In 2006, an 18-year-old Ellen Bennett found herself alone in Mexico City. There, she immersed herself in the culture and cuisine of Mexico before going on to found her own company, Hedley & Bennett. Today, her business creates uniforms for more than 4,000 restaurants and coffee shops around America and holds a place as one of the hottest brands in cuisine.
This week, we sat down with the former line cook, on the heels of her new book, “Dream First, Details Later,” to understand how travel transformed her life and set her on the path to working for herself.
Joe Sills: Your book talks about fear and taking that first step out onto your own to chase a dream. Can you walk us through what your life was like before you took that step? What pushed you to make a change?
Ellen Bennett: Before starting my own company, I was a line cook and a personal chef. I was working what felt like 8 million jobs and living life, trying to get as much experience as humanly possible. I feel like that created a giant willingness on my part to just show up. I wanted to show up to experiences different things.
I moved to Mexico City when I was 18. I moved there with no family around, nobody that I knew was there, and that experience took me from being on the sidelines of my own life to being in it. Suddenly, I was living life and learning something new every single day. I didn’t have a safety net in Mexico City, so I had to keep going when things went wrong. There was no room to sit and ponder failures.
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When you’re fully immersed in another country like that, for close to four years in my case, it changes the way you function. You know if you can survive that, you can do anything.
When I finally came home, I had a different perspective, because being in another culture taught me about new ways of being, new foods and new ways of dealing with people that returned home with me. I knew that I showed up with just myself and my suitcase, and built a world out of nothing.
Joe Sills: As a chef that’s fueled by world travel, how much did someone like an Anthony Bourdain have an impact on you?
Ellen Bennett: I think Anthony did a great job of showing people the honest truth about what happens in a kitchen, then traveling the world and showing what happens in everyone else’s kitchens. But people like Rick Bayless had a bigger impression on me.
I just happen to really love how he entered Mexican and Latin culture. He was 1,000% a foreigner in every way, shape and form; and yet, he entered with such gusto and really embraced it. At times, it felt like Rick was celebrating it more than the people who were there.
That gave it new life and I think he had a huge impact on Mexican cuisine in general. Bayless was really Bourdain for me.
Joe Sills: How has the perception of Mexican food changed in the last decade?
Ellen Bennett: It has been radical. If I think back to when I lived in Mexico City, I vividly recall people back home telling me that I was insane. They told me I would get shot. They asked me why I would live there alone at 18. Along with that came this incorrect perception that Mexican food was all burritos and enchiladas—dishes with romaine lettuce and lots of cheese on top like Taco Bell.
Today, it seems like people are seeing that Mexico is really this place with tons of museums, and vibrant art. More and more people are excited about it. Now, it’s on the cover of “Condé Nast Traveller,” and even chefs there have shifted how they are cooking.
Back in the day, even local chefs would celebrate French cuisine and European cuisine and American cuisine. The last thing they really leaned into was their own flavors. Those flavors has so many layers: spices, moles, food. Now, the fancy Michelin-starred restaurants are championing their own flavors, and that has made it cool to go out and embrace things like the best heirloom corn or handmade tortillas from scratch.
In Europe, you see Mexican cuisine more and more. René Redzepi in Copenhagen did a pop-up in Tulum. One of his cooks, Rosio Sánchez brought a bunch of flavors to Noma. He fell in love with them and did the pop-up. Now, she has opened up a cantina in Denmark. You are starting to see a migration of actual Latin and Mexican chefs go out into the world and bring their authentic flavors to plates, rather than interpretations of those flavors.
Thank God, because we needed that.
Joe Sills: The way you talk about travel sounds more like a backpacker than a CEO than can afford your pick of all-inclusive resorts. Do you feel like it’s important to travel like that?
Ellen Bennett: One of the things I talk about in the book is a confident belt. Every time you do something different or unique, something you haven’t done before, you add a notch to that belt. Those actions build confidence over time. It’s like a savings account. Every time you experience something new, you’re investing in yourself.
When I travel, I want to be in uncomfortable positions that push my mental muscles. I climbed Mount Fuji alone. I entered the New York Marathon. Now that I have more resources, my husband and I still try to travel that way. We recently did six cities in nine days, from Thailand to India to Kyoto to Tokyo, trying to fully immerse ourselves in the culture by going to markets and flower marts and riding on the backs of scooters instead of in private cars.
Joe Sills: Was there a moment on Mount Fuji when things got tough and you had to power through?
Ellen Bennett: Yes, 100%. One part of that wild, ridiculous journey happened when it began raining extraordinarily hard. There was only one other hiker on the trail. I didn’t know him, but he and I cleared out and basically had to run to the bottom of the mountain and sleep on the floor of a bathroom because it was the only shelter around.
When the storm cleared out the next day, we got up with soaked clothes and half of our supplies gone and tried it again.
Walking up Mount Fuji is essentially like walking on black sand. Imagine walking up a beach that is also a mountain. That’s what it is like. When I came down the mountain later that day, my toenails popped off because they were soaked and coated in sand.
Joe Sills: Circling back to your book, was that one of the moments that inspired the title, “Dream First. Details Later?”
Ellen Bennett: I didn’t know everything that was going to happen in Mexico or on Mount Fuji or in the marathon, but because I put myself in those situations, I was led to the next somewhere. If you dream huge and take that leap, the details will come. It’s not details never. It’s details later. But you have to get the damn car started and move forward. That’s the inspiration behind it.
People ask how do you do it? I say, you just begin.