Updated: Oct 12, 2020
"I have to show my son the side the media don't want you to see—a hard-working Black dude doing it for his family."
Cecil L. Rhodes II is the executive head chef and co-owner of restaurant Nash & Proper. Cecil has worked in restaurants in Sacramento and San Francisco, including Michael Nina’s Aqua, Cliff House, Crush 29, and Bella Bru Café. He has won the California State Fair professional chef competition consecutively for three years and was a constant on the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen.
We sat down with Cecil to find out about all things gourmet and what it takes to be a successful chef. He grew up in Sacramento and started cooking at the age of 12, after his parents' divorce. He credits his mom with starting him off:
My mom actually handed me a cookbook and was like, “Hey, I'm not gonna take you to go out and eat fast food every day, so go through the recipes and make them.” That's how I got into cooking.
Professional cooking, I got into when I was 19 at Moxie Restaurant. The chef there was really good. I learned a lot from him—the kitchen work ethic. He taught me how to survive in the kitchen and how to get through five-hour service. The owner at the time asked me, “Why don’t you go to the [culinary] program at American River College? I know people there.” I was like, “That sounds cool, but I'm really not into school.” But I looked up the American River College culinary program, and then the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco popped up. I ended up going there.
Since I was already about five years into the kitchen, I wasn't just another culinary student trying to get into a kitchen. I was someone who actually had some chops that could get on the line and work. After my schooling was done, I did my externship at Cliff House in San Francisco, then came back to Sacramento to work at Warner’s Rendezvous where I became head chef. In 2006, I opened Crush 29.
People think chefs just cook, but chefs have to do inventory and crunch numbers—labor percentages, food percentages.
Can you talk about your experiences at culinary school?
Culinary school is probably the one thing I regretted in my life. Not just because student loans stick with you for the rest of your life, but where I was in my life, I thought that I would go [from the bottom to the top]. I shouldn't have thought that. I should have been like, “I'm going to go there and still have to grind my way to the top.” The program was 15 months. The first 12 months taught us basic skills, foods of America and then Europe.
[However,] if you are willing to work your way up in a kitchen, if you want to be a chef, get a chef that wants to put time into you, letting you make your mistakes and showing you how to fix your mistakes, rather than going to culinary school and them telling you that you’re going to be the next Bobby Flay.
That's my experience. You take what you get out of it. If you you really want to be a chef, get into a kitchen, work your tail off 10-15 years, and do your thing after that. Get in there, keep your head down, and somebody will take you under their wing.
Cecil describes the restaurant business as one that rewards hard work and provides opportunities to move up the ladder over time. His advice to someone who wants to get started is:
Go to a restaurant between 8:00 a.m. - 10 a.m. or between 2:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m. through the back door. Go there and say, “Hey, I’ll wash dishes.” That’s the way you get into the kitchen. I didn't have to that because I had a dad with a restaurant, so I started on the line. I tell cousins and friends the same, knock on the back door and say you want to be a dishwasher. And if you show up, do your job, expand, and keep asking questions, then you're going to move up.
What are the traditional positions in a kitchen?
Dishwasher/Prep Cook: Prepares what you need for the day and the next day.
Steward: Keeps the place clean and fix minor stuff.
Line cook: Prepares the food. They make sure everything is pumping.
Lead line cook: Supervisor and sometimes does ordering
Sous chef: Oversees everything that goes on the line. They're the person to report to.
Head chef: Does the ordering, the hiring, and making sure the business is making a profit.
Executive head chef: The same thing as a head chef, just with a nicer name. It took me 11-12 years to become executive chef. I think most people will tell you it takes 10-15 years. You want somebody [in this position] that's a little bit more mature. Somebody that has been through it.
Owners: They get what they want. They are the ones paying the bills.
In 2011, Cecil joined Bella Bru Café in Carmichael and became executive head chef. During this time, Cecil expanded the upscale Southern menu, staying true to his heritage. He later started his first food truck, Cecil's Taste, which specializes in smoked pork belly burgers and still operates in the Sacramento area. He since started Nash & Proper with Jake Bombard, a food truck that serves "PROPER Nashville style hot chicken" with a California twist. Nash & Proper has been extremely successful, and Cecil and Jake have since founded a brick and mortar restaurant of the same name.
Can you walk us through the process of getting a food truck?
First, you have to get your fictitious business license. Next, you have to go to the bank and get your employer identification numbers (EIN). Then you have to go down to the county with your truck, and they inspect your truck. You will have to fill out forms regarding your procedures—where are you are going to be. They will give you your permit. If you want to work downtown, then you have to go to the city, and the city inspects your [truck]. Afterwards, you will have to find your spot. You can either go through SactoMoFo—a third party which finds events for you to come to, and you pay them a percentage of your fees or a flat fee—or Off the Grid (they are more in the Bay Area), or Roaming Hunger, a catering service for food trucks. California State University Sacramento uses SactoMoFo.
Are you required to register for an event, or can you park your truck anywhere?
No. You can park anywhere for under an hour. If you park somewhere over an hour, then you have to get a restroom verification form which states that your employees have a place to use the restroom and wash their hands. If you are with SactoMofo, then they will do all that stuff for you. Some trucks use routes—sections of the city that they go to. They don't really interfere with each other's routes. If they are getting out of the business, they'll give their routes to somebody else.
There are different avenues you could go. There are people that just do catering. There are people that just do breweries. We do it all just because we are popular, and we can. I have three food trucks right now, and we do all of our prep at our commissary. We house two of our trucks there. And then I have a warehouse where I parked my third truck. We do our DoorDash and pickup orders out of our commissary.
What skill sets do you need to develop to be successful?
You got to be a hustler in food truck. It’s straight up hustling. I don’t know how to compare it to anything. You have to find your spots. And if you have a team, you're trying to work five days a week, maybe six or seven in the summertime.
I have to keep growing. I want to get to that place where I don't have to worry about stuff. At the same time, I want to bring the people that have been behind me up with me too.
There's a lot of people that have had my back. I I just want to make sure they know that I'm cool, and I want to make sure that they're cool at the same time. That's why I'm on my grind so much right now, because there is a lot that depends on me now.
What is the ultimate legacy you want to leave behind?
I just want to make sure my kids are cool. That’s what you have kids for. My son is 13 years old, and I've got him in the restaurant portioning our ranches and fuego sauce… doing little stuff here and there. But he gets to see the operation. He gets to see how much work it takes. That’s what I want to leave. Especially being a Black male, I have to show my son the side the media don't want you to see—a hard-working Black dude doing it for his family. I want my son and my daughter to see a strong Black man doing his thing.