Lessons learned about business–and life–from Chef Denn
On July 22nd, my husband and I suffered the heartbreaking loss of our dear son Dennis, known to all in the restaurant world as Chef Denn. Only weeks before, Dennis, his brother Dan, and business partner Andy realized their dream and opened their restaurant, Point Easy.
In the days and weeks since Dennis’ death, we’ve heard stories from friends and colleagues who came to pay their respects and celebrate his life, and we’ve learned that he was a beautiful soul. We learned about his talents, his passions, and all the good he shared.
As a business owner, I’ve always been impressed by Dennis’ ability to find the gaps and fill them–and make a contribution to the world in the process. Recently, I’ve learned how much. Here are just some of the things I’ve learned about business and life from Chef Denn:
Take notes about everything – When Point Easy opened, it was an immediate success. No “give them time to get it right” types of reviews–because Dennis took notes. Through the years of perfecting his craft and working for others, he observed what worked and what didn’t. He’d done his research and knew what kind of restaurant he wanted to run, down to the last little detail. When you’re running a business, take what you’ve learned from experience, observe others in your industry, pay attention to the details, and always take notes.
Keep it simple – Dennis described his food as simple and well-prepared. Diners would argue that the tastes were complex, but he insisted that you don’t need a lot of ingredients or fancy techniques to make it happen. In business, I’ve learned to keep it simple–yet impress my clients–by limiting my services to only what I do best and referring or subcontracting the rest. My reports say it simply, and I try to keep my writing clutter-free.
Community is everything – The common theme in the stories from Dennis’ friends and colleagues was that he created community. Punk rockers, restaurant colleagues, farmers and other food producers, customers–he brought people together and he shared knowledge, resources, and good times. In business, we join groups, network, and connect with like-minded individuals, and we create communities that help everyone succeed.
Stay humble – We always knew that Dennis was an amazing chef, but when he opened his restaurant we experienced first-hand what he could do without the constraints of past employers. From chefs, servers, and customers, we heard about the respect and awe in the stories about his food. But you’d never know it by talking to Dennis. Show your expertise, rather than shouting about it, and let your work speak for itself.
Be kind (people, animals, plants, the food) – A word we keep hearing is “kind.” We knew Dennis had a big heart, but we didn’t realize just how generous he was and how he made everyone he met feel better about themselves. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he always gave to those in need. Business is about sharing, caring, and connecting, so try to be a giver, not a taker.
Pay it forward – Dennis learned his craft from other chefs. The first, Chef John, taught him all he knew, eventually telling Dennis he needed to learn from others and introducing him to the chef at another well-known restaurant. (Rumor has it Chef John didn’t like anyone except Dennis.) In the weeks since Dennis’ passing, we’ve heard from four different chefs that Dennis did the same for them and about how much it changed their lives. Be a mentor and help others reach their goals.
Do something consistently, and you’ll get good at it – I’m sure it was his humility talking, but when asked about how he could create amazing food without attending culinary school or other formal training, he’d reply that anyone could get good at it if they did it enough. I keep that in mind now as I venture into new projects and worry about getting it right.
Keep working – From the age of 14, Dennis always had a job. When he couldn’t find restaurant work during the pandemic, he could have taken time off and used his unemployment benefits. Instead, Dennis worked at Cure Organic Farm and started a seafood distribution business on the side. There’s no “quiet quitting” when you own a business, and even in the slow times, you can always find something to do to move you closer to your goals.
Share stories – Dennis was a storyteller. In the restaurant reviews, many mention that Chef Denn told them stories about local food producers and his love of grains. At the farm stand where he sometimes worked and sold his seafood, customers still ask about the guy who told great stories. As business owners, we need to share stories about what we do and how we got where we are. As an investigator, I share my findings by telling a story. It’s what makes us and our work memorable.
Listen to your customers – While Dennis loved to share stories, we heard from the people at the farm stand that he always listened to the customers. He asked questions about what they liked and didn’t like. He listened to their responses and made changes based on their feedback. Business owners should be asking for feedback and listening for the subtle cues that will help them improve a little bit every day.
Get as close to the source as possible – Dennis always worked with the freshest ingredients from local food producers, and it made a tremendous difference in the results. In research and investigations, you get the most reliable results by going directly to your sources rather than stopping at the comprehensive report.
Integrity is everything – A high school friend told us that Dennis always did the right thing, even when no one was looking. In business, he was adamant about the integrity of the food and how it’s described on the menu. In business, never cut corners. Admit your mistakes and make them right. Follow a code of ethics, and always try to do the right thing. People will know.
I’m not sure if we’ll ever understand how this could happen or get over our sadness, but we take comfort in this legacy. We love you, Chef Denn.