Never, Gives, Up
Tomica “Tom” Burke is the Head Chef and Creative Director of TomCookery–New Comfort Cuisine and Catering. A native New Yorker.
Tom spent most of her childhood between Queens and Barbados, WI. She spent hours in the kitchen learning to cook authentic southern and Caribbean cuisine from her grandmothers.
After several years away attending college at the University of Virginia and working on Capitol Hill, Tomica returned to New York to receive her J.D. at Columbia Law School. Upon graduating and starting her legal career, Tom got the calling to come back to the kitchen and began moonlighting for a catering company while practicing as a mergers and acquisitions associate. After two years of balancing the law and her love of cooking, Tom made the leap to leave the firm and open her own food business, TomCookery.
Tom describes her style of cooking as New Comfort Cuisine. Every dish she prepares for TomCookery reaches back to a simpler time, when food was made from scratch and dishes were delicious.
INTERVIEW | Getting to Know Tomica Burke
Tell us about a typical day in the life of Tom, what blogs/newspapers, websites do you read that shape the way you think?
Every day is different when you are an entrepreneur, but that is particularly true when you run a catering company. Some days I can sit in front of the computer for hours responding to client inquiries or sending out invoices. On my “creative” days, I brainstorm menu ideas for future events or cooking classes. Then there are “cook” days, where we spend 8 or more hours in the kitchen producing food for our events. Finally, on event days I’m usually up early making sure all of the details of the meal are taken care of — from garnish to menu cards to coordinating logistics surrounding our events.
I start every day with daily newsletters from my favorite food magazines. I clip ones that might inspire future menu items at TomCookery. I try to stay up to date on food trends, because just like fashion, foods go in and out of vogue.
What (or who) inspired you to become an entrepreneur after having gone to law school and working on Capitol Hill?
When I left Capitol Hill in 2007 and went to law school, I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t be practicing law for very long. Even though I don’t practice, I am a still a lawyer first. My entire world view is shaped by my training and I think it makes me better at running my own business. The entrepreneurial piece was probably always there — I used to make chocolate lollipops when I was in junior high school and sell them to my classmates. Working at the law firm was really the crossroad for me. There were some weeks when I would bill 70+ hours. Then something clicked — I figured if I was going to spend this much time and energy making some big corporation money, what would happen if I devoted this much energy to my own business?
What is the key to balancing your professional, philanthropic, and social commitments?
I actually struggle with balance quite a bit. Still, I think the key to getting it right is truly believing in the activities with which you fill your calendar. I make sure to prioritize the activities I care about and more importantly, the activities that nourish me. Right now those are TomCookery, uplifting relationships with friends and professional contacts and my volunteer work with my church, St. Philips Episcopal Church of Harlem. When your heart is involved, I find that you tap into a well of energy that you don’t even know you had.
What is the biggest mistake young professionals make, especially when pursuing a new professional venture?
The biggest mistake is expecting instant success. Our generation is hooked on instant gratification and I’ve noticed that we have very little staying power when things aren’t going as we planned. I had to shift my expectations when I started my business, because in my mind, I was going to be reaching all these markers of success right away. And whats worse, I was beating myself up for not having achieved them. I had to accept the fact that success is incremental and it doesn’t happen overnight — even for me. Now, I look at my journey differently. I am more patient with myself and I recognize that I am in a building phase.
What advice or learned lesson would you give other young professionals who desire to become involved with starting their own business and navigating a new career field?
My advice would be to step out of your comfort zone early and often. If you are already a young professional, you probably consider yourself to have some degree of success, whether it be in the degrees on your wall or a fancy title. When you start a business in a new industry, it will be anything but comfortable. But thats okay! If you really want to succeed, you no longer have the luxury of being comfortable all the time. You have to make awkward introductions, reach out to people who probably care less about you and your cause, attend functions by yourself and a host of other things that will probably have you feeling like the new kid at school. This discomfort is really the first step to growth on your new path.
What’s been the best experience of your career thus far (or the most rewarding)?
The best experience has been my Cutthroat Kitchen win. At the end of filming, after I had been announced as the winner, Alton Brown told me off-camera, and I paraphrase, “It was really touch-and-go for you during the competition but ultimately, your command of flavors is what won you the game.” I was floored. To have “the” Alton Brown, a chef I have been watching on Food Network for years, tell me that I had a command of flavors was really the highest honor I have experienced as a cook.
What’s next for you in your career and what is your approach to reaching the next phase of your professional development?
I am keeping an open mind to the next steps, I learned pretty quickly not to get too attached to any one outcome because the unexpected things are usually the best. On the business end, I want to continue to build TomCookery into a well-oiled machine. I’m in the process of building a great team and I want to give my employees a sense of ownership in the business. As far as my own professional development, I would like to continue to build my own personal brand a cooking and entertaining expert for a new generation of 20 and 30-somethings.
Lastly, give me three words to sum up Tomica Burke.
Never Give(s) Up
How can people reach you on social media?