We had the good fortune of connecting with Shelby Lewis and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Shelby, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
I started my own business at the age of 23 after grinding in fine dining restaurant kitchens for the prior 5 years. I had completed a Chef’s Apprenticeship under a Chef who had 5 James Beard Awards who taught me that the only way to be a real Chef was to never stop learning. Once I was in a position where I stopped learning, it was time to move onto the next challenge. I wanted to be the creative driving force behind my food, rather than being told what to cook. I wanted to be a strong Female Chef without answering to the male-dominated industry I felt hindered by. At the time I started Eat Dank Food, I was working (and still am) in Vail, Colorado and had met some other Private Chefs. The idea of more intimate, creative dining experiences appealed to me and I thought, “let’s give it a go.”
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
My business, Eat Dank Food, started as a food blog when I was still working in professional kitchens. After my Chef’s Apprenticeship helping to open The 10th, in Vail, I moved to San Francisco for the spring/summer to work for a Michelin Chef where I helped to open a second restaurant, Dixie. It was long 12-13 hour days and the pressure was on. It became unhealthy and I was overworked, so I took a job working at a more casual Gastropub, Magnolia Brewery. After having an issue with one of the brewers following me into the bathroom and almost not letting me leave, I reported it to the owner, to no recourse. It was eye-opening to say the least.
I needed to return back to the Northeast briefly to take care of some family and knew that I would want to quit cooking after having been working at such a high fine dining level. I got my knife tattoo right before I left so that I could never quit, I would see it every day. That same knife is now branded into my business logo.
After a few months at home, I got the call from the Chef that I had previously apprenticed under to come work for him again, helping to revamp a restaurant called Leonora, back in Vail. I jumped at the chance to be in his kitchen again. Again, I had some threatening, misogynistic issues occur with one of the head cooks. This time, the Head Chef called me and offered me a promotion, that cook’s job. I wasn’t sure I was ready, but I did it. When a new Chef de Partie signed on, it became apparent to me that he was one of those unconfident Chefs who enjoyed messing with people. After a final straw of jumping through hoops for no reason occurred, I walked out. I started working on my Eat Dank Food Private Chef business plan the next day.
Since then, I have done two Whole Animal butcher Apprenticeships, worked as a Private Chef in Vail, CO and a summer stint on Long Beach Island, NJ, a Sous Chef at a Gastropub Whiskey Bar in Philadelphia, an Oyster shucker on LBI, and read more cookbooks than I can count.
I’ve kept things interesting and create each menu custom, tailored to my client’s dietary needs, seasonality, and my creativity that day. I do intimate events from 6-20 people on average and range from elevated comfort food to 6 course fine dining meals.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Vail is a special place. It’s full of little foodie secrets. Vin 48 is probably my favorite restaurant with extra brownie respect points for it being Chef-owned. Order one of everything. Pepito’s for lengua & tripe tacos- this little hole in wall outside of Vail where you should probably know a little bit of Spanish or you can’t read the menu. Root and Flower for cocktails – all of the bartenders will nerd out and give you a story with every drink. Do as the locals do and go to the best dive bar, The George, for their Duck Quesadilla & Fish & Chips.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I have to give credit for my professional career to Chef Paul Wade. I apprenticed under him at the young age of 19, with zero restaurant experience. One day, I literally cut into him talking and naively said… ‘Okay, I have to ask… what line are you talking about? Are we walking a line? Are we drawing a line?” He laughed and was patient. He walked over to the line and said “This- this is the line. We start here.”
I was the only apprentice and kitchen staff that did not have a culinary degree and he empowered me with the idea that I didn’t need one. In fact, it was way more badass that I didn’t. I didn’t have bad culinary school habits and he taught me the correct way to do things as well as what kitchen work ethic means. He was (and is) humble about his craft which allowed me in future kitchens to decipher between a confident and unconfident Chef. This was crucial I feel, especially as a female, to know when you need to stand up for yourself or brush off unnecessary brutality.
Also necessary, shout out to my Mom. She’s an amazing cook and also the hostess with the most-ess. I know my love for intimate dining experiences comes from her detail-oriented love & care.
Morgan Moutrie (only for the 1st photo)