Gathered Around the Socially Distanced Table

By Allison Bolt

The group gathers around a figurative table, a Zoom call. Fumbling with earbuds and mute buttons in front of screens in New York, Seattle and Chicago. Introductions are in order. Lucas Sin, owner of Junzi Kitchen, is seated in front of a floor to ceiling bookcase with the middle, and largest, shelf scattered with bottles. “The coolest one on the shelf is probably my custom tabasco bottle,” says Lucas. “And then to go with it, I have a really tiny one,” he grins holding the hot sauce bottle no bigger than a wine cork up to the camera.

Everyone stares back at one another, each in their individual boxes on a screen. Where are you from? Where are you now? What’s one thing you wish you could have an unlimited supply of for the rest of your life? “The best seasonal tomatoes on toast,” says Maxime Bilet, the founder of Arca that curates R&D innovation projects. “I’m going to go pretty straight forward and say pizza,” says Dan Coudreaut, a chef and food innovator. What about the best gift you’ve been given? For Lucas, it’s a Cantonese semi-porous clay rice pot that his father made sure to pack in Lucas’s suitcase before he left for college in America. “The best gift I ever got was my children,” says Dan.

After understanding each other the best they can over a video call, and once the conversations about jobs, kids and tomatoes have slowed, everyone begins to silently wait for what’s next. Staring back at one another they decide how to move forward-no one gets up until there are concrete changes to the industry that will lead the new path forward.

The restaurant industry is not working for anyone involved. For the restaurant owner, the chef, the overworked server, the landlords and even the customer, the food service industry has failed to provide support. They start with a challenge question on their shared screen-how might we redistribute the risks and rewards between customers and restaurant workers to better rebuild an empathetic and fair food system?

“The question’s a little vague to me,” says Dan. “Are we talking about equity, financial, are we talking about access to food, food deserts, what are we specifically talking about?” After spending 13 years as a vice president for McDonald’s, Dan is thinking big picture, expansive, considering everyone that’s impacted by food across the country. He’s right, the question is vague. It lacks an easy answer. It doesn’t fit the varying ideas everyone woke up with this morning, held in their heads while they brushed their teeth or walked their dog and then carried with them when they sat down in front of their computer. It’s okay. It’s just a starting point. The question is meant to be changed, molded.

Chef Maxime Bilet

Now, they sit with an overwhelming list in front of them citing a few of the many problems in the industry such as restaurant owners carrying all of the risks of losing their businesses, middle-men companies such as UberEats taking too much of the profit, uneven pay between the front and the back of the house, chefs prioritizing their creative vision over community need and so on. There’s one on the list that makes Maxime sit up a little more in his seat-customers don’t always respect or value food service workers.

“It’s the way people perceive the value of food,” says Maxime who provides food and nutrition education for children and families through his nonprofit, the Hungry Owl Foundation. “They’re willing to invest massive amounts in things that matter far less. People will negotiate food. They want it to be cheap, they want it to be fast. As a customer, you want the best food, the fastest service and you want it to be as inexpensive as possible. That’s just unrealistic but it’s also an unhealthy understanding of how valuable food is. We should be willing to invest more in it as everyday customers.”

Everyone else begins to nod, to shift closer to their screens. The uneasy silence as the team comes to grips with how to have such a critical discussion over a video call fades. Everyone is ready to share their ideas.

“Pointing to what Dan was saying, we could be looking at any part of the food system, but this is really quite concentrated on the economic part,” says Lucas who opened his first restaurant in Hong Kong when he was only 16 and has years of problems and ideas for solutions pent up.

“As the question is currently framed, it’s specifically the people that are involved in restaurants. I think a lot about vulnerabilities in the labor system are because restaurant owners are facing an immense amount of pressure to put out food really quickly for a very small amount of money. For that reason, people don’t get paid a living wage, for example.”

Lucas’s brow furrows, and he pauses slightly before uttering an obvious but uncomfortable truth. “I think there’s a level of racism involved, institutional racism. There’s culture involved. So, we can attack it from a lot of different aspects, but I think perhaps what I’m interested in is finding a couple of specific parts where we can alleviate a lot of the pains of the people involved in the restaurant industry, specifically.”

The problems Lucas is addressing are not just due to the COVID-19 pandemic, or the way owners choose to run their restaurants.

These problems are historic.

The restaurant was actually born out of the French Revolution. Chefs were reserved primarily for royalty while the rest of the country was experiencing a famine and couldn’t even afford bread. The first restaurant opened in 1765 in Paris and sold clear soup called “restorative” which led to the name, restaurant.

From then on, the restaurant industry went through industrialization and is now structured today based on Fordism and Taylorism models. The practice of tipping servers in restaurants was even inherited from European aristocratic homes and is deeply intertwined with slavery when lords would give their servants tips if they exceeded expectations.

From the beginning, the roots of the restaurant industry set up an unfair structure. From the underpaid servers to the struggling, overworked back of the house cooks, the system was not set up to be an equitable job.

Moving forward to break down this historic system and rebuild it, the group will structure the rest of the discussion around a variation of design thinking. This structure starts with examining personas of key players in the industry, choosing two of these personas that can have the most impact to focus on and then formulating ideas for solutions to solve their problems. Through this discussion, the group will identify the hidden themes underlying many of the ideas, and then use that new insight to improve the challenge question.

The personas are generalized and simple. They have a first name, a short description a list of some of their demographics, thoughts and feelings, needs and pain points.

Jim, “the self-interested landlord,” is a retired doctor and invested in a commercial property to fund his lifestyle and retirement. His tenant is a restaurant and, even though Jim is really invested in his community, he doesn’t understand how the restaurant serves the community or the way restaurants work in general.

Fatmah, the persona referred to as “the hands-on restaurant owner” works over 80 hours a week and struggles with unpredictable income. The restaurant she opened doesn’t align with what the community needs and she’s worried about losing her business during the pandemic.

Renee, “the entrepreneur chef” who is a co-founder of her restaurant, thinks of her food as art. This means her customers don’t always understand or appreciate it.

Finally, we come to Dani, “the multi-talented server” who is overworked, stressed and always harassed at work. Her commute is 45 minutes, her schedule is unpredictable and her unreliable income relies on tips from customers who don’t truly value food or service in the way they should.

While these are all generalized personas of people working in the food service industry, millions of Americans work in the industry and face these situations every day. Everyday servers just like Dani get home late and prepare for another early morning working a double shift where she will be harassed and poorly tipped.

Lucas immediately jumps into the conversation when he hears the server’s story. “I have 120 employees that are exactly like this,” he says fumbling over his words as if he’s been waiting to discuss this for years. “Their biggest pain points are that they have no idea where the next day is going to be and they don’t know how to advance. I think we’ve created this sort of position for ‘fast-casual fast food’ positions where you just go there and you stay there, and then you have a passion project and you hope you become a DJ one day. You still are always going to be stuck in this position and it’s often not made clear how to progress upwards.”

Lucas believes the franchise model, that Dan is very familiar with, has succeeded in solving some of these issues by separating the food from the service. This allows employees to grow upwards in either the service path or the food path.

“Why is it that we’re willing to place such high value on pretty much any other purchase,” says Maxime in agreement. “Yet, this thing that’s so essential to us, we’re okay with it being one of the least rewarding businesses for the people who provide it?”

With this obvious concern for the server persona, the group begins to vote to decide which two personas they want to proceed with. They cannot solve all of the problems at once, but they can start with tangible solutions for two positions in the industry. With each person getting to vote for two personas, we end up with three votes for the chef, two for the restaurant owner and one each for the server and landlord.

Maxime pauses and struggles to choose where to place his last vote. Dan suggests that he place his vote with whoever can have the biggest impact. Yet, Maxime thinks the solutions for each one of the personas will solve a lot of the issues of the others. So, does one really have more impact than the other?

Maxime initially places his second vote on the server which creates a tie between the owner and the server as the second persona to focus on. The group laughs nervously at a standstill.

“They’re all worthy investigations,” says Maxime while noting that all of their problems intermingle and overlap. A few arguments are thrown out for why different members of the group chose what they chose. Everyone looks to each other for an idea that will break the tie.

The industry is a complex system. In order to create interventions in complex systems, the group must find fulcrum points. They can’t focus on all of the levels of the industry at once, so to begin, they ask which points would make the biggest impact immediately? “I was thinking that if we start with the server, it becomes a sort of Marxist thing where the only way to fix the system is to abolish it, to get rid of restaurants,” says Lucas, half-jokingly.

Chef Dan Coudreaut

“Because we have this short amount of time, and everybody’s very committed to this,” Maxime says with a mix of resignation and authority, “if we’re looking at solutions that can be effective now for the industry as a whole then the restaurant owner and the chef are where to begin.”

So, the group circles the chef and the owner and begins working.

As a group, they list the problems, or pain points, that the chef and the owner face. As quickly as they can, everyone begins writing ideas for solutions to each pain point on sticky notes on the virtual white board that’s being used map out the conversation. The clock runs out on their ideation time, the team walks through their ideas and thoughts, which have been grouped and clustered together while they were working. These clusters of ideas will help identify the problems behind the problem.

Various ideas are voiced such as role reinvention, tactical approaches, diversifying revenue streams and so on. Somewhere in the conversation a phrase is thrown out that brings everything to a halt-self-care.

Due to the industry’s labor practices, many workers are impacted by mental health problems and often develop addictions. The culture of the industry then feeds this problem because everyone in the industry accepts mental health problems and addiction as a fact of life, a cost of doing business in the industry.

The rest of the table erupts in discussion.

Maxime takes a few moments, thinking out loud about this topic. He thinks it’s important to remember to design their solutions for the “human problems” that people face in the industry. It’s impossible to say it all. To put all of these difficult to discuss topics in a few sentences and he stumbles trying to express it all at once.

Everyone echoes this sentiment. Each one of them has experienced or witnessed addiction and negative mental health effects as an outcome of the way the industry operates. It’s clear, addiction and mental health issues plague the industry.

In the list of personas, the landlord, the restaurant owner, the chef and the server were all concerned about unpredictable and unstable income. The added stress of always being uncertain about income is enough, on its own, to negatively affect the mental health of food service industry workers.

In response to this, the group begins discussing the fact that restaurants are essential businesses, yet society and the government have seemingly forgotten this. In the US, multiple industries receive government subsidies in order to encourage very certain types of production and consumption. These industries include oil, agriculture, housing, farm exports, the automobile market and healthcare.

However, the pandemic revealed that we’ve all overlooked other businesses that the government has newly named “essential,” such as grocery stores. These businesses are deemed “essential” but do not receive subsidies and the employees that work there are vastly underpaid. In certain “non-essential” industries, employees make far more than essential employees make (take bankers for example.)

Yet, restaurants-something so many rely on for regular nourishment, are not given subsidies, were not deemed essential during the pandemic and have been closing in droves as a result. In addition to beloved establishments like Blue Hill opting to not re-open, some estimates say that as many as 50% of San Francisco’s restaurants alone will likely not survive the year.

Possibly, restaurants aren’t viewed as essential because eating at a restaurant is so normal, habitual even. In 2017, six in 10 Americans dined out at a restaurant at least once a week. That means more than half of Americans were relying on restaurants to feed them and their families, not treating them as an expendable luxury or indulgence.

“I’m not a government policy person by any means, I’m a cook, so I don’t really know too much about it but I’m thinking about the comment Lucas made about [restaurants] being an essential business,” says Dan with the confidence of a realist throughout the discussion. “If farms are essential and there are a lot of subsidies that go into farming for whatever reason-the right, wrong or indifferent-that farmed food is going to a restaurant. You can’t have a farm without a restaurant or a restaurant without a farm.”

There is a disconnect between restaurants and where their ingredients come from, especially in regard to food factories. Maxime agrees and mentions that most chefs have never seen inside a food factory while laughing at how outrageous it all is.

Yet, during the pandemic, food production and delivery have suddenly become one of the most profitable options for restaurants. There’s one main problem-restaurants aren’t set up for food production and delivery, they’re set up to serve customers in a dining room.

Could it be that the experience and the food are intertwined? Could it even possibly be that anytime two people share food that was prepared for them, they are “eating out,” whether they’re using outdoor dining or splitting takeout on the couch? Perhaps it’s all about breaking down the figurative and physical walls of the restaurant.

Lucas brings up a new concept related to the experience of food, a community center of sorts. “Kia Damon used to be the culinary director of Cherry Bomb and was a chef at Lolita,” he says talking quickly, beaming with excitement for this project. He goes on to say she’s building a community focused food center in Brooklyn, NY.

“The goal is for black entrepreneurs and chefs to be able to come in and out and cook in a commercially licensed kitchen and test out ideas before they go out elsewhere. I think that’s really cool,” he says.

Maxime jumps in eagerly as he begins to tie this idea back to the line between restaurants and commercial food production.

“You have this restaurant without a dining room, so everything is being delivered,” he says. However, this means restaurants no longer have the volume of customers they used to, and they also no longer have their bar and beverage sales — except where certain states have loosened some restrictions to allow restaurants to deliver cocktails.

“Food delivery is not the ultimate solution by any means,” Maxime derisively exclaims. “For restaurants to be able to not only survive, but thrive, you can’t expect a restaurant to run like a commercial kitchen producing prepared foods that can be delivered at a higher volume and to a broader audience. I have always dreamed about, eventually, creating a food production facility.”

This facility wouldn’t be producing thousands of bottles or meals a day, instead, it would be a co-op situation that would allow restaurants to come in and create a prepared food line. This food production co-op would produce on a small scale — just a few of each restaurants’ classic menu items with the same quality standards they’d expect- offering them for delivery locally and possibly nationally.

The conversation is moving fast now, bouncing back and forth with apologies here and there for talking over one another.

Chef Lucas Sin

As the owner of a restaurant with multiple locations, Lucas immediately jumps in to agree that scalability and production doesn’t always mean a loss of quality. “We cannot discount the power of scalability and sometimes perhaps, we’ve forgotten what the power of scalability is in the name of profit, or morals or whatever it is. I think that needs to be leveraged at smaller businesses and smaller scales too,” says Lucas with a sense of wonder, like he’d just rediscovered a favorite book hidden on his shelf. “They can think about sustainability and scalability within their own context. They don’t need to want to become McDonald’s to help build a more equitable and sustainable system within their own organization.”

However, to some degree, these ideas rely on the point Dan made-that government and taxpayer money must help fund restaurants and food production the way they do other essential businesses. Dan once again brings up what would happen if the local government would legally allow restauranteurs to try unorthodox and previously forbidden ideas to diversify restaurant revenue, such as the sidewalk outdoor dining in New York City or a city-wide chef’s co-op production factory.

“Is that encouraged by the local municipality,” Dan says with a hint of dejection that reveals his gut feeling that it usually isn’t. “A lot of these solutions are popping right up whether it’s the incubators, or the ghost kitchens, food trucks or even food halls . . . but I keep going back to, how does our leadership and government help us pave the way for some of this stuff?”

There are examples where this has happened, for sure. But they’re rare. “I’ve worked with a lot of different projects around the country where there is government support for these sort of interactive kitchens, educational kitchens for chefs, or kids or for bringing communities together,” says Maxime, offering a note of hope in an otherwise gloomy exchange. “People need to recreate that intimacy with food, that understanding of flavor, just that raw experience. [They need] to pay attention because, right now, it’s very hard to pay attention.”

Going back to the persona of the entrepreneur chef, Renee, Dan uses this idea of paying attention as a jumping off point. Customers who are not paying attention, or are uninformed, do not see the value in their food. “[Renee] is putting a lot of value on the plate, but if her customers aren’t seeing the value then there needs to be a rethink of who is she cooking for? Is she cooking for herself, which is absolutely possible and that’s fine, or is she cooking for paying customers that are hopefully going to come back and be repeat customers?”

After a few moments of tense back and forth, it becomes clear that everyone around the virtual table seems to have a different view of the kind of food chefs choose to make and how it should align with the community. Silence falls over the discussion for a few moments. The tension releases in this moment of white space as each team member frames their thoughts.

The quiet is hesitantly punctured by a new frame of thinking, and then another, and another, everyone sits back to thoughtfully absorb each other’s ideas. The tentative consensus emerges that there is no “one way” to do this.

The group does agree that it’s important to have different restaurants serve different purposes. Some can be about cultural experiences, some about satisfying the everyday pangs of hunger, some can be high art to satisfy a chef’s need for creative expression. However, one thing is clear it’s essential to communicate to the public what kind of restaurant you are.

Lucas believes that all of these restaurants can and should exist. “I think for me, the question is more about dividing and segmenting the industry via education or otherwise an actual restructuring of the business model so that people understand that when they need a certain type of nourishment they would go to a certain type of establishment,” he says. “When they have other needs, perhaps a creative need or something like cultural they would go to another type of restaurant.”

It’s all about expectations. Those expectations, when properly set, in turn allow customers to correctly value the food.

But whatever the approach an individual chef takes in defining their restaurant, each team member agrees that a fundamental mindset shift needed to take place in the way we think about these chefs, the way they think of themselves and the managerial culture of restaurants.

Lucas charges in, unapologetically offering a strong opinion-abolish the chef.

“I really do believe most restaurants don’t need chefs. For whatever rock star food and wine reason, we assume that all people who graduate from culinary schools are these rock star chefs,” says Lucas. “I’m on so many panels where people are asked to speak, and they’re just not trained to speak . . . for whatever reason we assume that they’re motivational speakers because they are chefs but then suddenly, they’re also plumbers because they need to fix a toilet . . . so much of this revelation of the toxicity in the food industry comes from chefs not being trained in diversity and systemic inequality or in management.”

A rock star chef is the chef who’s on top in the industry. They are innovating, using their food as a form of self-expression, collaborating with other top chefs and food brands, speaking on panels about the future of food and so on. Overall, these chefs are celebrities for their food-or in some cases use their celebrity to hawk mediocre cuisine.

Yet, the idea of the celebrity chef is a new phenomenon. In the past, chefs were seen as servants or at the very most, well-regarded employees. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, enslaved black chefs were bound to the kitchen for 24 hours per day. The very idea of the celebrity rock star chef proves that society can reevaluate and place more value on a profession whose practitioners were once viewed as servants.

In the food service industry, this reevaluation seemed to stop with the top of the top chefs in the industry. It hasn’t increased the value that society places on non-celebrity chefs, and it especially hasn’t increased the value placed on restaurant servers.

Throughout Lucas’s argument to abolish the chef the group simultaneously nods, excitement and revolutionary fervor fills the video call as they realize they all agree on the same seemingly heretical idea. It’s like four artists at their group show, standing in front of their paintings outside of their creative studio environment, realizing they all hate the business of the art world. It’s a moment of bonding and clarity. There are others out there who are like them, who share the same secret convictions. There are probably more. The idea may not be so insane after all.

The business model of the restaurant industry is broken. It needs a new model that will flatten the hierarchy in kitchens and thus, the team agrees, demote the chef, if not abolish the role.

This conversation brings up many unanswered questions. Should restaurants and chefs focus on giving the customer what they want and nourish them, or should they use food as a form of self-expression to satisfy creative and cultural needs? Is it a restaurant’s job to inform the customer of the seasonality of food, culinary trends and so on in order to help the uninformed customer appreciate and value the food? Whose job is it really to inform the uninformed customer?

Should chefs focus more on being businesspeople than creatives? If Fatmah, the hands-on restaurant owner, had opened her restaurant with a business focus instead of a creative focus would she have listened to her community, would she have created a restaurant the community needed that was overall more successful? Would she even have enjoyed that kind of work if it didn’t allow for her self expression?

These questions are discussed and mulled over without a conclusion, but a growing sense that one could be emerging from the fog. As the first beam of consensus peaks through, everyone realizes that we’ve been asking the wrong question the whole time.

So, after hours of discussion and debate, the group reframes the challenge question.

The original question asked, “how might we redistribute the risks and rewards between customers and restaurant workers to better rebuild an empathetic and fair food system?”

The team ponders precise tweaks to the wording. Suggestions are tossed out, then retracted. Lucas drops a textbox on the white board and starts drafting his own version. Between all these efforts, the question transforms into, “how might we reshape a sustainable food service system (such as a co-op model) as a means of restoring us through healing and nourishing.”

This switch from “redistribute” to “reshape” reveals progress in the process. It is a choice to reshape the food service industry from the ground up, and it will be work. This work will start with small changes but it will grow into large-scale systematic reinvention that will improve the industry for everyone involved, from owner to server and from chef to customer.

The group takes a few days to ponder the discussion and generate ideas. They reemerge confident in their work and begin presenting their ideas formally as one voice. The first step in moving forward is a reinvented food service industry for everyone involved. This begins with everyone on the same page as if moving together as one organism.

Inspired by the Hippocratic Oath in medicine, one of the most widely used code of ethics for doctors, the group proposes a similar oath for the food industry. “When thinking about systematic change, every agent within the system both needs to adopt a common set of rules, and there has to be a mechanism to enforce these rules outside of the law-especially when the government won’t act,” says the group.

“The Food Workers Act” begins with affirming that a food worker’s craft is “an act of mutual service, healing and nourishment.” For the group, this means a food worker puts themselves and their health first. This beginning affirmation goes back to the topic that created the most passionate discussion-addiction and self-care within the industry.

The oath goes on to address the distance between owner and chef, chef and server and especially worker and customer that the group grappled with along every step of the way. As a starting solution, the oath states, “I am no higher or lower rank or status than anyone else.” It goes on to ensure that food workers treat everyone involved as “partners,” especially customers.

Throughout the oath moments of the discussion are recalled. Respecting the earth and giving back more than was harvested, teaching anyone who’s interested their craft for free, sharing profits fairly with everyone involved in the process of creating them and more.

The Food Workers Act is intended to be used not only by restaurants but by every sector of the food system. Getting businesses to employ this act may be difficult but the group notes that it “could spread like wildfire” if every notable chef publicly announced that they will be using it.

“Just as garment production once had to move out of cities due to rising real estate prices, some elements of the food production need to move out of city centers,” says the group.

The personal stories of first restaurant jobs, the shared laughter and the talking over one another when passionate topics such as abolishing the chef arise, are over. Now they speak with a confident and singular voice to present a plan for the new food system-fresh and fair micro-scaling.

This plan starts with the creation of a cloud kitchen that will use modernists techniques to prepare par-cooked food that’s created for pick-up. The food will be packaged in sustainable packaging and will be stored using modern freezing technology.

“Think of them as culinary Lego blocks that can be assembled any way you want more quickly than doing so from scratch,” says the group. “This allows cooks to focus on the creativity of their dishes and serving the true needs of their customers and running their business.”

These cloud kitchens and the production centers that support them will be owned by a farmer’s cooperative. This cooperative will be designed from the beginning to support the interests of small local farmers and provide them with regular and predictable income. In turn, the food will be fresh, local as well as high quality and will be shipped directly to restaurants to minimize the need for storage space and freezing. This closes the gap between restaurants, farms and food factories that Maxime was dismayed by throughout the discussion.

The only special equipment the restaurants will need is those that are designed for pick-up and holding the food. While every restaurant will differ in their cooking equipment, this system will ultimately allow restaurants to create more with less. Kitchens could also use robotics to operate with less employees while also paying the staff they do have fair wages.

These smaller cloud kitchens will breakdown the common barriers of opening a restaurant which will allow displaced employees to open their own establishment or join one of the many new micro-scaled startups that will hopefully be created through this system. This co-op system can partner with a financial institution to provide low-interest financing to the cloud kitchens so that opening a restaurant is even more realistic.

This co-op system won’t just benefit food workers but also customers by partnering with technology providers to create a “restaurant system in a box” tech system that charges a reasonable percentage of sales tax versus the common flat fee.

This initial co-op plan is only a starting point. The group goes on to propose that with the success of the model, the co-op could eventually create its own ride share service for food delivery, employ a franchise-like playbook that would allow for various types of cuisine to be produced using the same template, a network of further support could be added for the restaurants that could reduce the failure rate and it could even provide a meal kit service that nourishes customers and teaches them how to cook.

Sitting in front of their screens, the original agreement was simple-no one gets up until there are concrete changes to the industry that will lead the new path forward. After all of the discussions, ideas, plans to move forward and hours spent forming connections to rebuild a system they all share, the group is moving forward with two concrete ideas.

It is a choice to reshape the food service industry from the ground up, and there will be more work ahead. The food service industry will only improve from here through people just like Lucas, Maxime and Dan gathering around the table together and putting in the work to help themselves and their peers.

It all goes back to what Maxime said from the beginning as everyone sat eagerly in front of one another,” This is important. No, it’s not just important, it’s essential. This is an existential crisis as much as it is a humanitarian one right now. You’re seeing the worst of people and the best of them, but it is a transformative time and there can be so many positives from this.”

Originally published at https://www.forbesignite.com on October 7, 2020.

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