Never be afraid to ask for referrals. I used to be a little shy about asking people to refer me to others because I was just loving the fact the people enjoy my food, but I realized that I had to ask people who were happy with my service to refer me to other people in order for my business to grow and thrive.
As part of our series about the lessons from Inspirational BIPOC Chefs & Restaurateurs, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michelle Roberts of Atlanta, Georgia, a Professional Chef, Speaker and Published Author. She’s the mother of three and has one adorable grandson. She specializes in Soul Food cooking, encouraging women, and she has a passion for giving back to the community. Michelle’s professional accomplishments are many but nothing drives her more than her passion for God, cooking, and helping people. She works diligently to communicate that passion within the urban community. Michelle loves to cook meals that truly bring people joy, warms their heart and fills their soul. She’s been cooking for over 30 years with passion and soul.
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?
When I first got married 25 years ago, I only cooked food from cans, and I remember my husband at the time saying that he wasn’t going to eat my food because his grandmother and aunt only cooked with fresh produce. That made me feel a way because growing up we ate canned food, and I never had an issue with it. However, I later decided to ask my maternal grandmother and my husbands grandmother and aunt to show me how to really cook. They shared with me all of their recipes, they took the time to show me measurements, how to taste the food, how to season the food, and how to flat out cook. Even though they’ve passed away, I embody their spirits when I’m cooking I can feel their presence comes through in my food. Countless people who’ve taste my food have said things like “this taste just like my moms home cooking” or “just like my grandmother used to cook” and that lets me know that I’m doing something right because Aunt Gussie, Grandma, and Mary Lee Tyler are radiating through my soul food cooking. What inspired me to become a chef is my love for cooking and my desire to share that passion with others as they enjoy eating my cooked meals. For over 20 years, people have been telling me that they love my food and encouraging me to caterer, open a restaurant, and share my recipes.
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?
I focus on soul food which includes oxtails, neck-bones, collard greens, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken. I think as long as I’ve lived that I’ve had Soul Food prepared for me in some type of way. My desire to learn how to cook like my grandmother and other women who cooked this type of food while I was growing up is what drew me to becoming a Soul Food chef. As an African American, I’ve had soul food cooked in a variety of ways, but somehow I found my niche and my particular way to season and flavor my food because I don’t like certain things therefore I don’t put those things in my food but it still taste very soulful and flavorful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I’m Awesome, Fabulous, and Amazing!”
There was period in time in my life where I had very low self esteem, not only did I not love myself , but I was also unsure of my skillset which is one of the reason why I am just now fully putting myself into my business and pursuing my passion. Once I internalized and realized that I AM my mantra you can’t tell me nothing but “I AM AWESOME, FABULOUS, AND AMAZING,” and I know just by you listening or reading this that you feel AWESOME FABULOUS and AMAZING as well, you just gotta claim it.
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 take away you took out of that story?
The funniest thing is that I finally got an assistant and this assistant was so excited about learning about the ins and outs of the business and how to prepare and cook soul food. She came about two or three times, and I haven’t heard from her since… It’s not because I was a hard task master either (laughs) It’s truly a lot of work that goes into running your own business, running a kitchen, preparing and cooking meals, and sticking to a schedule. Yes the food looks great once it’s finished, that’s because there’s a lot of time and effort that goes into the process. Most people don’t think about that when saying that they want to start a business. It’s not easy, but once you create a system it makes the preparation and delivery effortless. And I’m still looking for an assistant (laughs out loud). The lesson that I learned from this is that it’s essential that you have passion for your own business and you need to vet the people who come into your space. That’s why when you have a dream you have to know that its your dream and your vision, people will come and go but you have to push on and continue putting in the work.
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?
The hardest part of the journey was advertising and getting people outside of my family to support and purchase my meals. Therefore in the beginning, I offered discounts and gave away meals for free just to encourage people to try the food, but once they try the dishes that I prepared they were sold and even referred me to other people. I now have a wonderful social media marketer who knows how to create content, record and edit videos, and has grown my social media presence that now I do not struggle for clients.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Making sure that you put the right amount of flavoring, love and soul into the dish is the major key!
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
Mmm, for me personally bbq ribs, baked beans, collard greens, and good old cornbread are the prefect meal for me.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Yes, I am working on a seasoning line that I am super excited about and cannot wait to share it with the world. This will allow my business to grow even more, it will give me additional exposure, and honey you may see Dr. Shells Seasonings in Kroger, Wal-Mart, and even on Amazon.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout? Do you have any advice for “up and coming” young chefs who are in need of guidance to become successful in the culinary world?
Make sure you take time for yourself, be it a weekend trip, a 30 minute massage, exercise, and take your vitamins. You must take care of yourself and block out time in your schedule for self care.
My advice and suggestions are that they master their craft, if it’s their particular culture or cuisine that they desire to specialize in then they need to master it whether it’s Italian cuisine, Mexican cuisine, or Thai Cuisine in order for you to know that you are sure of what you are doing you must master each dish, practice, serve it to other people, have taste test. Whatever you need to do in order to master your craft. Make sure that you have outside people not just your family, but people you can get honest reviews, insights, and opinions from. You also need to have a love and a passion for cooking.
COVID-19 has been a trying time for all of us. How are you growing your business during COVID-19? What advice do you have for any chefs who are trying to stay relevant during this time?
I am growing my business through delivery service, I added that as a niche and its been helping. I deliver to businesses and all around the city I deliver my delicious soul food meals. I am not waiting for business to come to me I’m going to the businesses. If you’re not using social media to your benefits you need to start now by taking pictures and recording videos of your food, engage and talk to your audience, ask for referrals and reviews, and keep going.
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.
- I wish someone had told me that FOOD COST A LOT — Try to find great prices on foods that you’re going to prepare, When I first started out, I was going to the regular grocery store paying retail prices, and really not making a big profit but as I grew I began to purchase in bulk, look for sale items, invested in a freezer, so that when I find these things on sale I could freeze those items. The freezer has become my new friend I wish someone had told me
- I wish someone had told me that it’s going to always be that one customer who’s going to complain no matter what and you can’t let one person spoil the lot. I had a particular customer who always complained something either “the cornbread was too cold” or “the drink was too hot” I finally realized it was in both of our best interest to no longer continue on — sometimes you have to cut your losses and this turned into a gain because I gained several other customers have letting go of that one.
- I wish someone told me is to have financial cushion. There’s been a lot of unexpected things that I’ve needed such as insurance, ongoing supplies, operational cost, you really need to take that into account even when starting off small. I need forks, containers, foil, seasoning, onions, little things that you don’t always think about initially are all important.
- I wish someone had told me that good help is hard to find, you have to always remember the vision of your business and when someone doesn’t work out you keep an available amount of people that you can call on for assistance.
- Never be afraid to ask for referrals. I used to be a little shy about asking people to refer me to others because I was just loving the fact the people enjoy my food, but I realized that I had to ask people who were happy with my service to refer me to other people in order for my business to grow and thrive.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
My top seller is Oxtails and Gravy over rice, it is absolutely yummy. I always sell out.
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.
I would love to have a food for the soul movement where people come and enjoy SOUL FULL food with soulful people with poetry, spoken word, and live soulful music creating an atmosphere of love and peace. Everyone can unwind, let their hair down, feel safe and free.
How can our readers further follow you online?
They can follow me on Instagram @DrShellsKitchen and my Facebook page Dr. Shells Soul Food
They also can contact me through my website https://www.drshellssoulfood.com/about
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!