Jennifer Clair’s Recipe for Success in the Culinary World

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Jennifer: When we think about culinary careers, we often picture chefs in restaurant kitchens, but what if we flip the script and think outside the box? We know someone who did exactly that. Meet Jennifer Clair, the owner of Home Cooking NY.    Jennifer has an outstanding culinary career and has worked as a food author and editor for prestigious magazines such as Martha Stewart Living. A bit over twenty years ago, Jennifer realized that with her passion for food and the knowledge she gained throughout her editing career, she could be her boss, so she did it. Read the story of the successful cooking school owner.

How did you know a culinary career was the right path?

Jennifer: Initially, the idea of pursuing a culinary career didn’t even cross my mind. Opportunities in the ’80s were pretty limited. After graduating with a history degree in ’94, I got a job teaching third grade in New York City. But teaching children just wasn’t my calling. Then, through my aunt’s neighbor, I landed a job assisting a cookbook author, Joan Nathan, in Washington, DC. The pay wasn’t much, just $13,000 a year, but I loved it! Testing recipes, editing, and doing research was a fantastic experience. Joan was like the Julia Child of Jewish cooking, and she opened my eyes to food anthropology. Suddenly, I knew I had to be in the food world. So, I decided to take a chance and apply for a scholarship at Peter Kump’s cooking school in NYC. The program didn’t require restaurant internships, which suited my preference. This experience affirmed my interest in food media and recipe testing. Consequently, I forged a career in the food industry, combining my love for food with writing, testing, and research.


What inspired you to open a cooking school?

Jennifer: I worked in food publishing for five years. Food was always at the center, but my roles were diverse. I helped develop the first recipe finder for MarthaStewart.com. However, in 2002, I got laid off. I wasn’t too bummed about it; five years felt like enough in that intense work environment.  Many folks in food writing transition into food styling after, as it’s part of the job. But honestly, I never fancied it much. The idea of styling food for photoshoots, only to have it thrown away afterward, didn’t sit right with me. So, I dabbled in teaching. I got some side gigs teaching cooking classes in New York City like one I remember at the New School University called “How to Boil Water.” Teaching clicked for me; I enjoyed sharing my food knowledge with a live audience more than writing about it. Teaching started as a way to pay the bills, but it soon became more. I started providing private classes in people’s homes. It was fun and lucrative, with word spreading quickly. Before I knew it, I was teaching almost every night in different homes. Eventually, I even got on wedding registries, where newlyweds would register for my cooking classes as gifts.  As my business grew, it became clear I couldn’t do it all alone, especially when I got pregnant. I started hiring other chefs to teach classes while I handled business operations. It was a smooth transition, and as the demand increased, I kept adding more chefs to our team. Then came the big pivotal point: opening a public school.  I stumbled upon this place nearby with quite an interesting backstory. I knew that there was a cooking school attached to  New School University, and they used to rent it. But the person renting it messed up big time. He defaulted on his rent and left the kitchen in a mess. It was just sitting there unused, like a sealed treasure chest in Manhattan.  A friend mentioned it to me one day, and I thought, why not check it out? So, I went and asked if I could rent it out. Surprisingly, they said yes. It was a steal, just $200 a day, and I didn’t have to commit to a long-term lease, which can be a killer in New York City. So, I started offering public classes there to see who would show.  At first, it was slow going. It took a while to get things rolling. But because the rent was so low, I could afford to let it develop slowly over a year or so. Eventually, though, we started filling up classes. And then, out of the blue, we got written up in the New York Times. It was a big deal for us, being a small cooking school.  What I loved most about it was the intimacy of the classes. We kept them small, with only ten people max. It was a special experience. But as things often go, we had to move. They decided to run a restaurant out of there, so we had to find a new spot. But luckily, we kept finding these amazing opportunities. Now, we’ve got two kitchens, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s great seeing my staff thrive in our new spaces.


What are the skills you look for when hiring?

Jennifer: My first employee, John, has been with me for about 18 years. I take pride in the fact that nobody’s ever left unless they moved away. Our staff turnover rate stands at 0%. It’s a flexible job; I only book people when they want to work. We’re there for each other through thick and thin, whether it’s navigating COVID, supporting pregnancies, or coping with the loss of parents. We’ve got each other’s backsPersonality is key, especially in today’s world. I often receive emails and texts from people asking if I’m hiring, but texting an employer doesn’t sit right with me. I much prefer emails, as they allow me to gauge your personality and communication style, which is crucial, especially for teaching positions.  Teaching isn’t just about skills; it’s about connecting with people. If you can’t impress me with your character, I can’t entrust you with a class of students. Communication is also paramount. If I email the staff with a teaching request, I need a prompt response. A 24-hour delay could mean losing a client, which isn’t ideal for my business.

I’m upfront about my expectations. Excellent communication is non-negotiable. If I don’t get that from you, we can’t work together.

Most people understand and adapt, recognizing the importance of professionalism. And, of course, your background matters too. It’s not just about your skills; it’s about how you present yourself from the very beginning.  “Keeping my team happy is a top priority.”  It’s not just about being nice (though that helps!); it’s about the bottom line. If someone leaves, we lose work because we’re shorthanded, and I get stuck in a recruitment rut. That’s why I say yes to well-deserved raises. Seriously, some bosses are just awful. They treat their employees like robots, not people. And guess what? People have lives outside of work, and managers need to understand that. If you don’t see your team members as a whole, they will leave. That makes sense, right? I guess if you’re a big business, turnover is not as bad, but for a small business, it’s detrimental.

Students in kitchen, after attending cooking class
Photo courtesy of Home Cooking NY

How do you navigate the hiring process?

Jennifer: I’m focused on expanding my business, which means I need to bring on more staff.

The hiring process feels like dating!

I’m searching for the right match. Ideally, when I meet the right instructor, I’ll know immediately. However, I understand the necessity of going through the interview process. Putting out a general call for instructors would result in an influx of resumes, which can be overwhelming to sort through. Currently, I’m networking behind the scenes, reaching out to everyone I know to see if they have any recommendations or if they know someone who might be a good fit. I prefer to hire through personal references or connections, but so far, I haven’t found anyone suitable despite trying for about a month.


What role does mentorship play in a culinary career?

Jennifer: Although I’ve had mentors whom I looked up to and learned from, I’ve never had someone who took me under their wing in a reciprocal manner. While I believe having a mentor is incredibly valuable, I never had one. Instead, I strive to fill that role for others who seek my advice or assistance. Currently, most job seekers at my business are in their twenties or early thirties, significantly younger than me at almost 52 years old. Having a 19-year-old daughter helps me relate to their perspective better. I’ve noticed that many from this younger generation aspire to entrepreneurship rather than seeking mentorship, which I find intriguing and important to understand. While I see the value in older mentors, it doesn’t seem to be a common desire among the younger generations.  Reflecting on generational differences, I believe every generation tends to perceive the younger one as lacking in certain respects. However, I also acknowledge the value of diversity and the insights that individuals from different backgrounds can offer. I’ve found that women often prefer learning from other women due to a perceived disconnect with male mentors. However, it’s not true for all men. There are plenty of amazing, wonderful, thoughtful, and kind male mentors.


What is your favorite and least favorite thing about your job?

Jennifer: My favorite aspect of my job is the freedom to pursue any idea or class I envision. Whether it’s promoting a new class or bringing any dream to life, I have the infrastructure to make it happen, from our school and location to our website and class schedule. The camaraderie among my team and the satisfaction of providing a valuable service to our students are also deeply rewarding.  However, as a business owner, every problem becomes my responsibility, creating a constant need for communication and oversight. Even when I try to disconnect, there’s always something that requires my attention, like ensuring the school is clear for the cleaning crew or addressing any unexpected issues. Having a reliable second-in-command like Susan has alleviated some of this pressure, allowing me to take vacations without worry. Nonetheless, the balancing act between the joys and challenges of entrepreneurship remains a constant presence in my professional life.

Jennifer Clair, owner of Home Cooking NY teaching student how to use knife in kitchen
Photo courtesy of Home Cooking NY

Do you see any emerging trends in the NYC culinary scene?

Jennifer: I can see some positive changes happening in the industry. There’s a noticeable focus on women and other cultures, with an emphasis on avoiding appropriation and ensuring fairness in awards and recognition for those cooking Puerto Rican cuisine, for example.   COVID-19 laid bare the challenges within the restaurant industry, revealing that many individuals were overworked and underappreciated. Contrary to some perceptions, the reluctance of people to return to their restaurant jobs wasn’t solely about collecting unemployment benefits but rather a reckoning with the industry’s treatment of its employees.  This period has led to a shift where being a jerk as a chef is no longer tolerated since employees have other options and won’t tolerate poor treatment. Unfortunately, it took a pandemic to bring about this change, but it’s necessary for the industry’s evolution. The current climate demands a heightened awareness of these issues, and I find that incredibly important.


What final piece of advice would you give to young chefs and job seekers in the restaurant industry to succeed in their culinary careers?

Jennifer: Identifying if working for yourself is a necessity is crucial advice. I realized I wasn’t suited to be an employee; I always felt I had better ideas and struggled with authority. I didn’t actively seek to start my own business. It happened almost by chance after I got laid off. Looking back, I wish I had recognized the signs pointing me in this direction sooner.

Another piece of advice I often give is to always say yes to opportunities, barring any abusive or demeaning situations.

Many of the opportunities I’ve accepted, even if they were unpaid or seemingly little at the time, have ultimately resulted in valuable connections and experiences. For instance, writing for a fledgling paper in Brooklyn without pay opened doors to other jobs and connections.     Building a broad and diverse network is essential, as it can provide access to jobs, employees, and various opportunities. While my ability to say yes to everything has shifted due to new responsibilities like motherhood and homeownership, I firmly believe that saying yes to opportunities early in one’s career can lay the groundwork for future success.


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In the dynamic world of culinary entrepreneurship, Jennifer Clair’s journey is a testament to passion, perseverance, and adaptability. From a food editor to the visionary owner of Home Cooking NY, Jennifer’s story inspires chefs and entrepreneurs.  Through her candid reflections, Jennifer emphasizes seizing opportunities, fostering connections, and embracing challenges. Her commitment to mentorship, diversity, and integrity sets a high standard for culinary excellence.

About Home Cooking NY: Home Cooking New York (HCNY) began in 2002 when founder Jennifer Clair transitioned from writing cookbooks to teaching cooking classes in students’ home kitchens across New York City. After a nomadic phase and overcoming challenges, HCNY established its dream teaching kitchen in SoHo/Chinatown, where it offers both in-person and online cooking classes. The recent expansion includes a second kitchen, “Boot Camp Kitchen,” reflecting HCNY’s commitment to meeting the growing demand for culinary education.

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