February Spotlight: Ask Chef Dennis

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9-to-5 grind. 

Chef Dennis Littley, founder and blogger of Ask Chef Dennis, is a classically-trained chef who has used the internet to set voyage to his journeys as an entrepreneur. Boasting over 52,000 Instagram followers, Chef Dennis provides home chefs and bakers with the tools and knowledge they need to create restaurant-style masterpieces in their own home on his blog and beyond. From working as a Chef in white tablecloth restaurants to traveling the world in search of the perfect meal with his wife, we can learn a thing or two from Chef Dennis about making a passion a career. 

LG: It’s so great to have you on the blog today, Chef Dennis! Tell us about yourself and your business. 

Chef Dennis: Thanks for having me on your blog, Lauren. I started my blogging career accidentally, I was teaching a culinary program at the school I was working at and I needed a place for my students to go for recipes. My students wanted the one on one connection with me and none of them ever used my blog as I intended.  But other students at the school and the teachers started reading my blog.  

Blogging really came at a good time for me, and the turning point was joining an international group of food bloggers called FoodBuzz.  I was pretty much burned out at the time and interacting with people around the world seeing the dishes they prepared really revitalized my interest and passion for cooking.

I became a travel blogger pretty accidentally as well when a friend referred me to a hotel on the beach in Melbourne, Florida that was looking to host bloggers.  As I stared out of the 9-foot sliding glass doors to the ocean from our third-floor room, I realized I could capitalize on my food blogging stats and start traveling around the state for free.  

Well, nothing is free which you find out when you start writing stories, taking pictures (and editing) and sharing on your social channels. But I loved traveling and meeting new people making friends where ever we traveled, too.

The turning point in my travel career was attending my first TBEX, where I met travel professionals and got a better idea of what traveling blogging was all about.

LG: How was your blog, Ask Chef Dennis, founded? What was your first step to publishing your blog on the website? 

Chef Dennis: My first post is no longer on my blog, it was just a recipe, with no pictures.  It was intended for my culinary class and that was in November of 2009.  

I had the school IT person help me set up the blog. It was easiest to set it up on Blogspot which was owned by Google. Blogspot was not the best vehicle for a blog although people still use it, but it’s where I started before migrating to WordPress.  The original name of my blog was “More Than a Mountfull” with the subheading “Yes Virginia, there is more to life than takeout and the microwave”.

When I moved to WordPress, I also rebranded to A Culinary Journey with Chef Dennis.  I knew I wouldn’t be at the school too much longer and decided a rebrand then was better than later.  A friend gave me the @askchefdennis name because I use to write a weekly post to help other bloggers learn their craft. 

LG: How have you grown your social media following? 

Chef Dennis: That has been an ongoing battle. My first big push into social was on Google+.  I was noticed by Google early on as an early adopter of Hangouts and a power user for Philadelphia. They put me on their Foodie follow list with Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, and all the other big-time TV chefs. I eventually wound up with 1.2 million followers on Google+ before its demise. I did work for Google in an advisory position and also did live cooking broadcasts for them.

This is what drove me to grow my social accounts. I don’t know if it was more of an ego trip or just good business, but the strategies I use have continued to help me grow my social following.

LG: What is your marketing strategy for Ask Chef Dennis? How do you make a profit from your blog?

Chef Dennis: My marketing strategy is to do what I enjoy doing and hire people to do what I don’t like doing.  That actually makes me happier and open to working with brands on projects that bring in more money.  

My revenue is split about 60/40 with the larger part coming from ads on my blog through Mediavine. They are an incredible company with the largest profit share from ads in the business. I would probably do a lot more sponsored and social work if it wasn’t for that income.  But having a great source of passive income allows me to do what I want and get the amount of money I deserve for the projects I work on. It also allows me to spend more of my time traveling.

LG: How did you find your niche? How do you help your audience? 

Chef Dennis:  Restaurant-style recipes have always been my niche. I do write other types of recipes but the ones that do the best are my chef style entrees and desserts.  My goal is to share my knowledge and cooking techniques with my readers to demystify cooking. I keep my recipes fairly simple and try to keep the time prepping and cooking to under 30 minutes whenever possible.  I don’t have the time or the energy to cook after working all day, I can’t expect non-chefs to work harder than I’m willing to.

LG: What’s the most rewarding part about being an entrepreneur? What’s the most challenging part? 

Chef Dennis: The most rewarding part is getting emails or comments from people that have made my recipes.  How their friends and family loved the dish and that it was as easy to make as I said it was. Food is the bond that brings us all together and being able to bring smiles to a dinner table with family and friends is a gift they will always remember.  

The most challenging part is creating recipes that are meaningful with some of the branded work I get.  I could just post a hack or easy use like many bloggers do, but I try to bring my expertise to the table when I prepare things you wouldn’t think a chef would eat or use.  

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

Chef Dennis: The major success in my career has been working with high profile brands on long term projects or as a spokesperson. Not only do they pay really well, but they also lend more credibility to my brand.

The biggest failure in my eyes was seeing Google+ shut down. It made me work harder on the other platforms but anytime you lose over 1 million followers in a day, its a bad day.

LG: What do you view as the most critical element of your business’ marketing plan?

Chef Dennis: The most critical element is being on social media all the time. You have to be seen and heard to be remembered. I spend 4+ hours a day on social platforms. And that’s with having virtual assistants do as much, if not more work than me.

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there? 

Chef Dennis: Love what you do, and you’ll always do what you love.  You’ll work hard, but you’ll be happier doing it. The other bit of advice is to hire people to help you as soon as you can. Start adding one person, then another.  You have to spend money to make money.

LG: What’s the one thing you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?

Chef Dennis: Don’t eat the brown cheese…sigh. Only kidding. I would tell my younger self to not be afraid to charge for my time. To learn to be a better photographer and a better writer. That life gives you what you put in, and to stop being so damn lazy.

LG: You have TONS of recipes on your blog. Tell us, what’s your favorite recipe you’ve published?!

Chef Dennis: My favorite recipe is Tiramisu. Its been my number one post since I wrote it and drives the most traffic to my blog. I also like my restaurant-style dishes, its how I like to eat and how I shine in the kitchen.

It’s the month of all things love. Turn to Ask Chef Dennis’ blog for the perfect restaurant-style recipes for date night. And don’t forget to follow him on Instagram

Author’s Note: A special thank you to Chef Dennis for his participation. Working with you for the last 6 months has been such a great experience. Bon Appetit!