Figuring out what you love to do is so important to a happy life. Nicole Centeno, founder of Splendid Spoon, is a perfect example of following your heart and creating a life you want to live.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I do. I remember the first month felt like three months because I came without a job and a place to live so I stayed with my friend in the West Village. It was kind of manic trying to find jobs but then I’d step outside and look around beautiful West Village and remember “oh yeah, that’s why I moved here!”
Did you always want to come to New York?
Ever since I was little and coming here with my parents and doing all the touristy things, I’ve always been attracted to the energy of New York. I always felt like I needed to be here.
My husband and I went to college in Boston, that’s where we met. He was a year below me so I had stayed in Boston one more year. I was like “I’ve got to get out of this city.” So I just decided to put a date on the calendar and thought; “this is it. I’m outta here.”
I decided that I was going to try to work in media so that’s what I ended up doing. I got a job at a pharmaceutical company doing ad sales. I had a background in science and biology but I didn’t want to become a research scientist. So I kind of stumbled into a career in media.
After only a few months in that job I ended up at Condé Naste and I was there for six years until I left to run my own business, Splendid Spoon.
Were you doing sales there?
It was sales and marketing. It taught me a lot about business and working in a corporate environment. I loved all of that and I have great friends from my time there but there was always this pull to do something else and that’s why I went to the French Culinary Institute at night while I was still working there.
That’s when I knew that this was definitely closer to the direction I wanted to be going in.
What was the draw to do it? Did you just really like cooking?
I knew that I wanted to do something more physical. I think the abstractness of ad sales was not satisfying enough on a daily basis. I did love cooking and I have always loved the idea of improving your health by what you eat. I had studied biology, nutrition and diet therapies in college.
I definitely didn’t have a clear plan in my head with what I would do with a culinary school degree. I was just like “this is what I need to do.” If I’m serious about cooking and I’m serious about considering something related to cooking to be a career then I have to learn how to do it properly. So I have to go to culinary school and it has to be the French Culinary Institute.
It’s also an intense path doing that while you’re working full time. I would say that was when I really discovered how hungry I was to find what I really wanted to do.
It was so hard and exhausting but it was a nice balance going from the computer and analytical thought during the day to executing something totally with your hands and being on your feet at night.
How long was that for?
It was a ten-month program. It’s only three days per week so it’s not like you’re doing it every night.
It was from 5pm – 11pm and you had to get there right on time. The instructors are really serious. They want to prime you for an actual restaurant job so they treat it very seriously. You couldn’t be late. Your form had to be correct.
Did you come into it with no real knowledge of cooking?
Yeah. People come in with nothing and a lot of them drop out. The first chef I had was this hardcore Corsican guy with a strong accent and he terrified everyone. He made us put our hands in boiling water to taste the salt. You weren’t allowed to wear make up.
First and foremost it was about technique, proper French technique. It was also about the restaurant pace, presenting a beautiful dish, and putting together a menu. It was very much geared towards you graduating and being able to be a line cook anywhere.
Did you end up working at a restaurant after that?
I staged at a couple of restaurants. I was at ‘Cue which was part of the Fatty Crab family. That was really fun. I was also at the vegan restaurant Eat for a while, which is here in Greenpoint.
The two experiences were really interesting because Fatty Cue was food that tasted really intensely amazing combining really fatty, salty flavors to create a taste sensation. Then there was a strong focus on sourcing and aesthetic at Eat.
Working at Fatty Cue was really fun and a rush. I can see how people get addicted to that lifestyle. You’re working late and the music’s playing really loud. I felt like such a badass working there. But it’s exhausting and that was before I had kids.
I knew pretty quickly that it wasn’t quite the path for me. If I’m going to be sacrificing so much of my time and physical being I wanted it to be something that was going to be a 100% mine. That was how the business started to come into being.
Did you just decide you were going to take this big risk and go out on your own?
Pretty much! I just knew I wanted to run my own business, I knew it wanted to be food and to be something simple that helps people eat better.
I jogged my memory to think about what it meant to be taken care of by someone. Soup was so obviously the very first thing that I thought of. From a business standpoint it was also appealing because soup is so flexible like stews, and broths, and purees. It was how I cooked already.
I was still working, I was like “I’m not going to quit my job yet...” I needed to pay my bills and finish off paying culinary school.
Brooklyn Flea was getting a ton of press around its foods. I thought it was cool and I lived in Brooklyn so I thought I’ll just apply. So I did and I got in.
That’s when I started thinking that I need to do this like a real business person. It was really through that experience that I figured out all the different technical things that I needed like a tax ID, registering a domain, coming up with a logo… I just did it.
I had to buy a commercial kitchen and the first place I got was in Greenpoint and it was shawarma grill. Then I had heard that Pauly G was renting his kitchen to the girls at Ovenly and that they were leaving so I ended up be able to take their spot.
During the week I would wake up at 4am, cook, and then sell the soup on the weekends. Eventually I was stuffing the soup into a backpack and bringing it to Condé Naste and selling it to people on my lunch break.
I created a soup subscription and I just kept thinking; how do I keep doing this? How do I make this a bigger part of my life? So I just kept going.
Then I finally was like I’m going to die if I keep doing both of these things. I have to pick because I’m not going to be able to keep doing both of these well. It hurt me to leave Condé Naste, I was working at the New Yorker by then. I loved the people I worked with and looked up to my bosses but I felt like I was doing them a disservice not giving them 100%. They knew I had this other passion. So the conversation with them went really well. They were super encouraging about it.
What gave you the confidence that you were like “yeah, I’ve got something here”?
Well, I guess I would have these dinner parties and I would always make soup and people loved it. I would bring it to work and share it with people and everyone else liked it. So I thought I’ve got to sell it to people who don’t know me and see if they like it. And that was sort of the confirmation because people were buying it.
How long has it been now?
I started it in 2011 and went full time with it in 2013. In 2013 was when Grover [eldest son] was born and I partnered with Fresh Direct.
Now, it’s amazing. I love my team. I have genuine love for my team. There’s seven of us including me. We work with a larger kitchen in New Windsor, New York, that’s closer to a lot of the farms I source from. We’re definitely not doing things on a stovetop burner anymore. We’ve even grown out of some of the kettles that are in the incubator kitchens here.
Do you look back at the last ten years and think, “what the fuck?”
Yes! Especially now that I have two kids and I feel like I totally own my life right now.
I think you have to be kind of delusional and incredibly optimistic to be an entrepreneur, especially in the food space. It’s just so competitive but it’s so satisfying.
And especially throwing two kids into the mix and being in New York…
I know. I have a very intense life but I love it. I can’t imagine doing it anywhere else.
New York is intense and we’re all sort of crammed in together but it does feel like we’re in a village. Everyone supports each other.
The first nine months of Grover’s life we didn’t have a nanny. He would just come with me everywhere. I was doubling my business with Grover on my boob. [Laughs]
You look back and think, “whoah, I’m still going?” This is weird. I’m a different person than I was ten years ago.
I feel like you kind of answered it, but what advice would you give to anybody?
For me being in New York and running my business and becoming a mom are really powerful connections to who I am. I say this to people who ask my advice, find out who you are and be the most focused version of that.
Life is challenging and when you’re doing something you love there’s going to be a lot of heartbreak, but if you’re connected to yourself throughout it and believe you’re being the best and truest version of yourself, then it’s amazing.
How do you find having kids on New York?
My oldest is two and three months so I don’t know what it’s like after he gets older but for now it’s awesome. We have all of McCarren Park, there’s an amazing pool. The world is totally new them. This is the coolest part of kids.
It makes you slow down and experience the world a little bit differently. I love that.
Do you have any neighborhood favorites to eat or drinks?
I’m a major Five Leaves dog. I love it. Great service and the food is awesome. I also really like Alameda, which is further up north. Great cocktails and chill atmosphere. Everyone in Greenpoint is chill.
Amarin Café has really good Thai food.
Where do you like to take out-of-towners?
I love the ferry. The ferry is one of my favorite things to do. I love the bridges, Brooklyn Bridge. Anywhere you can get onto the water and get up a little higher.
Have you had a favorite New York moment?
I have a moment that is so New York but it’s terrible and I also have one that’s scary but not that scary.
The terrible one is a man literally pooped in front of me on the subway. A lot of people have these stories. This guy walked onto the train, it was one of those slow motion moments, his pants were around his ankles. Everyone was like “oh my god!” and the train was moving. There were these two tourists who were laughing.
My nice one is, I think it was my second year in the city, and we were at a party in the Upper East Side and we all climbed out the window and up one of those water towers. It was scary but it was really cool.
What does New York mean to you?
I think independence. Freedom. It’s such a deep part of me and my spirit. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to do any of what I’m doing if I were somewhere else.
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