How I Did It: Jill Donenfeld, Founder of The Culinistas
I'm one of those lucky kids who grew up eating around the family table. The middle child between two boys and all the product of loving parents, most nights before I left home for college involved dinner together.
It's at the dinner table where I learned to listen, learn, argue, act out, apologize, stand up for what I believed in, and, oh yeah, hold a fork.
Both of my parents cooked, but mostly mom, and I loved to help out. Family dinner was all I knew.
Food… eating… has always been a manifestation of connectedness for me; a celebration of being together. And so, when I did move to New York, that beloved yet single track record of pass the salad, yes I want salmon, may I have ice cream now? burst into a synesthetic live concert of Korean restaurants, Indian groceries, heated debates about the best chocolate chip cookies, early morning trips to farmer’s markets, and clandestine 3am meet-ups at Florent.
Wow – New York was delicious. But I noticed something; there was all this great cuisine but people weren’t cooking. As food became more popular as a pastime, great restaurants continued to pop up, but the home table – where we all learn essential interpersonal skills – was forgotten.
We’re all too busy, or simply uninterested in cooking. And so I started The Culinistas as a way to bring people back to the connection that food so effortlessly creates – amongst family members, amongst friends, between the chef and the eaters, between the farmers and the chefs.
It came about very organically. One of my jobs while in school was babysitting (as well as waitressing, assisting a caterer, and writing restaurant reviews for TimeOutNY) and the family expressed an interest in my coming to the house to cook once a week since their schedules were jam-packed.
I started to do that, and by the time I graduated, I had four families for whom I was cooking - by simple word of mouth. I saw that this was truly helping out each family and making it easier for them to come together. So, I jumped.
When I graduated college, I used the $5k I had saved up to build a website and get customized aprons. Then it was just a matter of showing up everyday; asking myself what needed to be done, and then doing it. The Culinistas offers a weekly home chef service - exactly what I used to do for those families.
Each week, a Culinista plans a menu of eight dishes that can be mixed and matched to be eaten throughout the week. She grocery shops and comes to the home to cook the food. She infuses the kitchen with delicious smells and organizes everything into labeled containers in the fridge before cleaning up and tip-toeing out the door.
As we continue to expand, today, the company cooks in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
The best advice I can give to any entrepreneur starting out is to take every single meeting. Whether it's with a marketing whiz or your great aunt Sallie's hairdresser's dog walker, take the meeting for two reasons. First, ideas are only ever good - even when they are bad. Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely road and the more ideas you have to bounce around - even bad ones - the more good ideas will materialize in your head.
The second reason to take the meeting is that you never know who's going to know who who will get you that break - an influx of clients, a write up in a magazine, a celebrity endorsement. I've sat through some pretty bizarre meetings, wondering why in the heck I am wasting my time, only to discover later that that was the person who introduced me to so-and-so, which led to a pivotal opportunity.
You just never know.
So, keep your ears and your mind open - and of course always make time for home-cooking.
Jill Donenfeld founded The Culinistas® in 2006 as a means to encourage busy people to eat more consciously. She has traveled and cooked extensively, deriving pleasure from combining the two – learning culinary techniques in Vietnam, working at an organic garden café in Sweden and penning a cookbook of cuisine from Madagascar over the course of a five-month stay in the country. Last year, Lake Isle Press published Party Like a Culinista and this year she wrote an Indian cookbook for The Bangala Hotel in Tamil Nadu. Her mission is to cultivate personal satisfaction and healthier living through home cooking.