Mina Seck can’t help herself. She cries at every wedding she’s ever been to. Her favorite thing about weddings, though, beyond celebrating the hopeful love story, is cooking for the newly hitched couple and their friends and family.
“I just catered my first wedding since the pandemic,” says the chef and entrepreneur, 33, whose career has scaled new heights along a non-traditional path. Seck, who hails from Reading, Pennsylvania, taps into a culinary heritage informed by Pennsylvania Dutch, Senegalese, and African American roots. The 7th Ward resident started her three-year-old catering business, BeetsNthyme, in New Orleans, a city she calls her heart and soul.
The self-taught chef has been cooking since she was a little girl, influenced by her grandmother, a professional cook, and her mother, a passionate home cook. “As an only child of a single mom, I was exposed to so many different kinds of cuisine,” she says. While cooking her way through the French Laundry cookbook at home, Seck waited tables and attended a small liberal arts college outside of Philly. She worked her way up to running the kitchen and managing Philly’s Trolly Car Café, later traveling to eat and work on regional farms, an experience that brought her closer to the farm-to-plate movement.
Even with her ambitious home cooking and various restaurant roles, Seck never imagined herself as a chef. “I wasn’t formally trained. I really felt that I wasn’t qualified to be hired in a fine dining restaurant,” she says. But, despite her real-world experience, she couldn’t get hired for back of the house in Philly. She would interview and stage, she says, but because she didn’t have a long culinary resume, she wouldn't get hired at “nice” restaurants in the city. “I felt defeated and discouraged,” she says.
So after nine years in Philly, Seck decided to try her luck in a different kind of food city. Her thoughts were Chicago or New Orleans, but when she landed in NOLA first, she knew she was home. “New Orleans is community. I can’t really put into words why it’s such a good fit,” Seck says. “But it’s definitely got my heart.”
Although she showed up at Commander’s Palace to apply as a server, she wound up staging that same day and was hired to work in the kitchen. “I didn’t even have chef’s pants or clogs,” Seck recalled. She started in garde manger and worked up to broil, spending 11 months in what she recalls was a tough kitchen. “That’s where I went to culinary school,” she says of the iconic New Orleans restaurant. Her next job was with chef Alex Harrell at Angeline — Harrell went on to become the executive chef at the Elysian Bar, and was just tapped for the forthcoming Virgin hotel’s culinary program — an experience that shaped her culinary and management skills. She learned charcuterie at St. James Cheese Company and got a job as a sous chef at Bar Frances, the last position she held before starting her own catering business, BeetsNthyme.
“I am an entrepreneur at heart,” she said. “Part of that is I want to be in control of my time. It’s a real grind working in that kitchen 12 hours a day. I wanted to do my own thing.” She started her business as a food pop-up at Music Box Village and Sidney’s Saloon, selling empanadas, chili, banh mi, charbroiled oysters, and more, and grew a clientele for catering weddings, rehearsal dinners, office parties, Krewe balls, and other celebrations. Her menus connect to New Orleans and borrow from around the globe, with dishes like smoked pork butt po’ boys, pierogies, tofu salad, and wild mushroom and goat cheese ravioli in brown butter. Most of the vegetables she uses are grown on Mississippi farms and she’s a frequent visitor to the Crescent City Farmers Market.
Although the pandemic halted her work for a while, Seck used the time to reconnect with her home and garden and offered virtual cooking, art, and gardening classes for kids. She wrote a digital recipe book, which sold to more than 200 customers. She picked up cooking shifts at Carmo, a restaurant that shares her food sensibility and commitment to local ingredients; she’s gotten to know the owners because of their shared priorities.
Seck is getting ready to spend the summer and early fall working at a wedding venue in Taos, New Mexico, called the Stakeout at Outlaw Hill. When she returns to New Orleans this fall, she’ll get straight to work creating an outdoor party space with a friend that she says will be “lush and lovely, with amazing dinner party vibes,” and continue to grow her catering business. “I’m so excited about what comes next,” Seck said. “I love the restaurant industry but I’ve learned I can do and be more than that.”
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