“I love what I do. I’m very lucky.” Blake Swihart is clearly passionate about what he does—food marketing. It’s a career path he essentially created for himself back in the days before there were master’s degrees in the field and organizations like the Research Chefs Association. His company, Foodservice Solutions, provides strategic and creative services like menu R&D, new media communications, and chef training to a client list of industry heavy-hitters ranging from Campbell’s Soup Company to Perdue Foods.
So how did he discover his niche? Blake had been working in the foodservice industry since he was 16, and earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and microbiology from Indiana University. Then, “at some point, I decided that a combination of culinary arts and nutrition would be a good idea, although I didn’t know specifically how I would use it,” he says. “I applied to the CIA and found out I was accepted while I was in Nicaragua doing research for my master’s in nutrition. Though I regret not finishing the program, I came to realize that while I loved the research, I was spending most of my time looking at the foodways of the natives rather than the nutritional aspects of their diets.”
Enrolling at the CIA at the age of 25, Blake had a different objective than most of his classmates. “I came to the CIA already knowing that I wasn’t going to be a restaurant chef, which wasn’t a common thing to do back then,” he says. It wasn’t long before Blake found his calling. While on his externship at a private club in New York City, he got a gig creating a slide show for the clients of a large food public relations firm. The training for this came from his work-study assignment in the audio-visual department at the college. After he graduated from the CIA, the company—Dudley-Anderson-Yutzy, a subsidiary of the famed Ogilvy & Mather ad agency—hired him. “I ended up working for them for eight years,” he says. “I was doing TV segments, recipe development, food photography, food styling, and training for all sorts of clients.” Blake then went out on his own, co-founding Gotham Food Group in 1985 and Foodservice Solutions 10 years later with business partner Kathleen Sanderson.
“This is a very interesting business, and it takes special training to know how to do it,” he says. “My nutrition background is incredibly handy but I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without the hands-on culinary training I had at the CIA. I had already worked in the food industry, but I needed a broad understanding of all aspects of the culinary business, and the CIA does that best. My culinary education was a vital piece in this experience puzzle.”
Blake is upbeat about culinary education and the world of food. “The possibility for job opportunities is immense in the foodservice industry—there are lots of avenues, especially now,” he says. “I encourage people to keep at it, to keep looking if you don’t find what you like right away. It may take a while for you to find your niche.” Spoken like a man who followed his passion to find his.