Hardly a newbie in the kitchen, seasoned culinary professional John Mooney talks about his exciting journey in hospitality and how it led him to create his recipe blog, the aptly-named Throwdown Kitchen.
Like many young people, I was struggling to find work that inspired me. I knew from my university days, working my way through school as a server and bartender, that at least I could make enough money to support my family while I was searching for a career. Little did I know that my passion and career was already right in front of me.
I looked up my previous Washington DC Sheraton Hotel manager, Felix Loredo, for a bartender catering position and within two weeks, I had been promoted to Assistant Banquet Manager. That didn’t mean a lot in those days, but it meant that I had a small team to train, develop and inspire each night as we reset the banquet and meeting rooms for the next day's service.
The Marriott Corporation was developing a property in Washington, and I was tapped to run the banquet department of the flagship Marriott Crystal Gateway Hotel! What an amazing experience. Here I was, twenty-four years old and managing a seven million dollar banquet department with a thousand seat grand ballroom and twenty-two meeting rooms. With a banquet serving staff of over a hundred. The stories I could tell. This is where I fell in love with the business of hospitality.
The hotel was in the shadow of the Pentagon and I got to meet my share of generals and politicians. I think that's where I developed a sense of how important and special the men and women of our armed forces are to this country.
Three years later, I surprised everybody when I jumped headfirst into the world of private country clubs. There I spent the next twenty years loving every minute of it. Everybody says to do what you love, so I found a way to combine my passions for golf and food.
I was lucky enough to have great teams to support me along the way. I was passionate about what I was doing and wanted creative people around me that felt the same way. So, I think that one of my great life accomplishments is that. Working with and mentoring many young people as they decided what they wanted to do in their lives and careers.
I was an early social media adopter, but had no idea at the time as to the power social media would become. AOL and dial-up weren’t cutting it. I think the iPhone really changed everything in our world.
I have been working on writing the great American novel for about twenty years now, total pages are written so far - Three. My wife Jeannette said, “You have all these notebooks filled with recipes that you’ve written over the years, why don’t you write a cookbook!”. So, I thought this may be the best way for posterity. It would become truly consuming and take me in a brand new direction.
My mom, Lucy, made a great meat sauce with Vermicelli. I remember pouring tons of Parmesan on top. Along with hot freshly baked garlic bread, and a salad with Maryland tomatoes, that was a meal fit for a king. I think the salad dressing was Miracle Whip, but she would fix it up, and it became our house dressing.
I love Mexican spices and flavors - cumin, for its smokiness and earthiness, and let's not forget the garlic and onions. I use a lot of chili powder blended with chili peppers, cumin, and oregano too.
But the one spice I always keep on hand is Old Bay Seasoning. It’s mostly known for steaming Chesapeake Bay hard crabs, but when I’m cooking at home I use it as my secret ingredient.
People say my chicken salad is so good. It’s a simple recipe, with diced chicken, mayo, celery, Dijon mustard, Old Bay Seasoning, and a pinch of sugar. I learned the sugar trick from Maxine, one of the great country club cooks of all time. Sugar makes everything taste better.
When I had my catering company, surprisingly, the chicken salad was one of our favorite menu items. People love simple things, and you don’t have to do a lot sometimes with a recipe to make it excellent.
What’s changed in your approach to making food when you transitioned from managing banquet operations to making and sharing your culinary creations online?
Banquets and catering can be elaborate, intricate, and fantastic displays of food and service. It takes a huge team effort to make it happen. There are so many people involved. But working on Throwdown Kitchen is much more of a solo operation. Crafting the recipe, storyboarding the video shoot, filming, and then editing is just the tip of the process. I go through twenty to thirty edits of the film and the blog before publishing. Even then I’m hesitant to push the publish button.
I try to be creative and casual in my approach. I gave up the fine dining career, and I am having a lot more fun. Aside from being a solo entrepreneur, my approach to entertaining hasn’t changed that much. People know when you're faking it. So, the most important thing is to be authentic.
Quality ingredients. It doesn't have to be Wagyu beef. Just take the time to source the ingredients of your dish carefully. Affordability is important but the quality is still king in my book.
Authentic hospitality. Always think like the person who is going to be on the receiving end of your service. How would you want to be treated?
Take care of your team! This is an oldie but goodie. If you take care of your team, they will take care of your customers.
Barbecue Ribs. There is something about barbecue that's real. Maybe it's the old tradition of cooking low and slow over a wood or charcoal fire that excites me. Nothing better. I don’t need a fancy pit, just a grill with charcoal. Oh, and some cold beers.
I usually cook pork back ribs in my Weber charcoal grill. I set up a two-zone fire so that I can cook them low and slow, about five hours. Then I make a sweet spice rub with the basics, brown sugar, chili powder, salt and pepper, and a few other secret ingredients and let the ribs get happy with the rub for twenty-four hours in the fridge. After that, I just let them do their thing on the grill. I finish the ribs the last half hour with Sweet Baby Rays that I have fixed up with apple cider vinegar and honey.
Sometimes, I’ll cheat and do them in the oven. It’s OK to do them in the oven when you don’t have the time to tend a pit, or it's bad weather. You’ll still get a great rib out of the oven. A lot less work but not as much fun. Jeannette likes it when I cook the ribs in the oven because she’s convinced I’m going to burn the house down someday.
Put together a great team of chefs, servers, and bartenders who are passionate and caring about what they do. Let them do their thing. They’ll take care of the crowd and make them happy. Simple right?
That, and an open bar!
Get started. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out a scheme that's going to go viral. The best thing to do is just start writing and filming what you love. Be passionate about it and authentic. Start making good content that helps people. If you can do one good piece a week, then do that. Keep putting in the work and In a year you’ll have fifty-two pieces of content that are great.
As far as I can tell, there are no shortcuts, it's going to take time and effort, but you’ll get there if you keep at it and don’t give up. When you finally make page one in Google search for one of your blogs, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
Some online tools available to bloggers are amazing, and a lot of them are free. I use YOAST for search engine optimization and Ubersuggest for keyword ideas. I just started an online writing class through Coursera to help improve my writing skills.
Right now shopping in grocery stores is becoming a mixture of online and in-store shopping, and I think SideChef is in the right place at the right time.
SideChef is a game-changer in the industry and when I received my invite to the partnership program I was excited. I’ve already met some talented people and bloggers.
The ability to help people enjoy their cooking at home experience while growing my business with SideChef and their increasing list of partners like Walmart and Panasonic is an incredible opportunity. Can’t wait to see what the future holds!