extremely exciting. And I think edibles and cannabis type food. It's novice and really kind of unfortunate to just do imitation Reese's or Skittles, like, get fucking creative, like everyone eats everything. And not everybody can eat sugar. And everyone needs cannabis. So do everything you can cook everything with it, don't just limit yourself to sweets or, or one kind of thing because in other parts of the world, there are people doing amazing things. And an imitation cannabis Reese's Peanut Butter Cup is you know, Stonehenge at this point, like so old. We're just always in this copying kind of mentality, right? Like one person does something really cool. And then everyone just has to do the same thing. I don't know why. And you don't you don't have to do that create your own. So there are some amazing products out there. I'll give you an example of one. It's a water soluble THC. It has no smell it has no residue. Unlike most people associate cannabis foods with like an infused butter or an oil or a fat. This doesn't need a fat to hang on to to work. So for instance, I've made like THC ice cubes, you can drop it into a glass of wine, you can drop it into a coffee and as it melts, it's dosing you know slowly and you don't taste it, you don't smell it, but you feel it in a less amount of time than you would in oil or fat. Because it absorbs in your intestinal tract, your mouth just like you know I hate to compare it to this but a vitamin or like cocaine, you know, people rub on their mouth absorbs into your bloodstream right away. It takes 10 minutes to begin and to where if you eat a brownie, it could take up to 40 minutes to an hour to kick in. Because of how you digest your food and your metabolism, so that's why if you ate 100 milligram brownie and I had 100 milligram brownie, we are going to react to it differently. And it's going to affect us differently based on our metabolism and digestive system. So with a water soluble THC, we're going to have the same high at the same time consistently. And that's huge. Like, that's a huge thing to be able to kind of work with now in food, where it's not, you know, you can't taste it, you can smell it, and you're just enjoying it. It's, it's wild, there's so many things out there that, you know, it could really change the culinary scene on on so many different levels. And one of those seven levels being technique, you know, like, molecular gastronomy is still alive and thriving. I think with cannabis, it would be revolutionary, to be honest. That'll be interesting. I'm gonna keep my eyes out for that and see the really cool modernist things that I think are going to happen. Yeah, I think I think it'll be the new, the new kind of thing eventually, where, you know, people are coming to seek out some sort of cannabis dinner or infused kind of experience. Even if it's just one drink, you know, something different in the unique, I think it'll be something that the mainstream is going to catch on to and start seeking out I hope we can help the laws can you know, keep up with that? Now, you did, like a very brief stint on top chef, did you enjoy the time you were there? And is it something you do? Again, I am so grateful for my Top Chef experience. I think if it did anything for me, it would be to kind of give me an edge on credibility, right? Like I can obviously cook you have to come to be able to be on that show. So it was a huge bonus in that sense. But no, it was a complete nightmare. Like, you know, I went home first, in front of like millions of people, you were on the hardest season though. Like I would say watching all the this season like I'm a Top Chef fan. And just looking at the chef's who've come out of that particular season, I really, I would be hard pressed to say that there was a season with better chefs out there. So so I feel the same way. Like there was a really hard that was a very, very hard season. And what I learned about Top Chef was that the culinary world is a really, really, really small world. Because a lot of those chefs had already known each other, like, you know, when you on our first day, people knew each other coming in from having worked for whoever worked for this person. So it was it was super intimidating to go in and see the chef's who already had some sort of familiarity with each other who had worked for chefs that were judges on the show like and here I am like, I'm a nobody self taught and Hollywood got the best of me. But I know that if there wasn't all that stuff, I would have definitely been able to hold my own for a little while longer than first one. I'm definitely someone who doesn't like a lot of rules or to be controlled and a lot of ways and you know, you have to be a certain way. And I'm not going to do that. So I went home first. And the only, you know, I talked to Japan where they didn't share that on, you know that they edited that out. But you know, I did say 10 on my season, which is why I got like go Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio. And Wolfgang Puck didn't know what c tan was the guy who had no clue what it was. And this is before the vegan movement was had even been anything. So they didn't say my dish was bad. They just didn't like the way I sold it. And I completely take full responsibility in that I sold it like an asshole. So it messed with my mental health, you know, losing in front of millions of people first, especially because you feel like, was it that obvious? You know, from the moment I got here, especially with the batasia brothers, you know, they're fierce. They're very, very good chefs. And Kevin Gillespie like I hadn't really, you know, I had great chefs on my season. So, yeah, I live in Frederick, Maryland. So that's where Brian is. So I have volt within, like, walking distance from my house. So it's like, you know, it's like the Tazio community over there for you like, no, they're really big deal. And Mike has made it look how far makes me that he's, you know, doing amazing things out there in LA. So, you know, for a couple hours, I was on the same playing field as some of the best chefs in the country. And that has made me very proud and probably kept me going and helped me see that Top Chef opportunity is something that I'd very much cherish because for a little bit of time, five minutes, maybe four minutes, I was there equal, and that felt pretty great. Well, who are some chefs that you love, like, if you could go Let's say work with someone just for a day. Who would that be? If I could work with one person for a day, probably definitely be Marco Pierre white. Like, he's so nuts. Like, I love that whole. I love that era, like I love. You know, I don't know when Anthony Bourdain wrote kitchen confidential like that changed my life. He talks about this time where he was going out to eat. And he was smoking a cigarette in an alleyway. Before he was gonna go into this restaurant, and this guy comes down the alley, and he has a cup. And Anthony Bourdain, like put money in that dude's cup, goes in, eats a steak, and says the steak was the best thing I've ever had in my life, I want to meet the chef. And they bring the chef out. And it was the guy that he thought was like, some homeless dude, and put money in his cup. And you know, that he got it, you know what I mean? Like, he just got it and the places that he shared when he was, you know, doing no reservation, where it was, how things should be shared, he weren't going to try to be like a culture, he didn't change his accent when he went down south, like he just sat and eat and share those experiences with people. And I believe that that group of men, you know, during their wildest times really defined what it meant to be a great chef and a huge culinary asset because they still party they knew they were degenerates during me like they just knew it. And they never tried to be anything else. And I think that's what I admire Mark appear, why it was just Wilder. So I know, go for the top. Well, who do you think it's someone who's a unsung badass in the industry? Like, who doesn't get enough love in your opinion? Um, who doesn't get enough love? I mean, Mexican women and black women, you know, like, I can't pinpoint just one. Like, I just feel like that whole demographic altogether. Like, there are not enough like black and brown women, that I could just, you know, name off the top of my head that other people would know who they were, like, I could say their name here. But I'm more wanting to say their name. And everyone kind of goes, Oh, yeah, you know, like, so I would love to see more of that. I would love to see more. Black and Brown women who get overlooked A lot of times, be calm, you know, household names. And you know, I have a few chef favorites. The best chef in the world was named Mexican woman. And she worked at cosmetic in New York, and I love her. She doesn't work there anymore. I was actually the first table ever sat there on opening night, because it coincided with the star chefs Congress and I had made reservations and I had like the 5pm reservation, I was literally the first table that got to sit down and eat in there. And I just met Enrique like, an hour and a half before. So he was doing like, one of the closing demos that night. And I saw him and I got a picture with him. And he signed a book and I was like, um, it's 330. I'm gonna be at your restaurant that's opening tonight at five like you're gonna be there, right? And he said, Oh, yeah, I'll be there. And then I took a workshop with Daniela like, two years later, like a tortilla making salsa making workshops. So love the place. Mexican is my go to food. Like if I had one cuisine, so yeah, me and Chris cares went together. I had got my tonsils taken out. And we had this reservation forever. And I couldn't cancel. So I had like fresh tonsils out and we go up there. And I did not care. Like nothing was stopping me from going and she had like, I think like three, four months prior, I had just won like best chef in the world. So it was very important to me that I went there to support her and meet her and congratulate her. And, you know, it wasn't it wasn't spicy by any by any means. But I definitely had the hardest time like, being able to get that food down with fresh tonsils, but it was amazing. And what was it? Um, the corn? What do you call it? macaroon? Like a corn husk? marang? Yeah. So again, because I was the first table I might have been the first person to Instagram that, like, I'd be really interested. I can see. Well, I mean, if I was the first person eating there, right, it was the one I was the one who finished dessert first. And that was something I went in. And I love like I use corn husks actually and a lot of things I make so I thought it was so interesting. So I remember taking a picture and sharing it online because I make like a simple syrup with corn husks for a cocktail. Yeah, I take them and I dry them in the oven and then I just make like a turbinado rich simple syrup with them in there. And then I do I call the street corn sour I infuse whiskey with grilled corn, corn on the cob. And then I fat wash it with melted butter. So it's like this buttery grilled corn bourbon. And then I do it as a sour with a lime juice instead of lemon, and then the corn husk syrup and then like chili on the top. So depending on your spice level, it could be anything from a smoked paprika to a AAA powder. And it was just like something I goofed around with and that actually ended up in garden and gun magazine. Yeah, so it's still on their website, which it just started like a joke for me it was this thing I did for my blog, like literally 10 years ago, but working with corn husks, I thought that was so interesting. So I remember having that dish and then taking a photo and then it became like the most instagrammed you know, dessert in the world for a while. It's like I bet if you went back through the timeline, that would be mine. I was so good. Like I just everything about it was just so good. And yeah, so I think the people who I don't I think they'll get enough are women like Daniela? And you know, other women out there who really bustling and just not quite getting the respect they deserve? So you in Philly for the long haul? And what do you love and hate the most? I'm definitely not enjoying the long haul. Like I'm, I'm trying to like, live off grid. And like three years I'm trying to leave here. The things I love about Philly will be the things I hate about Philly Two hours later. So I think Philly also has a love hate relationship with me. You know, I I do think that is very Philly and very insightfully so you know, I mean, the vegan meatballs here and a meatball contest in Philadelphia, it was I didn't go with the intention of, you know, causing any kind of issue. I just went and made the meatballs with my son. And you know, the whole city wanted to kill me. But because of that experience, I guess I'm using opportunities from it. So it's such a weird, you know, things I love are the things I'll hate, I can't find part my car, like someone's gonna kill me at some point. Like, it's just like it's not. But I also you also can't get that anywhere else. So, no, it's a very, it's a very interesting place. So the things I love are the things I hate, and the reasons why I'll leave and the reasons why I'll miss it. So you know, Philly is different. It's just different. And the funny thing about Philadelphia is, wherever you go, no matter where I went to Juarez, which is one of the most dangerous places in the world when we were doing research and development for El Camino. So that was my concept and I opened El Camino and Northern Liberties. We went to waters Mexico to do some research on border food. And when we told people we were from Philadelphia, like they were afraid of us, like I'm not kidding. I'm not kidding. We went into this, like, I was so scared. We were somewhere at a market that I was pretty sure we were gonna get robbed that I don't know. And, you know, Olin comma here is a tall Asian man. So here I am. And here he is, just don't look like you know, the normal pair. And we go into this like place where you can like, try like free tequila. I don't know. So they're asked us where we're from. And we said Philadelphia, and people backed up, like, and I was like, we're in the scariest place in the world. And they're scared of us. Like Phil. Philadelphia's reputation is wild. So I like to throw that out. I like to tell people I'm from Philly when I'm not in Philly. But when I'm in this city, I don't want to admit I'm here. I live here. I'm glad it can be a little bit of my story for you know, I was in that area for like seven years and not quite in. I didn't live in Philly. But I worked in Philly and did a lot around there. And yeah, it gives you an interesting perspective on things for sure. Yeah. Like, you know, I am prepared to fight and defend myself for the littlest things. everywhere I go. And, you know, no, I don't walk around aggressive, but I definitely walk around more aware, like, you know, that whole people thing was crazy. And as big city as Philadelphia wants to be, it really is a small town. And I knew that I would see people that knew who I was, who maybe were upset at what they think I represented, but, you know, it's definitely as small town as it is it prepares you for the big world. And I am grateful for that. And as much of as Philadelphia has chewed me up and spit me out, they've definitely embraced me and you know, been a huge support to me and my antics, especially, you know, the vegan community when that whole meatball thing went down. I was really nervous. Like I don't I live in a Bronx tale, like I have the pagans at one end of my block. And I have the mob at the other end of my block and I'm in the middle, directly in the middle. And now I was nervous on how to respond to some of these things, these threats. My husband's really crazy. So he just won't respond, I'll take care of this. And you have kids in schools. So you have to kind of navigate through this a certain way. And I was like, What do I say? So grace under fire, I didn't say anything. But the vegan community here, like no one will fight harder for you than the vegan community. So I didn't like have the same thing. the vegan community really kind of stepped up and supported me and backed me up. And I was really surprised, but at the same time, just another little love note of Philadelphia, like, as much as they chew you up and spit you out. Like, really, really, and I mean, this from the bottom of my heart, like, anyone is welcome here. And with enough guts, and thick skin, anyone can make it and become a success here. Because Philadelphia, to me is really one of the most accepting cities. As hard as That is to say, from my mouth. I do know that is true. Like, we're, we're pretty cool here. For the most part, for the most part. Yeah, I'm getting hungry. It's about lunchtime. I'm gonna go make a 10 page cheese steak today, which I'm sure would get me plenty of death threats in the city of Philadelphia. But is there anything else you wanted to throw out there? Before we get out of here today? Um, I think my only thing out there that I would throw out to anyone that's listening is you know, be yourself. Don't be scared to take, take any kind of culinary leap that you have been, you know, afraid to take. Don't limit yourself. And you know, support, support, support, support each other. Like, we are in the food, business. And food is healing. And you know, say yes to everything and support your community and your your friends. Awesome. I think those are wise words, for sure. Well, I've really enjoyed having you on the show. Thanks so much. Oh, thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me. And to all our listeners, this has been the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast. As always, you can find us at Chefs Without and on all social media platforms. Thanks so much, and have a great day. Thanks for listening to the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast. And if you're interested in being a guest on the show, or sponsoring the show, please let us know. We can be reached at Chefs Without Thanks so much.