We had the good fortune of connecting with Kyle Shankman and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kyle, how do you think about risk?
As scary as risk taking can be, I feel that risk is necessary for growth. It’s almost like building muscle. There’s a point where you may plateau. The only way to push through and get stronger is to attempt a weight that isn’t guaranteed to move for you. Alternatively, you can stay safe at the comfortable weight and just sort of spin your wheels indefinitely. My career has had a strange trajectory. I became a father at 17. I was a head chef at 21. I left that to continue my education as a cook, and the restaurant I worked for closed during the 2008 financial crisis. I then worked in direct sales and eventually opened my own sales and marketing firm in South Carolina. 2 years later, the kitchen was calling to me, so I came back and started from the bottom at the Ritz Carlton. I was an executive chef again within a year. Not long after, I was offered an opportunity to teach. I became the Resident Chef for Sur La Table and did that for 6 years before starting my business, Speak Easy Supper Club. Every one of those career shifts were preceded by the decision to take a risk. In hindsight, every one of those risks needed to happen for this business to be here now. Much of the success I’ve found in the supper club (I believe) has been because we take risks. Most of our menu changes every month, and we challenge ourselves to constantly innovate and stay exciting. A lot of chefs go into business planning to operate that way, but it’s so much easier said than done to keep it that way. Margins are slim, and things are unpredictable. On one hand, if you put spinach artichoke dip on your menu, it’ll sell. On the other hand, now you’re competing with everyone else who sells spinach artichoke dip. Though it took us a while to build some credibility for it, if someone wants Speak Easy Milk Bread with Whipped Honey Lavender Butter, there’s only one place they can go. As the industry attempts to return post-Covid, we’ll have to find solutions to problems that didn’t exist a year ago. We also have to give people even better reasons to choose to dine out. That’s going to require taking some risks.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
A huge part of food, for me, is the beauty of it. I see myself as both a cook and an artist. The daily challenge is to make the food as pretty as it is tasty. There is sort of an organic quality to how we present food. It should look natural, as if everything on the plate naturally fell into place. But it should also be clean, inviting, and balanced in color, texture, and proportion. What sets us apart is that we not only do that, but we do it with brand new menus every single month. I’m most proud of the way we committed to being us from the very beginning. We cancelled countless events in our first 2 years, but we resisted the urge to change our food to be “safer” or to overpromote ourselves. Once people found us, we had a confident voice and culinary point of view. It was sup[er difficult, but I found in the process that folks respect and respond to artists who are bold in their vision. By year 3, we were sending invitations to over 1k people at a time and selling out 3 events per month. I want people to know that we cook because we love to cook, and that we do it for other people because we love people.
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?
I’d take them to Ponce City Market, exploring the food stalls for lunch. My favorite spot for dinner is right across the street at Tiny Lou’s, in the basement of the Claremont Hotel. Later in the week, we’d explore Little Five Points, grabbing a beer at The Porter and a burger at The Vortex. If we have time, a day trip to spa out and relax south of Atlanta at Serenbe is a beautiful way to recover and reset.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My wife, Jade, deserves so much credit for letting me take the risks I needed to take to be where I am now. She’s been my ear to vent to, my office manager, my dishwasher, my marketing director, and my partner. She has moved states for me, watched our baby by herself while I prepped and cooked (and while she worked a full time job herself), and has been endlessly supportive.