By Christopher A. Pape
Karine Bakhoum, an Iron Chef America judge and owner of the successful restaurant public relations firm, KB Network News, knows food. From early childhood she as exposed to and feel in love with all aspects of the craft.
As a connoisseur of food myself, I appreciate and admire the work that Karine (KB) does. That’s why I asked her to sit down with me and spill the beans. What follows is an interview in which she tell it like it is; it’s what her clients and viewers expect from her every day.
Resident (R): How did you become known as the Iron Palate?
Karine Bakhoum (KB): It started when my mom was pregnant with me and eating dozens of escargot, which were loaded with butter and garlic, so when I was born I wanted garlic not milk! I grew up in Switzerland, and I was exposed to many different cuisines as a baby; my father was Coptic Egyptian, my mom was American, and my nanny was Spanish. On top of all that, our cook was from Egypt, so there were many different foods. My nanny used to make brains with avocados and potatoes for example, it was all very exotic. My Dad would always take me to restaurants whenever I was with him. He encouraged me to order different things and taught me to be open to new foods. I guess food is just in our family; we are all good cooks.
I didn’t know there was such a thing as food PR, I actually came into that after trying some truly delicious food by the great Alfred Portale at the Gotham Bar and Grill. I raved about his food and told him he was a genius, at which point he turned to me and said that he wanted me to work with him. After some time I then decided to go on my own, I wanted to offer consulting services for restaurants, so that they could be ready before they opened. I insisted on having tastings and fixing the menu and making sure food is in season so they are ready for the critics.
When I opened KB Network News, Bobby Flay was opening Bolo and came to me and said ‘I really want you to open Bolo with me,’ so I did and I was really happy to be a part of that because he really helped to introduce American cuisine to the world.
It was all just me, I didn’t even have to apply myself it was all very genuine –I just love being involved with food- and my chefs worked off my enthusiasm. I love creativity in food. I just want food to make people happy and help create moments that make you feel good and happy.
R: What makes you different? Why do clients seek you out now?
KB: I don’t know what the exact formula is; it’s just genuine enthusiasm and combined with culinary expertise. Plus knowledge of PR, knowing how to write a good press release; we look at why it is news worthy and we only work with things that we are excited about. We understand what the needs are and we want our clients to be successful. We want people to go and experience what they have to offer. They consider us their insurance policy. Having said all that I think the important thing is to have the passion and knowledge.
R: You keep clients for a really long time, which is difficult in PR, how do you do it?
KB: It is difficult. PR has changed so much over these 20 years. There is so much going on now, there is designing, there is writing, there is creativity, so we are always looking at what is new and interesting and how we can use these to help the clients. You’re only as good as last project; be the best that you can be every day, that’s how we conduct ourselves. We help them grow their businesses. We work very closely with them and highlight the issues that need to be addressed. Anyone can open a restaurant and have a good run, but what is important is longevity and that’s what we aim for; to get the customers back after their first time. And now with social media and everything it has all got a lot harder because you just can’t mess up! Perfection is what you have to aim for. You only get one chance to make first impression and right now that is truer than ever.
R: How did you get on Iron chef America?
KB: Well I already had a reputation for loving food, but it all really happened because I grew discontent with media dinners –I just found them too hectic and felt that journalists were not getting the full experience- so I began organizing my own media dinner, in which journalists can sit down together can get the VIP treatment, to really maximize their experience of the restaurant. And it was at these dinners that I became very friendly with people, one of which was one of the former producers at the Food Network, and I had been working with Todd English, doing PR for him. So I got chatting with this producer at a Brazilian restaurant and kept saying that I want to be a judge and that nobody can talk about food like I can -and I drove him insane- so he agreed and gave me a chance. They were impressed with how I could actually say why something is delicious.
R: How did you come up with this idea of a media dinner?
KB: When I first started my firm I just felt the cocktail event was fun but I wanted the press to feel important like the other customers and to get the authentic experience; you need the sensory experience of it all. So many people, as a result of my media dinners, are friends now and still in touch and I think that’s great. There are never more than 30 or 40 people, so chefs can focus on journalists there and show rest what it is all about.