To say Vanessa and Adam Smith, owner and executive chef of Blue Ribbon Cooking School, respectively, were made for the culinary business is an understatement. Both were born to and raised in families where food was a way of life. Now, the husband-wife team crafts hundreds of weddings, corporate team-building classes and other large-scale local events every year.
In the fall of 2017, Vanessa was given the prestigious Nellie Cashman Award for “Woman Business Owner of the Year” for her charitable contributions to the local community. In talking with Reflections, she says food remains the focus of their business, but the people she works with are at the core of her success.
Reflections magazine: What was it like to grow up with Blue Ribbon?
Vanessa Smith: Growing up, my mom ran a cooking school in the home, so I was literally raised in a cooking school. Food was everything, whether I wanted it to be or not. Even if I was making scrambled eggs, with my mom it was a cooking lesson. It was taught to me regardless of whether I was engaged in it, but I loved it. And it was an opportunity to have some amazing food experiences, like the one I had with Julia Child.
RM: You worked with Julia Child?
VS: Yes, when I was a kid she did a series of five workshops in the Pacific Northwest where we taught apple pie making on TV and in person. At that time, she was focused on bringing children into the kitchen, but she didn’t have any herself. I luckily got that spot and worked with her and we taught together. She was an amazing, inspirational person. I didn’t realize then I was working with the best of the best.
RM: How did you eventually acquire the family business?
VS: Honestly, the business side of the company is what interested me more. Basically, my parents went on vacation to Italy in 2006 and never came back. In 2008, they sold me a business they felt was fair market value for a troubled time in the economy. I’ve always had a financially driven mind, and nothing about the purchase made sense at that time. But I believed in what we did, and I believed in helping fund my parents’ retirement. So I did it. I had bought my first home at 18 years old, and pulled equity out of that, got the loan and then grew it into what it is today.
RM: How has the company grown under your leadership?
VS: We grew 250 percent in the first two years and 500 percent ever since. We’re doing about 15 big corporate events a week. People come in and learn to cook as a form of working together, while getting out of the office. I still focus on that part of the company and it makes up 50 percent of the revenue. But we added an event side, so we do a lot of weddings, a lot of corporate catering where we do all the rentals, all the tables, the staffing, flowers, dessert, everything. It’s a full-service event-planning team.
RM: How would you describe your leadership style?
VS: I run more of a community-centered environment versus a traditional top-down structure. I really value my employees and their experience and knowledge. They give me a lot of confidence in helping me do what we do with creativity. I lean on my team and take advantage of the good quality and team members. I also believe in hard work, and I’ve always believed people will work so much harder if you’re working alongside them. I have no problem putting my head down and doing whatever needs to be done.
RM: You do everything from weddings to big corporate team-building classes, why do you think food is able to anchor so many different memorable events?
VS: Food has a way of binding people together like nothing else. Every single person relates to food in some sense. Maybe they’re not cooks, but they love to eat. Everyone has a story about what their mom used to make. We’re naturally bonded with the kitchen. For example, when you throw a party at your house, everyone ends up in the kitchen. It’s an instant bond.
RM: Can you talk a little about the formats of your team-building programs?
VS: One of our most popular is the Iron Chef competition format, and we have different levels—some layouts even include menu design, grocery shopping at Pike Place market (for those new to Seattle). Cooking works so well in a competitive workforce. In the kitchen, you practice techniques that are applicable to an office setting: resource allocation, time management, leadership, listening skills, so many things. On the other hand, if the team is already incredibly competitive, we look more to enhance working together, so everyone works on one thing. We really design formats for the needs for our clients.
RM: You recently won the Nellie Cashman Award for “Woman Business Owner of the Year” and much of that was based on the amount of community work you do. What did that mean to you?
VS: When I bought the business, my mom was very keen on the kids-in-the-kitchen concept. And it was really due to Julia Child’s apple pies. Our big company philosophy is still about bringing people back to the dining table, and I believe if you get kids around the dining table, they will pass it down to their family. It’s so important to sit there and have dinner together, regardless of what you’re dining over. So we work with Teen Feed, which is a local program that feeds at-risk or homeless youth. We do a lot, about two meals a week for 50 people. We also work with Treehouse [nonprofit serving youth in foster care] and their kids’ summer camps. We help with scholarships for kids who need a boost.
RM: What does it mean to you personally to be able to help?
VS: I am so blessed to be able to do that, to be actively donating; it’s not always possible. I’m so lucky that when someone asks for a donation, I don’t have to think twice or question whether my team will come through.
RM: And you just had a baby yourself. What do the next 10 years look like for you?
VS: Yes, last year I had a daughter, so I’m enjoying a little bit of balance in my life between work and home, and I’m loving that. For the next few years, through her toddler years, it’s all about maintenance. But I’ve got a very entrepreneurial eye, and I’m always looking for opportunities.
Chef's Corner |
While Vanessa was the one nominated for an award, she gives all the credit to her family. We checked in with executive chef and husband Adam Smith for his take on the business, food in the PNW and his wife.
Reflections magazine: From the perspective of the executive chef, what’s the goal for food at Blue Ribbon?
Adam Smith: Blue Ribbon is committed to bringing people together over delicious, healthy, innovative meals and laughing together while celebrating life’s many journeys. As a chef, the ingredients, techniques and finished product are very important to me, but since I’ve been a part of this company, I’ve learned sometimes the food is only as good as the experiences we have while enjoying each other’s company from the kitchen to the table. Also, I believe we should keep in mind that we are very blessed to have these opportunities, and we should extend our passion for this philosophy out into our community.
RM: What are some of your favorite PNW-inspired ingredients to use?
AS: What an amazing place to be a chef! I grew up on my family’s four-acre cherry orchard, and it was surrounded by apple, peach and pear orchards. My grandfather kept his own bees for pollinizing the fruit trees and harvested the delicious honey. He also had a small garden where he grew summer squash, watermelon, sweet corn, cantaloupe and other ingredients. I remember foraging for asparagus, mushrooms and delicious fresh berries and fishing for rainbow trout, steelhead, sockeye and catfish. After I moved to Seattle, I was amazed by king salmon and all the different varietals of oysters and king crab, and I discovered how fun it was digging for razor clams on the beaches of Ocean Shores. So when I am creating a dish, I tend to gravitate toward ingredients that mean something to me, or have played a part in my journey as a chef. But I also think it’s important to explore new things and rotate the menu to keep it fresh, clean, seasonal and exciting.
RM: How do you and Vanessa complement each other in the kitchen or business? Is it challenging to work and live together?
AS: Vanessa and I have always worked well together. Our communication is something both of us value immensely. We can build recipes and menus, creatively think our way through challenging circumstances, and work long hours catering together. We both believe in doing whatever is necessary to get the job done right the first time. I think having a similar work ethic helps us propel each other to achieve our goals. We have done a great job of using the same technique at home as well. It feels good to know that your teammate and partner will do anything to help enrich your life, and make sure you feel important and loved.