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A Different Kind of Food Network

In 2017, when Chris Spear was working as a personal chef, he was struck with a strong sense of isolation. Spear had never been a “traditional” restaurant worker — he’d cooked and managed at the likes of IKEA and the food-supply company Sodexo — but he’d at least had colleagues. His distance from the concept of a restaurant was even greater than it had been, since he now worked completely on his own.

Spear tried to befriend and network with restaurant workers in Frederick, Maryland, where he’d just moved; unfortunately, he says, he didn’t get any bites. So he aimed his sights elsewhere, finding that people on the fringes of the food industry, like himself, were most receptive to his outreach, perhaps for good reason: When managing a food truck or catering out of one’s house, the demands of two already pressurized roles — of freelancer and chef — compound, since on top of pricing your services, supplying your own equipment, and attracting a customer base, you also have to navigate health, zoning, and safety codes. You wanted to break out of working at a diner, you say? Well, now you basically own one.

What came of this was a group, Chefs Without Restaurants, originally a small Facebook forum that has since amassed nearly 900 people. Members ask for advice, share gigs they’d like help with (or need a substitute for) and, in more formal ways, become the basis for other members’ entire businesses, such as Maryland Bakes, where chefs can book shared kitchen space to store ingredients and prepare food. Pre-COVID, the group was also a perfect way for folks to collaborate and plan ticketed pop-up dinners, a large source of revenue for many independent chefs.

The members themselves supply these support functions in a self-sustaining way, the group growing to such a size that, if someone has a question, someone’s likely to have an answer. Job opportunities also continually come up. This momentum makes it less necessary for Spear to actively manage and feed the group; it also makes it less necessary for Chefs Without Restaurants, the podcast he started in late 2019, to provide those same types of practical tips, which is what he’d dedicated the original episodes to. It’s left him with some flexibility to experiment with more editorial components, and he’s done just that.

Chefs Without Restaurants is now a creative outlet for Spear, one where stories take the front seat. Conversations may or may not have to do with the “freelance” food industry, but the throughline is that everybody who appears on the show works in it. The definition of such work has grown looser, as have the resulting discussions: A recent episode featured Vaughn Tan, who, among other things, consults food-industry workers on strategically maneuvering through uncertainty.

It was the pandemic, however incidentally, that made Spear fully actualize this looser format for the show. Since he knew that recording over Zoom would take much of the spontaneity out of interactions, he anticipated needing to guide guests through technological lags or conversational lulls and, accordingly, started doing a lot more prep before recordings and feeling a lot more stilted during them. He didn’t like how serious it suddenly made things feel, turning what had previously been fun discussions into dry, transactional interviews.

So he pivoted. Since he couldn’t change the medium through which they talked, he decided he would change what they talked about. He stopped asking how people priced their menus, “helping facilitating a story, instead of a ‘how I did this.’” Spear found that he liked this approach much more, even with the convoluted way he’d finally arrived at it. Plus, he says, “I’ve already achieved that ‘how to build and grow your business’ in season one.”

Nowadays, the emphasis is more on the people, not their functions. As with the episode featuring culinary historian Michael Twitty, “you’re not going to listen to the show and say, ‘Oh, so now I know how to be a culinary historian,’” notes Spear. You do, however, get to know more about Twitty as a person — his historical reenactments, his ancestors. Similarly, whereas bringing on the pastry chef Lisa Donovan in the earlier stages of the show might’ve resulted in an exchange strictly about her professional trajectory, her recent conversation with Spear covers what she enjoys about George Saunders’ new book and what it’s like to be married to a sculptor.

Spear originally imagined the audience for Chefs Without Restaurants as strictly “food entrepreneurs,” he says, “but now I just think it’s people who are interested in food and hearing good stories.” He’s uncovered many such stories in the lives of his subjects, and in finding himself in this new and somewhat incidental position of examining the nuance of people’s lives, he uncovered something about himself: that he really liked storytelling, maybe enough to change careers.

“If I can really monetize this and get this thing going the way I want to,” he says, “I might not continue to cook, which is kind of weird and scary to say out loud.”

A lifelong artist, photographer, and writer, Spear says he still “always self-identified as a chef.” Now, he wonders, if he were to introduce himself at a party, what would he say? For what it’s worth, he introduced himself to me not as the owner of his personal chef enterprise, Perfect Little Bites, or even as the founder of Chefs Without Restaurants, the organization, but as “host of the Chefs Without Restaurants podcast.”

Spear really enjoys producing the show, and doing it full time feels more and more viable each day, he says. He’s currently enrolled in a podcast-accelerator program, and he says his listenership has already grown by 87%, with 20% growth month over month; he also just secured his first sponsor.

For those who do want the how-tos that the show originally offered, the archive is there, and the Facebook group itself is a continually growing resource, with new members regularly joining and existing ones passing along their wisdom. The process of peers educating peers will be able to continue even if an industry veteran, such as Spear, leaves behind their business — even, perhaps, if Spear himself were to hypothetically leave the Facebook group. Fittingly, he has as much trust that independent chefs will forge their way as he does that he’ll forge his in podcasting, particularly because he sees similarities between the fields.

“The podcast I was afraid to do because I didn’t know how to do it, and that’s the same thing I hear when people want to be a personal chef,” he says.

As the podcast adage goes, the barrier of entry is low. The same, he feels, is true for being an independent chef. “If you want to be a personal chef, literally tomorrow you can ask your neighbor if you can come over and cook them dinner,” he posits — a bit unrealistically, I should add, considering continual social distancing measures. But the sentiment still stands: “Just go out there and give it a try.”