Monday, February 29, 2016

And Where Do You “Where To?”: Jermaine “Chef Raw” Rawlings

I remember the very first time I tasted the culinary ingenuity of Jermaine “Chef Raw” Rawlings

It was at an impromptu gathering at his house, and he had decided to cook for a few — i.e., 30 — friends a delicious menu of Caribbean foods: red beans and rice, jerk chicken, cabbage and goat.

That dinner party was one of countless more to come, as he loved cooking and sharing that passion with any and everyone.

Yet what started out as a fun hobby has now turned into a prosperous profession. After earning his MBA from the University of Southern California in May 2015, Chef Raw launched Frat Boy Cuisines, a catering business mainly specializing in Caribbean foods.

In just a short amount of time, Chef Raw has garnered a ton of success. He’s worked in Los Angeles, Dallas and Washington, D.C. He’s catered scores of private events. And, he's cooked for a number of celebrities, including The Game, Boris Kodjoe, Nicole Ari Parker, Nicole Murphy, Garcelle Beauvais, Tyrese and Elle Varner. That’s all in less than a year of being open for business.

Recently, I had a chance to ask him a few questions about what it’s been like officially getting started as an entrepreneur and taking it all in stride. He shared the perks and challenges of being his own boss, ingredients he loves to work with, upcoming food trends and so much more.

Read on to hear all of what he had to say!

WilsonsGuide: How did you get your name "Chef Raw" and how did you first get started as a chef?
Chef Raw: I go by Chef Raw for multiple reasons. The two major reasons being that one, I haven’t had any professional training, and two, my last name is Rawlings.

There is an interesting story on how I actually got started as a chef. I started out hosting parties at my house and preparing food for my friends and other attendees. We had a series of epic parties that we titled “Caribbean Night,” and I also prepared food for a series of events called “Meeting Minds.” The praise that I received based on the taste of my food led me to audition for the show MasterChef, where I made it past the preliminaries and to the Top 100. Unfortunately, I fell short of my goal of making it on the show, but I came damn close! From there I realized that I had real potential and proceeded to start my own business as a chef.

WilsonsGuide: Did you ever think about joining a restaurant or an existing catering team, or did you always want to launch your own catering business?
Chef Raw: At one point, I seriously considered launching my own restaurant. I even have a number of investors that were willing to help me get up and running. After careful consideration, I realized that I didn’t want to be tied down to a brick-and-mortar location. So from there on, I made the decision to host my own events as well as providing services for private events.

WilsonsGuide: What are some of the challenges — and rewards  of running your own business? 
Chef Raw: There are many challenges in running your own business, the first being just starting and not letting people discourage you. Being an entrepreneur is a constant grind and literally an around-the-clock job. One of the greatest rewards of having your own business is that you don’t have to punch a clock. You’re your own boss. The downside to that is there is no clock and there is no overtime. If you get a call at 10 p.m. at night about an event, guess what? You answer it and you have that conversation. Why? Because as an entrepreneur, you’re always on the clock.

WilsonsGuide: You were in the U.S Air Force and also got your MBA. How, if at all, have these past experiences influenced you as a chef?
Chef Raw: My experience as an Air Force Officer has allowed me to have a heightened attention to detail that really comes in handy in this industry. My experiences from USC have given me a network and a business acumen that I am very thankful for.

WilsonsGuide: Of the dish(es) that you make, which one(s) do your customers seem to love and request the most?
Chef Raw: People love pretty much everything that I cook, but the thing that people consistently go crazy over is my tri-tip. Recently I did an event where I prepared jerk tri-tip, and all the attendees were raving about it.

WilsonsGuide: What's your favorite dish to create?
Chef Raw: My favorite dish to create is mac'n'cheese! There are so many different things that you can do with it. I made a spinach artichoke mac'n'cheese with bacon that was pretty damn amazing! You show me someone who doesn't like mac'n'cheese and I'll show you a liar.

WilsonsGuide: Top three ingredients to work with?
Chef Raw: My top three ingredient to work with are shrimp, garlic and lemon. Growing up in Maryland, seafood is an intricate part of the culture, so it's a no brainer not to mention. Shrimp cooks very quickly making it a "go" option when you're in a rush. 

I use garlic in just about every dish I make. It's an essential ingredient that adds an amazing flavor. Garlic also has medicinal purposes, lowering blood pressure and helping with acne, and it contains antioxidants. 

Lastly, lemon enhances flavors immensely. Just one squeeze of a lemon to a dish can kick it up a couple of notches instantly.

WilsonsGuide: What are some of the culinary trends you think will be popular for the upcoming spring and summer seasons?
Chef Raw: I think the upcoming trend for 2016 as a whole will be repurposing and using ingredients that would normally be discarded to make unique, amazing meals. I believe our society as a whole is making strides to become efficient and striving to waste less in the future. 

I also believe that people are moving more toward ethnic food, looking for restaurants featuring unique African-inspired dishes.

WilsonsGuide: Do you have any words of encouragement for aspiring chefs and aspiring business owners?
Chef Raw: Just start! I think people often get caught up in the details of things, causing them to overthink and to potentially "miss the wave" or essentially talk themselves out of following their dream. Experience is the best teacher. I'm not saying quit your job or anything, but actions speak louder than words, so just put yourself out there and see what happens. 

Another thing that is a necessity is having faith and confidence in yourself! Speak it into existence. People want to believe in you, and that's easy to do when they see that you believe in yourself. A lesson that I learned from Kevin Hart is that you have to "SAY IT WITH YOUR CHEST!!" and fake it until you make it. You have to start somewhere. People don't need to know that your "office" is really the back corner of your studio apartment. You have to start somewhere, so don't be afraid to talk the talk or walk the walk. 


WilsonsGuide: Where is your favorite “Where To” destination in L.A.?
Chef Raw: I've actually been on a Korean BBQ and Ramen kick lately. One of my favorite places to go is in Koreatown, called Hae Jang Chon. This is a Korean BBQ place that is pretty awesome. You go when you and a group of friends want to slowly drift into a meat coma from devouring an unlimited supply of marinated beef short ribs, Bulgogi and pork belly. This place is a must try if you're in the mood for Korean BBQ. There's also another place called Quarters that is a new and trendy version of Korean BBQ that has a pretty cool atmosphere with a fully stocked bar. 

For more information: 

* *This interview was slightly edited and condensed for ease of readability; all photos courtesy of Jermaine “Chef Raw” Rawlings

Monday, February 22, 2016

And Where Do You “Where To?”: Chef Phillip Ashley Rix

During my visit to the 58th Annual GRAMMY Gifting Lounge last weekend, I had a chance to meet someone doing incredible, out-of-this-world things with chocolate: Chef Phillip Ashley Rix

Rix runs a gourmet chocolate shop in Memphis, Tennessee called Phillips Ashley Chocolates, where he’s been making high-end, luxury chocolates since Fall 2013. He supplied each GRAMMY gift bag with a 23k-gold, salted caramel pecan praline ($79 value) and he brought “The Versailles Collection” — a box of seven 23k-gold, 30-gram chocolates ($3,000 value, pictured below) — to the GRAMMY after-party.

With some of the most imaginative flavors — and names to match — Rix’s chocolates are indulgently decadent and ones that you probably won’t find anywhere else in the world. He ships them throughout the U.S. and to six other countries. All of his hand-crafted chocolates are fair trade, made with organic ingredients.

Self-taught with a professional sales background in Corporate America, he shared his inspiring story with me, including how it all started, his meticulous process of creating each chocolate, some of his favorite ones, and of course, where he likes to frequent out in Memphis and in Los Angeles.

Read all about it in my interview with him, below!

WilsonsGuide: Can you share about how you launched your business and started making chocolates?
Rix: I started eight years ago. I’m self-taught. I spent about three years just researching and immersing myself in chocolate. It’s not traditional to be self-taught in chocolate; typically you’d come up through an apprenticeship of some sort. But, I wanted to do it. I was in Corporate America at that time, doing corporate sales, and just really fell in love with chocolate. It just kind of hit me one day. I said, ‘hey, how cool would it be to be a chocolatier?’ It was that thing that grabbed hold of me. I continued to develop it, learn everything about the history, the chemistry and the artistry of chocolate. I really wanted to put my own voice to that, because I felt like there was a lot out there that wasn’t being done.

Fast-forward to today, we’re putting bleu cheese in chocolate. We have BBQ chocolates. We have sweet potato chocolates, and everything in between. We have over 200 designs.

One of the things I specialize in is designing flavors for brands in particular. So we’ll say, ‘what does your brand taste like?’ I’ll sit down with the CEO, the marketing team and really get an idea of what the culture is for that company and what they do. I take that data and information and turn it into a flavor, and they use that for gifting. We specialize in high touch and corporate gifting in particular. We also have retail, so we do our retail boxes, whether you’re coming in-store or shopping online with us. It’s also available on Neiman

WilsonsGuide: What has been the hardest flavor to create?
Rix: When I originally started working, we had a beer hops and bee pollen chocolate. We even now have a beer hops and coffee grind chocolate.

WilsonsGuide: And it’s called beer…?
Rix: It’s beer hops, which is the thing they actually brew to make beer in traditional brewing now. We also have some Lambic beers that they were brewing back in the day, with fruit.

I really put a lot of time into studying. All of our chocolates have a high degree of difficulty because I’m trying to constantly push the boundaries of food in chocolate. I build chocolates in layers, so we have chocolates like Thai lemongrass, mint, white balsamic vinegar and Picual extra virgin olive oil. That’s one chocolate.

I’m really thinking of how can we take the complexities of food and what I experience out in the culinary world, and then translate it into chocolate — what experiences I have with people. That’s why every chocolate has a name, with the corresponding look that I’ll associate with the ingredients. We’re telling stories with chocolate. 

WilsonsGuide: You mentioned chocolates that aren’t just sweet, but are also savory. Do people really take to that?
Rix: I think today in particular, you’re seeing more and more desserts trend towards the savory. A lot of dessert lovers and goers aren’t just looking for all out sweet. You don’t just want sugar. They’re looking for complex design in their desserts.

That’s what we paid attention to, the entire time we’ve been open. To be ahead of that trend, doing things like apricot and gorgonzola in a chocolate, or having a chardonnay and triple cream cheese chocolate; things that have a touch of sweetness, but a touch of the savory. Doing the sea salts with the caramels. Those things play on the palate and really help enhance the experience.

WilsonsGuide: We are here at the GRAMMYs. Who has stopped by?
Rix: LL Cool J came by, loved the chocolates. Bow Wow came by and loved the chocolates. Zendaya just came by and she really liked the red crushed velvet chocolates. We’ve had several others come through. Little Big Town — we had a fun time just really sharing with them what we do. We have over 200 flavors, like I said, and we brought several of our top 32.

We also unveiled our $3,000 box of chocolates, which is a Louis XIII caramel. Each piece is 30 grams. It’s a seven-piece box. All the pieces are hand-gilded with 23-karat gold. It takes me about 40 minutes to finish each piece. Then we ship it. It arrives to you via courier in a lock box. The driver hands you a card with a phone number and then you call the number to get the lock code to unlock your chocolates. It’s over the top. 

WilsonsGuide: That’s a fun experience. So you’re from Memphis.
Rix: From Memphis.

WilsonsGuide: Do you have a favorite restaurant or bar —
Rix: In L.A.?

WilsonsGuide: And Memphis.
Rix: Felicia Suzanne is one of my favorite spots in Memphis and she’s a friend of mine, an awesome chef. There’s a newer spot closer to where I am in midtown called Bounty on Broad. They do a lot of farm-to-table, which is another thing you’re seeing out there even more. They serve family-style, but you’ll get things like sweet breads and all sorts of cool things.

Out here in L.A., Barton G. It’s just such an eclectic experience. I really like when people go through the time to present in a different way and show you something beyond just “here’s food on the plate.” The cotton candy on the mannequin head.* How dope is that? Very Marie Antoinette. We try to do the same with our chocolates.

WilsonsGuide: This might not be a fair question, but do you have a favorite chocolate of yours?
Rix: Sure — and I do love them all — but at the same time, some are my favorites:

I’m just a big champagne fan, so Flute (pictured below) is one of my favorites, simply because I love to drink champagne.

Mama Jean is my first one, so that’s always a favorite. It’s a sweet potato chocolate, inspired by my grandmother. We use organic sweet potatoes and milk chocolate ganache with a dark chocolate shell.

But Flute is awesome. Very nice champagne, a dark and milk chocolate blend, and then we use a brandy that’s distilled from the skins of the grapes. It gives you that little extra little something.

For more information: 

* Barton G has a dessert called "Marie Antoinette's Head - Let Them Eat Cake: over the top cotton candy surrounded by petite cakes, raspberry & strawberry cream cheese, fresh berries & schlag"
**This interview was slightly edited and condensed for ease of readability. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Where to be Merry: GRAMMY Weekend 2016

I may not be at the 58th GRAMMYs taking place at the Staples Center tonight, but that didn't stop me from indulging in all of the GRAMMY-related festivities that rolled into Los Angeles once again, this past weekend.

Aside from celebrating the biggest highlights and most influential figures in the music industry for one night, GRAMMY season is also a time to attend some of the most exclusive, over-the-top events that exist in the world.

From sweaty, funk-infused parties to flowing open bars, gifting suites, beauty bars and industry panels, I checked out some pretty amazing, noteworthy functions.

Here's a look at what they were:


OK! Magazine Pre-Grammy Event

OK! magazine returned to Lure Nightclub in Hollywood, to host its annual pre-GRAMMY soiree. Like last year, there was an extravagant multi-tiered candy station, a live musical performance and multiple sponsor stations, like Perfurmia, who gave out samples of designer perfumes. DJ Yo-C kept guests swaying and dancing by playing Top 40 songs spanning multiple decades and GRAMMY nominee Elle King graced the stage towards the end of the night. Svedka vodka cocktails, wine and beer float freely through the night. Other event sponsors included Splat, Le Vian, Icelandic Glacial, Slimfast and charitable partner, Music Unites. 

DJ Cassidy and 9th Wonder at Kiss-n-Grind

I headed to Kiss-N-Grind, over at the Globe Theater in downtown. This soul-infused dance party typically always has a big draw, and for this special GRAMMY edition, it was even more packed than usual, with attendees quickly filling up the theater’s three levels. Originally Earth, Wind & Fire were slated to perform, but the untimely death of the band’s founder Maurice White understandably caused them to bow out. Instead, DJ Cassidy and DJ 9th Wonder made their Kiss-N-Grind debuts, playing a wide variety of ‘90s hip-hop, rap, R&B and even a little bit of reggae. Kiss-N-Grind founder DJ Vikter Duplaix also performed a set, and the crowd didn’t stop moving until the party officially shut down in the wee hours of the morning.


BMI's “How I Wrote That Song®” panel event

BMI hosted its annual “How I Wrote That Song” panel, featuring some of today's most successful songwriters and producers, at the Roxbury Theater in West Hollywood.

This year, BMI VP Catherine Brewton moderated, as Liz Rose, Stevie J, Jerry ‘Wonda’ Duplessis, and Bilal ‘The Chef’ Hajji candidly talked about making hits for legends like Mariah Carey, J.Lo, Taylor Swift and more.

They also shared incredulous stories (Bilal once had to create and deliver a hit song for Sean Kingston in six hours), gave solid advice about having a long-lasting career in the industry and revealed little-known details about the projects they’ve worked on (Jerry disclosed that The Fugees’ The Score had been recorded in his father’s basement in New Jersey). There were even a few surprise performances during the event, with The Product G&B joining Jerry onstage to play “Maria, Maria” and Mali Music spontaneously coming up from the crowd to sing “Beautiful.” Check out clips of the performances, below.

58th Annual GRAMMY Awards OFFICIAL Talent Gift Lounge, Presented by TOOLS BY GINA!

For the second year in a row, I visited the official GRAMMY Talent Gift Lounge, adjacent to the Staples Center, in downtown L.A. Sponsored by Tools by Gina! and produced by Distinctive Assets, the lounge is open to all presenters and performers participating in the awards ceremony. Guests could get touch ups by hair expert Gina’s team of stylists, experience virtual reality simulation with NOON, test out SCUF Gaming’s professional gaming controllers, sample decadent chocolates from Phillip Ashley Chocolates, sip on gluten-free cocktails created by The Natural Mixologist (so delicious!) and learn more about truth’s latest campaign on the adverse affects of second-hand smoking on cats and dogs. They also left with a GRAMMY Gift Bag, filled with $11,000+ worth of swag(!). 


Colgate Optic White Beauty Bar 

I wrapped up my GRAMMY weekend festivities in a surprisingly relaxing way — getting primped and pampered at the Colgate @OpticWhite Beauty Bar at the Hudson Loft in downtown. A team of hairstylists, make-up artists, manicurists and massage therapists treated guests to complimentary hair, make-up, massage and nail services. An open bar whipped out delicious cocktails, such as the Pomegranate Moscow Mule, and tasty breakfast and lunch items were available throughout the day. I came out looking like a million bucks and feeling like I was walking on air.

I'll look forward to watching the GRAMMYs, this evening!