COURTESY OF FOOD RACONTEUR
Ashok Nageshwaran founded Food Raconteur as a way to bring people together.
Askok Nageshwaran has traveled all over the world — throughout Europe, Asia, North America and Australia — and if there is one thing he has learned from those experiences, it's that food is a vehicle for connection.
"Food connects everyone," Nageshwaran says. "It doesn't matter one's race, religion or where they live; it's a connecting agent and catalyst. One of the bright spots during [the covid pandemic] has been food. It was the one thing people could look forward to. Even when everything was closed, people could bake or cook or try out something new in their homes. I truly believe it helped many people come out of depression. It's a fantastic agent, and I feel blessed to have chosen this industry."
Nageshwaran founded Food Raconteur (www.foodraconteurmo.com)
in 2017 as a multifaceted culinary business that provides catering, consulting, education and private chef services to individuals and companies in the St. Louis area and beyond. A former marketing executive, the chef was inspired to leave his career behind and enter the culinary field after moving to St. Louis ten years ago for his wife's job. Here, in a new country and new culture, he found himself questioning his path and felt that he was in a good situation to make a significant life change.
"It gets to the point where you you ask yourself if you are really happy with what you are doing," Nageshwaran says. "My job looked really good from the perspective of LinkedIn — I had a good salary, 200 people reporting to me and all of that — but inside, I felt that I had another calling."
Nageshwaran always had a passion for cooking, though he never thought of pursuing it as a career. Instead, he undertook both undergraduate and graduate studies in business and dove headfirst into the corporate world, finding great success in the marketing field. However, while he was pursuing his second MBA in Australia, he took on a side job as a cook in a high-end Italian restaurant. There, studying under a classically trained French chef, he felt a stir that told him this was more than just a part-time gig.
It would take fifteen years for Nageshwaran to heed that calling, but once he did, he decided to go all in. In 2013, he enrolled at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in St. Louis where he excelled in his studies, then did an externship at a secluded resort outside of the famed Spanish culinary town, San Sebastián. When he came back to St. Louis, he immediately went to work for the Ritz Carlton, St. Louis in Clayton, where he honed his fine-dining chops, then went on to the corporate dining company Sodexo in order to learn the business side of the industry, as well as high-volume dining. After gaining that knowledge, he felt ready to finally jump out on his own.
Now, four-plus years into his business and with over 700 events under his belt, Nageshwaran is both thrilled and humbled by what he has been able to create. He sees Food Raconteur as not just providing food, but also experiences to his patrons, and he loves that the nature of his business constantly pushes him to learn about different cultures, which he is passionate about sharing with others.
"I believe people have preconceptions about a lot of different cuisines," Nageshwaran says. "If I say 'Indian' people immediately think of biryani and curry; If I say 'Japanese,' it's sushi. The world has given us so many things, and each country has so many different ingredients and cuisines. I don't think it's fair to judge a country by just a couple of different dishes, and I think there is a lack of understanding of different places. I try not to be preachy about it, but I like to explain why and where a dish originated and the history and stories behind it. This makes for a fun and interactive event."
Nageshwaran credits STL Foodworks, a local culinary incubator, with helping him realize his vision for Food Raconteur. There, he not only uses its facilities to prep his dinners; he teaches cooking classes and conducts seminars, both virtually and in-person, because he believes education is the cornerstone of his enterprise.
"I believe there are no such things as kitchen secrets," Nageshwaran says. "If our ancestors held back, there would be nothing to share with the next generation. Food is about innovation, and it constantly needs to evolve."
Nageshwaran plans to build on that education component in the future by engaging with elementary and high school students on all matters surrounding the food system. Already, he has spoken with students of the Rockwood and Ladue school districts on everything from school lunches to food waste. He hopes to expand those relationships to figure out a way to address the lack of healthful and wholesome school lunches available to children; it's an issue he believes is a serious problem, though he understands that it is complicated and difficult to tackle.
Still, he is up for the challenge. In fact, those not-so easy answers, together with a desire to connect people around food, is what keeps him going every day and confirms that he is on the right path.
"My wife always tells me that it's like I am communicating with ingredients," Nageshwaran says. "I feel like this is a destiny or a calling, and very few people never find that. It feels like a fairy tale; I think I am very fortunate, and that's the reason I never want to take it for granted."
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