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Alumni Spotlight: Joya Carlton (’98)

July 18, 2017 / Catherine Nicholas / Blog

Before she was appearing in The New York Times and Vogue, Joya Carlton was a member of the “last of the great, class of ’98,” the freshmen class that gave GSGIS its first ever full set of freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior classes.  “I know everyone always talks about how disorganized it was or what we didn’t have, but those things never bothered me,” she says.  “I remember feeling trusted and expected to make my own path toward whatever it was that I wanted.  Hillary Rollins (Waldron) (’98) and I once hit up every shop in Carytown for silent auction donations to fund our Model UN trip.  Like, we just got in the car and did it with this ‘letterhead’ we made ourselves and ended up with thousands of dollars worth of stuff, and I don’t think Mr. Wilkes asked us any questions about how we did it.  Rogue nerd activities. We were all such weird, good, serious kids.”  After graduating from Governor’s School, Joya attended Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where she created her own major in literary theory and minored in studio art.  Despite some great professors, she was glad to be able to use AP credits from high school to graduate early.

After college, Joya moved to New York City, where she has established her impressive career in and around the culinary industry.  “Cooking had always been the hobby that made me happiest,” she says.  But it’s not where she thought she was headed.  “I wanted to be Olivia Pope from Scandal when I grew up,” she remembers, and, fittingly, she was voted Most Likely to Work on Capitol Hill by her senior class.  Joya worked in publishing immediately after college, which she recalls “felt like riding a dinosaur into the sunset.”  After a dispiriting layoff, she decided to start a business for fun while she looked for a new job.  “That little pickle business, Brooklyn Brine ended up capturing some kind of crazy zeitgeist!” she remembers.  “We grew exponentially and got massive media attention.”

“After that experience, I realized that working with food might be a very viable option for me,” Joya says.  “It also, maybe more importantly, showed me that I enjoy entrepreneurship and business development as much if not more than cooking. For the past 10 years since I’ve worked with food in all kinds of capacities.  I’ve followed a simple rule about pushing myself to take opportunities where I can learn new things.”

Since Brooklyn Brine, Joya has worked as the Executive Chef at The Butcher’s Daughter, Gastronoma at Buvette, and created the underground pop-up supper club The Wildest.  She opened the vegan eatery Orchard Grocer in the Lower East Side this year.  Another of her projects, Pressed, is opening its third location in the Boston area and will be rolling out in other New England locations this year as part of a partnership with Whole Foods Market. She also has a consulting business that works with start-ups, individuals and established restaurants and chains on menu development and business development.  Joya graciously answered our questions about her life, her work, and her New York below:

What is your typical workday like?

It’s never the same, which is a mixed blessing sometimes. I spend a few days a week in a kitchen (in multiple places), usually with the goal being to teach my recipes or to improve the systems behind what we are doing. Restaurants are a lot like live theatre so you never know what is going to happen. This makes back end organization really important but also means I spend a majority of my day problem solving around something unexpected that has occurred.  I spend tremendous time at work and beyond work-hours thinking about new dishes, food trends and seasonality, trying to improve my own skills. Lately, I’ve been working on a business plan for my next big project. As a business owner, this idea of “work day” is a challenge to stick to.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I love talking to people about recipes and ingredients. Cooking has brought me such genuine joy for my whole life and I look forward to seeing what I can just call wonderment when I can delight or challenge someone with my work. It’s *such a thrill* walking through a crowded dining room and seeing people eat things that I imagined in my head. Similarly I love seeing an idea become a functional business- so much planning and doubt and grueling work, and then one day there it is.

What’s your least favorite thing about your job?

The economics of food supply, production, running a brick and mortar location in New York City—all of it, from who controls the tomato seeds to who picks the tomatoes to who puts them on your plate to the place where you sit and eat them—the whole system is broken and relies on low wage workers in largely poor working conditions with no benefits.  The profit margins are so slim in any food-related business that if you order sustainable ingredients and pay a living wage, you are thinking about paying rent all the time no matter how outwardly successful the business appears to be. Also, bad Yelp reviews.

What’s a part of your job that people outside the industry would never guess is so important?

Being kind.  On TV it looks like egomaniacs run the show, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Also, organization.  All the same stuff every other industry has to consider—payroll, profit and loss reports, sourcing and production analysis—all those spreadsheets about blah blah blah? Very frequently people will say to me that they wish they could quit their job and work with food like we don’t have to do paperwork too! So much of it.

What would your advice be for someone interested in working as a chef or in other parts of the restaurant/culinary industry?

There is nothing easy about this industry.  Before culinary school, try working in a restaurant. Kitchens are still largely meritocracies so be prepared to work very, very hard.  Some people are just not suited to be in the kitchen—it’s hot, competitive, sometimes misogynistic, physical.  If this isn’t something that you are entirely interested in and able to commit to fully, the hard work will never seem worth it. Get into the idea that failure doesn’t actually exist, you are always just learning more. I’ve seen that the most successful people learn how to play to their strengths. Try different things until you find the niche where it doesn’t always feel like work anymore.  There’s a magic to giving something that you really love all that you’ve got. You don’t get AS tired and people respond to it— but you can’t do any of that coming from an inauthentic place.

Where would you send someone in NYC for a day to breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks?

This is a really hard question. Obviously I’m going to say The Butcher’s Daughter or Orchard Grocer where I’ve had a hand in the menus. I love Two Hands, Jack’s Wife Freda, Buvette, Nic’s, ABCVVan Leeuwen’s Ice Cream, Vanessa’s Dumplings (get the sesame sandwich).  I could do this list for every neighborhood individually.  There’s amazing food everywhere- it has to be amazing or like I said they can’t pay their rent!

Who is one other chef you particularly admire?

Another hard question—Jody Williams, Barbara Lynch, Jessica Koslow, Yotam Ottolenghi, Alice Waters, Charlie Trotter.

What are you particularly looking forward to right now, personally or professionally?

One of my projects, Pressed (Boston) opens its first location inside Whole Foods in Sudbury, Massachusetts this week. This is part of a roll out plan to bring Pressed to multiple locations throughout New England as well as being in the salad bar and on the shelves. It’s kind of surreal to see salad dressing I invented in my apartment in that kind of volume and across so much geography!

I have a new business idea that I’m so excited about and I’m looking forward to going through the process of raising capital on my own. I’ve always had partners for this part but this idea is just my own thing. Personally, I’m really looking forward to my next trip.  I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro a few months ago and thought that might satisfy my wanderlust for a bit but no such luck.

What is your advice for people just graduating from college and moving to New York?

Make sure you keep traveling a priority because the rush you get seeing the city, coming home to that, never ever gets less inspiring. New York City is getting more corporate and homogenized by the day, so, please bring your most creative, wild self to the party. Find the places in New York that ground you.  I like the Egyptian wing at the Met and the East Side River Parkway.

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