At graduation ceremonies the world over commencement speakers invoke overused clichés that boil down to this: “Follow your dreams.” The often too-long speech can lose its luster in the real world, though. In the face of bills, under the pressure to achieve, and behind life’s everyday stresses, dreams can fade into fantasies. Tomica Burke, head chef and owner of recently launched catering company TomCookery, refused to let her dreams die at the 9-to-5.
When did you first become interested in culinary arts?
I have been interested in cooking for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first “cookbook” as a senior in high school. The recipes were based on the cuisine from my southern and Barbadian sides of my family. That same southern/Caribbean fusion is what inspired my catering company, TomCookery.
Before striking out on your own, how did you balance your day job with pursuing your passion?
I am a lawyer by trade and the law is a jealous lover. I has been quite the tenuous balancing act. During my third year of law school, I started taking classes at the Institute for Culinary Education to refine my craft. I entertained my friends at my home, and occasionally catered parties. Once I started practicing law, however, it became harder to host parties and cater for friends. I will never forget catering my best friend’s baby shower the same time I was working at the firm. I started cooking right after I got off work the night before the event. I didn’t sleep at all and was a zombie the next day. After that, I decided that I had to put a moratorium on catering until I quit my job. I wanted to be able to commit to cooking full time, because it was something I felt so passionate about.
When did you decide to turn your passion into a full-time gig?
I made the decision in phases. I’m a risk adverse lawyer after all. I got an opportunity to help a New York-based caterer for his holiday busy season. After working at the firm during the day, I met him in the evenings to do parties. I was living a double life, but it was exhilarating! When I received my first check from him, I realized that I could cook for a living. I may not make as much as I made as a lawyer, but I knew I could survive. This gave me the courage to quit my day job and start building the TomCookery Catering concept. About a year later, we officially launched. I’ve never felt more fulfilled.
What advice would you give other young professionals who feel stuck at a 9-to-5?
At the risk of sounding cliché, my advice is that you only live once; life is too short to be unhappy. The security of a job is something everyone prefers. I know I did. I was making six figures, going on great vacations, and buying whatever I wanted. It was amazing. But with all that, I couldn’t ignore the nagging voice that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. The voice got louder and louder, and eventually I had to listen to it. I knew that the stability would be non-existent once I started TomCookery, but the excitement and the pride I feel in having my own company outweighs the anxiety. I also strongly believe in my product, so I know TomCookery and I will be just fine.
What sources of inspiration do you draw from to follow your dream?
I’m most inspired by Ina Garten. Not only is she a talented cook, but she’s a very intelligent woman who earned an MBA and worked in Washington, D.C. as a budget analyst before opening up the Barefoot Contessa, a specialty food store in the Hamptons. She probably could have been a great many things in D.C., but she left it all to cook. She took a huge risk because she didn’t have any formal training and often jokes around about how she had no idea what she was doing in those early years.
When you have the potential to be successful in more traditional fields, it often puzzles people when you choose to devote yourself to creative ventures like cooking, music, etc. I was often told that I was “too smart” to cook for a living. But like Ina, I really hope to build an empire out of TomCookery and it really does take a lot of brains and guts to run a successful business, in any field. The successes of the Ina Gartens, and the Martha Stewarts, and the B. Smiths are what keep me motivated when the going gets rough.
Did anyone ever try to dissuade you from following your passion?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Luckily, nobody that matters. My family and friends have been super supportive. I really just tune out the naysayers. People have told me that I don’t seem like I’m cut out for the kitchen because I am a bit of a girly girl. They have also told me that I need more experience before I open my own business. All of these things may be true, but I have developed a “devil may care” attitude over the last year. I think taking big risks will do that for you. So I listen to advice, smile and nod, and in most cases do what I was going to do anyway.
What’s next for you and TomCookery?
I’m going to continue to build TomCookery’s network. Word of mouth is actually the most effective tool for bringing in business. We have some events coming up in February, including a Sip and See for bloggers which I am super excited about. Down the line, I plan to open a specialty food store in my hometown of Queens, NY where people can come in and buy TomCookery food/products without necessarily having to have a party. Perhaps even further down the line, I’m considering production of some of our sauces and mixes.
Click here to learn more about TomCookery.