It was in her grandmother’s kitchen that Chef Dawn Tyson first fell in love with the art of cooking. Watching her grandmother sparked an interest that has today grown into a successful business for Tyson, who began her professional culinary career with the launch A Little Place Called Siam in Baltimore where she ran the kitchen. Her career took a detour when she returned to New York and worked as a publicist for BMG/RCA Records in 1996. But she didn’t completely give up on her culinary dreams– she started catering and baking for artists, executives and co-workers, ultimately launching her own catering company Dawn’s Dish.
The business grew and eventually she opened up a storefront cafe. But after working overtime–80 hours per week–she needed a break. She took a position as a coordinator at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
Now, Tyson is celebrating the release of her first cookbook, Soul: Southern American Cuisine.
TNJ: How did you venture into cooking?
Chef Dawn Tyson: My first venture into the culinary field was cooking with my grandmother. I had a red stool that I pushed up to the counter at her house and I would help with Sunday morning biscuits. But on a more “professional” track – well, I had to work myself through college (as did most people) and I really was good at cooking
for large amounts of people and I did it well. So kitchens and restaurants were where I ended up. I really loved it.
TNJ: How did you make yourself and your culinary creations stand out from the competition?
DT:There is a lot of competition out there but, really, I always just do the best I can do. Competition well, I don’t really look at it but I may peek every once in a while. I guess I peek to see what others are doing — what may be interesting…that’s all really.
TNJ: Why did you decide to write the book, Soul: Southern American Cuisine?
DT: Well, many of my chef friends were getting book deals and I always wanted to write my own cookbook but really did not know how to go about it. I mean “shopping it” and “finding an agent” or whatever you have to do. I was talking about it with my mom and she said “why don’t you just do it yourself– your sister is a graphic designer —
and you are a great chef / writer.” So, I talked to my sister Heather who was onboard immediately and started down the long road of “self publishing”.
TNJ: What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
DT: I really love to feed people….my love for them comes out in my food. Cooking is my Zen.
TNJ: You left the business for a while to work as an entertainment publicist. Why did you decide to do this?
DT: I had an opportunity– really. I had an opportunity to use my college education. Paid off my student loans. It was a great experience. I had a great female boss – tough, very shrewd and knew how to maneuver through the BS. I learned a lot from her. And really, who turns down an opportunity to work at a record label.
TNJ: What made you return to cooking?
DT: I was cooking when I was at the label. I used to cater on the side which turned into a full-time business when I left RCA.
TNJ: Was running the restaurant A Little Place Called Siam a difficult process?
DT: Well it was a new restaurant but the owner was an established restaurateur. This was his third restaurant. There were difficulties that came up in working for an Asian owner who was a bit older. So, we had some “personality” conflicts at first but we came to an understanding. We talked a lot and had a very honest line of communication. He was convinced that I was not a Black woman.
TNJ: Do you think black chefs face any obstacles that are different?
DT: I hope not — it is 2013 but we do. I have a friend — black female chef – graduated from CIA (Culinary Institute of America). She has been working in the industry for a few years. She went to her bank to find out about business loans. She was completely prepared with a business plan, projections…a whole presentation. She really got no response and she walked away feeling like she was not helped. About a week later — her business partner – a white man went to the same bank. What do you think happened? Her business partner (not a chef) got a loan for them. Makes you think.
TNJ: Can you tell me more about Dawn’s Dish?
DT: Dawn’s Dish was the name of my catering company that expanded into a storefront in New Paltz, NY. I own the name so I am now using it for my website.
TNJ: What advice would you give to others in creative fields on how to promote themselves?
DT: That is hard to say… But one piece of advice that could help in this area is do not burn bridges. What I mean is stay true to yourself but be kind to folks. This planet is a small place, especially with social media—Facebook, Twitter, etc.