Annie Miler Episode Transcript
ANNIE MILER: There’s nothing I’ve ever learned in my entire life that I haven’t somehow used in what I do.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MILER: My name is Annie Miler and I own Clementine Bakery cafe and catering business near Century City in Los Angeles and we’ve been in business for 20 years.
POOL: Can you tell me a little bit about how you became a chef and like did you go to culinary school? Did you come in a different way, like what? How did you make your way into the industry?
MILER: Yeah. I grew up cooking and it was always something I was very interested in. Snd I went to college, and I majored in history, and I wanted to do, I want to do my thesis and I wanted something that would sustain my interest for a year. So I actually ended up trying to find like a food kind of food related topic, because it was something I was really interested in.
Then after I graduated, I was working in a publishing job, a writing job, and I started working at a restaurant kind of on the side because that was something I was really interested in and I just, I really loved that and I saved money and I had a chance, I had a place to live in London, so I went to the Le Cordon Bleu there. Took like beginning cuisine and pastry. Just because. I felt like I wanted to dive into it, and you know that was really great. Like it put me with a lot of people who were into food. I would say I learned a lot more on the job when I came back.
Maybe a year or so after that, I moved to LA, and I came here really wanting to work with Nancy Silverton at La Brea Bakery. And when I went there, they didn’t have any jobs. I mean, I had to kind of convince the chef, there was a there were openings in Campanile, the restaurant that was next to it and I had to kind of convince her that I wanted to be a cook because you know I had a degree from a prestigious college, and I think she thought I was a dilettante. I don’t know.
Anyway, so I just I’d say I got most of the experience that in cooking I got really grew up at Campanile and then eventually worked at La Brea Bakery. And I worked in the kitchen at Campanile first, then I left for a little while and traveled and did some stages in different cities around the country came back and by that time I kind of knew had a better idea what I wanted to do, and I went back to La Brea Bakery.
I met with Nancy to kind of tell her about what I was interested in and which was opening like a more of a retail prepared food bakery slash prepared food shop and she encouraged me to actually work in the retail bakery behind the counter. Just to see if I liked being around customers and stuff, which I think was great advice because you know that’s definitely a big part of running a place.
So, I did that part time and then I was working in the pastry Department and that was that was like a really fun time. Just really learning a lot. And you know eventually I found a space and opened Clementine. People ask me like. ‘Did you ever think it would be so successful?’ And I just say like I don’t think I was really thinking and it’s probably good I wasn’t. I mean definitely planning it, but I don’t think you can really do something like that- At some point you have to jump in. Or you know, not know what’s coming or you wouldn’t dive into it.
POOL: And was Clementine successful right away, or was it kind of just like a slow build up to like where you got? How did that kind of come?
MILER: Oh, well, we opened in November, and you know, you work really, really hard to just get the doors open and you sort of think, ‘Okay, once you open the doors people are just going flood in and you know and you’re up, you’re awake for days and it didn’t really, it doesn’t happen like that. Because we’re also like on a side street. It’s not super obvious and we didn’t do anything to promote it. So, we had a couple months of quiet and I had a friend who was a PR person who kind of help me. She put together a press release for us and you know because I didn’t have any money to do any of that and it started.
I guess sometime maybe like in February we were featured on a spot on KCRW on good food, like a remote taped thing and that day that was the first day we got crazy busy. It was pretty much right as that show ended. We just got slammed like we’d never been before. It was, you know, was really scary but really exciting when eventually we were just like put cookies in the oven and we were like just giving stuff away because we were so smacked by it that we didn’t. You know, we ran out of food. We and then we just collapsed at the end of the day and then after that like we started to get some coverage and that you know. And then we were on a pretty straight up trajectory for several years after that.
POOL: This statistic like that Bloomberg came out with in 2014, was that less than 7% of executive chefs at leading culinary institutes are led by female chefs. And then they make roughly about $20,000 less, even if they are head chef. So, I guess I kind of wanted to ask, how have you found any challenges of being a woman in the industry? And like trying- like going into leadership like you kind of started your own thing, but have you had any things that you would attribute to being a woman, like different challenges?
MILER: It was pretty clear to me early on that you know I wasn’t going go like the executive chef route. I mean, I’m willing to work really hard. It’s not, uh, I mean, I’d say it’s hard in ways that just didn’t really fit with what I envisioned for my future life. You know, when I’m in my 20s working, you know however many, 80 or 90s hour a week was, you know, it was hard, but I’m up for that.
The schedule is crazy. I mean, you are working nights and you know days and nights, really. I was married when I started that, and you know my husband was in the financial industry and he- so his day would start before 6:00 AM. So, we would go all week, Monday through Saturday and not even see each other awake. And I think I always was interested in more of like a bakery cafe kind of thing and that also fit.
I thought, at least if I have a place that closes by seven o’clock, I would get to be home if I wanted to have a family that would fit better with that. So, I don’t feel like I had to bang my head against the wall a lot as far as trying to climb the ladder in that way, partly because I just I took a different fork in that road.
POOL: Do you think working with Nancy too kind of helped? Like you know, having a woman that was like kind of in that leadership position helped you in any way?
MILER: Yeah, definitely and you know there were- I was seeing people that had worked with her go off and do their own thing and I think also seeing her be able to be super dedicated to what she did. Like when I worked there, she wasn’t as much working with us in the kitchen. I mean she was always a presence and very much on top of things as far as quality control and popping in and tasting things and giving us advice. And yeah, able to see how somebody could be super successful and you know she did have children and she had a lot to impart to us. Anybody, it wasn’t, you know, just women. She just she really cared about what we were making and was dedicated to good ingredients. And she was, you know, I realize now how much diligence that takes, and you’re never really done with it. Like circling back and making sure things still taste good. That drift always happens, and you have to bring it back and that that can be really tiring. She was a great example for, you know, always being willing to do that.
POOL: Going into that like kind of just being in the industry itself, why do you think there are so many few women that are in like these leadership head chef positions as compared to males? Like do you see any factors that might be going into that?
MILER: Well, I mean, I actually was recently I we participated in this Re: Her, Regarding Her, event in January and they had a panel. It was Evan Kleinman, Ruth, Rachel, then they. Oh well, they had like a half a dozen women, I think who were organizing the event. And you know hearing them talk like they 20 years earlier had experienced to much, even greater degree than what I did. I mean, there definitely was a certain, you know, not, not really so much at Campanile, but like when I went and traveled and visited other kitchens, it was very. There were a lot of places that were very broey. In those situations where I witnessed that I wasn’t, I was just there as a spectator really so I didn’t, there wasn’t a lot at stake for me, but it was definitely, you know, it was off putting like not something I would see myself in. So, I think that you know aside from just whether there would be discrimination. I’m sure there would be, but just wasn’t a culture that I wanted to be a part of.
POOL: Because you have like kind of traveled around a little bit. Do you think the culture here and like the food industry is a little different than like let’s say New York or those kind of cities?
MILER: You know, like I said, my main experience in my formative years was at Campanile, and I, I think it made a huge difference. Having you know Nancy as a role model, and I think people have traced her kind of family tree, her descendants, and there are a lot of women Suzanne Goin being, you know another person who I worked under and really admired so like having those examples or Suzanne Tracht at that point had gone and started her own thing.
Like so many people came out of that, so I think a lot of that you can trace to Nancy and to like Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger. And you know, having people who were pretty influential at that point and respected, so I wouldn’t underestimate that factor.
Yeah, because like that was a marked difference, that like the places I went to in New York. That’s where I noticed it the most. That it was just a very not only broey but kind of more in the French male chef tradition more run like a sort of half military half just erratic, kind of anything could happen at any moment, kind of scene.
POOL: So, like you mentioned at the beginning, you’ve been in business for 20 years what have you kind of learned about running a business and like being a leader?
MILER: There’s nothing I’ve ever learned in my entire life that I haven’t somehow used in what I do. There is always something new and I feel like on the surface it might seem like while I have a history degree like how does that relate? But pretty much every skill from being able to write to organize my thoughts, to being able to, you know, my dad taught me a lot of you know to be handy, and so like I have to fix a lot of things or troubleshoot a lot of things.
I did catering on the side when I was working as a cook. You learned how to fly by the seat of your pants. On top of like what I learned from my mom just about cooking. What I learned in cooking school, which is, you know, a drop in the bucket compared to what I learned on the job. So, I would say you know, there’s definitely been times in 20 years that I’ve been totally over it, but I can’t really imagine anything else that would provide that kind of excitement of always having something new.
I mean, there are definitely times where I’m like, oh, I don’t want to learn anything else. I just want to be able to not have anything crazy happen. And then I would say now that my job is less about cooking it’s more about managing, it comes to a new level of meaning in the time of coronavirus. Is like your staff is really- you’re there to try to take care of them. You know, like, the most important thing you can do, I think, is to make sure that that now it’s like make sure people are healthy. Get testing for people you know now. Just this week we became eligible for the vaccine and our manager’s just been on the computer all day, every day. Clicking refresh to find people appointments. And that’s both like kind of the biggest pressure point, but also the most rewarding to feel like that you know were important to one another.
We have a lot of a team that a lot of people have been there for a very long time, so it’s not like we’re all friends and we do everything together. But we have a real community that is really important to me and like I, I can’t see doing this without that element, both of our community of customers, but also just among ourselves that we care about each other.
POOL: Kind of going along with that, I know you kind of touched on it, but how have like you had to adapt with like the Covid situation? Not being able to eat inside all of those different rules.
MILER: This is where the fly by the city or pants training comes really in handy because the last year has been just a continual pivot to the point of dizziness sometimes. I mean it was it just kind of it happened really quickly like we had to adapt was like adapt or die.
Basically, you know we were really lucky that we already had a strong takeout business, so our food was already geared toward that. We lost, you know all of our catering business because most that was all like office catering and stuff and because we’re near Century City and of course nobody is in their office.
So that was rough. I mean we basically had to figure out how to keep as much as possible to, you know, because we wanted to -ee didn’t want to have to lay people off. I mean we did have to close our Beverly Hills location because it was in an office building but at the store here, we had sort of gotten into our routine and just had to go okay, now we have to look at what do people want now? What do they need now? You know, and at first it was just like basic pantry items when people couldn’t get things at the store. And then it became more like try to make things into more like experiences, more packages of you know how to make dinner at home a little more fun. You know, because nobody could go anywhere or do anything. Like now for regarding her, we did an afternoon tea in a box which was kind of a perfect example of that kind of thing, like trying to take something that before we did at the restaurant in a certain way. Now try to make it something that people can take home and open up and feel like something special is happening and they can have their friends on zoom doing the same thing. So, like that was huge.
Yeah, and so just it’s caused us to have to have to be a lot more responsive and innovative. Which has been really hard work, but it’s also been like kind of a creative renewal in a way. So that’s the part I try to focus on more than the economic challenges of it, which they’re definitely there. I don’t have time to, yeah, really think about that because we have to try to stay afloat.
POOL: The statistics show like women are being disproportionately affected by, mostly because of like childcare like in LA schools still aren’t open. Have you seen that like in your staff or anywhere like that people can’t come into work or different things that are affecting them?
Yeah. It’s hard to say. I mean, we actually have several women who are out on maternity leave, so I guess in a way that probably worked out. And I like I do have one couple who works with us and they’re both kind of working half time because they have several kids and they’re kind of tag teaming who helps with the homeschooling, but yeah, I mean, I think for people who have kids who are in grade school especially. Like my kids are in high school and my husband can work from home, but even if he couldn’t like my kids would be able to go to school without me needing to shepherd them.
I think its really hard. I mean there are some, there are provisions, you know, some support and leave options for people who need to take care of kids, but you know that’s all super hard to navigate, I think. We’ve been trying to provide as much information as we can to help people access things, they might be eligible for. But yeah, I think it’s really, it’s hard.
I don’t know if I could say if it’s – I can imagine it’s particularly difficult for women, but I think for our industry it’s just difficult across the board because, you know, we don’t have the option of working from home. You know, we can’t make muffins and sandwiches from home. So, in order to work we need to be there.
POOL: This the last question, but what is your favorite part of being a chef and do you have any advice for young women that may be looking to get into the industry?
MILER: Its changed over time. I mean, I think there have been times where the best part is just improvising with whatever you have and that is true with the ingredients you have, the budget you have, whatever your situation is in the moment, whatever challenges you’re having, just that constant date of improvisation which is stressful but invigorating too. And then having employees who, I now have people that worked with me at the beginning, who are, you know, who started as a dishwasher when they weren’t even 20 to who now have three children and still work with me or have gone off and done something else. And that’s really cool and satisfying to see.
I mean this advice I give to anybody who would ask me about wanting to get into the culinary field is. I think it’s good before you spend money on culinary education, just get a job in a place you admire however, you can just to get in there and experience it. Because I mean, first of all, no matter what, if you get a culinary degree, you’re going start in a minimum wage job kind of, no matter what. So, I think it’s worth it to kind of try that on first, because you’re going, that’s how you’re going spend your life is in that environment, you know.
And if you can get that job for like I said, the place you admire, which maybe you admire for what they produce, or you might admire them for how they run their place. You might admire the outside and find out the inside isn’t everything you hoped and dreamed or might be the opposite, but at least do that and you know, maybe do that in a few different places and then go from there, because then at least you know.
You either get a job where you’ll be able to learn a ton. As much as you would learn in a more formal setting, and you will not have spent 10s of thousands of dollars that you have to pay back from your minimum wage job when you get out.
POOL: This interview was conducted March 22, 2021 and the podcast was produced by Sara Pool.