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The Road Less Traveled :: Chef Chad Minton on Launching a Lifestyle Brand for Cooks

The Road Less Traveled :: Chef Chad Minton on Launching a Lifestyle Brand for Cooks

By Leland Ware

Chad Minton has an incredible story. He got sponsored by H-Street skateboards as a teenager, and left his home in Indiana for San Diego to pursue skating. Due to an injury, his career in skateboarding was cut short at just 17. With little direction, Chad struck out for Alaska where he did a bunch of odd jobs and ended up as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. He took his dishwashing on the road and ended up becoming a line cook at a chili parlor in Austin, Texas. This opened up a career in cooking that has since taken him from Austin, to San Francisco, to Vancouver, to Los Angeles, to New York, and currently Carmel. He started as an apprentice, and is now a Michelin star executive chef. While that portion of his story is seriously impressive, it’s not the incredible part. Two years ago, Chad launched True Cooks—a lifestyle brand and social media community centered around cooking and the lives that those who work in the kitchen. Still in its infancy, True Cooks has developed a cult-like following among chefs worldwide. Given all that he’s accomplished, we jumped at the opportunity to sit down with Chad get the full story on how all of this unfolded.

“SKATEBOARDING RAISED ME, AND THE KITCHEN SAVED ME.”

You have a background in skateboarding, which directly ties into what youre doing now. Why dont you start with that, since its a key component to how your story unfolds.
CHAD MINTON: I started skateboarding when I was 12 years old. I was inspired by the movie Back to the Future. Me and my little neighborhood buddies saw that movie, and we went straight to Toys R Us and got Nash Executioners—the pink joint with the dragon on it. From there we started terrorizing our neighborhood, and about six months later we discovered Thrasher magazine. I grew up skateboarding in Indianapolis, Indiana, so it’s very fortunate that somehow I got sponsored by H-Street skateboards. Mike Ternasky, rest in peace, has always been a huge inspiration in my life. I got lucky, because I was clearly not the raddest dude on the team, but I got to spend a lot of time with Mike in the editing booth. So, I got to watch how he worked creatively, and learn how he built the company and went about recruiting the talent for the team. What he did was extremely unique at the time. We drew a lot of inspiration from Mike and the early days of H-Street in launching True Cooks.

From getting sponsored by H-Street, you moved to San Diego and continued skating. At a certain point, you decided to completely walk away from skateboarding. What led up to that and what did you after your time as a sponsored skater?
I pretty much had a midlife crisis when I was 17. At that point, I had skated for H-Street for two years. I had a broken ankle for most of the filming of Hocus Pokus—that’s why I’ve only got two tricks in it. It became very clear to me that I wasn’t going to make it as a pro skateboarder. I got it into my head that I needed to develop a good work ethic, and that I needed to grow up and be a man. So, I went to Alaska. I hitchhiked from San Diego to Anchorage, Alaska. I proceeded to work day-labor jobs. I dug ditches, worked in a fish cannery, slept in a tent, ate nuts and berries, saw a dude get his hand cut off—it was some real old-world shit. That all culminated in getting a job as a dishwasher. My mother had died in an automobile accident, and I spent a year doing bad behavior. I wound up getting that job as a dishwasher at 17, and I thought my life was over—but it had only begun.

From there, you ended up down in Texas where your journey with cooking started. Tell us about your transition from Anchorage to Austin, and your first kitchen experiences.
I was just washing dishes, and I would parlay one dishwashing job into another dishwashing job, and eventually I ended up down in Austin. I started working at a place called the Texas Chili Parlor, and the owner was kind enough to let me flip burgers. I think in this industry if you’re dedicated enough and sacrifice enough, eventually someone is going to give you an onion to chop. Then, if you do well with that, someone is going to give you a burger to flip. So, I parlayed my dishwashing experience into some shitty third-rate line cook jobs. I went from one line cook job to the next, and eventually I ended up with an apprenticeship at the Four Seasons in Austin. I worked for a great chef for a couple of years, and he created some great opportunities for me in San Francisco.

“THE OLDER I GET AND THE MORE EXPERIENCE THAT I GET, THE MORE SIMPLE AND HONEST THE FOOD BECOMES.”

You spent a good portion of your career in San Francisco. You were with the Ritz Carlton and the Grand Hyatt. Tell that portion of your story and how you progressed from a line cook to an executive chef.
San Francisco is definitely my adopted home. I moved there in ’92 or ’93. The chef that I worked for in Austin saw some potential in me, and asked me if I wanted to go to the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco. The Ritz had just opened, and it was the flagship of the brand. At the time, it was undeniably the best hotel in the city. The dining room was debatably one of the top two restaurants in the city. Every single cook that was worth his shit wanted to be in that kitchen—it was extremely competitive. I kind of rose through the ranks. They hired me as an apprentice. I told them, “Chef, I just finished my apprenticeship,” and they were like, “No, you’re an apprentice.” I thought I knew it all, but they were right—I didn’t know shit. It was clear that I wasn’t cooking at the level that these guys were. So, they started me in the employee cafeteria and all of these other indignant assignments, and I realized that I had to get serious.

The first year that I worked there, I worked for free on my days off. I would go in on my Saturday and my Sunday, not clock in, and just work. I did this for about eight months before they realized it. One day the chef was yelling at me, and the banquet chef told him in French, “Hey chef, maybe you shouldn’t give this guy so much shit—you know he’s here on his day off.” That’s when the chef realized that I was there on my Saturday peeling potatoes just to show them that I was serious. At that point, things started to become a little easier. I was an entry-level apprentice, then got promoted to cook four, then cook three, then cook two, then cook one. Then they made me departmental trainer, then I was sous chef. This all happened within five years.

Now youre at the executive chef level, and you do have a Michelin star. Without giving your entire resume, can you kind of run down your cooking accolades?
I will say very honestly, the best thing that I can do at this stage of my career is to help my fellow cooks—to create opportunities for these young people that are new to the industry, and to put them on the right path. My role now as executive chef is really to mentor and build other people. It’s not about me, it’s about everybody else. As far as where I’ve worked—I was in San Francisco for ten years at the Ritz Carlton and Grand Hyatt in Union Square—I was chef de cuisine there. I spent five years in Vancouver as a chef de cuisine of the Hyatt Regency. I left Hyatt and returned to the States where I was the executive chef at the Ritz Carlton in Los Angeles for five years. Most recently, I did two years as the executive chef at the Andaz on 5th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. I’m currently the executive chef at Hyatt Carmel in Carmel, California.

Since The Hundreds very much follows food culture, can you give us a breakdown of your style of cuisine?
It’s funny man, the older you get, the more you find ways to simplify stuff. I would describe the food at the restaurant where I work now as sophisticated, but not complicated. It’s rustic coastal cuisine. But, in terms of an overall style, when you’re new to the game and a young cook—you try to use all kinds of crazy ingredients and techniques. It’s really kind of showy. You want to show people what you can do, but thats not always what people want to eat. As you get older, you kind of audit this and become more in tune with what the diner is actually trying to eat. The older I get and the more experience that I get, the more simple and honest the food becomes.

“I DON’T SEE TOO MANY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN COOKING AND FASHION. AS CHEFS, WE CHALLENGE OURSELVES TO STAY RELEVANT AND CREATE DISHES THAT PEOPLE ARE GOING TO LIKE AND TALK ABOUT.”

How does a former skateboarder and career chef end up starting a clothing brand?
It’s funny, we do a shirt that says “The Kitchen Raised me”—people love it, it resonates with a lot of people. It’s not one hundred precent honest, because skateboarding raised me, and the kitchen saved me. Coming up in the skate industry and watching some of the success that some of my good friends and peers have had with brand building was very inspiring. The idea of True Cooks has been around since 2008. We registered the domain name and got the trademark done, but I had the hustle wrong. I thought I was gonna make aprons and chefs jackets—things that were price prohibitive. So, I shelved the idea for about five years. Then, I found myself in New York, and I was inspired by the city. I also had some guidance from some friends here in New York that are in the skate industry that encouraged me to pursue this as a brand. At that point, the idea of True Cooks shifted into a lifestyle brand for cooks. It’s coming from a very genuine place, if you’re a chef, you don’t do it halfway. You have to go all in. There’s a great amount of sacrifice and dedication that goes into becoming successful in this industry. What I wanted to do was something dope that celebrates cooks. Working off of that platform, I also created a social media platform that highlighted people that were not being showcased elsewhere. We use that to spotlight people that are out there grinding to better their skills.

How did the nuts and bolts of it come together? Youre a guy thats in the kitchen, not sitting behind a computer. What was the learning curve for making clothing and distributing clothing independently?
It was a huge learning curve. I went from utilizing three different places to manufacture stuff around New York city to consolidating that into one place where ninety percent of the True Cooks gear is made. But, I don’t see too many differences between cooking and fashion. As chefs, we challenge ourselves to stay relevant and create dishes that people are going to like and talk about. It’s a very similar approach when it comes to making clothes.

Lets touch on the designs, which are very hands on. You dont have an art background, but you create all of these designs yourself. Obviously the inspiration comes from cooking and working in the kitchen, but how do you go about creating True Cooks imagery?
Cooking is a really creative outlet. Once you understand the basics, you can apply them to creating some very creatively satisfying dishes for yourself and other people. I feel like designing a line and the creativity that goes into that is an extension of what I’ve been doing in the kitchen. You get to thinking while mincing shallots for ten hours a day. If you’re good at your job, you can take yourself out of the repetitive process and start thinking of other things. The True Cooks slogans come from the hours that we spend shit talking in the kitchen.

“WHAT I’D LIKE TO DO WITH THE TRUE COOKS COMMUNITY IS CREATE A LEGACY OF INCLUSION WITHIN THE COOKING WORLD.”

You touched on it earlier, but lets talk a little bit more about the community aspect of True Cooks. You have quite a following on Instagram, an actual team of cooks, and tons of chefs are gravitating towards it. I liken it to the cooking Wu-Tang Clan because theres so many people that are down with True Cooks. Tell us about the social platform and what the idea behind that is.
It started really organically, and it’s kind of defining itself. We started the True Cooks page two years ago, it obviously serves as advertising for the brand, but we’ve also created a community of like-minded chefs and cooks of all experience levels. Cooking professionally has always been a very exclusive club—recipes are guarded, techniques are protected. There wasn’t really a lot of sharing and caring. What I’d like to do with the True Cooks community is create a legacy of inclusion within the cooking world. I want to open up this historically guarded and exclusive trade to the masses. Now we have a platform where an entry-level cook that is new to the industry can trade ideas and thoughts with a Michelin star chef and everybody in between. True Cooks celebrates the struggle and success that comes with cooking—from making it through your shift, to getting a promotion, all the way to getting the Michelin stars and all of that. When you cite the Wu-Tang Clan, I love that, because we literally create something out of nothing everyday. When you’re making a dish, you’re creating something from a number of ingredients and a recipe. The same applies for our brand.

My final question is that currently youre weaving in and out of two lanes. Youre the executive chef at the Hyatt Highlands in Carmel, and you have this clothing brand thats showing significant growth. Where do you see yourself in the futurecooking, doing the brand full-time, or a combination of the two?
As executive chef, working in my kitchen, I can positively affect about twenty people. As the owner of True Cooks, I can do that for 200,000. As a chef, the greatest joy that I can have is to mentor young people and help them achieve success in the cooking industry—so the more people that I can positively affect, the better. Right now, we’re shopping a book—a True Cooks cook book. There are no recipes, just spotlights on cooks. This is something that I’m very passionate about. So, depending on the success of shopping the book and the fourth quarter of 2015, I see myself growing the brand in year three, and trying to be a good mentor to all of our friends, family, and fans globally.

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Keep up with True Cooks at truecooks.com and on Instagram @truecooks. Photos by SDJ.

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