Best Practices: How Ayesha Curry Amped Up and Stayed Balanced During the Pandemic
On recipe testing with her sister, keeping her restaurant International Smoke afloat with takeout, and the importance of exercise during trying times.
Editor’s note: The news can weigh heavily on all of us during these strange days, and especially on small business owners and employees whose jobs have been altered by the pandemic. Hey, we could all use a little inspiration and light, so we’ve launched Best Practices, a new column for F&W Pro, to share how leaders are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while growing personally and professionally.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Back in 2017, about three months into my job at Food & Wine, we published a story featuring Ayesha and Stephen Curry’s Thanksgiving feast. I love basketball because it’s the ultimate team sport, and when a game is really flowing, it serves a good lesson about how individuals can each express themselves while working in harmony. Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors’ free-wheeling, improvisational style of play articulates that sense of flow. And what most stuck with me from the story’s outtakes was the Curry family’s infectious, ever-present sense of play, sparked by Ayesha. Every photo showed the family dancing, playing music, or giggling with their children—not to mention the table filled with vibrantly-colored food.
Ayesha, a New York Times best-selling author, entrepreneur, and TV host, has used that same reservoir of positive energy to keep herself and her family healthy this year while launching several new projects, including the charity Eat.Learn.Play, which she and Stephen created to help kids realize their full potential. The organization focuses on education, providing safe spaces to play, and ending childhood hunger, and they collaborated with World Central Kitchen and a local community food bank to deliver more than 5 million breakfasts and lunches to students in Oakland Unified School District.
She and business partner Michael Mina have put expansion of their San Francisco-based global barbecue restaurant International Smoke on hold for now, focusing on takeout and delivery to keep the lights on, like so many other restaurants across the country right now. “From the hospitality side, it’s such a bummer because I’m most passionate about taking care of people,” she said.
Curry will soon open a new Sweet July store in Oakland where she’ll sell items from her cookware line, like a Dutch oven that recently landed on Oprah’s Favorite Things 2020 List, her new family-friendly cookbook The Full Plate, and a Sweet July lifestyle magazine, published by Food & Wine’s parent company Meredith.
“Yes, we launched a new magazine in the beginning of the pandemic,” she said. “People need a bright spot and something positive to lean on.”
How many people do you employ within your core team?
Eight. We’re spread out all over the place. I have the production side of things, my internal day-to-day team that has their hands on everything, and we're opening a Sweet July store in a couple weeks here in Oakland, and so I have that core team, too. And then, also, everyone that works on the magazine. There's a lot of WebEx, Zooms, Google Meets. But we're still managing to get things done. From a business perspective, it's been nice to see that we can be so resilient and quick on our feet.
Is there any crossover with the way you talk to your team and the way that you talk to your kids about the pandemic in terms of keeping morale up?
At International Smoke we’re family and operate like that day to day. I take the cues from Michael Mina who is keeping everybody amped. There are parts of this business where we've been so blessed with seeing growth. We’re fortunate to be able to fulfill takeout and curbside and delivery. It’s enough to keep things afloat. We’ve figured out innovative ways of takeout and delivery. The Michael Mina Group has housed all their restaurants under Mina Family Kitchen to offer each restaurant’s top selling selections. It’s a one-stop shop that can be delivered to your home in sustainable packaging. The biggest change that I’ve seen to our menu is comfort food right now. We have 10 different mac ‘n’ cheeses. Of course delivery of alcohol has been great for everybody.
From the hospitality side, it’s such a bummer because I’m most passionate about taking care of people. We were open for a week and a half and then just shut back down in San Francisco when the city mandated it. We’re all learning on the fly here and trying to keep up with what’s going on. Where morale is low because of the uncertainty of the restaurant we encourage everybody that it’s going to be okay.
What’s your criteria for saying yes to a pitch about something with your name on it?
During the first five years I said yes to everything. I didn’t want it to pass me by or be off-putting. I was overloaded. You have to be more strategic and meaningful with your choices. I’ve been saying no to 95% of things coming in. It comes down to this: First, will it take away from my family with three small kids—they always come first. Then, is it a true interest of mine? Three, does it spark joy and impact my life in a positive way and will it bring joy to other people? Four, when it comes to brand partnerships, it has to be something I use in my everyday life.
Tell me about your creative process.
My book process for The Full Plate was totally different than the first book The Seasoned Life, which was full of my second-nature recipes that I cooked all the time. The first book was always there in my head, and I was ideating all along, and then put it on paper to make it clear and concise. This new book is true and meaningful because I created this arsenal of recipes not only for everyone else but also to have ones that I could rely on, too. Breakfast and lunch in our house are always on the fly. I focused on dinner and worked alongside my sister on the recipe development. While creating, we were texting, working on flavor profiles. It was a fun process from a family standpoint, and it strengthened our relationship. We homed in on the recipes to make sure they’re true to my life, and also fun and nostalgic.
What are some things that you've been doing differently because of the pandemic that will carry over into your life once we're out of this mess?
Fitness. I work better and parent better when I implement physical activity. Growing up it wasn’t a part of my life. Now I have more mental clarity and get so much done in a day. I’m grateful for this time and the opportunity to realize that.
Also, our charity Eat.Learn.Play, which I launched in July with Stephen. It focuses on ending childhood hunger, education, and providing safe spaces to play. It scaled faster than we could have imagined. We have to be there for the Oakland community.
What are other non-negotiables, the things that you have to do to feel whole?
Coffee. And we have to have one family meal around the table, even if it’s at the kitchen island. We have to be together, eating and talking. Communication is always so important, and even more so at this time. Mental health is a non-negotiable. It’s a domino effect: If we as parents fall then everything else falls.
Is there any piece of technology right now that's making your life better?
Fitbit. It buzzes my arm if I haven’t gotten enough steps in. I track my heart rate.
How about an album you’ve been listening to nonstop?
For two years strong now, the Hamilton soundtrack. It’s on heavy rotation in the house.
If you have a mentor, what’s a valuable lesson they've taught you?
My mom taught me to put myself first. It sounds so narcissistic and crazy but for a long time I wasn’t putting myself first. She was a hairstylist for over 40 years and spent so much time working and never put herself first. She really made it a point that I take care of myself first. When I do, I find everything else in the house moves better.
According to an article in Sweet July, “How Black Women are Making it Work,” there are 2.7 million Black-women owned businesses in the US. Whose company inspires you the most right now and why?
Our Sweet July store in Oakland is surrounded by a bunch of female-owned black businesses. I love the vibrancy they bring to the community. All the women on the block are holding one another accountable. We have a Zoom call tomorrow to come together to do some Christmas planning. I love that about it. One business—McMullen, a womenswear boutique, is celebrating their 13th anniversary today. Talk about longevity. That’s Sherri McMullen.
Your Dutch oven made Oprah’s list of Favorite Things this year. What’s on your list?
Can I pick something from my line? The cast iron skillet. You only need one. It’s a really solid cast iron skillet. I love mine because it's cute and cleans so easy.
I got the kids a 3-D printer this year to make their own toys. And a good ring light. You don’t have to be a YouTuber to use these things.
Who do you look to for inspiration for how they modeled their career?
It’s still Jessica Alba from a business standpoint. She came up with an innovative business model that nobody had done before. She was always so honest, very vulnerable, and smart. Chef Michael Mina is my mentor when it comes to food. He’s a role model because he has the same excitement and lust for life for his first restaurant that he does with every new restaurant.