Chef Jamie Hunt left sunny west for the east coast of the country to attend culinary school at Culinary Institute of America in New York, where she graduated in 2007. Like many following their passion, she left behind a career with a Fortune 500 company to pursue her culinary goals.
Hunt’s expertise has allowed her to work for past presidents, public officials, Wall Street executives, entertainers and athletes. She has cooked for Alicia Keys, Sean “Puffy” Combs and her current client is a Wall Street multi-billionaire and global philanthropist. She is currently building her foundation, “Teach-her,” which will focus on healthy eating and mentorship for teenage girls. She is also working on launching another business, Prince St. Events, along with her husband.
Tell us about who you are and where you’re from.
I am originally from San Francisco. I attended school and college in the Bay Area. I attended California State University, East Bay. I became a member of Delta Sigma Theta. My dad worked for MUNI and drove the cable cars and my mom was an accountant. We grew up understanding the value of food and celebrating around that and making the most of what we had. I come from a very large family on my mom’s side and really enjoyed our family celebrations.
Tell us a little about your culinary background?
My parents were both really good cooks. My earliest memories of my mom would be me watching her in the kitchen in our pantry and she would just start grabbing seasonings and measuring cups and measuring spoons were not her thing but her cooking was always amazing.
My father was the opposite, he was very exact when he cooked. You would see measuring cups when he cooked. We grew up seeing my parents partner with each other when they cooked. My dad made the cornbread for the dressing and then my mom made it [the dressing]. Maybe as early as six years old, I can remember that and so that tradition has gone on till this day with my siblings.
My mom would cook and we would taste the food and she would ask us what other seasonings the dish needed. That whole element of cooking with your family and loving it is what I grew up with. Fast food wasn’t a thing in our house.
Every night my mom and dad cooked and we all sat down at the dinner table and we all talked about school and work. My parents taught us very early that food is important; you need it to live and sustain yourself. When my parents both were diagnosed with cancer, I think that transcended the whole element of food for me. Food has played a very special and specific role in my life. And understanding food as nourishment, healing and being able to connect. Those are really important values in food we kind of take for granted because we eat on the go.
When I cook now, I am in that headspace because it is an experience and it’s not just about eating. I want people when I cook for them, to be in that headspace that this food has been cooked with some thought and love. I want you to feel what I put into that food. That is the mentality I went with to the Culinary Institute of America.
What did you do before entering the culinary space?
I worked for Frito-Lay, which is a part of Pepsi. I started out as an operations manager with them and then worked on a team to design their automated delivery systems. When I started with them everything was very manual and I came in understanding computers and flow, productivity and industrial engineering.
I was in this space where I was the only Black woman on the team of 16 white men and they looked at me like I was a token, as if I were not smart. And they really didn’t like me because I was making more money than all of them.
When I told my boss I was going to culinary school, he laughed at me square in my face that I would be back. No encouragement or congratulations. Flat out leaned back, kicked his leg up and said, “I’ll have your paperwork started and I’ll have your office cleaned out.” I did not care at that point. No send-off lunch or email. I was not shocked. It fueled me to be successful because there was no way in God’s creation that I knew I was ever coming back to this building.
Even if I didn’t make it in New York, I wasn’t coming back here. Once I graduated from culinary school, I worked in a couple of restaurants and I hated it. I didn’t want to be in a space cooking the same thing, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not me.
What led to your pivot from corporate America to the food industry?
After my parents passed away from cancer, I lost my pillars. I did not know how to navigate that. I started hating my corporate job because it took time away from spending time with my dad while he was battling cancer. I fell asleep one night watching television and there was an infomercial about the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and I made a note about it.
The next day, I called the CIA and spoke to a lady named Karen, who became my financial aid counselor, and she said, “Yes, quit your job! Come on to the east coast!” She also expressed her condolences about my parents passing away and said, “This will be a life-changing experience for you.”
The process to get in was stringent. It cost over a hundred grand. Karen said all I had to do was stay on the Dean’s List and she helped me find a grant. Once I got there, I received so many grants that funded my education. It was life-changing because everything that Karen said that was going to happen happened.
I left my family and that was a big deal because I am very close to my sisters. That was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, leaving California. It really was the passing of my parents that I knew I had to make some decisions about my life because the clarity was gone.
What’s been COVID-19’s impact on your work? Have you had to pivot during this time?
COVID has created a space for everyone to reevaluate themselves. It created these revelations about us that we got a chance to see because there was nowhere to go, there was nowhere to be fast, there was nowhere to rush. Being in a space where you actually got to take your time and slow your mind down and really see within yourself is what I think happened.
For me, having to pump the breaks and become a teacher for my 8-year-old and my 5-year-old. Being introduced to fractions all over again [laughs] and word problems and still trying to juggle being a mom, a wife and still working for my clients are demanding.
Again putting my project on the backburner, which seems to have been a theme and it became quite the juggling act. There were days where I didn’t think I could manage all of this; and being a mom allows you to be stretched beyond your capabilities and COVID taught me that. This time has given me a newfound appreciation and love for teachers. I got a chance to see what my kids knew and see them grow and how they learn. That was powerful to me.
What projects are you working on this year?
We launched Chef Jamie Hunt, the first phase will be about getting to know me, my cooking adventures. There’s three facets to it: Cook, Create, Celebrate. Right now you can see the cooking aspect to it.
Then “Celebrate” is the next aspect. The concept behind that for me is that the dining experience is not just “eating” it is really the whole thing. From the time you are having a dinner party, your friends and guests are excited to get to your house, and they get to mingle with each other and that is an experience. They can smell the food and they are anticipating their meal.
You set a really beautiful table and everyone has something to talk about at their table setting and then the food comes to the talk, eat and enjoy. So that dining experience doesn’t start at the point where you lift your fork, the dining experience starts when you’ve thought about what you were going to cook. I’ll share how I put together a dinner party or an event.
The “Create” aspect will come where I share do-it-yourself projects. In my newsletter, I share tips on what I do for myself. I made a sugar scrub out of dandelion oil and that recipe will be on my blog. So it is important for me to find time for self-care. I also have some private branding stuff that I am working on as well as my work at the Boys and Girls Club. I had a cooking class with the Boys and Girls Club in December of last year. I’ll always start planning a teenage girls mentoring program and I am really excited about that. I am also opening an urban garden with the Boys and Girls Club as well.
What legacy do you want to leave behind?
I want people to feel like I’ve always been the same person. We were raised to be the best we could possibly be. Be okay with failing and understand why you did so that when you start over again you take those parts out. And put your heart into it.
What are some proud moments in your career?
When I was doing my externship, I was at Madeleine Albright’s house. She had these tamales flown in, and I was like, “Wow!” [laughs]. Every year she used to have this brunch and I met the Bush family and Condoleezza Rice. It was amazing. They were just everyday people.
No matter who you are, what you do, what country you’re from, what cultural background you have or where you’re from; food is always the common denominator. Everyone is happy when food is on their plates.
What lessons have you learned along the way that you now share with others?
Value your worth and value your time. Have a plan but be okay to go outside of the lines. As women, we are very stringent with ourselves when it comes to planning. When things don’t go according to plan we tend to really stress ourselves out because we are secretly seeking perfection. Entrepreneurship is really a journey of learning. There’s no exact science to building a perfect brand. There’s trial and error, so be okay with that.
We say that business is a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly. Knowing this as a seasoned entrepreneur, what would you tell yourself as a young entrepreneur today?
Be patient. We all have our timing and seasons. You know when it is your season because you feel it and you’re in it. I don’t question God’s timing because we are always in a rush to be famous or have notoriety.