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Cooking Up Self-Employment

Leslie Brenner is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Cooks Without Borders, a cooking website devoted to the cuisines of the world. Currently residing in the Dallas, Texas area, Leslie is a two-time winner of a James Beard Award. As a cookbook author and former Food Editor of The Los Angeles Times, you can now find Leslie sharing what she cooks in her own kitchen on her website.

When and why did you join the NASE?
I joined the NASE in November 2020 because it offers an array of wonderful resources for self-employed people.

What inspired you to enter the field you are in?
I’ve always been naturally attracted to cooking, and to food, wine and traveling. I started out as a writer — I studied English at Stanford as an undergrad, then as a fiction writer did an M.F.A. at Columbia University. I understood pretty quickly after grad school that making a living writing literary fiction would be a challenge, so I branched out to journalism — and as a journalist, wound up writing stories about my passion for food and wine.

When and why did you start your business?
I launched it as a passion project in late 2015, and turned it into a business in late 2019.

How do you market your business?
I’m glad you asked — I love marketing! I write stories for major publications, including The Washington Post, Bon Appétit and The Dallas Morning News, mentioning (and hopefully linking to) Cooks Without Borders. I produce and host live digital events — including a series of Q+A’s with fascinating people in the food world, called Cooks Without Borders Makers, Shakers & Mavens (we have a YouTube channel!), and I co-produce and co-host a series about the hospitality business called The Communal Table Talks (also with a YouTube channel). I try to be a guest on fabulous podcasts, like Built in Texas. I have a Substack newsletter — The Brenner Report — in which I sometimes mention Cooks Without Borders, and I engage in email marketing to a robust Cooks Without Borders mailing list. I entered Cooks Without Borders for consideration in the Webby Awards earlier this year — and amazingly, we were nominated. I pitched that as a story to various media outlets, and wound up doing a segment on The Texas Standard, which is an awesome public radio show broadcast throughout the state. I publish stories regularly on Apple News, and occasionally on Medium. I market through my Leslie Brenner Concepts website, my portfolio Leslie Brenner website, and of course, I post photos (not nearly frequently enough!) on social media.

What challenges have you faced in your business?
My biggest challenge has been figuring out a workable financial model for Cooks Without Borders — largely because in order to provide the best possible user experience, we have kept the site ad-free. I believe I have finally devised a workable financial model and have been laying the groundwork the last few months. In Q4, we should start reaping the benefits.

Do you have any employees?
While we don’t currently have any employees, I would like to be able to hire someone within the next two years or so.

What’s your schedule like, what’s a typical day for you?
My day is divided between my two businesses. Usually I spend the morning doing creative work for Cooks Without Borders — conceiving and writing stories, ideating, editing photos and arranging interviews. In the afternoons I focus on my consulting clients for Leslie Brenner Concepts. Then in the evening, I often test or develop a recipe, cook it, style it, photograph it (I do all the photography for Cooks Without Borders) and enjoy it for dinner with my husband. On some evenings I visit clients’ restaurants.

What’s the best thing about being self-employed?
I get to work on only projects I’m passionate about.

What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received from a client?
A reader sent me a note last year telling me that Cooks Without Borders was the thing that most helped her get through Covid; she felt like she had traveled around the world through our recipes and it was an amazing escape!

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to someone starting their own business?
There are a ton of resources out there to help entrepreneurs. Find them and take full advantage of them. Meet as many people as you can, offer your services gratis to people who need them, engage in public service, and start to make a name for yourself doing things that genuinely help people.

Which NASE member benefit is most important to you?
I would say maybe the one that’s the least tangible: Knowing I belong to a group of like-minded entrepreneurs, and that there are a zillion of us, is very reassuring.

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