Cooking up likes: Pontiac entrepreneur's 'Instachef' celebrates DIY chefs
Cliff Skighwalker was scrolling through Instagram one day when he noticed someone posting pictures of food — savory seafood platters and hearty barbecue plates — and using the photo-sharing app to not only show it off, but to sell it.
He dug deeper, and found there were scores of independent chefs using Instagram to do the same thing: cook out of their kitchens, market to their followers and turn those followers into customers.
A light went off. Skighwalker saw it as a new spin on the American dream: entrepreneurial spirits using technology to carve their own paths in the culinary world.
Skighwalker immersed himself in the scene, where cooks post their daily menus and followers essentially place orders via comments and private messages, and pitched the concept to a producer at Thrillist, the online media outlet.
"I told him you kind of have to be in the know to know what's going on," says Skighwalker, 30, of Pontiac. "And when I said that, I could hear his ears perk up."
Today, Skighwalker is the host of "Instachef," a web series that highlights various Instagram chefs throughout the country. The six-episode first season wraps today with the premiere of its Detroit-filmed episode, which follows episodes shot in Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, New Orleans and Los Angeles. The show's first five episodes have pulled in a combined 1.4 million views via YouTube.
Episodes typically run 20 minutes and highlight two local chefs who have grown their following using Instagram. Each episode features a celebrity guest: Big Sean joined Skighwalker in LA, and Machine Gun Kelly was featured in the New Orleans episode.
But the chefs are the true stars of the show, Skighwalker says.
"They're using what they have, and utilizing it in the best way imaginable," says Skighwalker, born Cliff Walker. "And they're turning that into mini-empires across the nation."
One of those mini-empires belongs to Cherelle Mason, who grew her home business, Creative Cheesecake Collection, chiefly via Instagram. She began selling her cheesecake variations — ranging from deep-fried cheesecake wraps to dessert tacos to deep fried cinnamon buns with a cheesecake dipping sauce — out of her home and now sells them from a storefront in Oak Park.
"Instagram is where it's at," says Mason, who has grown her following to more than 107,000 users in a few years. She says the service has given her an opportunity to gain a customer base and scale her business at her own pace, instead of diving into the deep end before she was ready.
"You can start off as a home-based business, and you can grow," says Mason, 28, who used her Instagram following to launch a 12-city dessert tour last year. "You don't necessarily have to begin by starting a super huge restaurant. I find at times people rush into those things. But now when I'm ready to launch a super huge restaurant, I know I'll be mentally and physically prepared to do something like that."
The ability to highlight personalities like Mason, who is featured in the "Instachef" Detroit episode, was the purpose of the show, says Skighwalker.
"The stories that are being told on 'Instachef,' you're not hearing those other places," says Skighwalker. "This is no disrespect to them at all, but you're not going on the Food Network and hearing about Blue Kitchen, and you're not going on the Travel Channel and hearing about Trinkin Trinkin" — both of which were featured on the show — "and the fact that I'm able to use this platform to do tell these stories is so important to me."
(Note: The laws regarding selling food from one's home vary from state to state; in Michigan, it is allowed under what is known as the Cottage Food Law, which gives individuals the opportunity to make and market specific foods from their home kitchens, at sales of up to $25,000 per year, as long as those foods are properly labeled with a list of their ingredients.)
Skighwalker, who graduated from Michigan State University in 2011 with a communications degree, was inspired by food TV personalities Guy Fieri, Andrew Zimmern and the late Anthony Bourdain — all of whom have a gift, he says, for speaking the universal language of food.
He sought to speak that language himself.
"I remember certain points in the season with chefs who were nervous or shy when the cameras are on. But once I eat their food, you see them open up and tell their story, and you see them showcase their true personality," he says. "And that wouldn't have been done with anything but food."
Skighwalker — who has been perfecting and selling his own Detroit-style pizzas on Instagram via the handle @cliffspizza — is hoping for a second season of "Instachef" so he can continue to tell the story as it unfolds in kitchens and on iPhones across the country -- and beyond.
"There's whole other parts of the world we need to cover with this," he says. "I hope (Thrillist) gives me another chance to tell even more stories. My DMs (direct messages) are filled with about 50-60 messages from chefs that want to be featured."
And you thought Instagram was just for selfies.
Online via thrillist.com and youtube.com/thrillist
Detroit-filmed episode premieres Wednesday afternoon