Rich Rosendale: The Makings of a Culinary Legend

Published in the March 2017 issue of Entrepreneurial Chef

 

Introduction


To say Rosendale’s resume is impressive is an understatement. A classically trained chef, Rosendale has turned his impressive training – including working under several Certified Master Chefs as part of a six-year apprenticeship – into first becoming one of the most experienced competitive chefs in the country, then into an entrepreneurial brand of his own. As the youngest member ever to join the ACF Culinary Team USA, Rosendale competed in the 2004 and 2008 World Culinary Olympics, and has competed at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or. Hungry for more, Rosendale opened his first restaurant at the age of 31, before returning to his role as the Executive Chef of The Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. In 2010, he successfully completed the Culinary Institute of America’s grueling, 130-hour, Certified Master Chef Exam and currently manages Roots, a café and market in Leesburg, Virginia, and hosts a variety of internationally renowned culinary workshops.

It is easy to assume, with such a vast array of accolades and accomplishments, that Rosendale is simply incredibly gifted, that culinary success comes easily. Yet, when the entrepreneurial chef spoke with us about his career path, he pointed to his failures, the perseverance required to succeed, and the fears he faced when he went out on his own. Rosendale also told us how he started his workshops and the entrepreneurial importance of being nimble.


“Not Your Typical Story”


A Pennsylvania native, Rosendale credits his grandmothers – one Italian, the other German – for developing his love for food. Yet, Rosendale admits that it wasn’t until he entered a cake-decorating contest in high school that he started to consider culinary school. “When I was in high school,” Rosendale said, “I was like a lot of kids, I didn’t really know what to do with my life. To be honest, I was an average student,I got okay grades, and I was kind of fickle in my interests. As I got closer to high school graduation, I really started feeling this pressure, like ‘what am I going to do?’ and I really had no idea.” When Rosendale entered the cake-decorating contest, he admits it was the first time he’d actively engaged with food in a creative way. The process spoke to him, and pushed him to seriously consider culinary school. Four years later, with training that took him across Europe, he was undertaking a six-year apprenticeship program, which included working with seven different Certified Master Chefs.

Although proud of his training, Rosendale doesn’t advocate that every beginner chef follows in his footsteps. “A lot of young culinarians think that they have to go and chase after a name or reputation, and that is a good thing to do for your resume, you may want to have one or two very well-known properties or chefs on there, and that will help your resume carry some clout and get noticed,” Rosendale said. “But,” he added, “the real goal you should keep in mind is working in environments or with people who are truly going to expose you to skills that are going to make you better, because once all the training is done, you’re the one that has to deal with the challenges you’re going to face, day-in and day-out.” Rosendale advises young chefs focus, rather, on developing a “massive scope of skills.” The only way to do so, Rosendale believes, is to learn those skills and gain the requisite experience.

With a toolbox of skills under his belt, by 2002, Rosendale became the Chef de Cuisine of the Tavern Room at the prestigious Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. Two years later, those same skills will be tested when Rosendale became the youngest member to be appointed to the American Culinary Federation Culinary Team USA for the 2004 World Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. The team took number one in the world for hot kitchen, and Rosendale would improve on that performance four years later, taking three gold medals as Team Captain for the 2008 USA Culinary Olympic Team.

By that time, Rosendale had been a restauranteur for approximately a year, opening his first restaurant, Rosendales, in Columbus, Ohio, to high praise and critical acclaim. While owning and managing a highly successful restaurant, Rosendale continued to compete. In 2008, he was chosen as one of only eight US competitors to compete in the Bocuse d’Or USA culinary competition. He took home a silver medal.

To feed his desire to hone his skills even further, in 2010, Rosendale – who chose to return to The Greenbrier as the Executive Chef in 2009 – took, and passed, the Certified Master Chef exam. What propelled Rosendale to take the exam was not the allure of the Master Chef credentials, but the desire to further develop his skills for the upcoming Bocuse d’Or competition. “Of course, getting certified would be good for my credentials, but that was secondary,” says Rosendale of the 8-day, 130-hour examination that boasts a 90% failure rate,“it was more about evolving my skills, and it was another one of those milestones that I wanted to accomplish.”

While preparing for the Bocuse d’Or competition, Rosendale also oversaw an almost unbelievable overhaul of The Greenbrier’s culinary program. “I really wanted to be a part of re-imagining that place,” Rosendale told Amy McKeever of Eater.com. Rosendale did more than just re-imagine during his tenure, opening five new restaurants, designing all of the restaurants in the 100,000 square foot casino, directing thirteen kitchens, catering three PGA tours, and initiating the44-acre Greenbrier Farm, which supplies 75% of The Greenbrier’s produce.

In 2013, Rosendale returned to competing, this time in the world’s most challenging and prestigious culinary competition, the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France. Rosendale and Commis Chef Corey Siegel represented the United States, taking home a 7th place against chefs from 23 other countries.

Although Rosendale has not ruled out competing again, by mid-2013, he had left The Greenbrier as Executive Chef and Director of Food and Beverage to pursue his own projects, including a television debut on CBS’s Recipe Rehab and his wildly popular culinary workshops. “I’m not your typical story,” Rosendale said, “I’ve had all these different roles: running a massive hotel, being an independent restauranteur, taking the CMC exam, but then also spending time with Michelin-starred chefs such as Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, and Daniel Boulud. I’ve had this really kind of unusual past, but what I keep gravitating to is being engaged and coming up with different ideas, or having someone else on the team come up with an idea, and having those ideas blossom into something wonderful.”


Branching Out


“Once entrepreneurship gets in you, you know if it’s for you or if it’s not,” Rosendale said, “and for me, it just grew inside of me.” Although Rosendale admits that for most people, resigning from a position as the Executive Chef and Director of Food and Beverage at The Greenbrier would seem like an unwise choice, he found the experience of branching out on his own, “exhilarating.” Despite knowing there would be no severance pay or any more checks in the mail, and that he was officially on his own, Rosendale took it in stride. “There’s a period where you start something and you can’t look a year or two or three down the road and anticipate what something is going to grow into,” Rosendale said, “you just have to believe that it’s going to grow into that.”

Rosendale attributes his entrepreneurial success to his perseverance. “A lot of people have a tendency to introduce me by this list of all these things I’ve accomplished,” Rosendale said, “and I often wonder, what if I could be introduced by all my failures? Because there’s a lot in the process of getting better that I didn’t do so well at. I think the difference between someone who succeeds and someone who doesn’t is that someone who succeeds just keeps going, regardless of the adversity they face.”

As an example, Rosendale spoke to us about the time he was going to be critiqued, as an apprentice, by the chefs at The Greenbrier. “It was going to be our first showing, and I stayed there until four o’clock in the morning, remaking my stuff over and over and over again, because I felt like it wasn’t where it needed to be,” Rosendale recalls, “but that’s the difference. There’s a difference between the person who says ‘I’m going to stay here and get it right, as long as it takes,’ as opposed to the person that says, ‘well, I’ll work on it tomorrow.’ I feel like I don’t have any secrets, I wasn’t born with this gift of skills, I just have continued to work at it, and I still continue to work at it. I think that perseverance is the key trait that I find to be more valuable than just having natural talent.”

“That perseverance can help you get through hard times,” Rosendale adds. “Because people may look at it and think, ‘oh, well, that’s easy for you to do, you’re Rich Rosendale,’ and that’s not the case. If anything, the more you accomplish, that puts a lot of pressure on you to continue,” Rosendale said. “Despite where you are on the runway of your career,” Rosendale continued, “it’s always a little scary to go out on your own and I think sometimes people let that discourage them, but you can’t just wait until the ideal conditions are present, because it’s just never going to be ideal to go out there and put your money on your dreams. You just have to make it happen. If you fail, then you learn from that and you keep going. If you really want it, you’re just going to keep plugging away.”

“When things don’t work,” Rosendale said, “you adjust.” He compared his experience opening his first restaurant, Rosendales, with that of his café-market, Roots. “I was a different entrepreneur,” Rosendale told us, “I spend money differently now; you never really understand money until you lose money, and when you lose it, you remember that feeling. That makes you more mindful of how you spend your money, and for that matter, how you spend your time.” Rosendale spoke about how the entire process has been one of making decisions and learning from them, whatever the outcome. “You have to keep moving,” he repeated, “even if you have to adjust the direction along the way.”

That said, Rosendale admits that plunging into the entrepreneurial world can involve a substantial sacrifice. “There are always going to be different kinds of sacrifices,” Rosendale said, “but to point out one, when I was at The Greenbrier, I had stable, good compensation, that when I decided to leave and go on my own, it was like turning the water faucet off.” Rosendale pointed to the lifestyle sacrifices he had to make, and continues to make. “When you go and start a new business model, there’s a lot of your own money going into it,” he said, “and you have to continue to make sacrifices. Even to this day, rather than trying to pay myself a huge salary, I continue to try and grow the brand and the company. You do have to continue to invest and grow your company at every stage.”

Rosendale too, has grown with his company. He mentions how much more flexible he has become as his business has stabilized. “Though I am careful with each phase of the decision-making process,” he said, “I try not to be so controlling over every single aspect of the brand, and by doing that, I’m giving more room for people on our team to establish their place.” As an example of his flexible business approach, Rosendale spoke to us about giving two employees equity in his café-market, Roots, and the unique no-vacation policy he has in place. “My employees takes time off when they need to, and I trust they’re not going to abuse that,” Rosendale said, “and if you hire the right people and you create this really great place to work, you don’t have to worry about that stuff.” The effect of that policy has been to eliminate the need to do any tedious scheduling. “I don’t have to worry about how many days someone has taken off per year,” Rosendale pointed out. “It’s a different kind of paradigm,” he said.

More evidence of Rosendale’s flexibility is in what he looks for in hiring staff. “For cooking and chefs, I always like to know, what do you eat on your day off? What do you like to cook?” Rosendale told us. “If you can’t get excited about food and the people you spend your down time with, how is that going to translate to our guests at a function? The interest has to be genuine,” he pointed out. “I don’t look to people’s backgrounds as much as I used to,” he said, “I look for people who have a lot of energy and want to contribute; I love the environment of participation. I look for people who are engaging and ambitious. I don’t like to spend a lot of time in a negative place. There have been a lot of times when people have made a lot of mistakes, and that hasn’t bothered me. What has bothered me is when I feel like somebody isn’t participating. A contributing environment is so important, and it’s contagious, too.” Rosendale believes that a positive, collaborative environment also allows employees to feel like anybody can suggest something. “I want that authentic feedback and you have to break down those walls where people feel like they can’t say something to you,” Rosendale said. 

When asked how professional failures have shaped him, Rosendale pointed to his performance at the 2013 Bocuse d’Or. “Corey Siegal and I wanted to win the competition, and it just didn’t go that way, we walked away with 7th place,” Rosendale said, “I didn’t feel like anybody else felt like it was a failure, but if you look at what our goal was, which was, we want to go here and win, we didn’t do that.” Rosendale, however, astutely points to how failures are extremely valuable. “On the surface, maybe you don’t accomplish that goal, but the real treasures are what’s beneath the surface,” Rosendale told us, “and that’s all of the skills that I picked up, and the ripple effect of how that’s affected so many people’s lives. Now, I have a relationship and network with some of the most iconic chefs in the country, and here we are a few years later and the United States just won the competition. Even though the goal may not be accomplished in the way you intended, there are still remarkable things that happen in the process.”


Culinary Workshops


Rosendale admits he didn’t leave The Greenbrier with a plan to host culinary workshops. Upon leaving his position, Rosendale had landed a two-week contract to work in Dubai cooking for the royal family, doing culinary demonstrations, and training some of the cooks there. “On my last day, one of the cooks said to me, ‘I really enjoyed working with you while you were here, I learned so much; do you do this in the United States? Can people come and work with you?’ And it was like a light bulb went off,” Rosendale recalls.

After returning to the U.S., Rosendale took the idea and did a test run at Stratford University. “I didn’t know what to charge for it, I didn’t know if anybody would sign up, it was really shooting from the hip, I didn’t even know how to market it,” Rosendale told us. Although his marketing was limited to a few Facebook posts, fifteen people had signed up and Rosendale began to think that there might be a market for his idea. Three years later, he holds a culinary workshop in a different city each month, and all have sold out. Each class typically has 25 to 30 participants from all over the world; with Rosendale approximating that 30% of each class consists of repeat business.

Rosendale credits the international appeal of his workshops to the Internet. “We have people coming from South America, Ireland, South Africa, and I don’t even market it heavily internationally, but it shows the reach of the Internet,” Rosendale said, “and if you think about it, this model wouldn’t have been possible before the Internet.”Having recognized the importance of having a presence on the Internet before the rise of Facebook and other popular social media sites, Rosendale initially set up his website with a small web store. When the idea for the workshops developed further, Rosendale made a significant investment in his website. “Many people would probably have been reluctant to do that,” he told us, “but I kind of knew that regardless of whether these classes took off or not, investing in my website was going to be a good thing.” His website turned into his storefront for the next few years, and remains critical to signing up for his workshops.

“I like forward thinking,” Rosendale said, “although my background is classical and a disciplined approach to cooking, there’s another side to me that is more entrepreneurial and open-minded. I think you should nod to tradition, but also press forward with new concepts. See what works and tastes right, but you shouldn’t limit the ideas or ingredients that go into your concept.”

This flexibility is apparent in how Rosendale currently markets his workshops, though he remains focused on the Internet as his primary marketing outlet. While initially his team focused on marketing to a particular state – “if I was doing a class in Michigan, we would market to Michigan, and maybe Ohio” – Rosendale now understands that his students will travel from all over the U.S. to attend his workshops. “The classes have definitely created a reputation where people will travel here to take the class,” Rosendale said, “but the marketing is all just social media.”

Rosendale’s advice for monetizing one’s expertise in workshop form? “The key is you have to have a great product,” he told us, “don’t focus on the price, you’ll figure the marketing out and you’ll figure who your audience is and people will tell you if your price is too high. Whatever you’re selling, to have longevity, you have to have a good product.” Rosendale often has people asking him whether he can conduct a workshop on a particular subject. “You know, I can probably go there for two days and talk about that,” he said, “but I have a standard that I want every experience with me to meet. Until we have a class ready to roll out, we just don’t post it just to fill seats. It has to be a compelling product.” Of his classes, Rosendale further added, “I’m not popping up and doing a cooking demo for you, it’s more like a Metallica concert.”

“We put a lot of effort into making sure it’s an experience that people are going to talk about,” Rosendale told us, pointing to the books that are specifically printed for each workshop, the equipment provided and the branded thumbdrives containing all the recipes covered in a workshop. “If you put most of your energy into making a great product, all the marketing and the little details will take care of themselves,” he said, “people just want to have a really great experience.”

Not one to rest on his laurels, Rosendale continues to find new ways to improve on an already-successful product. “As an entrepreneur,” he said, “you always have to be thinking, ‘how do you evolve? Where do you go from here?’ ”For Rosendale, the answer lies in connecting the dots. Taking a concept from his Roots café in which he offers a space for artisans who make a great product but may not have the finances to afford a large space from which to market that product, he is exploring the possibility of certifying workshop instructors around the country. “We’re always evolving,” he said.


Capitalizing a Dream


Drawing from his experience opening Roots and conducting workshops, Rosendale advocates starting small and making use of the tools available to capitalize a dream. “What’s really amazing now,” he said, “when I was in culinary school, I didn’t have access to all these different tools that let you test your concept out before you ever take on any major capital expenditures.” Rosendale points to the increased interest in pop-up dinners with which a budding culinarian can test her skills, and the tools available online that allow an entrepreneur to gauge interest in a product. “It’s okay to start small,” he advised, pointing out, “nobody ever closes a restaurant because they were so full all the time, but they were just too small.” In fact, with all the tools currently available, Rosendale believes that it is “kind of an obsolete and dangerous proposition to go out, borrow all this money, invest it into a building and say, ‘oh man, it isn’t as busy as I thought it was going to be.’”

Despite his long list of personal accomplishments by the time he left The Greenbrier, Rosendale emphasizes that he himself started small. “I started with no storefront, except for online, for the first two years,” he told us, “now, we have a beautiful building and a much bigger team, but if you were to go online and look at our website when we first got started, you would never know that we had no storefront. You don’t have to go and spend the money on a brickand- mortar store to find out if you have a great product. You need to vet the product and make sure that there’s an opportunity in the marketplace for what you’re getting ready to sell, and now, there are so many ways you can do that before you even spend any money.”

Rosendale also points to the fact that having investors and debt can take focus away from simply putting out a great product. Although he admits that it is sometimes necessary to seek credit, he compared his experience with Rosendales, which had over a dozen investors, with how he has financed his current projects. “With Roots and the workshops, I didn’t borrow any money,” he told us, “I didn’t put in as much as people would think, but the revenue built itself. If people can do that, that’s so much less pressure on an entrepreneur than going out and borrowing money. It’s much easier to have a clear mind when you’re focusing just on your product. Instead of your mind being occupied with debt, you’re focusing on generating revenue.”


Advice Looking Back


What advice would you have given yourself when you were starting out, we asked? Rosendale told us that while many view his rigid organization and perfectionism as an asset, he believes that being more flexible would have helped him to arrive at where he currently is, faster. He spoke to us about how he wanted “every aspect to be absolutely, exactly perfect,” when opening Rosendales in Columbus, Ohio. “Everything had to be a certain way, it had to be perfect, I had to get brand new this and brand new that and the best of this and the best of that. And now, I’ve learned that you can make better business choices without compromising the quality of the experience. I now look at auctions for equipment, I work with sponsors. Business is not as structured as you would like it to be, things aren’t always going to go the way you want them to go, and that’s okay.”

The flexibility and ability to be more nimble has also translated to how Rosendale cooks. “It’s a lot easier to cook what the market wants, instead of telling the market what to eat,” he noted, “I was so rigid not only with my business, but with the way I cook, like ‘this is what we’re having.’ And man, that’s so much harder than to just find out what people really love and what they really want to eat and make it really remarkable.” Rosendale gave us some valuable, final words: “I’ve learned the value in being more nimble in the way I do business and the way I cook, and understanding that structure and disciple isn’t always going to be there, and that’s okay,” he said, “that’s life.”

March 24, 2017