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People of the Year 2020: Joi Chevalier

Looking at Joi Chevalier’s smiling face, you’d never know that in the throes of a global meltdown, her small startup is spearheading a revolutionary food distribution program responsible for providing 3,000 daily meals to those who need it most. But behind the relaxed veneer hums the mind of one of Austin’s leading voices on the future of food.

Chevalier’s journey from tech veteran to food disruptor has seen the Houston native and University of Texas graduate traverse myriad professional landscapes, from politics—a field for which she still harbors aspirations after a narrow loss in her 2018 bid for Texas comptroller—to academia. In fact, it was her gift for education that won the attention of tech recruiters during her grad school years.

She spent 10 years at Dell as a senior product manager and strategist, but sensed she could do more. Reevaluating her career aspirations, Chevalier revisited the cultural staples of her Kashmere Gardens upbringing—marked by Creole migrant traditions and centered around the fellowship of feeding one another. Her decision to pivot to culinary school at Auguste Escoffier in Austin may have seemed like a sudden left turn, but Chevalier’s passion for food and her knack for innovative problem-solving were a natural fit.

After a year of culinary soul-searching, still holding down her full-time gig at Dell, something clicked when she got the idea for a startup incubator exclusively for the food business. In Cook’s Nook, all of Chevalier’s interests and experiences converge under a single mission: to give small food businesses the right tools to thrive. In just a few short years, Cook’s Nook has brought national giants like Dietz & Watson, Quaker Oats and Coca-Cola to its doorstep and helped more than 30 local businesses test products, learn best business practices and turn their ideas into fully realized products ready for market. At the root of the company’s approach is what Chevalier calls the “golden triangle” of “people, process and technology.” Fostered during her work in the tech arena, this concept undergirds everything Cook’s Nook provides for its clients.

“Technology at the end of the day is about relating to people, tools and a process,” she explains. “When I decided to leave corporate technology work, it was because I thought that relationship really needed to exist in the food ecosystem because there’s something that is created, generated, manufactured—in this case, food, right?”

The leap from a business world in which new ideas are their own currency to one in which the majority of practices haven’t changed in over a century came with unique frustrations—“Until COVID made some people change,” she quips.

Indeed, the pandemic and its interminably indefinite time frame is no longer the elephant in the room; it is the room. For all its devastation, the virus holding the world captive has, in some ways, freed workers to call out inequities and failing systems across all industries—especially food and hospitality. The current climate represents a reckoning for outmoded and exploitative practices that have ignored the industry’s hardest-working and most vulnerable. Chevalier agrees, but in assessing the root cause, she adds another word: entitlement.

“There is a quiet entitlement … restaurants have gone and worked a certain way for 150 years,” she states. “That includes how you pay and ‘tip’ staff, and we know where that came from, right?” (Hint: Type “slavery + Reconstruction + origins of tipping” into your favorite search engine). Chevalier puts it this way: “You know, restaurants are often about product and process and sometimes forget the people around them. quiet entitlements because I think we have devalued food.”

What’s at stake, then, is the potential decimation of the industry’s workforce. People who feel increasingly left out, devalued and disenchanted with the way things work are likely to leave (and currently are leaving) the food industry—unlikely to return. So, where do we go from here?

Proving that she’s the right person to answer this question, Chevalier didn’t wait for Travis County to approach her during the pandemic. Before the end of April—back when the real threat of coronavirus was still up for debate—she had already developed the plan for Keep Austin Together. As the gravity of the situation sank in for restaurants and food kitchens, Chevalier had already projected the problem areas for the summer ahead.

As for her own future plans, she aims to redouble her efforts on food security and promoting food entrepreneurship among people of color. Earlier this year, affiliate partner Naturally Austin announced the Chevalier Fellowship in partnership with the Cook’s Nook, extending more opportunities to Black and Brown entrepreneurs in the consumer packaged goods industry. Slated for January 2021, the Cook’s Nook will also host the virtual Conference on Food Resilience, Access, and Equity.

Personally, Chevalier’s excited for the potential return of the Greater Austin Black Chamber’s Taste of Black Austin next year. Whatever Joi Chevalier decides to do next, rest assured it will probably involve something she thought of before everyone else did. Any city with someone like that on the case is in good hands.

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