James Pici: Combining two passions in one
James Pici has expanded his passion for food with a new career in photography
Meet James Pici–a chef who was raised in Buffalo, USA, and now living in Portland. He grew up in Western New York and has been cooking ever since he was a young boy. He attended Johnson & Wales University for culinary in Rhode Island and continued onto a 10-year cooking career. He has always had a passion for photography that he is now transforming into a new career through his blog, Raw Peach.
Tell us about your story? How did you get into cooking?
I grew up in Buffalo, New York. From an early age, I fell in love with cooking because of my grandmother. She would do all of the cooking during Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, and nobody was allowed inside the kitchen, except me. I was probably around 12 at the time when I first entered her kitchen, and she took me under her wing and showed me everything. I was offered vocational schooling in my junior and senior year in high school for culinary, so I opted to do that. I took that and just excelled in it because I actually had an interest in it. From that point, I went to Johnson and Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. I did a year and a half there before I ended up dropping out because of complications with my hand. After I went to college, I came back and just started going into restaurants and kept working from there.
What gives you inspiration as a cook?
From going to somewhere like the farmer's market and seeing if they have a specific green pepper and just going, 'Oh, I could totally use that in this way or I could use these colors for this.'. I think a lot of dishes come out of 'These flavors would go great together, let's build upon that' just as much as there's a lot of dishes that come out of 'This would look really cool color-wise and plating wise.' I think you can get inspiration from any sort of aspect of cooking depending on how you want to build your dish.
There are so many colors on your dishes, but what's the next color you want to challenge yourself with?
I'm a big fan of black and white, just because you don't really see it that often. My girlfriend Abby is a baker, which is great because she can fill me in on the tips that I never learned coming from a culinary background. There's a lot of times where I'll come up with colors, and I'm like, 'This looks really cool, but at the same time, it's not pleasing because it's not a natural color. So it's somewhat of a double edge sword. But black and white is something that I would really like to do. You can use coconut ash if you're doing a pastry, or if you're creating something more savory, you can use squid ink. I really like black and white, or just crazy colors that you just usually don't see.
What motivated you to start your blog, Raw Peach?
I think it has to do with that I don't want to be a chef anywhere. I came to that realization probably two years ago. Everyone asks the same question to chefs working in a restaurant: 'So would you open up a restaurant of your own?' And I see how running a restaurant and family can be a struggle to balance, I'm not saying that you can't do both, but I'd rather have a different career in place to build a family upon. So I'm just looking for different options to basically make a profit. I've worked in restaurants for over ten years and I still have a lot of knowledge and skills and tips that I would like to share with people, and I think that's where the blog comes into play. Having worked at buffets and fine dining restaurants or small Irish pubs, whatever it maybe, you learn a lot along the way. I think I just want to share with people recipes that I have come up with over the years, things that I'm currently working on, and the tips and tricks to help people out that maybe don't care to work in a restaurant but would like to further their cooking knowledge.
Will you continue sharing recipes or do you have something else planned for your blog?
I think I am going to keep doing recipes. I'm going to expand a little bit more on them. When I first started doing the recipes, it was more basic and tailored to a more general audience who can cook. But I also have knowledge of other skills that are more in-depth, plus I have a lot of followers that are experienced cooks, so I want to be able to share knowledge with them that they might not know. There's a lot of chefs and cooks that might be reading this that will go, 'You know what, I like this blog but I know how to make pot roast and shepherd's pie. That's not very impressive to me.' Which is fine, I just want to expand the blog to cater to more of the audience, to kind of give them something they maybe have never seen before, or have seen but didn't know how to do. I think that the next step is incorporating a basic idea and a more intricate idea to just appeal to everybody.
How did you develop your passion for photography, and how do you use your photography skills in tandem with your cooking skills?
I remember being around ten or twelve and my parents had old film cameras, and I would take them. I would take the camera, go out into the woods and just take pictures of nature photography. I specifically remember sitting at the table and my mom had those old Better Homes and Gardens magazines, and I saw some of the food pictures in there. Being that young, I thought, 'I would do that. I would like to do food photography.' But then it kind of trailed off, and I never really did anything like that again. I think it really picked up steam this past couple of years because, you know, you work in a restaurant for so long and you're only making so much money if you're not a chef or sous chef. I just kind of decided that if I can get a photography business going–in food photography–I could make a lot more money doing that than I can work in a kitchen. So I think at this point, it's more like a joint venture of doing prep and doing photography.
Do you think there are other problems with the industry?
Obviously, a lot of it came out after Anthony Bourdain passed, and people started delving into the whole depression side and alcoholism. It's a tough field to be in. It's one of the most high-stress jobs you could ever have. You won't hear 'thank you' a lot. The pay is very low. It's almost like people joke about it: 'Oh it's the pirate job or it's the down trod.' But it is. You build such a camaraderie with your coworkers because you all understand what you're going through, and it's a tough thing to go through. It's not for everyone, but this business has been going on for hundreds of years and it will continue to go on. I think it'll continue to be stressful. It'll be interesting to see where the next five years go with the industry.
Do you think your background as a chef has helped that? And how do you feel about food photography altogether?
You want to find your niche when it comes to photography because that is the kind of clientele you want to cater to. I like food photography because growing up, I used to do a lot of nature photography. I'd go to downtown Portland and photograph the buildings, and I think the reason why I like doing stuff other than food is that you can take a picture of a building or an angle of something else and go 'you know what, I could use that for a food shot.' It just helps you look at things differently than continuously looking at food. In terms of coming from a cooking background, doing photos in the restaurants, it absolutely helps because you grow up on the hotline knowing to say 'behind' when you walk behind someone or say 'hot' or 'corner'. Just the lingo and mannerisms of being in the kitchen really help, especially if you're doing live shoots of a private dinner or an event where I can use those skills to take photos around the kitchen and know that I'm not going to be in the way of the chefs or of the cooks. I know how much time I have with the dish where it's not getting cold, or that I'm not getting in the way of the chef wanting to take it out or do the next step. So I definitely think it helps coming from a background of being in that field to begin with.
Do you think it's true that chefs are unpaid and it's hard for restaurant to find workers?
Oh yeah, it's absolutely true. It's very hard to find good cooks, to begin with and depends on what type of restaurant you're in. If it's not corporate, odds are you're not going to be getting paid a lot of money. That's just the unfortunate part of restaurants because nobody is going to be willing to pay $30 for a pasta dish. What people don't understand is that- you're paying for the cooks, the front of house, electricity, gas, and everything else that goes along with a restaurant, and customers don't realize that that's what makes a dish expensive. Cooks don't get paid a lot. When you finally do get good cooks, they'll get presented an opportunity somewhere else to make more money being a sous chef or, the best option, as a head chef somewhere. It's absolutely true cooks are very underpaid, and I think it's just going to keep getting worse with inflation. In Oregon, just recently, they raised the minimum wage to $12 an hour, and I think that is going to hurt a lot of small businesses because they just won't be able to afford it.
"You can learn as much coming from ground up as a dishwasher as you can being classically trained by chefs in a college" - James Pici
Do you think Instagram is now an important platform for chefs?
I think out of all the other social media platforms, Instagram is the go to one for cooking. It's really easy to upload your food and get it out there. I would absolutely tell people to use Instagram because if you look at it, it's almost like it's your portfolio that you're putting out for people. Back in the day, you would go and bring a binder with your cover letter, your resume, your portfolio. Now with social media, having a page dedicated to 'my work', you can show people that, 'This is where I worked and this is the food I have worked with'.
What are your growth tactics for your Instagram account?
I just let it grow naturally. They always have those 'Subscribe to this to get followers but you're building a business with people ultimately. Getting your followers' numbers up isn't going to help you because you need to be connecting with actual people. It might be a slow grind, but at the end of the day, you're still getting connected with actual people instead of just having your number be high. A tip that I would say is to post consistent content and make sure that you're uploading at least two to three times a week, so your followers have something that they can keep coming back to.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your former self and why?
Don't go to college. I know a lot of people would probably fight me on this. I don't have a problem with college, and I definitely think it's a step that a lot of people should take. In terms of the culinary industry, going to Johnson & Wales has gotten me farther in certain places. I think it helps employers understand that you are serious about cooking, but at the same time the tuition fee was really high. It was $28,000 a year when I went and that was in 2007. If I could go back in time, I would say you're not going to get anywhere close to paying this off anytime soon. You should just start working in restaurants and getting experience from that. If you can put the effort in, I think that you can learn just as much coming from the ground up as a dishwasher, as you can being classically trained by chefs in a college, but without the tuition expense.
Can you give us a quote that summarizes your passion or advice that you'd give to other aspiring chefs?
'Stay humble, you can never know everything.' There are too many people in this field that get big heads and egos. Yes, they have a lot of skill to back it up and they can make a lot of great things. But there is so much in this field, that you can never know everything. I would hate for a young cook to be afraid to ask questions because they're afraid of a big ego coming down going 'Why don't you know that already?'. I think a problem with the industry is that people assume others to know everything, and that's just not realistic. I think just stay humble, and never stop seeking knowledge because there is so much out there and you can always learn from somebody. Everybody in this field should be teaching everyone. It's something that should happen that doesn't happen as much as it should.