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Chef Kai Chase: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef

When first starting out, it’s so very exciting and inspirational. It’s like being a rockstar — you can just go and go and never think anything of it because you love it so! At some point, you’re going to crash! Don’t forget to sleep! And then take a vacation. LOL!

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Kai Chase.

Kai Chase infuses healthy and comforting foods with exotic flavors to create her own style of New American cuisine. Her native Californian upbringing combining Creole, Cuban, and Native African American roots influenced her approach to cooking. Her memories of international food and music flavors became her culinary inspirations.

She realized her true passion while she was working in the music publishing industry. She would fall asleep reading The Joy of Cooking and dream up healthy and creative dishes that mimicked the comforting recipes she enjoyed as a child. She left the music industry and enrolled in culinary school.

She attended Epicurean Culinary School and learned the art of French master cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy in Paris, France. She returned to Los Angeles to work in several restaurants such as Pamela Anderson’s Sanctuary and catering companies including Wolfgang Puck Catering and Events. She also launched her own catering and private chef services companies.

As a private chef, Kai first received global media attention as the personal chef to the late Michael Jackson. She was featured on several national media outlets including “Larry King Live,” “CNN,” “Access Hollywood,” and “E! Entertainment”. She has been featured on international media outlets as well. She has also delighted the palates of such notable figures as President Barack Obama, Actor/Comedian Kevin Hart, Grammy award-winning singer Mary J. Blige, and Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx.

Kai’s newest culinary and lifestyle brand includes an upcoming cookbook, live masterclasses, cuisine-based product lines, and a cooking series.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

I come from a family of artists and entertainers. Music and television. So the spirit of artistry was already in my soul and needed to be unleashed. I studied all forms of musical artistry. I played drums to be in an all girl rock band, and even studied theater and play production to become an actress. I was a good writer (naturally) because I loved reading and received good grades in American Literature in high school. So for seven years I worked as a music journalist for a music magazine/trade publication called The Urban Network. All of those expressions of art were wonderful and helped form who I am today, but my purposeful life’s calling and culinary expression of art was to be a chef. I knew it when the politics of the music industry started taking its toll, and night after night when I couldn’t sleep, I would awake at 3 am to bake cheesecakes in my downstairs kitchen. It gave me a sense of freedom, happiness, and purpose. That’s when I made the transition and I haven’t looked back. It’s been 24 years.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

My style of cuisine is called New American. I take standard American favorites and add exotic and healthy twists to them. I was first drawn to this type of cuisine from my love of Spanish “tapas” and Spanish guitar. I love small bites and small plates, and I love bold flavors that stand out and excite the palate.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or takeaway you took out of that story?

I was working for Grammy award-winning singer Mary J. Blige as her personal chef one Christmas season back in 2010–2011, and Mary wanted to have a personal Christmas dinner with her friends and family. I was preparing a very decadent dish of white truffle macaroni and cheese using real white truffles, so I needed to pick some up from the Urbani Truffle store (Urban Truffles USA Inc.). So I proceeded to purchase them and got caught in a major snow blizzard while coming back. The streets became empty, the cabs were turning off their operating signs. The snow was coming down hard, and here I was stuck in snow up to my knee caps with $2,500 worth of white truffles, an AMEX black card, and tears streaming down my face, trying to make it back to my client’s house. At that very moment I thought, “I should’ve been a housewife! You had to go and pursue your life’s passion, didn’t you, Kai? How am I ever going to survive this?” It was awful! Ultimately, I did make it back to the house, after I located one “lonely” cab making its way through the blizzard and jumped in. I got the truffles and myself back in one piece. To this day, I don’t think she knows the story. It was a true test of my dedication to my craft. And as I look back on what happened that evening, it’s now kind of funny.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I wouldn’t call this hard times, but when I started my culinary journey back in 1997, I had been working a full-time job for two years in music publishing for Chrysalis Music Publishing to pay the rent, attending culinary school in the evenings at a small boutique school called Epicurean, and working at famed actress Pamela Anderson’s restaurant, Sanctuary, for my externship. I would call this determination and paying my dues for greater achievement in the future.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

Consistency is key. A memorable meal is what keeps them coming back.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Anything that’s not filling but satisfying. I’m not a fan of eating to get full, rather eating to be satisfied.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

My inspiration for creating comes from music, the people I love, and God.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I am. I have a custom spice collection called “CBK…Creations by Kai” that launched in 2021. They are three bold and exciting new blends. “Warm Cajun & Chicory” (blackening rub), “California Citrus Salt” (universal salt), and “5 Spice, Habanero and Ginger” (spice blend).

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

To STOP before you get to the burnout stage. Take your culinary passion to another level or proceed on another culinary journey. Stay thriving in the field. There’s nothing like being in a position you have lost the love for.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Don’t forget to sleep!
  2. Don’t forget to sleep!
  3. Don’t forget to take a vacation!
  4. Don’t forget to sleep!
  5. Don’t forget to sleep!

When first starting out, it’s so very exciting and inspirational. It’s like being a rockstar — you can just go and go and never think anything of it because you love it so! At some point, you’re going to crash! Don’t forget to sleep! And then take a vacation. LOL!

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

My “Steamed Shellfish Sofrito.” It’s a combination of my Creole and Cuban roots in a pot of jumbo prawns, clams, mussels, andouille sausage, white wine, cilantro, and sofrito aromatics.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

A professional cooking school for girls in Africa and Central America. To me, there aren’t enough women in the field of cooking yet.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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