You Get What You Focus On: Antwon Brinson’s Vision of Using Food to Build Community

by Antwon Brinson | CEO Culinary Concepts AB | Main Photo by Sera Petras
This story was published as a part of Charlottesville Inclusive Media Project’s: First Person C-Ville

In my younger years, I was full of misplaced energy and lacked focus. To be completely honest, I had no clue what I wanted to pursue, and the expectations facing me and my friends– young Black men, many of us from single-parent homes– were not high. 

The kitchen was the perfect place for a young man full of misplaced energy and difficulties focusing. The pace was relentless, which forced me to be fully present. There was always something new to learn, which kept me fully engaged. And the work meant something– we were feeding people, and I was proud every time a plate I had worked on left the kitchen. It didn’t hurt that, like many teens, I was drawn to fire and knives– and now I was getting paid to work with them.

Antwon and the neighborhood kids in Niagara Falls, NY | Photo contributed by author.

I was raised in Niagara Falls, New York, by a loving mom who also happened to be a foster parent. I was blessed with the opportunity to watch my mother walk in her purpose every single day. She created an environment of love and support for all kids, including family, kids in the neighborhood, and most importantly the 250+ kids she raised during her career. My mom touched so many lives and inspired me and all of my siblings to pursue our passions, but that was easier said than done. Before I walked into the restaurant’s kitchen, I had no clue what I wanted to pursue, and the expectations facing me and my friends– young Black men, many of us from single-parent homes– were not high. 

Antwon and his mother. Photo contributed by author.

Inspired by my first kitchen experience, the following school year, I took a cooking class as an elective. What started as a hobby quickly evolved under the instruction of a caring and supportive teacher, and I developed a passion for cooking and decided to apply and enroll in the Culinary Institute of America. I was the first, and only, of my friends to ‘make it out’ of the grind of the environment we’d been raised in, where crime dominated, drugs offered false hopes, and often our most proximate role models were ex-pimps, gangsters and hustlers. 

 

Knowing how far I’d come and how much further I wanted to go, I created a list of goals to succeed in the world of fine dining. Where I was growing up, my community had big Caribbean influences and I would live vicariously through stories about people’s homelands, cultures, and food. When I had an opportunity to select my internship for school, I thought of those stories, and the pictures of palm trees that I taped up in my childhood bedroom. I decided to intern in the Caribbean. While there, I fell in love with the culture and cuisine, which led to me traveling and working in different countries throughout the region.  

In the years that followed, I quickly checked goals off my list. I did a three year apprentice program, training under certified master chefs, which led to my ascension through the culinary ranks; moving from Sous Chef, to Chef de Cusine, Executive Sous, Executive Chef, and Food and Beverage Director. I worked with extremely talented teams and collectively, we achieved success and accolades. Yet despite meeting the goals I had set years prior, I found myself unfulfilled. I didn’t feel connected to any community in particular after years of moving from job to job.

In early 2017, my wife and I moved to Charlottesville. I had accepted the role of helping to open a new concept, where I would serve as Executive Chef. The owners hired me to recruit and build a kitchen team. From the very start, finding qualified staff was a challenge– few of the candidates who applied for roles had much culinary experience, and even fewer understood the soft skills needed to be successful as a career professional. 

While the process of building a team from the ground up was a challenge, I began to realize how passionate I was about teaching others. And, as I gained more insights into the labor shortages facing other restaurants, I began to wonder if there was an opportunity to start a program that focused on providing both culinary and life skills. I started researching programs across the country and was only able to find a handful that were providing the type of training that I envisioned. One of those programs, Liberty’s Kitchen, was located in New Orleans. An amazing woman by the name of Janet Gorence Davas has built it from the ashes of Hurricane Katrina’s impacts. I reached out to Janet and she was welcoming and supportive. My research, conversation, and experiences led me to conclude that most culinary training was out of touch with the realities of the restaurant industry and the needs of both students and employers. 

While I had a seed of an idea, I was not sure how to launch the concept. I had helped grow and improve established businesses, but I had never founded one from scratch. With only my concept in hand, I joined a local entrepreneurship program, which helped me shape my vision, setting the foundation to what is now known as Culinary Concepts AB. 

One of the biggest lessons I learned in the early stages of evolution was called customer discovery, which gives you the opportunity to speak with and interview people who you think would be your ideal customer.  Confident in my idea, I made a survey, put on a suit and tie, and approached 50 local restaurants. I explained that I could help them with their staffing issues.  I went door to door, sidewalk to sidewalk parked car to parked car. I distributed flyers and spoke with people. I learned which time of day was best to go to Cherry Hill, to Belmont, to South Street. After weeks of effort, six people applied to my class. I accepted four of the applicants.

Culinary School Graduation (Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY). Photo contributed by author.

Today, we are fortunate to have many talented partners and team members who support our mission. We’ve expanded our programming to reach students who are preparing to leave the Charlottesville-Albemarle jail and who need to find careers after re-entry. We are equipped to build custom programs to work with high schoolers, families looking to develop healthy eating habits, kids learning their first kitchen skills, and more. 

I’ve spent years in the culinary industry, and my feelings towards it are complex. My love of food and gathering people around the table have only grown stronger in the years since I was a teen dicing carrots and working the fry station. But I’ve also seen the ugly side of the industry, in dozens of restaurants, states, and countries. Turnover is high, and workers are often treated as disposable. Kitchen culture can be macho, toxic, and even dangerous. While a major draw to the industry is the low barriers to entry, this can also mean that many folks show up to work with major unaddressed challenges, including trauma, difficulties with emotional management, and confusion over unfamiliar or unarticulated expectations. 

My vision is to change the culinary industry from the ground up. This may sound far-fetched at first glance, but my experience over the past three years running my business have taught me the profound impact of meeting people where they are, offering mentorship, and teaching life skills that help people succeed. This isn’t only about supporting people who work in kitchens– part of what makes Culinary Concepts so successful is that we also work with employers to ensure that they are offering living wages, healthy kitchen cultures, and realistic work expectations. This approach creates a virtuous cycle. Our grads are committed to their own professionalism, success, and our employers are aware that recruiting and sustaining top talent pays off in lower turnover and more successful kitchens. 

So far, we’ve collectively trained over 150 students through our GOCook and Phoenix programs that focus on students with significant barriers to employment. And we’re grateful to the broader community that supports us– our model is partially supported by offering private, group, and corporate cooking classes. We’re honored that folks with greater means and a passion for food spend their dollars locally on these classes and in so doing, help support our mission. 

GO Cook graduating class with Antwon and city officials.

Culinary Concepts AB is a product of my whole story. CCAB wouldn’t exist without my mom, who expressed her love in her actions and taught me to walk in my passion. The streets help me develop my swag, common sense and most importantly how to navigate.  Through my travels, which exposed me to so many unique people and cultures, I’ve learned that everyone has something to contribute. And through my career, I’ve learned the value of mindset– that with drive, collaboration, and commitment to excellence, anyone can excel in the culinary arts. CCAB’s ambitious vision is essential to our community’s well-being– creating a culinary industry that elevates its workers, their families, and our whole community. The message I want to get across to everyone that interacts with Culinary Concepts is that you get what you focus on. I’ve decided to focus on using my craft to make the world a better place for all of us. 

Learn more about CCAB’s work and how you can support our efforts by visiting our website

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.

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