05 May Sunta Sem Is Pursuing Her Dream of Cooking Food That Delights People
Sunta Sem’s background has been anything but linear. She has worked in hospitality, the Toronto tech scene, co-founded a jewellery company, built high-growth brands, cured vegetables on the line at Momofuku Noodle Bar… and is now delighting food lovers by bringing the flavours she grew up with to the masses!
I caught up with Sunta to talk about how her career journey has evolved, why this is the perfect moment to pursue her dream of cooking, and why it’s most important to stay true to yourself.
Can you take me through your background and journey?
It has been ‘off script’ from the beginning and it continues to take tangents at different periods of my life. When I moved to Toronto I had a background in hospitality and initially thought about going to George Brown for their culinary program. Food had always brought me the most joy and I had always thought there was some representation missing from my family’s point of view. My background is Cambodian and although we grew up eating a lot of Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese food when we ate out, there was nothing like our dishes from home that I could find. But I talked myself out of the culinary program. At that time I was scared and felt like I didn’t have what it took.
I was lucky to have a friend from university who was in the startup scene and she introduced me to someone named Daniel Patricio, who was looking for a right hand in running his Social Media Marketing Agency. I had no idea what he wanted me to do, but I went for the interview and basically sold him on me – I told him that if you’re going to spend eight hours with someone you should spend it with someone you’ll enjoy being around. I don’t know where I got that confidence from but he ended up hiring me! The job was such a learning curve for me; I was using social media to grow the brands of a variety of companies, from a pet brand to a tequila company. I didn’t know what I was doing at first but we all figured it out together. The most important part of this story though is that he co spaced with two other startups and I basically was around entrepreneurial energy for the first time in my life. It didn’t occur to me until then that the only difference between me and everyone in this room is that they’ve started something and I haven’t yet.
Eventually somebody from one of the other tech companies and I ended up starting a jewellery company called helloberry. The company was lightning in a bottle at the time. We sold about 20,000 units in the first year and got covered by a whole bunch of magazines! I ended up moving on from the company after about two years but soon started getting recruited by people who saw what I did at helloberry and wanted me to help them grow their brands.
So for the next few years you worked with different organisations, different environments, helping them to grow their operations and brands. But what happened to your food aspirations?
They were still there. All this time in the background I was cooking. I was starting to think about how food was the only thing that kept me sane when I was an entrepreneur. When I was really struggling with anxiety and depression and the pressure of growing these companies, food was my solace. Eventually I even began taking courses at George Brown and exploring different restaurant spaces for an idea I had. But then the pandemic happened and seeing what happened to the food industry scared the bejesus out of me. It was also a weird moment where I thought, ‘I didn’t pursue my dream when I had the chance, and now maybe my dream is no longer feasible. I had been working at Willful (an online estate planning platform) at this time and decided to stay on and put a hold on food. Eventually though the Founder of the company (who is also my best friend) began to notice that I was hitting my wall of creative ideas. She knew that Willful wasn’t my dream but that food was, and she encouraged me to not put my dreams on hold. Being brave enough to pursue the dream though was the hardest part. For so long at this point it looked unsteady with all the lockdowns, especially for someone like me who would be starting from zero. In the end I opted to take a break in general, to think everything through, but also because it was quite hard to grow all those companies back to back. It took a lot out of me. So I built a daybed in my front yard to relax my face off for about seven months.
What happened after the seven months to bring you out of your sabbatical?
I started 2022 thinking ‘this is the year I’m going to do it’. I had an eight course tasting brunch for friends and the feedback was insane, but I also had so much fun doing it. My partner told me to get myself into a restaurant kitchen, but what really hit home was when he said it was okay to take a pay cut. I think there’s always something subliminal where you want to carry your weight with your partner. But I thought, I have his support, we don’t have kids, we don’t have huge expenses, I still have lots of savings. If not now, then when? Within four days I was working at Momofuku Noodle Bar.
Momofuku Noodle Bar was absolutely the most insane thing I’ve ever done in my life. It sometimes reached 200-300 covers over lunches and dinners. They were teaching me how to cure vegetables, how to be more efficient in the kitchen and what it takes to run a high volume kitchen. When I left that job my Executive Chef told me I was a great combination of being hungry to learn but also professional, and that’s very hard to find in the industry, because most people are young and still figuring themselves out.
So would you say your background in Tech helped at all in your pivot to food?
Yes, my Venn diagram of 10 years in marketing and growth within startups combined with actually being in CPG prepared me for what I wanted to do in food. Some people only know the food side without any of the business side. I am lucky to have maybe 60% food knowledge compared to a top Executive Chef, but I also have a lot of business and growth experience. So I thought, maybe my Venn diagram is ready to go and I should just be brave enough to pursue it. So I quit Momofuku, started the process of setting up a private chef website, and then that’s when I saw one of the first early cooks that were on Cookin. Literally within a week I was in their studio shooting my food and finishing my menu to launch the following week.
The last step of the puzzle was going to market with my peanut sauce, which I was now delivering with the fresh rolls on my menu. Even though my friend group had been encouraging me for the last 10 years to sell it, hearing random strangers now tell me it was one of the best sauces they’ve ever had finally gave me the courage to say, ‘okay, I’m gonna do it’. After that I focused on properly formulating the recipe so I could do it at scale, started to look into jars, figure out labelling, etc.
What’s interesting to me about your journey is that you have repeatedly been put into situations where you didn’t quite know what to do, but you were confident enough to know that you would figure it out. Which you always did! But with food, you seemed to stop yourself a few times from pursuing it.
It’s true. I think because food felt like the deepest dream that I had and to try and make it a reality would mean to ruin it. Food for me is a representation of my unique childhood – I’m a Cambodian child that was raised in Canada. I finally heard the word Third Culture kid which resonated the most with me, because it’s being of both worlds and cultures. But it’s also important to me to be sincere about my approach, not just try to fit in. I want you to taste the flavours I grew up loving, which might not be completely authentic to the country of Cambodia, but it’s authentic to my Cambodian home. Ultimately I was scared of being called out for trying to say something with food that might not be true to everybody. But I realised it’s only ever going to be true to me and as long as I don’t try to cater to whatever pressure is out there I will be fine.
You’ve mentioned the support and encouragement you’ve received from your partner and friends. I’m curious, has everyone been supportive of you pursuing your dream of food?
Well, I wouldn’t call my Mom unsupportive, but her idea of success is stability. And I’m her risk taking daughter who has not exactly had the career that she dreamt for me. But through years of therapy I now understand that she doesn’t actually need to understand what I’m doing, she only has to respect it. In the end though I know she loves me and she’ll get it when she gets it.
I would love to end this conversation with your biggest takeaways. You’ve had such an interesting career journey. What would you say are your most significant lessons?
I think one of the biggest lessons for me is that you don’t need to have it all figured out from the beginning. A lot of my success has come from actually not knowing what the answer was going to be. There’s been a lot of stumbling along the way and being open to that is key.
Also it doesn’t have to look a certain way just because someone else says it does. You’re not beholden to any idea that someone has for you. You can shape shift, you can move about, you can change, you’re free.
My last lesson is to have fun with whatever you’re doing because life is too short and the world changes quickly. People can love hustle porn and post about how much they burned the midnight oil, but I’m having fun. I’m proud of my life and that I can have joy in it and I’m not going to do an all nighter if I don’t have to. That mindset is part of a self-indulgent culture that thinks the grind is the most important thing when really, I want both. I want a full fun life and I want to have a business that is representative of me and successful by my definition.