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Meet Wesley Zemla of Tiny Dinners

Today we’d like to introduce you to Wesley Zemla. 

Hi Wesley, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself
I grew up in a small town north of Lansing on a farm where most of my first food memories were made. From tromping around the woods grabbing morel mushrooms from under dead elms to harvesting game and watching my parents wait for our reaction to eating pheasant, turkey, and venison for the first time. I didn’t know it at the time but it had everything to do with creating an adventurous palate and understanding where food came from and what sort of sacrifice it took to get it onto a plate. 

Once I got to college, I spent a few years not knowing exactly what direction I wanted to take. In talking to an advisor, I found some interest in a hospitality course. Specifically, restaurant and kitchen management. I think that was the first time I realized that cooking could be a career. Later that same year I decided to commit to my new direction and dive headfirst into the culinary world at the Secchia Institute of Culinary Arts. Once I was there, school became “easy.” I was excited to go to class, learn new things, and most importantly, taste. everything.

At the end of culinary school, one of our last objectives was to complete an internship. I was sure a restaurant was where I wanted to be so I set mine up at a place on the east coast right on the water. It was going to be a fun opportunity to learn about coastal dining in New England and I was really excited about the opportunity. Just a few short month before I was supposed to depart, another opportunity to work in a private household presented itself with a prominent family in town. At first, I was pretty sure it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. I was really excited about what I had planned and felt pretty committed but the more I thought about it, the more interest I had. In the end, I choose the life of a private chef. My internship turned into a part-time job, the part-time job turned into a role as the Sous Chef, and eventually, I ran my own kitchens on board two 50-meter motor yachts that toured the South Pacific. All in, I spent about 5+ years with that family and used the opportunities that were given to me to learn as much as possible as quickly as I could. It’s a unique position to be in as a chef where you’re operating with no budget on food, equipment, or any type of overhead with complete creative freedom. But I always knew there was something a little more that I wanted to do. 

In the last 6 months of living abroad, life had made some pretty significant changes, my now wife, Sarah, and I were engaged in that time and quickly realized that it’s pretty hard to plan a wedding and start a family 9,000 miles away from home. So, we dropped everything, moved back to Michigan, and planted some roots here back in Grand Rapids. We spent about another 3 years working different jobs to make ends meet and, in the meantime, hosting small 6-8 person dinners in our upstairs apartment’s tiny living room (there was no dining room…) where we first founded “Tiny Dinners.” We always knew that these types of dinners were exactly what we wanted to do but didn’t always understand “how.” 

At the risk of sounding all too cliche, it took off when we decided to take “the leap”. Really, what that meant for us was saving up 3 months of living expenses and me leaving my very comfortable full-time job to just give the idea the time it needed in order to give it a fair shot. To start, it was slow. Scary slow. We decided to do this right in the heat of the pandemic in November of 2020 with the thought process of, “this is going to go really well or we are making a pretty silly mistake.” But we were loving it. In times of not booking any dinners, we would do weekly “Tiny Dinners Take Out” where we just have a ton of fun and do small orders that we’d hand out at the local farmers market. Sarah kept her job to keep some solid income coming in and keep insurance for all of us (oh, yeah, we had a 1-year-old at this time). 

Soon, we were booking 2-3 dinners a month and then 2-3 dinners a week and by the end of this year we are booking out dinners 2 months ahead of time. It’s been crazy and all of our guests have been so amazing and supportive. It’s really surprising how well word of mouth travels. 

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
There isn’t a real solid path to follow in starting a private chef business like this one where we’re doing a multi-course tasting menu in your home. So, we are constantly learning as we go which has had its challenges. 

To be honest, we expected this to be hard. So, when things came up, we sort of approached the obstacles as if they were expected. I would say the biggest struggle is constantly fine-tuning the balance between family and work. For the longest time it’s been accepted that if you work in this industry, work comes before all. We’re doing our best to break that mold a little bit and find ways to work hard and enjoy each other. 

It’s really exciting to get the requests and it’s really hard to say no. But I think having kids has made saying no a little easier. 

Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
We are a personal chef service that specializes in creating multi-course tasting menus served right in your home. We source the best products we can find by first starting locally to feature the constantly changing seasons in Michigan, but additionally, we source unique or rare ingredients that you may never have had the chance to try before or something that accents the menu perfectly. That could be something like fresh Italian truffles, Wagyu beef, Norwegian red king crab, or Australian slipper lobster. Or maybe some fun citrus-like Makrut Thai lime or Huckleberries from Montana. We also work with some local wine shops to create custom beverage pairings for our dinners. 

Our dear friend and very talented ceramicist, Jovonnah (@missjojobean) is constantly creating new serving vessels for us to bring to the dinners where they accentuate the styling and presentation of the food. 

We also bring all of our own flatware, glassware, and linens, as well as, all of the kitchen equipment that’s needed to prepare the meal. All you need is a table to eat at. We bring the experience of fine dining right into your home! 

Are there any important lessons you’ve learned that you can share with us?
Patience Persistence and Presence. Being patient with the process, persistent enough to not let it die, and present in everything we do. 

This whole process has been a vicious cycle of self-doubt and continuing on anyway. That in itself is mentally exhausting but we’ve learned that it’s just as much a part of the growing process as anything else. 

Contact Info:

  • Email: tinydinnersgr@gmail.com
  • Website: tinydinnersgr.com
  • Instagram: @tinydinnersgr

Image Credits
Emily Alberts
Andrea Horn

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