It’s always been easy to blame your failed efforts at recreating favourite dishes from restaurants or TV chefs on your lack of an industrial kitchen – until now.
Nerida Conway established the website Chef Masterclasses to help people cook like the professionals in their own homes.
We spoke to Conway about how a passion to learn inspired her business.
What convinced you to start your own business?
I had a radio show on 3AW that finished up and just wanted to do something for myself – I have 3 small children and thought I just want to do something that’s fun. Time to me is precious because of the kids; they’re my first job. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I’ve worked in media so I’ve got this strange skill set.
I went along to a master class by Travis McAuley, who’s a chef at Hellenic Republic. It was a four-week course, and I had a Greek nanna and all her daughters-in-law in my class who were learning to cook for her sons. They were ridiculously annoying, talking non-stop and I couldn’t hear, and I thought to myself that it was just a waste of money. One week the nanna said to me that there wouldn’t be a class next week because they couldn’t come, and I was a bit sooky about it – I went up to Travis at the end and told him it wasn’t working out for me, that I want to learn how to make the food but I wasn’t getting anything out of it.
He told me I could come on my own the next week, so I did. I spent 3 hours in his kitchen, and while I was there, it wasn’t even about the way he made his dishes that struck me, but all the things that go along with it. Like when you make a lasagne or cheese-topped casserole, he would put baking paper on top, and then foil – unlike me, who puts foil and then wonders why all the cheese peels off at the end. I kept asking why he was doing this and that, and it occurred to me that these chefs don’t even know how much they’ve picked up along the way. So I said to Travis that it would be great if I could film him doing all of this and put it up online for people to watch on their iPads and pause and rewind as they go along while they’re cooking – and he said, why don’t you? So I realised then that that was my business idea.
How did you get other chefs on board?
I just hit the ground running, really. I drew up the plans for the website and approached a couple of different people. We launched with a different business model to what we have now, we had two major sponsors who funded a whole lot of recipes but we needed chefs to film. I wanted to feature a really high profile and established chef in Melbourne to hit the ground with. I’d just met Ian Curley, who eventually said okay. We did it at his home in Brighton, he let us come in and set up. We filmed him doing some recipes, and because I was working with a cameraman and an editor I’d worked with in TV before, I was able to give him those edited recipes quite quickly for his showreel, which he needed to show channel 7, and then he got the show Conviction Kitchen shortly after.
From that, it kind of spring boarded…I thought I’d have to grovel to get chefs on board, and while I do pay them, it’s not a lot, but I do media train them to help them be good on camera. I make sure they deliver an amazing performance, and they get a lot out of it in terms of training, and everyone’s a winner. The hard part was getting the first one on board, which was Ian, but he recommended me to others, and it’s gone from there.
How has the business evolved?
One big thing I did was build a custom studio kitchen in my home. I hit the ground running and didn’t really have any capital behind me, so I approached a kitchen company and said, you need a video on your website showing how to choose a kitchen, so they gave me a kitchen and I gave them a video that’s their main sales tool on their website showing the process of choosing a kitchen. It was a real win-win for both of us.
People always say that they could cook beautifully like the chefs on TV if they had 27 burners and 100 ovens, but I want people to be able to recreate these meals at home. At the end of the day it’s a home kitchen – we find the balance between cooking what the chefs make in their restaurants and knowing that it’s actually not that complicated and do-able.
You mentioned that you started with a different business model to the one you have now – how did that change?
We were with just two major sponsors, which was a bit limiting because I had to use all of their products. I have to be totally open to any different trend or product that comes along if I’m going to be truly relating to foodies, so now we’ve got branded content. We partner with somebody, like De Bortoli Wines, for example, who funds the production. They were going to create a video anyway through their ad agency, but we’ve got the tools to make it and a targeted audience to show it to.
How did the business grow?
It’s just grown organically. Social media’s been really good for us. We do joint promotions with all our different brand partners, so whenever we launch one of their videos, they also say they’ve worked with us on it. It’s a very symbiotic relationship, it’s not just a case of shooting videos for them and handing them over, it’s an interactive promotion. It’s also been word of mouth, and some gift promotions here and there to encourage people to subscribe.
What challenges did you face along the way?
For me, I think I learned a lot from the mistakes I made in my previous business. I was in my 20s and my business was an event that ran around the country. Because of pure naiveté and a whole spate of things that just went wrong that I hadn’t foreseen but should have catered for, we lost every single cent we had, it was our house deposit and everything. We managed to pay back everyone we owed money to, and while it was traumatic, I wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world. It was the MBA of life for me.
By having that bad experience with that business, I learned incredible amounts about minimising my exposure and risk, managing cash flow, and managing client relationships. I actually had the courage, for the first time this year, to walk away from one client I didn’t like. I think if you work with like-minded people, you’re going to get a better outcome.
What’s next in store for Chef Masterclasses?
I’d like to increase awareness. At the same time, I’ve been a bit precious in terms of growing my membership or visitor base, because I don’t want to lose the engagement I have with our audience. Because it’s grown organically, they’ve been so engaged. They’re all just really lovely, sensible people.
A lot of big companies boast that they have a million Facebook fans, but for me, it’s quality, not quantity, because I know our brand partners get more out of it that way. It’s just a funny thing to get people’s heads around, because people are obsessed with numbers. It’s more increasing awareness of our website that I want, but again, I don’t want to lose that special engagement that we have with our existing audience.