In 2006, an 18-year-old Ellen Bennett found herself alone in Mexico City. There, she immersed herself in Mexican culture and cuisine before continuing to found her own company, Hedley & Bennett. Today, her business creates uniforms for more than 4,000 restaurants and coffee shops around America and has a place as one of the hottest brands in the kitchen.
This week, we sat down with the former line chef on the heels of her new book “Dream First, Details Later” to understand how travel transformed her life and put her on the path to working for herself.
Joe Sills: Your book talks about fear and takes the first step out on your own to chase a dream. Can you go through what your life was like before you took that step? What pushed you to make a change?
Ellen Bennett: Before I started my own company, I was a line chef and personal chef. I worked what felt like 8 million jobs and lived life, trying to gain as much experience as humanly possible. I feel like it created a huge willingness on my part to just show up. I wanted to show up to experience different things.
I moved to Mexico City when I was 18. I moved there with no family nearby, no one I knew was there, and that experience took me from being on the sidelines of my own life to being in it. Suddenly I was living life learning something new every single day. I did not have a safety net in Mexico City, so I had to continue when things went wrong. There was no room to sit and consider failures.
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When you are completely immersed in another country like that, for almost four years in my case, it changes the way you work. You know, if you can survive it, you can do anything.
When I finally got home, I had a different perspective because being in a different culture taught me about new ways of being, new foods, and new ways of dealing with people who came home with me. I knew I was showing up with just myself and my suitcase and building a world out of nothing.
Joe Sills: As a world-class chef, how much did someone like Anthony Bourdain influence you?
Ellen Bennett: I think Anthony did a great job of showing people the honest truth about what’s going on in a kitchen, then traveling the world and showing what’s going on in everyone else’s kitchens. But people like Rick Bayless had a bigger impression on me.
I just happen to love how he got into Mexican and Latin culture. He was 1,000% foreigner in every way, shape and form; and yet he went in with such a pleasure and truly embraced it. At times, it felt like Rick was celebrating it more than the people who were there.
It gave it new life and I think he had a huge impact on Mexican cuisine in general. Bayless was truly Bourdain to me.
Joe Sills: How has the perception of Mexican food changed in the last decade?
Ellen Bennett: It has been radical. If I think back to when I lived in Mexico City, I clearly remember people back home telling me I was insane. They told me I would be shot. They asked me why I would stay there alone at 6pm. Along with that came this misconception that Mexican food was all burritos and enchiladas – dishes with romaine lettuce and lots of cheese on top like Taco Bell.
Today, it seems that people see that Mexico really is this place with lots of museums and living art. More and more people are excited about it. Now it’s on the front page of “Condé Nast Traveler”, and even chefs who have changed how they cook.
Back in the day, even local chefs celebrated French cuisine and European cuisine and American cuisine. The last thing they really leaned into was their own taste. These flavors have so many layers: spices, birthmarks, food. Now the chic Michelin-starred restaurants are struggling with their own tastes, and it’s made it cool to go out and embrace things like the best heirloom or handmade tortillas from scratch.
In Europe, you see Mexican cuisine more and more. René Redzepi in Copenhagen popped up in Tulum. One of his chefs, Rosio Sánchez brought a lot of flavor to Noma. He fell in love with them and did the pop-up. Now she has opened a canteen in Denmark. You begin to see a migration of actual Latin and Mexican chefs go out into the world and bring their authentic flavors onto plates rather than interpretations of those flavors.
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Joe Sills: The way you talk about travel sounds more like a backpacker than a CEO than can afford your choice of all-inclusive resorts. Do you feel that it is important to travel like this?
Ellen Bennett: One of the things I talk about in the book is a confident belt. Every time you do something different or unique, something you have not done before, you add a notch to the belt. These actions build trust over time. It’s like a savings account. Every time you experience something new, you invest in yourself.
When I travel, I want to be in uncomfortable positions that push my mental muscles. I climbed Mount Fuji alone. I went into the New York Marathon. Now that I have more resources, my husband and I are still trying to travel that way. We recently made six cities in nine days, from Thailand to India to Kyoto to Tokyo, where we tried to immerse ourselves fully in the culture by going to markets and flower markets and riding on the backs of scooters instead of in private cars.
Joe Sills: Was there a moment on Mount Fuji when things got tough and you had to get through?
Ellen Bennett: Yes, 100%. Part of the wild, ridiculous journey happened when it started to rain extraordinarily hard. There was only one other hiker on the trail. I did not know him, but he and I cleaned out and basically had to run to the bottom of the mountain and sleep on the floor in a bathroom because it was the only shelter around.
When the storm ran out the next day, we got up with soaked clothes and half of our supplies were gone and tried it again.
Climbing Mount Fuji is essentially like walking on black sand. Imagine walking up a beach that is also a mountain. That’s the way it is. When I came down the mountain later that day, my toenails jumped off because they were soaked and covered with sand.
Joe Sills: Circles back to your book, it was one of those moments that inspired the title “Dream First. Details later? ”
Ellen Bennett: I did not know everything that was going to happen in Mexico or on Mount Fuji or in marathons, but because I placed myself in these situations, I was led to the next one somewhere. If you dream huge and take the plunge, the details come. It’s not details ever. There are details later. But you have to get the damn car started and move on. That’s the inspiration behind it.
People ask, how do you do that? I’m saying you’re just starting.