‘Los Angeles is a city of dreamers. If you have an idea, this is where you make it happen’

Wild Geese: Chef and entrepreneur Gemma Stafford’s business expanded in lockdown

Chef, cookbook author and the host of an online baking show, Gemma Stafford says global lockdowns helped her business expand rapidly as the world discovered a love for banana bread.

Now living the American dream in Los Angeles, Stafford, who is originally from Wexford, had a love for all things culinary from an early age. "After doing my Leaving Cert at Presentation Secondary School, Wexford, in 2001, I studied professional cookery at Cathal Brugha Street. I went on to spend three months learning with Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Co Cork."

Her “new skills” became a passport to travel the globe and open doors into the culinary world.

"I worked as a private chef in Tuscany, before doing ski seasons in the Snowy Mountains in Australia, and the US. I came to the US in 2008 to work as a personal chef during ski season in Lake Tahoe.

“I availed of the under-30s work visa, for people in trades called the PCT visa. It’s for when you’ve finished your training and you want to work in the same field, which I did.”

Working in bakeries and a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco for a year helped her hone her cookery skills and food knowledge.

“It was great, but the hours were relentless. Like so many other service industry workers, I struggled with famously high San Francisco rents even though I was house sharing with three others.”

So she decided to open her own catering business for top tech companies specialising in over-the-top breakfast creations.

“In 2009, money was coming back into Silicon Valley after the Lehman Brothers collapse, and things were starting to pick up in the Bay area. I had no funding, so I bought some pieces of equipment and started catering from home. I suppose you do what you have to do to survive in the city.”

Her Rise and Dine business was a success and she hired people to look after jobs across the city. But after meeting her now husband, Stafford wanted to do something different. "He was working in the film business at the time so, after we got married, we decided to start our own business making baking videos on YouTube, " she says.

“My husband quit his job and we moved to LA in 2013. It was risky, and we had to motivate ourselves every week, for no financial reward. You really need to be dedicated, but I guess Los Angeles is the place for that.”

Stafford says social media and YouTube were different beasts back then, but they knew they were on to something. Eight years later, Stafford has featured as a guest judge on the Food Network's Best Baker in America, Nailed It! on Netflix and Hulu's Baker's Dozen.

She recently launched a cookbook, Bigger Bolder Baking: A Fearless Approach to Baking Anytime, Anywhere, and has a weekly baking podcast called Knead To Know. "We're also starting a baking academy and online baking school called Gemma's Bold Baking Academy, a premium online subscription platform servicing bakers of all experience levels with in-depth video classes."

With more than half a billion hits collectively, her videos have taken the internet by storm. "We created Bigger Bolder Baking not knowing how many people would follow us or watch our videos but now we have a team of 12 people and release content every day. We're on all platforms with millions of followers, but our biggest platform is our website www.biggerbolderbaking.com, where we have five million views per month.

"We also have millions of followers on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. The way YouTube works is that you get no money from it but you can get ad revenue or brand sponsorship if you have enough followers. We have ad revenue partners with big brands like Walmart and various revenue streams."

Despite causing colossal disruption across the globe, the Covid-19 pandemic offered a great opportunity to Stafford and her husband.

“When the first lockdown happened in March 2020, people started baking and our viewing figures went up by several hundred per cent as everyone was online looking for recipes. We couldn’t believe it. Since then we’ve cultivated a loyal follower base who are still with us.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Stafford has had a baby and moved from Santa Monica to Studio City with her family.

“We’ve very much lived the LA lifestyle of hard work and outdoor activities. It’s a city of dreamers and subsequently doers. If you have an idea, this is where you make it happen. We work non-stop and the line between work and home life is fuzzy. If someone sends you an email at 10pm, they expect a response.

“But the market here is big and the opportunities are great. You can think big over here and people are supportive.”

Stafford says she has many friends among the big Irish community in Los Angeles. "I also joined an Irish choir. When we first came here, our main focus was on building the brand. Eight years later, the brand is built, but there's so much more to do. I'd love to come back to Ireland and open an academy close to home in Wexford where people could learn to cook. Then we could commute from here. That would be wonderful."

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