New Jersey-born chef Andrew Gruel first launched the Slapfish sustainable seafood truck in 2011. Over the next three years, he bootstrapped the business into a brick-and-mortar franchise with six locations in southern California, and plans to franchise 20 additional locations next year. He’s made a number of Food Network appearances, including judging the Food Truck Face Off. It’s not surprising that Gruel has also appeared on the TODAY Show, PBS, Cooking Channel, as well as in numerous publications including Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Men’s Health, Food & Wine Magazine, Entrepreneur, and Restaurant Business. In 2013, he was named in the Top 40 under 40 Entrepreneurs in Orange County.
1. What got you started in the kitchen?
It was my first job, ever, and I continued working in restaurants through high school and into college. When I was studying piano performance and philosophy at Bates College, a small liberal arts school, I had the ‘Ah, ha!’ realization that it wasn’t what I was meant to be doing. I wanted more in-depth, hands-on experience in the restaurant environment. I dropped out and planned to attend culinary school. I wanted to apply the knowledge that I brought with me from the field instead of learning it raw, so it would seem more like an advanced program. The muscle memory taught in culinary school I mastered working in kitchens.
2. And you graduated summa cum laude from Johnson & Wales University in Denver—were you a driven overachiever?
Definitely. I started at Johnson & Wales when I was 21 years old. I’d already done two years in college—where I was not summa cum laude, mind you—and was finding myself, and through that found and fell in love with the restaurant industry: hospitality, customer service, hotels, restaurants, food, and everything associated with this industry as a whole.
By the time I got to Johnson & Wales, I had a thirst for knowledge. I knew this was what I wanted and it was time to nail it down. Plus, with all my experience, it was really easy to do.
3. Were there any mentors who helped you along the way?
If you don’t have mentors, you’re destined to fail, because that’s how you learn in this industry. I had many at every step along the way and continue to have them now.
Mentors are like a board of trustees of your life. Their role in a corporate environment is to keep everything centered and create a certain level of checks and balances. You choose a board based on complimentary traits. I have people on my board who know more than me because I need to learn from them. The same goes with choosing a mentor. There’s a landscape now where people are very open to sharing knowledge, and finding someone willing to mentor you is a lot easier than it used to be.
My first mentor was a chef, Ed Janos, who was the 62nd Certified Master Chef in the U.S. We don’t look at the American Culinary Federation in culinary competitions now the way we look at celebrity chefs. He was a well-known chef in the industry and tough, really tough. The first few months I worked with him, he didn’t even talk to me because he had so many students working for him already. I was just another number. It was through proving how much I wanted to learn that he took notice of me and really became my mentor. Before long I was flying around the country with him working on other Certified Master Chef dinners with big name chefs when I was in my early 20s, and learning as much as I could from him.
4. What are mistakes that you see promising young applicants make when they approach you to work in your kitchen?
The most important thing is to be completely open and have a willingness to learn. When young kids come in from culinary school with a list of demands? That’s not going to work. The word ‘don’t’ should never come up in the conversation. We look for people who want to advance in their career and have a long-term vision of what they’re going to learn. It’s that thirst for knowledge.
5. What advice would you give graduates fresh out of culinary school?
Set the bar low. Pick your path. Set goals. Find a mentor. Network as much as possible. Networking is so important, and I’m terrible at it. I’m not good in settings where you have to approach others and introduce yourself. I’m better with more natural meetings.
But, networking has changed, too. It’s not a bunch of guys in suits sitting around trading business cards. There are so many innovative ways to network now. We use social media or meet people at Starbucks. And don’t limit yourself to our industry, either. If I’m a chef, I’m going to learn more about the principles of business from someone in another industry, like insurance, than I will from another chef. Try to surround yourself with many different perspectives.