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How a former Apple executive is streaming international chefs into your kitchen

Jenn Nicken’s The Chef & The Dish is focused on delivering a personal cooking experience transported right into your kitchen via online video.

How a former Apple executive is streaming international chefs into your kitchen
[Photo: The Chef & The Dish]

It might seem odd that a company that offers virtual cooking classes with chefs from around the world who whip up exotic, local dishes has its roots in Buffalo wings, but that’s where the story began for Jenn Nicken, the founder of The Chef & The Dish. 

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Nicken, after all, hails from Buffalo, New York, where she says “wings” are the equivalent of pizza on Mulberry Street or poutine in Toronto. “They’re a part of your life,” she says. “You go for wings and beer. They’re at birthday parties.”  

This wasn’t something Nicken was acutely aware of when she was working at Apple back in the iPod days. She helped launch that product across North America and then moved on to become the head of marketing for Apple/iTunes’s entertainment division in Canada, where she’s now based. But when she decided to shake up her career in 2015, enrolling in cooking classes and traveling around the world to learn more about international cuisine, she began to see her hometown—and its native dish—in a new light. 

The Chef & The Dish founder and CEO, Jenn Nicken [Photo: The Chef & The Dish]

During her travels, she would try wings in different places, but something was off. “The further I got from Buffalo, the more I realized wings weren’t the same. It’s a dish that’s so simple but when you get it in the place it originated from, that’s what makes it so wonderful. Recipes that you get at the source deserve to be protected and celebrated. Just like Bolognese sauce is best in Bologna.” 

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This revelation—along with the joy of learning to cook Bolognese sauce in Italy as well as Pad Thai in Thailand—led her to quit her job at Apple and launch The Chef & The Dish in 2016. The company offers live, online private cooking classes—$299 for a couple; group classes are also available—with chefs based in such locales as Peru, Laos, Turkey and Italy. The courses, which are presented as much as a lively performance as a class, can be streamed from the comfort of your own kitchen, where you can master your own baklava or mosaic roll.

Nicken calls the concept “at-home entertainment” and says it’s rooted in her experience at Apple where she learned the power of “using technology to bring people together and connect them in ways that they just wouldn’t otherwise be connecting.”  The company quickly took off but has gained significant traction over the last year, as people have been stuck at home due to COVID-19, eager for more opportunities to socialize and have fun safely. Nicken would not offer specific figures—”We have transported tens of thousands of people around the world,” she says—but overall traffic to The Chef & The Dish increased 920% over the past year, and revenue has gone up 3,000%. Between last November and December, during the winter COVID-19 surges, traffic to the company’s website spiked 1,400%. Similar spikes have been seen at online cooking destinations like Tastemade, and linear ones like The Food Network, as people have scrambled to find fun and easy ways to prepare food at home, and chefs whose restaurants have been closed have been available for more digital work.

[Photo: The Chef & The Dish]

Nicken says she “never envisioned a pandemic and not being able to see other people in person—that’s not what I built the business for. What I built the business for was for people who have birthdays on a Tuesday night and maybe don’t want to go out to a restaurant. Or they want to have a date night in. I built it for the family that hasn’t been back to Italy because maybe the mom can’t travel, but they still want to feel like they’re back. I wanted to have something fun for people to do in their home. That doesn’t go away when the pandemic is over.” 

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The pandemic has inadvertently helped the business in other ways. Back in 2016, Nicken says that video conferencing was something people did, but mainly only for work. The word “Zoom” had not yet entered the everyday lexicon. Now of course, few days pass without multiple log-ins to Google Meet or Skype to talk to relatives and friends, or participate in a group beer tasting.

[Photo: The Chef & The Dish]

Beyond teaching people how to create good food, The Chef & the Dish is focused on delivering an experience—another lesson from Apple. “I believe you have to put experience and people first,” she says. “And then that’s felt in your consumer journey. You have to do everything to make sure the clients are incredibly happy. That’s why we have a white-glove service. When you put customers first, they feel that, that is a huge piece of it.” 

The concierge approach means that before each class, a kitchen assistant briefs users on necessary ingredients for a dish; terminology the chef might use; and other kitchen know-how. Ever used an avocado leaf? You might need one for a class taught by a chef in Mexico. But don’t fret, the kitchen assistant will assure you that avocado oil is a fine substitute. 

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“Beyond cooking, beyond teaching, there’s so much more that our chefs do,” Nicken says. “By the end of your class, you don’t feel like it’s a class. You feel like you’ve taken a virtual trip to a different part of the world. In two and a half hours, you’ve made a new friend.” 

“My goal is to make the computer distant,” she says. That’s what I aim to do. I want the computer to disappear.”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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