The restaurant industry is in Jensen Cummings’ blood—as his family’s collective 120 years of working in restaurants can attest. Earlier in life, “superhero” or “skateboarder” were more illustrious-sounding career goals for Cummings, but after graduating high school, he went to work washing dishes in his uncle Rick’s restaurant in Ames, Iowa. He was instantly hooked on the fast-paced, “work hard, play hard” lifestyle and the camaraderie of the kitchen. Since that fateful day in the dish pit, Cummings’ jobs have run the gamut: dishwasher, line cook, bartender, sous chef, executive chef, GM, owner, consultant, fermented food producer, speaker. All have been in the pursuit of putting the industry’s “why and who” before its “what and how.” His focus on the individual and desire to tell their stories culminated in the Best Served podcast, in which Cummings and his team speak to industry leaders and those who have impacted their lives and careers. As he puts it, “[I’m] here to be of service, to hustle and communicate for our humans in hospitality. That’s why I do what I do. That’s who truly matters!”
Jen Mattioni: When creating Best Served, what did you think about your potential influence and its effect on the local dining landscape?
My mission is to bring acknowledgement to the forefront of our industry. It is important to highlight that it’s not what’s on the plate [but] who gets it to the plate that truly matters. My team (Sophie Braker, Andrew Parr, Corey Nelson, and Nick Porter) work hard to meet as many humans in hospitality as possible—all those #UnsungHospitalityHeroes in the trenches making it all happen. We have created a space that leverages the influence of brand names in the industry…into our audience trusting us to bring in voices that aren’t regularly given a platform. Having guests like Ming Tsai, Farmer Lee Jones, Claudine Pepin, Roshni Gurnani, Edward Lee, or Kathy Gunst gives us the opportunity to host Tajahi Cooke, Zuri Resendiz, Yume Tran, and LaKiesha P. Dunn.
I decided i wanted to spend all my time acknowledging those pirates on the pirate ship, the band of rebels, the island of misfit toys.
JM: Your interest in people’s industry origin stories seems to pervade Best Served. Could you speak to how your decision to step away from the path of a full time owner-operator informed the ways in which you use your influence?
Straight up, I burnt out! [I spent] 15 years of 70 hour work weeks, never taking a sick day, using drugs and alcohol, treating myself and (far too often) my people like shit. I couldn’t do it anymore. I struggled finding my identity if I was not the chef-owner of an acclaimed restaurant. I recognized the times I succeeded in my career was when, as a leader, I work[ed] for my team. It was my responsibility to create a space to empower them to flourish. And every time I failed (which was a lot), it was because I took people for granted, because I acted like they were lucky to work for me.
I decided I wanted to spend all my time acknowledging those pirates on the pirate ship, the band of rebels, the island of misfit toys. Even after this revelation, I still didn’t know that meant I was going to become a media brand. I still thought I would accomplish this goal as a chef in the more traditional sense. I still have the bravado and ego of a chef! I still wanted to be the best and go to the Hall of Fame. [I had to admit] I was not going to go to the Hall as a player, [but] I might be able to go to the Hall as a coach. That is when the idea of influencing the industry and future generations through media and storytelling became a possibility.
JM: Do you think of Best Served as an influential industry platform? Do you primarily use it to address legislation and issues in our community? To promote local chefs, farms, and products? Both?
I am committed to sharing stories of people in every facet and at every level of the industry. We are talking with chefs, cooks, bartenders, managers, bakers, owners, farmers, ranchers, food truckers, media, school garden leaders, activists, tech innovators, marketers, real estate brokers, landlords, regulators, consultants, HR pros, brewers, distillers, winemakers, cicerones, sommeliers, writers, administrators, fermenters, attorneys, retail product producers, mental health clinicians, health practitioners, PPE producers, community kitchen organizers, ghost kitchen operators, food hall operators, food incubator operators—and my wife and my son and my mom.
JM: What are the most rewarding parts of the show, as well as some of the challenges you have encountered?
We have produced an episode seven days a week since we pivoted to the vlog format; we haven’t skipped a day since March 18, 2020. [ED: The podcast is on a well-deserved vacation from September 21-27.] The consistency to get out there, to hustle and communicate every day, has led to both the most rewarding and challenging aspects of the show. I get to speak to some of the most inspiring people, the best of us, every single day. It feeds me with energy and purpose. The logistics of being on every day are a massive full-time job of juggling scheduling, correspondence, line-ups, promotion, and on and on and on.
One really rewarding event I was lucky to be part of was [acting] as the emcee for Olivia al Fresco. It was a virtual dinner with the crew from [Denver’s] Restaurant Olivia in support of Sophie’s Neighborhood,…the nonprofit Boulder chef-owner Hosea Rosenberg and his wife Lauren founded in honor of their daughter Sophie and her battle with MCTO. I had never been an emcee and we had an amazing two-hour dinner with a few dozen attendees, wine pairings from Master Somm Doug Krenik, and [I] really felt in my element. To have such an important event go so well, and help raise money and awareness for one of our own, was one of the most powerful moments of my career.
JM: Do you think there is a right or wrong way for folks who have a platform to benefit the industry? Or perhaps a more or less effective way?
There are plenty of platforms that are self-aggrandizing, that perpetuate the transactional nature of some of our weaknesses in the industry. Even with all my good intentions, I am very aware that I need to hold the spotlight to bring attention and influence to our mission. So I am playing the game.
At the same time, we are changing the game by our focus on sharing compelling human stories—and expanding the amount of people whose voices are given a forum. Most of our guests are recommended to us by someone else. It is one of the reasons I have to do more than eight episodes a week….We believe in good people connecting good people as the way to become more inclusive and to usher in a more equitable, profitable, and sustainable restaurant model.
What influencer (and not the Instragram type) is on your radar? Whose opinions about the industry have weight with you? Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to email@example.com.