Each month we feature a Chef of Chef Works®. If you’re a fan of Chef Works gear and are interested in being featured, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Pictured above is our November Chef of Chef Works®, Maeve Rochford, photographed by Chef Works® in her Springfield Chef Coat and Berkeley Bib Apron.
Chef Maeve Rochford, never one to pull her punches, sat down with the Chef Works® blog for wide-ranging Q&A that touched on a number of topics. Her accomplishments are noteworthy – including 2017 Food Network Holiday Baking Champion and 2019 California Chef of the Year by the California Restaurant Association.
Here’s Rochford, chef-owner of Sugar and Scribe in La Jolla, Calif., our November Chef of Chef Works®.
Your background is so unique. Give us a quick rundown on how you got to where you are today.
Maeve Rochford: I was born in Cincinnati. My mother is from Ireland, so I spent a lot of time going back and forth between both countries. I went to Boston University on an athletic scholarship. I was coxswain for the crew team. I was the one who was always cooking for everyone. A friend recommended me for a private chef job and she created a bogus resume. That got me in the door and, with no culinary training, I got the job. I worked as a private chef in New York and moved with the family to Namibia, Africa for a time.
I was offered a job in London, but I was also dating the man who’d be my husband. We got engaged quickly and instead decided to move to California.
So now you have a highly-successful brunch spot in one of the most beautiful and tourist-packed cities on the West Coast. What made you decide to open your own place?
MR: Opening your own restaurant is like a free fall into a dark abyss. You either grow wings and figure it out or you fail in a beautiful explosion of fire. I’ve certainly had a ton of glorious and spectacular failures in my life. I’ve gone all in and lost. Those are the moments that make you stronger. If all you’ve had is success then you can’t really appreciate failing.
Can you give us an example?
MR: I failed fifth grade. My parents could have pulled me and sent me to another school. But they didn’t. And I remember standing outside that door right before repeating fifth grade, petrified that everyone in that class would know I was a failure because I wasn’t moving on. It was mortifying.
That was the year they discovered I had dyslexia and attention deficit disorder and I couldn’t see more than a quarter inch in front of me. I got glasses. I started seeing a reading therapist. I went from repeating to honors. So whenever I’m feeling like a failure, I actually think about that moment right before I walked through the door.
You recently had one of those moments after winning California Chef of the Year. Can you talk about that?
MR: I was actually really depressed for like eight weeks after. I didn’t feel like I deserved it. I scramble eggs. I make salads look pretty. I make pancakes. I make cupcakes and cakes. We’re a brunch place. But then I realized it’s not about me. It’s about my team. I don’t scramble every egg. I don’t pour every cup of coffee. This was a team award. That’s why I brought them all to the ceremony.
Maybe I’ll never win a James Beard Award. I don’t use dry ice with caviar. I don’t know what to do with foie gras. But I’ve built a community. I give people steady paychecks. And hopefully I can change lives for the better.
That came through recently with a customer, correct?
MR: I had a longtime customer come in whose wife had breast cancer. She was in hospice and doctors didn’t think she had much time left. All she wanted to do was come here. It was such a special moment.
There is such a constant swirl of negativity in this business. But in that one moment, that one meal, they were happy (pauses to wipe tears). If you can hold on to those moments, everything else doesn’t matter. If I can make someone’s day happy with a cookie, then screw the foie gras. Screw the negative Yelp reviews.
In the beginning, those reviews wrecked me. I read every single one of them and if it was fewer than three stars, it destroyed me. It’s like they somehow attacked my self-worth. I had given that to people that don’t even know me and, in a lot of cases, some of them aren’t even real. I decided I’m going to give value to people who are true.
You’ve been on numerous Food Network shows, you almost beat Bobby Flay and you were a Holiday Baking champ. But somehow you don’t strike me as comfortable in the role of “celebrity chef.”
MR: Not at all. I like doing TV because it’s good exposure for Sugar and Scribe. It’s exposure for the people I work with and it puts butts in seats and that’s what we need to keep our restaurant going. And I like the competition part. But after that’s done, you’re back to reality.
That means washing dishes and sweeping floors. TV is partly real, partly not. But there’s an expectation that comes with it. People come here for scrambled eggs, so they better be damn good because they’ve seen me on TV scrambling eggs. Most people can scramble eggs. A drunken college student can scramble eggs. Most people know how to bake a cake. We just do it every day, 364 days a year from sunup until sundown. And being on TV raises those expectations.
How do you manage those expectations?
MR: I never went to culinary school. But I was a college athlete so I run my kitchen like a team. I know what it’s like to work with people you don’t like and still get the win. I know what it’s like to work solely for someone else so they get the win. I refer to my staff as family or team, not servers or chefs.
Other than sports, I think this is one of the most emotionally draining industries. You’re bombarded with Yelp reviews and people who are intentionally mean just to see if you’ll be the chef who takes the bait and writes back. Did your Instagram cake get enough likes? If it didn’t, does that mean it’s not a good cake? You never feel like what you do is ever enough.
But you do it because your worst days are truly better than not doing it at all. So you come back and do it again day after day.
Meet the other Chefs of Chef Works® for 2019:
- January: Seth & Ryan of Nude Dude Food
- February: Allison Fasano
- March: Johnny Carino
- April: Trang Tran
- May: David Rose
- June: Caroline Schiff
- July: Tracey Shepos Cenami
- August: Ian Ramirez
- September: Tony Sinese
- October: Stacey Poon-Kinney