What if you knew how to make Italian pasta from scratch, had the perfect fried chicken recipe, or could roll your own sushi like a pro?
Technically you can—with a little help—and all without having to leave your kitchen.
Jenn Nicken, ’02, founded the Chef & the Dish, a Toronto-based company that offers private cooking classes via Skype with chefs all over the globe. Culinary enthusiasts can choose from nearly 40 unique dishes—everything from Southern to Spanish to Singaporean cuisine—and learn from a renowned expert in real time.
“There are so many flavors that reflect unique traditions and cultures,” said Nicken, who has taken cooking courses in over 10 countries—including Australia, China, Germany, Italy, and Thailand. “Not everyone has the opportunity to experience authentic dishes firsthand.”
Her business idea officially sparked while she was eating pasta Bolognese in Bologna, Italy. After one bite, she realized that it tasted quite different from the “Italian” pasta with meat sauce she’d eaten at home.
“You can truly taste the difference with the right approach, techniques, and ingredients,” Nicken said. “My company grew from wanting to bring these flavors into more people’s homes and reinvent the ‘night in.’”
Bringing people together through food is at the heart of the Chef & the Dish experience, according to Nicken.
“Through one-on-one coaching, our clients are able to connect with chefs who are literally making the same dish as you,” she said. “They are genuinely passionate about the food and want to share it with others. And you can ask your chef anything food-related and beyond. So you’re also learning about the history and culture of the regional dish.”
Before leaving a steady career to travel the world, Nicken worked in marketing for the entertainment, technology, and restaurant industries for almost 15 years. Her career journey started the same day as her undergraduate Commencement ceremony at Buffalo State.
“I actually missed graduation to pack up my car and move to Los Angeles and start a job,” said Nicken, who studied public communication.
Her first full-time position at an ad agency allowed her to work with entertainment giants like Apple, ABC, NBC, and Lifetime television. Ever since, Nicken has sought work that promotes creativity and innovation.
She was later hired by one of her former clients, Apple, to head up marketing for iTunes Canada. During her seven years at the company, Nicken worked on teams that oversaw several global campaigns.
“Regardless of whether I was at a small agency or a global organization, I’ve always been encouraged to have an entrepreneurial spirit,” said Nicken, who left Apple in 2016. She traveled for three months and started the Chef & the Dish about a year after returning to Toronto.
While Nicken doesn't have a formal culinary background, she has learned under world-class chefs: “I’ve taken several semesters of culinary school and more cooking classes than anyone I know.”
She also believes the company’s success has as much to do with technology as it does with food.
“We are very much a technology company. The user experience and use of Skype impact our success,” she said.
At Buffalo State, Nicken first learned how to deliver a message and to overcome inevitable challenges.
“I am responsible for getting my company out there every day,” she said. “Buffalo State gave me a strong foundation and the communication skills that I still use as an entrepreneur. The Creative Studies Department taught me that every problem has a solution—sometimes you just have to pivot.”
For Nicken, a trip to Italy ignited her interest in food in its most authentic form; however, the native Buffalonian grew up with an appreciation for regional cuisine.
“I still joke that the farther you get from Buffalo, the worse the chicken wings taste,” she said. “They always have too many ingredients or stray too far from the original recipe. Our classes introduce you to not just authentic dishes but real people who love and are proud of where they’re from. Maybe that’s part of my inspiration, as well. Buffalo is the City of Good Neighbors, after all, so maybe it’s that friendly spirit that’s inspired me to connect people all around the world.”