Chef Iesha Williams of The Salty Heifer combines her Michelin Star-training with good old-fashioned love of cooking to churn out cakes, cookies (including the famous The OG cookie), bars, pies and tarts. Below she shares her journey on how she went from working on a line to working on her own line…of treats.
What inspired you to become a chef?
Oddly enough, this career was not my first choice although it is the truest choice. I am Panamanian-American, born in Panama, but raised here. Food is very much the center of our lives. I’ve often said cooking is how we show love. This has always been our thing. Whatever moments in life, that’s just what we did. I grew up watching my parents and my grandparents cooking in the kitchen, and I’ve always had an interest in it.
My mother still tells the story about how at 8 years old I made Cornish hen for dinner. I had taken it out, my parents were at work, I was at home with my older siblings and when my mom came home from work, there I was in the kitchen cooking Cornish hen for dinner. She said, “You didn’t burn the house down and you didn’t kill us with salmonella and it was delicious. I can honestly thank my parents because they were really good about nurturing that.
My mother is an anthropologist and my father was in business administration but my mom always brought home cookbooks from all over the world. Through her, and my father as well, I learned that food was a way to learn about people and to bring people together.
When did you decide to become a chef?
I went to college, I went to graduate school and none of what I’m doing now is what I studied (I studied finance and economics.) I bounced around in private sector and corporate America, landing in corporate philanthropy which I did for a while. Maybe it was a crisis of self and getting out of a bad relationship but I found myself at the ripe old age of 33.5 applying to culinary school. They were having an open house and I walked in, applied and that’s all she wrote. Fourteen years later, here I am.
What did you do after culinary school? And what made you decided to go out on your own?
I got my first job in pastry, although that was not what I went to culinary school for. I did go back later and figure all that out but I got a job at Corton (in NYC) and was a pastry stage for a little over 9.5 months. Then I became part of the kitchen and was there for two years. When I left there, I went Il Ristorante Rosi and was there for two years before I became sous chef but I went right back to savory. I still mean make a mean spaghetti alla carbonara. Then I went from there to Barbuto.
After a while, it became just a lateral moves. There weren’t a lot of women in color in the kitchen, let alone people of color so it’s beautiful to see the change in that. We’ve always been around, we were just not front and center. Again, in a life moment, I made a decision, “This is something I want to do.” I’ve always been practicing my cookies on my coworkers. My first set of orders for the OG cookie came out from my coworkers from Corton.
Can you explain the Salty Heifer name?
Yes, definitely! In the south and in the Caribbean, salty has many meanings, and heifer too. But also salty was a simple play on the fact that I do savory. Whatever you got from us, you will always have an element of savory. We will always combine the two because I just find it more deeply satisfying when you do. You get a better balance and a better product. I really love a savory note in my sweet.
But in the south, especially in the 90s it became, “Why you so salty?” Like, why are you so agitated or annoyed? It could mean any of those things. And then heifer in the Caribbean was not always a bad thing. I had an aunt who would say, “Come here you little heifer you”, but it was a term of endearment because we were mischievous little children. Most of my friends and anyone I know from the Caribbean, especially older women, regardless of culture and color, they get a kick out of it.
Also, heifers are young female cows that have not birthed a calf but they can be prone to sympathetic lactation. It’s nature’s way of making sure that no young being or creature goes with out. So if they hear a calf crying or whining, sometimes they will go into sympathetic lactation so that little young calf can nurse.
But the thing is about their milk, they say that milk is the sweetest and it makes the butter, the best cream. It’s fuller in fat and has less of actual hormones from nursing and birth. It’s literally a spontaneous love bomb of milk.
Now what makes the OG cookie so special?
The thing about the OG special is that its made with pork fat, not butter. We do use cultured butter in our other products but this particular cookie is only made with pork fat which is typically reserved for pastry and flakier doughs.You might get that in a tart or in a sublayer, but it is rare that people will use it as a whole ingredient and not just flavoring in a cookie. It also changes the dynamic of the cookie as well.
Our cookies are flatter, they are crisper around edges but they maintain chewiness in the center. It is a complex flavor. It doesn’t taste like pork or bacon but because chocolate goes well with lard and fat and savory things, it is super complex. It makes your mouth water. It hits the taste buds in the back of your mouth, the primitive ones and make your mouth water.
When did you decide that you’ve got your cookie recipe down and now is the time to take it to the masses?
I decided somewhere around spring of 2014. I was still at Barbuto but at that point, we had nailed that OG cookie recipe and was working on a few others. Before I knew it I had a catalog of cakes and cookies and bars. Like I said, it became a matter of being tired of moving laterally. It’s really difficult as a women in that industry and most industries, but in particular being a Black woman in a white male European-dominated world. That made it even more difficult. Age played a really big role in that too. In 2014, I was 41 years old. That life in the kitchen working 6 days a week, 14 hour days, it’s hard. I loved it and I still oddly miss it. But it became that moment in time, if you are going to do it, Iesha, you are going to do it now. This is it.
Where did you start selling?
My first order was actually quite hilariously from my ob/gyn. I had just filed my incorporation papers and she asked, “Can you make cookies for me?” And that Christmas, December 2014, I boxed and shipped like 92 boxes to around Lenox Hill Hospital, Quest diagnostics and other labs. Then I was like, “Alright, you might be able to do this.”
What were the early days of business like?
It was terrible from the perspective that it became, ok we did this, now what? When you start on a high, you find yourself in a place of continuously trying to chase that down. And that’s where I was in the very beginning. I spent a lot of time chasing my tail. Instead of really focusing on the product and the brand and all those things, I was focusing on the money and making sure that I was bringing in those orders. Which was not a good thing at all. I didn’t pay attention to the brand or developing the brand and telling the story of the brand like I should have so.
It wasn’t until year two where it was feast or famine. I would have a few good months around the holidays and then incredibly lean moments in Q1 or Q2. With the exception of doing wedding cakes, it became really abysmal. Being a business owner is extremely difficult and it teaches you about yourself. It kind of helped highlight I was chasing the wrong things in life period. Once I hit that brick wall, slammed into that, I said, “Alright Iesha, that’s enough.” I am still incredibly proud of this so I began to put myself a little more in front of it and paying attention to the packaging and the story of the brand.
How much of your sales are online? How much is wholesale versus retail?
We are 80% online. We have always been online. It’s a really smart way for me to keep the overhead down. It makes more sense as I can manage the hours and supply and demand. I began doing wholesale before I paid more attention to retail. Primarily over 67 precent of business was wholesale, predominantly in Brooklyn, parts of downtown and Hells Kitchen.
What differences do you notice from wholesale and retail customers, aside from quantity?
For me, a customer is a customer is a customer. Wholesale is still a customer they just have very different needs. The retail customers are very fluid and can, and do, change with every order. But I have customers that have been with me from day one, retail customers, who order exactly the same thing.
For my wholesale clients, they don’t get the same as retail because that cost per product is significantly lower than my retail. So I do have a line that I develop specifically for wholesale and it will mimic what is on retail but I like to say its off the rack v. couture.
How has COVID-19 affected your business?
I’ve seen a 66 percent reduction in some wholesale clients. The wedding industry was hit really bad. I should have had 15 weddings by now, I’ve had three. That was a huge, huge portion of income that I thought was lost. But then I got an order from Peloton and Google. Then came VMAs. My Q2 going into Q3 is better than all of last year.
Any good advice you’ve picked up along the way?
My mentor in my business life said to me very clearly, if you really want this to succeed, you have to let go. It’s the only way. Helicopter parenting doesn’t work. Whether your baby is a breathing living thing or your business, it doesn’t work. It hinders growth, of you and of the business. You’re gonna fail, she flat out told me. It was the realest reality check. I was disgusted and annoyed, but I needed to hear that because she was 100 percent correct. It’s not my job now to wear all the hats. Once I got all the right people around me, it gave me confidence and the desire to be out front and to represent this brand.
What would you tell other early-stage food makers about getting started?
Be really clear on your intentions. Creating the food, that’s actually the easiest part. And coming up with the idea and the execution of the idea. But once you get there, be intentional with everything else that follows. Be intentional with how you create your brand and the narrative you choose to tell and shape it.
The highest form of self-care is knowing when to ask for help. Asking for help doesn’t mean you can’t do this. You just recognize there are people who are way better at doing that actual thing so let them.
Do not be afraid to say no. Do not be afraid to recognize that an opportunity isn’t for you. That’s ok. Don’t chase anything. Chase down a lead, sure! But even at the end of the chase and you find out the lead is not meant for you, it’s ok to walk away and leave it on the table. Leave money on the table if you feel like it will compromise your brand or compromise your integrity. Walk away, it’s not worth it. You say no to that and something bigger will come.
What can we expect next?
We are doing Bodega Bites Series. Bodegas are dying in NYC, they are disappearing. Covid was sort of a boom for them, but prior to that bodegas were closing. Which is sad bc they are the cornerstones of community. So I’m going to be an on-demand bakery for this bodega series with a different location once a month. And we are putting together some new things in November and December for the holidays.