New Zealand lamb, Alaskan salmon with brown sugar crust garlic and sweet chili aioli, and wild corvina with Sicilian pistachio and truffle butter are not the usual menu items for a strip-mall restaurant in West Kendall. But for eight years, Adrianne Calvo, 31, has kept many of her 60 seats filled while writing four books, appearing on television and winning local, regional and national chef competitions. She opened Chef Adrianne’s Vineyard Restaurant and Wine Bar in 2007 just as the South Florida economy was imploding.
She spoke with WLRN’s The Sunshine Economy in April about how she broke into the restaurant business and succeeded in it. Here are edited excerpts from that on-air conversation:
Q: How did you get started?
A: What attracted me to this particular business — culinary arts — was actually a schedule mistake. I’ve always been obsessed with food, but not in the professional way; I was going to go into journalism. In high school, I was going into a journalism class [but] a scheduling mistake had me put into a culinary class. And while I was waiting for my schedule to clear up, Johnson and Wales University, the culinary university, came in and did a demo. I call that the lightning strike, and it was like they were speaking to me only. I was 16 years old when I decided I wanted to be a chef.
Q: What was that epiphany that instead of working with words, you were going to work with flavors?
A: Yeah, I would say it was an epiphany. All of a sudden: “Your passion can be your paycheck” type of thing — that’s what it became. I realized that every day of my life, I just wanted to be cooking, and I wanted to be able to create plates for my guests. I would feed off that reaction. It became addicting later on. It was kind of like when somebody would read something that I wrote, and they would be like “Wow, this is amazing.” I was getting that same reaction with food.
Q: The culinary arts are such a vocation. Mentorship is so important. And early opportunities are important. As a teenager, what were those opportunities that helped cement your career path not only as a chef, but also as a businesswoman and as an entrepreneur?
A: Early opportunities are almost everything. You know how they say if you start behind the eight ball, you’re never going to get in front? That is so true. I seized every single opportunity; being a woman, that was very important [to do]. Back when I started, in every culinary class [of] 30 people, there were probably three girls. Out of the three girls, two would drop out. This is a strenuous field: If you’re really a chef, you’re lifting 50-pound-pots or carrying trays that are 80 pounds. It’s not an easy thing, and they’re long hours. If you’re an executive chef, you’re at the helm of 15 men at a time, so respect is a big deal.
But early on, I knew I wanted to make my mark and [that] I didn’t just want to be a line cook. So I decided to enter all types of competitions. Everything that I could. I was into it, and somehow I started winning them.
Q: In those early days in the classroom as you were gaining the knowledge and the skills that you now use, how aware were you that you were one of very few females, or perhaps the only one in the class?
A: For example, when I started, there were 10 of us that were competing, and nine of those were men. They would tell me, “Little girl, get out of the kitchen. What are you doing? You don’t belong here. You’re not really going to win.” They would hide my pots. It was really the good old boys’ club.
Q: But these were not good old boys. These were peers. These were teenagers or young men in their 20s.
A: Absolutely, and they weren’t just in their 20s. [For some], this was their second career, so they were deep into their 40s. But believe it or not, it is still a man’s world. In that sense, I was just like, “OK, you know, let’s let them have their little smirk.” They must be intimidated if they’re behaving that way. I would just keep quiet and focused and do my thing. When I would win, I just high-fived them and [said], “Good job, boys.” That was it.
Q: You’re still young in your career. You’ve been in the culinary arts for half your life. You’re in your early 30s now. You started when you were 16. As you’ve come to develop your business, what role has gender played, if any?
A: As a businesswoman, I’m not just a chef at my restaurant: I actually am the owner. I have to look at this not just [from the] creative side; I’m not just creating plates. At the end of the month, are my plates making money? Gender doesn’t really play a role. That’s just intelligence, how good of a businessperson you are.
Q: Is it tough to operate as a businessperson, not a businesswoman, in this business climate in South Florida?
A: It’s not tough. You make it tough if you want [it] to be tough. For example, if I’m [at] a business engagement or a cocktail hour at any event, I will find myself in a social circle where I’m talking to six or seven men. It’s just me as [the only] woman. Sometimes, men will look down on you. They start flirting or they think of you as the little redhead girl. But you if you keep the conversation focused on business, there’s no reason why any of that should happen.
Q: There’s research that shows successful women talk about their mentors as advisors. Successful men talk about their mentors as providing opportunity.
A: That is true. My mentor was a man. His name was Christof Wagner. He was a German master chef, and he’s still at Johnson and Wales University. That perseverance and knowing that it’s a man’s world — I learned it from him. If you go against the flow sometimes, you’ll find yourself getting stuck. He taught me how to go with the flow [and] be ahead of it. He taught me how to be the best. I credit him for that, but he also taught me about knowing what I want [and] knowing what I don’t want.
I focused every day [with] tunnel vision on what I wanted. That’s what led me to open my restaurant without any restaurant experience. And that’s with knowing the odds [of failure]. He [taught me] you don’t play the odds. So he did advise me. And in that, he gave me an opportunity, which was to believe in myself.
Q: Here you are about to celebrate your eighth anniversary. The restaurant has survived as a business.
A: It survived as a business, and surviving as a business is almost as important [as] any type of dish or competition that I’ve ever won, because we survived a rough economy. We had to adapt. As a businessperson, you have to learn how to adapt to the economic situation, and you have to find the balance without losing your identity, without compromising quality for your customers.
I am thankful every single day that we were able to captivate an audience that would follow us through our changes as we evolved. I would say the business aspect is more looked up to than creating a plate.
Q: You opened up right as the real estate bubble was beginning to deflate. Slightly before it collapsed entirely. That’s when you opened up. How did the kitchen continue to keep the ovens on and the seats filled?
A: We opened up, and I was so optimistic. I had this whole dream of what Chef Adrianne’s [would be], but we couldn’t be that at that moment in time. I remember sitting where we’re sitting right now in this booth, and I cried. It was like six months after we opened, and I said, “How are we going to survive?” There’s just no way. I was 23 years old, and I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, I have no experience.” Then it hit me, hit me like a wall: “What did I do? How are we going to get customers through the door?” This is when big chain [restaurants] started giving [specials such as] two people for $10. People were losing their jobs. So I said, “OK, either we close the doors right now and I start working at a hotel or something. Or we put our big-boy boots on — or in this case, big-girl boots on — and we change the menu. We see how we can make ends meet. I’m going to work.”
I fired everybody from my kitchen, and it was just me and my sous chef — two people. It was a skeleton crew. My sous chef is still my sous chef right now. We did a two-for-$39 special. I was barely making any money. But all of a sudden, people were telling each other [about us]. We never compromised quality. I was giving the same amount of food [as I was before] and the same quality: organic free-range, no pesticides, farm-to-table.
No matter how much technology [and] social media [you have], word-of-mouth is still the best way to get people in the seats and keep them coming back. That’s how we survived.
Q: What sowed the seeds of you taking a risk and having confidence?
A: I don’t know if it’s confidence. I wouldn’t say I’m confident. I would just say, “Why not take the risk?” I’m allergic to boring. I’m allergic to mediocrity. I know what I don’t want, and I didn’t want a 9-to-5 job. I didn’t want a career where I was waiting for summertime and where I was waiting for Friday and Saturday. Just being able to have what I have, I’m thankful every day. It helps me to fight for the next thing. My arms are full of burns because I actually am one of those chefs [who] really work. It makes it easier to go from one milestone to the next, or one risk to the next, knowing that you survived the first one.
Q: The forearms are full of burns, and there’s a tattoo on your left bicep.
A: It says, “Make it count.”
Q: And it’s attributed to somebody.
A: It’s attributed to my sister Jenny. She passed away [from] cancer, and she would say every day, “Make it count.” That’s what I do every day.
Q: It was tongue cancer that she had?
Q: How did her illness at such a young age impact your outlook for your career and the kinds of things that you want to accomplish?
A: I was 21 and she was 19 years old. All 21-year-olds, what are they thinking? They’re thinking, “I’m partying it up.” I never had that. [What] I had in front of me was losing the closest person to me. I saw her suffer through the whole thing. I think in general, people think they have time. People believe “I’ll do it next year. I’m still young.” That was stripped away from me through that experience. That helps me to get things done.
You know how they say last chances come with no warning? That’s how it was for me. I learned to make it count because tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Someday when I have kids, I want them to be able to say, “Hey, my mom did this.”
Q: What would you tell that future daughter or future son about what you’ve been able to accomplish in the past decade?
A: I say you either shoot for excellence or you shoot for excuses, and excuses are a dime a dozen. You’ve got to find some type of inspiration and roll with it. We’re all going to be a story to somebody. Some stories are really short and some are long. Some can be really impacting even though they’re short.
So I say, try to find a happy medium and live the best life that you can because we don’t know if we have tomorrow.
-BY TOM HUDSON
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