Cooking is Chris Spear's passion. He's been professionally cooking since he was 16. Over the years, he worked for big restaurants and reached a point where he had almost 100 employees reporting to him. That's when he missed flexibility and wanted to be more creative. So, he quit working for restaurants and founded his own catering company, Perfect Little Bites in Frederick, Maryland.
"Not that having your business is easy, but I want to have the flexibility to say, 'It's Valentine's Day, and it's more important to me to stay home with my wife,' or to be home cooking for someone. I really wanted something that I felt was mine," Spear explained.
Spending long hours in the kitchen doesn't tire Spear, but he had often been concerned that becoming an independent chef would make him feel lonely. That inspired him to found Chefs Without Restaurants, an online resource for chefs.
"I've been thinking about the Chefs Without Restaurants for about five years now, even before I took Perfect Little Bites full time, because I kept thinking about, 'Well, when I do this full time, who are going to be my colleagues? Who are going to be the people who I can bounce ideas off? Who am I going to be able to [get to] do things like cater an event that's maybe outside my range of 30 people? Like, do I have a resource where I can pull in one or two other people?' " he said. " ... And what I started to see was other independent chefs were referring customers to me, [and] I started to do that back to them. I kind of thought, 'There's got to be an easier way to do this.' "
Dozens have joined
Since the group started last January around 100 chefs have joined it.
"We're caterers," he said. "We're personal chefs. We run food trucks. We have awesome food specialty shops." Spear said he wanted to find an arrangement that would be beneficial to all such groups but didn't cost them any money.
So now he has a Facebook group where he can post information about, for instance, a potential customer who wants to arrange a dinner in a given location and within a certain price range, and he can offer interested chefs more information.
Customers can also benefit from this network. Spear said he's building a website where customers will be able to check out profiles of the Chefs Without Restaurants members, learn about their specialties and see what kinds of events they can cater, large or small.
Lana and Bobby Browner are a wife-and-husband team who own their own catering company, Bent and Bent Events, in Frederick.
"We've been doing this for five years, since he graduated from a culinary school," Lana Browner said.
"We specialize in Creole cuisine, Caribbean cuisine. So we blend flavors and bring a nice flavor, a different flavor in the field of food in Frederick County," Bobby Browner said.
When the Browners heard about Spear's group, they decided to become members.
"I think the biggest hurdle for a lot of chefs is that they don't really form an alliance because they're all kind of competing with each other, but you don't have that in this group," Lana Browner said. "What we've experienced so far is a lot of learning about different chefs in the area. It's even been interesting to get feedback from chefs that are not in this immediate area."
Her husband added, "It's a really competitive field," but there's "a lot of camaraderie, a lot of openness and a lot of sharing" within the group.
The group is also bringing more business to local facilities, like a shared kitchen called Maryland Bakes where members often meet and work. Terri Rowe, a food entrepreneur and owner of Maryland Bakes, said the group brings more energy to the small food businesses in the area.
"They bring connections," she said. "They bring a variety of talents and gifts. They bring creative ideas and just the whole network of independent people joining together. So it's a big community."
The whole local food community seems to embrace Chefs Without Restaurants.
Oil & Vinegar Frederick is one of the local shops Spear likes. The place often hosts events to introduce cooking ideas and chefs to their customers.
Store owner Sharon Streb said small businesses should help one another succeed.
When other chefs and businesses come to her store, "they get in front of our customers and hopefully we get in front of their customers. That's a win-win for both of us," she said. "It's tough out there for a small business, and not a lot of small businesses succeed. It's important that we can work together and be successful, both of us."
That's the goal for Spear, who wants to carve out a space for independent chefs on the food map in the area.