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Meet Trailblazer Ayo Cherry

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ayo Cherry.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Ayo. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
Food was always a huge part of my upbringing. Even as young as seven, I would go to my Grandmas’s house just to get a fried pork chop sandwich, because my mom doesn’t eat red meat. My grandmother cooked all the southern greatest hits, but she would research different foods she thought sounded interesting to cook. It could be as simple as paella or it could be as random as borscht. She really taught me the value of food across cultures and that it can really be an experience.

I grew up working in my Auntie’s restaurant called “South Side Diner,” in Tallahassee, Florida. I started out making drinks and taking orders. I still remember what it was like going there every day, how she knew everyone’s orders as soon as they walked in. She knew their names, their kids, hell she knew if they weren’t supposed to eating the fried foods anymore. When I think back, that’s when I fell in love with southern hospitality. Falling in love with the restaurant industry, happened much, much later.

At 18, I started working at a New Orleans cuisine restaurant under one of my mentors Shawn Shepherd. And honestly, he kicked my ass. I was not only the only woman but the youngest by far. However, they treated me just like every 30 something man who worked the line. I observed, took my lumps, and slowly but surely I was working the grill on a Saturday night with the best of them. That experience made me who I am.

From where I am now I feel like once you’ve been a managing chef in an establishment long enough you have two roads you can take, you either become a private chef, or you become and Owner/Executive Chef. I chose the former. Thanks to a referral from a chef I met through a Facebook group and a great steak I became the private chef for Lil Wayne, officially landing me my first celebrity client. From there, I have cooked for people I could only imagine and I am currently the private chef for Travis Barker. I could not be more grateful. To my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, my mentors, and my fellow chefs! Without my family and mentors, I would not have the skills I have today and without the chef colleagues I’ve worked with I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to show those skills.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Struggles! Whew, honestly, when you’re still figuring it out, it all feels like a struggle.

First, let’s start with school, I knew I wanted to cook or be involved with school but culinary school was never really presented as an option, so I went to FAMU for Food Science Engineering. Took about a year before I realized that was not the path for me, so I dropped out and went to Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando, Florida.

Being 19 on my own in Orlando was a struggle within itself. I went to school from 6 am – 10 am and worked in the restaurant at a resort from 1 pm – 10 pm. I remember my teachers would tell my classmates to “practice making dishes at home.” but I couldn’t afford that, class lessons were my lunch and work leftovers were my dinner most days. But the beauty in that struggle is it pushed me to work that much harder to apply what I learned in school at work and vice versa. So, I was unknowingly getting real-world experience. Which is more valuable than gold.

When I moved to Miami I struggled in the kitchens because I had been a sous chef before but this was a whole new level. I had to source new products, call farms, go to farms, in addition to working the line, and doing the scheduling and ordering. I barely slept and most days, it felt like the only thing keeping me alive was the Red Bulls I was clutching on an hourly basis. But from that struggle, I learned to create systems, to teach those next in line the skills I was honing so they would be prepared in their careers and could help me along. The best part of that struggle was building a community.

There’s so much more but the common theme is each “struggle” has its season. To other young women in the kitchen, I know you have to be better because if you’re anything like me you had to prove to those boys on the line every day that you deserve to be there and even more so once you become management. My honest advice is to stay on your path if you’re good to those around you and you work hard for your team as a unit and individuals it will work out.

What do you do, what do you specialize in, what are you known for, etc. What are you most proud of? What sets you apart from others?
I cook everything under the sun! For the last year, I’ve been asked about my specialty and I should probably get one but I have so many cuisines and styles that inspire me I can’t imagine being confined to one.

I’d like to believe I’m known for my food being very pretty. It’s also delicious but that’s a given I suppose.

What excites me the most about creating is the presentation. I get very detailed in my plating, menu design and the reasons behind why each item or dish was chosen. As woo woo as it sounds, I genuinely believe there’s a transfer of positive energy that occurs when I cook and it allows me to nourish my clients inside and out. That’s what southern hospitality is, love you can feel.

Finding a mentor and building a network are often cited in studies as a major factor impacting one’s success. Do you have any advice or lessons to share regarding finding a mentor or networking in general?
The best advice I have for finding a mentor is to be yourself. My mentors and even just chef acquaintances all feel comfortable giving me advice or referring me to clients because they know my work and they know my ethics. Show people who you are.

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Image Credit:
Stay in Your Frame, Rush the Photographer

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