Creators Offline

Stephen Cusato | Life is a blank jigsaw puzzle - How to make sense of it all

Episode Summary

Stephen Cusato, the host of Not Another Cooking Show, talks about his journey and how life is a blank puzzle that sometimes has pieces missing.

Episode Notes

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Big thanks to Adil Constantine for the music, and to Mason Summers for help editing.

Episode Transcription

 Hello! I'm Genki Hagata and this is the Creators Offline podcast, a podcast for creative people of all kind. Creators Offline is a non-profit community and event series where we bring creators together for micro-conferences all over the country. and this podcast brings you the talks from all of those micro-conferences. On today's episode, we'll hear Stephen CUsatos talk from our July event in New York City. Stephen is the host and creators of Not Another Cooking Show on YouTube. He's a chef, business owner, photographer and many other things. His goal is simple, and that's to make sure more people are cooking today, with confidence, than there were yesterday. Let's get into it


Hello everybody, my name is Steve Cusato, I'm the host and creator of Not Another COoking show; which is basically like a culinary school for home cooks. Sort of like um…[laughs] I already forgot something. It's basically, I take things that people like to eat, basic things, things you'd make for your family, I make my ideal version of that, and I sort of make a video master class, in-depth kind of method for doing that. It's inspired by a lot of various media properties. The Sweedish Chef is probably my favorite. 

I'm going to start talking about how I sort of got here, and I want to start by asking a question. How many of you guy's like jigsaw puzzles? [audience cheers] Yeah, I like them too. They're challenging. They take a lot of time, right? And you really have to focus on them. And it sort of…I kind of can make the connection of life being similar to that, except, when you try and find yourself it's sort of like a blank jigsaw puzzle and some of the pieces are missing. So, you sort of have to figure that out, right? you have to go out and live life. So that's what I did. You know, like everyone else, I graduated college in 2008, and you know, you sort of think you have all this value in the world. You go out, you graduate, you're going to get a good job and you reflect on your skills…mine sort of amounted to being able to do the moonwalk and drinking beer. And I really had no value in life that I could offer to people even though I thought I did in the moment.

So, I followed what my dad had done for his whole life. He worked in advertising, so I went out and got a job in advertising; which I thought was supposed to be really cool. I grew up, we had all these cool toys around; Nerf guns, limited edition monopoly boards. I thought this is what advertising was, but it turned out to be very different. I was in sort of an agency that was resting in its laurels, the glory of the '90s. They were sort of…their business was diminishing. And there was this weird dichotomy in the ad world where can either be a business person, or you could be a creative and you could not be both. I didn't like that at all, so I tried to break out of that.

On top of that, it was 2008, when the economy went to shit and brands who worked with ad agency's were slashing budgets. The company I was working with was slowly diminishing over time. On top of that, the internet came along and started breaking things. You had people tweeting, bloggers, Facebook, all these things broke the ad industry. 

I learned this really wasn't going to be for me. So, I started a blog, at that time food was a major thing, right. All this information from the internet, I learned how food was being produced. and It scared the shit out of me. nobody I knew had any idea. and so, for me, I was like "what can I do? I need to do something", so I started caring about food. I started cooking. I started a blog. I'm a very dyslexic person, a visual learner and I found this flaw in recipes. It was talking in esoteric terms, making recipes nobody was really going to make. I loved cookbooks, but that was really a problem for me. This is an old blog, very first blog, back in the day. I took 20, 50 pictures at minimum to sort of help people work through a recipe. This was great, I sort of found my love of cooking, I found a style of how I liked to do things. At the same time, I'm working in the ad agency, and I spent about a year doing this and planning a food truck. I was trying to get my way out of that ad agency and build my life in a new direction. And finally, I ended up doing that. 

In 2011, I started a food truck, it was called Food Freak's Grilled Cheese. and we served different varieties of Grilled Cheese's, fried Brussel sprouts, it was great. it looked like a success on the outside. everybody liked us, we had five stars on Yelp. But the reality was, behind the scenes it was very different. This is just sort of the things we did…we had to make a living somehow. We had three partners, it was tough to make enough money to make enough for everybody to survive; working like 12-15 hour days, consistently. And I don't think I was really built for that. But it did help me get cooking chops. It taught me how to run a business, it taught me how not to run a business. I was sort of at a point where I didn't know what to do, did I want to close it, did I want to keep doing this, I didn't feel like I was in it. I needed a sign. 

in 2013, we were serving a governors ball, and it was literally the worst monsoon I've ever seen in New York, Raining, down pouring for twelve hours. sitting in pallets that are floating trying to serve people sandwiches and them instantly getting soaked as we served. ended it with a huge blow out with one of my partners, and I was like "that's it, I'm done." Done with it, closed the food truck down, try and find a new way in life. And really, really kind of like "SHIT!" I've failed, I'm a business failure, I don't know what I'm going to do. Went out to look for a job and nobody would hire me. And I was really kind of stuck. 

That was until I got an opportunity from a girl, a friend in PR who asked me "do you want to take photos and stage photos for one of our food brands?" and I was like "yeah! That's a thing I can do and make money for?" so, I did my first terrible paid photoshoot, on a phone, not having any idea what it was or what the photography world was really like. and I was like "this is cool!" I got paid for it, I figured out how to make money monthly on a retainer to do this, and I did a lot of them. Figured I could get good at photography, so I worked on it. Then, got a few clients, started to grow, and I formed Chopped Studios, a production company of mine. That was great, you know, it sort of felt like I found a new thing, a new love of life, something I could potentially be really good at if I applied myself. and it felt like life was really kind of settling down for me. I was sort of reaching that point in life where I could relax. 

Shortly after that, I got engaged. I was with somebody for six years. loved it. Happy. thought life…this was another reaffirmation that life was going to get good for me. But I was wrong. December 17th 2017, I got an email, I had a few months prior, I got a huge pasta deal. it was more money than I needed. Going into married life, that felt really good. Felt like things were good. December, I get this email it says "Dear Steve, We just hired a new Director of marketing…" which is always a death stroke if you ever hear that in an email. "our Facebook is a pay to play platform and our reach is reaching like 1% of our people" so it's like 200 people, we're going to go dark on social media" and to me, I was like, I knew that was a hard hit. I thought I worked my way to the point to get past that and here I am back to square one. And then a month later, my engagement ends. like, your life coming to a stunning halt. I was devastated. I didn't know what to do, pretty much thought my life was over, bury me, Steve's done. 

And when something like that happens to you, you're forced to take a step back and reflect on your life. And I did that, I spent time with myself, figured out how to take care of myself, how to love myself, what I wanted in life. And I looked back on everything that I've done, and those puzzle pieces that we talked about earlier, they're not blank anymore. You've lived life and they've started to take shape and take color. And when I looked back at everything that i"ve done, I could literally draw a straight line, directing me to where I was headed. You know like, working in advertising, I did RFP's that helped me get a food truck permit and that food truck then led to doing food photography and video, and now what I'm doing now that that blog and the mentality of using photos to better communicate recipes started to make sense. I looked at what I wanted in life, what I am. I love food, I love people, I understand food, I want people to feel what I feel when I cook for somebody and when somebody get's fed by a dish that you made with love, I want that to be something that is attainable to everyone. So I said "Fuck it!  I'm going to start the greatest cooking show that I can on YouTube" And, February of last year I started my first episode. The goal was really not to start a YouTube Channel, but I was going to start a cooking show. Right? If I was hired by Netflix or Food Network or any of these places to produce a show, like, I was going to approach that the same way. Like a new business, like this has to be…you have to be likeable, you have to have knowledge, you have to share good information, it's got to be interesting, entertaining to watch. All of these things started to make sense. I'm starting to get people to watch, it seems like it's working and I'm starting to ask myself "what am I doing? Why? What is the purpose of all this" I needed a guiding, sort of thing to keep me on track. And I asked myself "why" it's one of the most important things you can ask yourself when doing anything. And when I tried to answer that question, it was very simple. I want to dedicate my life to ensuring that more people are cooking today than there were yesterday and to do so with confidence. And it's funny, because when I look back. non of this made sense at the moment, failed businesses, miserable jobs, things that didn't work out, all this heartbreak, all this loss and failure. it led to somewhere and it wasn't until I took a step back that I was able to make sense of it all. Now after living out of college, I'm 33 years old, that puzzle, you know, is a little clearer to me. It's more fun to finish, and I see an endpoint. And when I'm done figuring this out, there's going to be another puzzle to finish. and that's just the cycle of life, is figuring out more problems to solve, more questions to answer. 

So there's some take-aways. Things don't make sense in the moment, you've got to take a step back, look at your life. things start to make a little more sense then. Follow your curiosities, right? I would have never have guessed I would be here, in a million years, but these incremental unique life experiences led me here, and if I didn't just follow those itches, I just could have gone a totally different route. Spend time with yourself, figure out how to care for yourself, figure out what it really means to love yourself. And by doing so, you'll sort of figure out what you want and you'll be really diligent in making sure that you figure out how to get that. Ask yourself "WHY" it's the most important question. if you don't have an answer to your why I would really suggest trying to figure that out. And your identity is constantly in flux, it's always evolving, so what I am today is going to be different than in 10 years after I've lived more, I've had more puzzle pieces put together. And that's it. 

There's one thing I want to end this with it's that, life will try and break every one of us in this room, and your job is really to just, not let that happen. Find meaning in it, find meaning in those rough times, and you'll get out of it. 

Thanks, Genki for having me, and good luck to all of you guys and all of your endeavors

[audience applause]

Thanks so much for listening, I hope enjoyed that talk as much as I did. Make sure to check out Stephen and Not Another Cooking Show on YouTube for all kinds of delicious recipes and cooking tips. We'll have a link to all of Stephen's social media as well as his show in the show notes of this podcast. 

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That's all for this one, I'll catch you in the next one and until then, keep creating.