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Flint Spencer: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef

Don’t give up. Working in a restaurant is hard, its long hours, its having to deal with things that don’t make sense and its hurt feet. But you know what it’s rewarding.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Flint Spencer Co executive Chef at the modern Indian restaurant Coterie in Charleston, South Carolina. After working at such places as Degustation (New American Spanish tapas style restaurant), Jewel Bako (Sushi bar) and Wallse (Modern Austrian Restaurant) he now heads one of the few Indian restaurants in Charlston and incorporating his Caribbean Indian heritage to the dishes brings something new to the table.

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’ve always loved food and one of my favorite things to do, while living in New York City, was to try different restaurants for restaurant week. On every day of the event I could immerse myself in the different Cuisines and cultures they had to offer and it always fascinated me how much culinary had to offer from culture to culture and more so all the similarities. After some time I decided that food writing and blogging would be something I’d like to look into in the future but I always believe that you should know what you’re talking about so getting in it and working and understanding the world I intended to speak on.

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?

Currently my main focus is working with Indian and Caribbean Indian menu items. As the chef at Coterie diving into the dishes of my childhood and memories and bringing them into new light has been the goal. While alot of people dont realize it alot of the caribbean is populated with indians (and other cultures) that moved after the end of slavery. As such it makes for a blending of cultures and foods that make for amazing dining. At the start of the pandemic I finally received a copy of a cookbook written by one of my favorite aunts unfortunately passed away this year but the knowledge and memories that book held pushed for me to dive into my roots more.

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

At the first restaurant I was trained at, the layout was that of an open kitchen. As such we would interact with the customers and try to make it as fun as possible with going over the top. On one instance I was shaking a vinaigrette to finish a dish and my hand slipped and got one on a guest shoulder. The vinaigrette was white and her date started laughing. She had a good chuckle and I learned that while you should always shake your vinaigrette before using you should also aim away from customers.

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?

Starting my journey was particularly difficult as, at the time, I was a part of the management staff of a clothing company five days a week and worked at my first restaurant 6 days a week for a year. Because I had no experience, and couldn’t afford to go to culinary school, I took the route of training in a restaurant until they took me on full time. As such I worked long hours and learned everything from the ground up. Learning from such skilled teachers and encouraging ownership really inspired me to work hard and dive deeper into my craft.

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

One of the first things I was taught by my mentors is that simplicity is best but do the simple things well. A dish can be complexly layered and imaginative but if every component is not done well it will fall short. As such the goal is always to make each individual part of the dish as well as possible so the end product sings.

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

A plate of Pelau (a one pot rice dish from my youth), coleslaw and a glass of sorrel.

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

Between my time spent learning under such prestigious chefs at my first job and wanting to get to the level i saw them achieve on a daily basis i think i look for ways to progress and improve so that if any day any of those chefs were to walk into my restaurant they would be proud to say i was their student.

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

My current project is the restaurant Coterie. I believe that making available a cuisine that no one offers in the area gives an opportunity for more people to step out of their comfort zone and try something new just around the corner. I was lucky to have those opportunities in the past and am happy to be able to offer others the same chance.

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

To thrive and to avoid burnout I would say the same piece of advice. While we strive to put out meals that will be remembered and talked about, we should always remember that we need time to sit and have an amazing meal as well. Being constantly in the line of fire doesn’t have time for ourselves to see the roses on the other side of the bushes so sitting down to a meal made by others is a great way to shift perspectives and re-adjust.

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 give up.

Working in a restaurant is hard, its long hours, its having to deal with things that don’t make sense and its hurt feet. But you know what it’s rewarding.

2. You’re tired but it’s worth it.

Yeah you’re tired but look at everything you’ve accomplished, look at the smiling faces of your guests, see how happy those pancakes made that child today. It really is worth it every little part of it is.

3. Just try it.

New Stations, new restaurants, and any changes are going to happen. One of the best parts of this job is being able to try new things and learn new skills on the daily. If the opportunity arises give it a try and if you fail as long as its allowed try and try again. Learning takes time. It can be seconds, hours or days you will get it and it will feel so much better when you do.

4. Well that wasn’t as hard as i thought it would be.

You tried something new and it wasn’t as hard as you thought it was going to be so keep looking for things to experiment with and give you a reason to do more, learn more and grow.

5. You love it, it might not make you right, but what’s riches without happiness.

What else is there to say the pay might not be amazing but you get too create hopefully a space will come along that will make money and happy but just because your not rolling in money doesn’t mean you need to do smethuingelse all those things will come in due time and like J.cole said,” there’s beauty in the struggle”.

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

Currently the Fish Curry Dish. It’s a Caribbean Curry, Lentil rice and fresh caught Market Fish pan seared. It’s a dish that goes back to what my mentors taught me, simplicity is best. The rice is seasoned with turmeric, Cumin, citrus and lentils. The curry has a deep depth of flavor with just the right amount of spice and the Fish is meaty with crispy skin and seasoned well. All together a lovely dish to warm the soul and leave you smiling.

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.

The Name of the restaurant is Coterie which means a group of like minded people if their would be any moment i would like to inspire it would be to bring people together to the table with dishes of their own culture, history, location on the map whatever it might be to shear a meal and learn what i have. We all have our differences that make us unique but we also have our similarities that make us relative.

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

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