Not all food jobs are found in restaurants or test kitchens. We recently linked up with Tara Hohenberger, the Marketing Director of Chubo Knives, a traditional, artisan-made Japanese knife brand. Under Hohenberger’s leadership, Chubo Knives has quickly risen to the top of high-end culinary equipment. They’re known to be the best in the biz. In this interview, Tara shares how working on the non-traditional side of foodservice has changed her life and her personal outlook on gender equality in the workforce.
Tell us a little bit about your journey to your current position. We see that you taught American cooking while living in Japan – how cool! Did this ignite your passion for the culinary industry/Japanese culinary traditions?
I was lucky enough to have a Sicilian grandmother, so I was pretty much eating well from the time I was born. Growing up I was always in the kitchen with my mom and aunts. Food was always the center of our lives. I really didn’t know anything different until I went away to college.
I first moved to Japan after I graduated and as much as I love Japanese food, occasionally I was desperate for more familiar foods. That’s when I got more serious about cooking. The town where I was living (outside of Osaka) really embraced me in so many ways. I learned a lot of Japanese culinary techniques through my friendships, for example certain knife skills and preservation techniques. Even when there is a big language barrier, cooking and eating together really helped bridge the divide.
When I eventually came back to New York, I worked on several projects that promoted trade between Japanese craftspeople and international markets. As much as I loved the textiles and ceramics, I gravitated towards the work of the food and sake producers and knifemakers.
What is the coolest thing about your job?
Definitely the people I get to meet and work with. For me, there’s really no comparing hospitality with any other industry as far as the kindness and warmth you experience. There’s something special and unique about people that devote their careers to making other people feel welcome.
Have you ever had a “wow” moment on the job watching someone use Chubo knives?
Certainly, there have been many! But one that comes to mind is in Hawaii, which is one of our bigger markets. Hawaii has such a rich culinary history and very strong ties to Japan and of course incredible produce and seafood. A combination of those things makes it really special every time we get to meet our customers there.
Have you picked up sick knife skills in your tenure at Chubo?
I do have a pretty serious knife collection, so that really helps! And of course, once you get used to using good knives, you are ruined for life.
Who in the industry really inspires you (chef or marketer)?
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Mexico lately, which is a newer market for us, and to say the cuisine is incredible is understatement. Of course, the high-end restaurants are spectacular, but the more home style food and flavors are so inspiring. And I love the acknowledgement of the contributions that women have made for the cuisine. I really can watch tortillas being made all day long.
What do you love most about working on the marketing side of the culinary industry (exposure to more varied avenues within the space, work-life balance, more traditional hours, etc)?
I really love getting out and meeting people. And of course, the places we travel to are generally pretty great and exciting. I love that Chubo has customers all over the world and feel really fortunate that I’ve gotten to experience so many spectacular places through my job.
Why would you recommend/what advice would you give to others looking for a non-traditional culinary career?
Luckily now food touches so many parts of our culture. So, I think the ways to get involved with our food system, or hospitality are pretty endless.
Find someone whose work you admire and find a way to learn from them.
Do you feel like this side of the industry doesn’t face the same challenges as traditional foodservice roles in regards to gender equality? Or has that not been your experience? (If so, what are the challenges you faced?)
I think the gender “challenges” I’ve experienced in my career have not really been specific to the culinary industry but in American (and definitely Japanese!) work culture in general. My own way to circumvent limitations and the organizational frustrations I was encountering, especially in the middle of my career was to go off and create my own path. It’s certainly not for everyone but I found the freedom and fulfillment outweighed the security that I would have had in a more traditional role.
What has been the biggest accomplishment of your career thus far, and what do you want to achieve next?
Oh…. tough question. I really can’t pinpoint one specific thing, but we started Chubo 8 years ago and I’m so proud of the growth we’ve accomplished in that time. When I happen to meet people for the first time and they tell me how much they love Chubo it still really lights me up and makes my day.
What are you most excited about when it comes to the future of the Foodservice industry?
It’s nothing super new, but I love to see so many vegetables on the menus. As much as I love a steak, the variety and creativity that I see on tables these days is really inspiring.
What is one thing you wish you could change about the food industry and what do you think it will take to get there?
Cheap food has a real cost. Whether it’s the working conditions of the people picking vegetables or washing the dishes,and working in the back of the kitchen or how the animals that you are eating were raised.
I feel strongly about spending money and making decisions about consumption thoughtfully. As for what will it take to get there?! I don’t know, but I am hopeful about the ideals and priorities of the younger generations.
Is there one piece of career advice you received that has stayed with you over the years?
Be kind! It costs you nothing and is really so much better than the alternative.