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Swimming Against the Current: A Survival Story

Swimming Against the Current: A Survival Story

Survival.

The word conjures a visceral type of grit. Even the idioms we utilize to discuss survival play into the tactile nature of hanging on: clawing through the mud, keeping one’s head above water, going through the mill.

At the center of survival is the body. Over the past two-and-a-half years, survival has been a rallying cry across the industry—the focus centered on the beating heart of the industry itself: its people.

Perhaps no individual’s survival limits were tested more than those who work in foodservice. It’s been a hard road, but one where the lessons learned put into perspective our magnificent ability to overcome.

When I speak with Ryan Scott, the chef takes apart my own notions of survival and builds them anew. It’s not a matter of choice for Ryan; if anything, he’s got endurance in his blood.

“At Ryan Scott 2 Go, our mantra quickly became ‘Expect the unexpected, be ready to pivot, and get creative!’” Ryan tells me, kicking off our conversation with an attitude I can only describe as irresistible. “Before the pandemic, we were fully booked a year-and-a-half out with multiple in-person events a week, which would have taken us all over California’s Bay Area and beyond.”

Catering for the company ran the gamut of everything from corporate events to engagement parties. The shift from literally hundreds of in-person events to nothing was an abrupt 180.

“Instead of hanging our heads in defeat, we put those heads together and came up with some creative solutions,” Ryan notes, diving into the digital offerings that continued to drum up business. “We began our virtual ‘Ryan Scott Cook-Along’ culinary demos to both small companies and large corporations, where the attendees would join via an online platform. Sometimes, the group was made up of employees as an appreciation event, and sometimes the attendees were prospective clients. Either way, everyone joined for an afternoon or evening of interactive fun and culinary inspiration. We also started curating themed virtual events like Summer Camp and Forests and Flannel, with dishes and narratives to fit the theme.”

Reaching a hand across to the beverage industry, Ryan invited mixologists to share drink recipes and mix-along demos.

“Each virtual attendee was sent a completely built-out box of fresh ingredients and cooking tools in order for them to be able to cook along with me. Beautiful recipe cards were included so the attendees would not only be able to cook along, but could replicate what they had learned in the future,” Ryan shares. “It was madly successful, and soon we were as busy as we were before the pandemic when we were catering in-person events every week!”

If anyone were to list out tenets of survival, I’m sure that industriousness would be top of the list.

“Instead of hanging our heads in defeat, we put those heads together and came up with some creative solutions.”

Ryan Scott, Chef and Entrepreneur, Ryan Scott Enterprises

“The pandemic really gave me and my team an opportunity to shift our thinking and our business model for as long as needed in order to continue to be successful,” Ryan explains before diving into another labor of love that saw success during 2020. “I also wrote my second book, The No-Fuss Family Cookbook. It was a great way to focus on what was most important to me: family. With a little help from a lot of my friends, we launched a virtual cook-along every week on Instagram where I was joined with a different celebrity friend to help promote the book and cook up one of its recipes. I appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, E! Entertainment, Access Hollywood, and virtually on Rachael Ray to promote the book and drum up sales.”

Not only did it work, but Ryan’s creative outlook flourished.

“Having to think out-of-the-box so much during the past several years in order to survive as a brand and a business has really ramped up my creativity,” he emphasizes. “I am so proud of our team for taking on such a major shift and executing a brand-new business model with the same kind of passion and drive we have always put forth. It feels so good to be back to the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the business—catering for in-person events. The fact that we succeeded in the way we did during 2020 and 2021 will always be one of the things of which I am most proud. It has made me really realize that not only does our success rely on me being at every event and personally cooking my food, but the handshake and hug with my clients is integral to our success.”

Ryan pauses here to reflect further, and I pause alongside him. Sometimes we can conflate survival with independence, with a dizzying adherence to going through it alone. But what we really need when the going gets tough is old-fashioned human connection.

“It has been so hard to be kept from these interactions. I prep, shop, procure, cook, and show up for events, and that passion and commitment reveals itself in the food that is plated for our clients,” he goes on to say. “You can go to any restaurant any night to get a meal, but when you work with us at Ryan Scott 2 Go, you get my culinary vision, passion, and me, and that is hard to beat.”

As we head into the holiday push, I ask Ryan what insights he has on how this season will differ from years past.

“I think we will be seeing more in-person holiday celebrations in both the corporate and the personal realm, with perhaps as many small, intimate gatherings happening as there will be large events. There seems to be a resurgence of focusing on simple and not overly produced events, where the food really takes center stage. I think we will continue to see an increased desire for expertly curated menus incorporating seasonal ingredients that really embrace the now. Winter citrus and squash in all its forms (shaved, raw, braised, stuffed) will be big players this winter season. An apple is not a boring element anymore. It is now showing off as a mostarda and a stuffing. With meat prices the way they are, this is a vegetable’s time to really shine,” he notes.

“There seems to be a resurgence of focusing on simple and not overly produced events, where the food really takes center stage.”

Outside of the industry, Ryan is first and foremost a family man; his way of celebrating during the holiday season is with his loved ones.

“I like to bring things back to what is central in my life and recreate the test-of-time recipes passed down from my wife’s family and my family members, everything from my mother-in-law’s famous lasagna to the Chinese dishes that my wife grew up sharing with her family, to my Great Aunt Lena’s desserts and my mother’s famous spaghetti sauce,” Ryan says with a glow. “Sometimes I add my own twist, and sometimes I am a total purist, recreating a dish and honoring its original form. For the holidays, I cannot sing the praises of Brussels sprouts enough! This vegetable is so versatile and, in the last decade, it went from being the drummer in the culinary band to Mick Jagger, front and center! However you choose to prepare it—roasted, grilled, shaved, or incorporated into a dish—you can never go wrong!”

Outside of uplifting fresh produce during the holidays—and all year-round—the overarching culinary vision Ryan describes is part of a larger piece of advice he imparts to fellow foodservice operators: Always have a plan.

“Never allow yourself to be a one-hit wonder. Have your specialty, but diversify enough in order to make sure your brand and your product is always relevant—even in the most strange and difficult of times when major pivoting is required! Always take on new challenges, and continue to soak up inspiration from everything around you: Seasonality is key,” he tells me. “Lastly, if you are questioning if your business model is making sense (and not cents), give yourself a buffer and realize that everything can go—except your family and kids.”

The notion of survival might not read as a particularly joyful one, but I’d like to complicate our understanding of the word. Survival is momentous; it is winning against the odds. It’s a framework on which to ascribe new beliefs and beginnings.

As Ryan might say: Shift your thinking, but never stop trying.