Jul 2, 2021 • 25M

A Conversation with Amber Mayfield

Talking with the creator of While Entertaining about dinner parties and independent publishing.

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A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
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Amber Mayfield really knows how to work: She has started her own event hosting company, called To-Be-Hosted, as well as an annual magazine about Black food and drink called While Entertaining. The self-published magazine is printed on thick, beautiful paper and packed with essays, recipes, playlists, and ideas for hosting that come from some of the coolest folks working in food and drink right now—some that are huge, and others that Mayfield wants to see get more attention.

Because I love independent publishers, I wanted to talk to her about how she got into this business, what her vision is for a vaccinated world, and her vision for the next issue of the magazine. Listen above, or read below


Alicia: Hi, Amber. Thank you so much for coming on today. 

Amber: Yes, thank you for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Amber: Yes. 

So I grew up in Rockland County, New York, in a small town called Nanuet. And I come from a very athletic family. So I was always an athlete growing up, so I ate pretty clean and balanced meals. I mean, most of my more exciting and vivid food memories come from holidays and gatherings and just country ham and mac and cheese and candied yams and cookouts with ribs and grilled sausages. So those are the things that stick out. They’re a little bit more exciting, that occasion type of eating.

Alicia: And now you live in New York?

Amber: Yes. 

Now I am in New York City. Which was always my goal growing up, was to be in the city and have that more what I thought was glamorous and exciting, and what I now know is just hustle and bustle and regular.

Alicia: Well, what made you interested in food and begin publishing While Entertaining magazine and launching To-Be-Hosted?

Amber: I mean, so many things. 

Growing up, I always loved parties and holidays and gatherings because I think I was always excited to see family and friends and even more excited about—that's when the more interesting food and flavorful food was going to come out, was through these events. I loved eating and dancing and laughing. And as I got older, I was like, ‘Ok, well, what does that mean as a career? I don't really know.’

Did you ever watch 30 Rock back in the day? 

Alicia: Of course, yeah. 

Amber: Ok, so you recall Kenneth the page

Alicia: Uh-huh. 

Amber: So I was a page. That was my post-college job, ’cause I was like, ‘This is perfect. I can literally bounce around the company and figure out what it is that I want to do.’ And it was an exciting industry. And while I was there, I was always mesmerized by the parties and productions. But what would irritate me as much as I loved that environment was there were the same caterers and the same vendors that were getting all of this big business. So that's when I decided I was going to start my own event company. 

Yeah, it was a natural affinity for liking events, and then wanting to kind of problem solve and having an event company that was food focus, and would actually hire Black vendors and hospitality businesses. 

So I started To-Be-Hosted in 2017. It was kind of a side hustle of throwing dinner parties. And before long, I had all of these interesting clients to work with Nestle and Equinox and Netflix. And I started planning their dinners and hiring Black chefs and Black sommeliers and Black-owned businesses to produce them and really saw that vision come to life. 

And then I started the magazine in 2019, because I was like, ‘Ok, how can I take this energy and scale it a little bit bigger?’ Because dinner parties are small, I was only reaching 20 or so people at a time. So I came up with this concept for a magazine that would help other people throw their own dinner parties, but also tell these stories on a bigger scale than what I could add in-person events. 

So that's the shortest version of the story.

Alicia: [Laughs.] Did you have training in food or in publishing that lead, that also kind of—or are you self-trained in all this?

Amber: Yeah. 

So I mean, in college, I studied communications and PR. So that's what kind of led me into NBC Universal, and that page program was kind of—I don't know, TV, grad school and content grad school, if you will. 

But no, other than that, I kind of just always worked in these industries in the media industry. I worked in hospitality. I was an executive assistant for a celebrity chef, for lack of a better term. So just kind of being around and loving these things, I've just been figuring it out as I go. [Laughs.]

Alicia: Well, and you do have a very specific knack and niche, especially in food publishing, because you're not really focusing on restaurants to go to. You're specifically focused on the home and on hosting. Why did you want to focus on that, and how do you continue to find inspiration and creativity in the home and the format of the dinner party?

Amber: Right. When I was looking at the media landscape, I was like, ‘Wow. Everything really is about restaurant chefs, television chefs.’ And often that kind of created an environment of exclusion for Black chefs and Black beverage producers because we aren't always necessarily only in those roles. So I was like, ‘If I actually want to tell Black stories and cover the breadth and depth of Black food experiences and food ways, I can't be a magazine that champions the restaurant story.’ I think there's a place for that. But for me, I was like, ‘Ok, I've got to go a little bit broader if I want to be able to tell the stories that I want to tell.’

And everybody eats at home every day. We kind of have the random Tuesday night dinner, the dinner experience, and we all want to cook and we all want to host people. So I was like, ‘This is a way that I can tell more personal stories and meet people where they are.’ And I mean, when I started the magazine in 2019, I didn't know how much at home we would be doing in 2020. But I knew that enough people, their first affinity for food and their connection to food and people was at home. So, it just felt like a natural direction for me.

Alicia: And how have you been eating in the pandemic, and how has—how have things maybe changed for you?

Amber: I definitely eat and cook at home more. I think, pre-pandemic, in working in events and doing productions, I was always out and about doing meetings. So I was always stopping at the bodega or the deli or doing work. I was always such a solo diner with my computer in the corner that I had made friends with the restaurant staff, so they were cool with me being in the back working and eating for several hours. 

So, that of course had to change. [Laughs.] I had to do so much more cooking and meetings and virtual coffees than ever before. I really love food, and I find my creativity in trying new recipes and was briefly baking bread with everybody. [Laughs.]

But yeah, I think I'm still kind of trying to find those places where I can either grab takeout or be inspired by one of these chefs and make their recipe at home. So not too much different. Perhaps a little better on the wallet. [Laughter.]

Alicia: Well, yeah.

And in this second edition of While Entertaining, you—which was published during the pandemic—you focus specifically on what you call reflections and recipes. And it kind of just acts as a cookbook and kind of a capsule of how inwardly focused we were at a certain point in time. What inspired you to gather these specific folks together to make this collection, and how did you decide on that approach?

Amber: Yes.

I mean, this approach is the approach that I'll probably keep for all issues of While Entertaining magazine, giving people stories and putting them next to recipes and pairing tips and playlists and all of that, because I really want to start making food stories an experience that lives with us in real life. So I think that format will be the same. 

But in tackling this topic, at first I was kind of like, ‘Well, this is awkward, because I'm starting a magazine that's about entertaining and inviting people over to eat with you. And the CDC said we could not invite people over to eat.’ [Laughs.] So that was my first moment of like, ‘Ooh, this is about to get interesting.’

But then second, as I just was living in the pandemic and canceling all of my events and eating Thai, I was kind of really curious about how everybody else was experiencing this and how they were slipping into new routines and what they were thinking about or writing about or coping. So that kind of inspired the whole reflections part of the theme, was ‘I want to eavesdrop on what other people are thinking about and doing and how they're getting through this, because I know that I've got this new routine. And I've been reflecting on work styles and what it means to rest.’

So I just started asking people in food and drink like, ‘What are you eating right now? What are you thinking about? What are you writing about? What do you want to talk about?’ And that's kind of how I guess the issue. And it was so interesting to see the, just the vastness of that, right? We've got some chefs like Kalisa Marie Martin, [who] was writing about figuring out what her identity was when she wasn't a chef. 

And I thought that was something that everybody could kind of relate to. How often do we explain ourselves by our work, but when you strip that back, what is it that I like to do and who am I? What is my identity? It became this really normal and almost not food related, but kind of food-related conversations that were so interesting. So I just kind of kept leaning into that with everybody else that I talked to, and that's how we got here.

Alicia: And there are big names in here like Chris Scott and Mavis J. Sanders, Lani Halliday. Who else? Hawa Hassan. How have you made all these connections, and how did you decide to include these folks specifically?

Amber: Yes. 

So that's a really good question because we're a new magazine and a small magazine and a self-funded magazine. So approaching people at first sight was like, ‘Oooh, this is scary. They're not going to take me seriously.’

But then I kind of just leaned into the fact that I'm a human, and I'm passionate about something. And I want to share this, these stories in particular. So I just told people the vision for the project, and why I thought it was important to see if they would be willing to do it. And I was always looking for people who had a strong point of view about something and who would be open, or who would be really ready to rally behind this sort of publication existing and taking up space. 

So that's how I found people. 

And then, yeah, it was all about being friendly with people. I would just email them and ask them, like, ‘Do you want to talk? Here's what I'm doing.’ I would slide in their DMs if they posted something that I also related to or wanted to talk about. I would set up virtual coffees to learn what they like and what they might be interested in saying that they don't necessarily get to say in other publications or are approached about being in other publications, ’cause I think we've got the heavy-hitters, but then we also have people that have never been mentioned in the media but still do great work and still have an opinion. 

So it's just been a lot of talking to the people. There's nothing really else to do in quarantine but talk to people. So that's kind of how I've approached it.

Alicia: Right.

And you bring in the playlist with the QR codes. You have all these cocktail recipes. You have a lot of quotes in here. I love the illustrations that you have of everyone who's included.

How are you coming into this? I know you're working with Vonnie Williams. How are you making all these creative decisions for the magazine, and what does it mean to be self-funded to you? [Laughter.]

Amber: This is a great question. 

So making creative decisions for the magazine is—it's interesting, because I've always kind of started—I started To-Be-Hosted and While Entertaining as a solo-preneur, as the world would call it. But I've always had these incredible friends and these incredible industry friends, for lack of a better word and community that was around me that if I was like, ‘Here's my idea. I put it on a post-it on my wall, and I want to tell you about it,’ they will be awfully honest with me about what's gonna fly and what's not gonna fly. 

So leaning into the people around me, both who share the same vision as me and also other people who are like, ‘I really don't get it. I don't think this is smart.’ Or ‘What do you mean, you're only doing dinner parties? And what do you mean, you're only covering Black people?’ Having that balance of voices that contradict yours to kind of weigh in has been really helpful to me, just in terms of coming up with this creative vision and also not really looking to the left or the right. 

I'm aware of other magazines and other food media coverage and their approaches to it. But following my own vision and breaking my own rules, I kind of stick to that, right? We're a yearly magazine. The whole magazine has one theme or question or pros. We're kind of, again, including the pairing tips and the playlist and all the things that maybe not everybody is doing all the time. And I'm like, ‘This is just what we're going to do and who we're going to be.’ And if people think that we're a magazine, and people think that we're food media or not food media, or smart or not smart, this is where we're kind of sitting. [Laughs.]

And again, just leaning into all the voices. I remember chatting with Vonnie, and I'm being like, ‘Ok, so this is how I want to organize it. Do you hate this?’ And her feeling comfortable to tell me whether or not she hated it. I've been really lucky to have people that want to be honest with me and want to work with me and just see me figure this thing out.

Alicia: Right.

And in the landscape of food media, it is interesting and wonderful to see the success of Whetstone Magazine owned by Stephen Satterfield and the launch of for the culture by Klancy Miller. And where do you see While Entertaining and also-

Well, you know what? I’m gonna ask you that question, then I'll ask you what I have in my head next. But where do you see While Entertaining in the indie publishing landscape? Or do you? Do you feel a part of a wave of new magazines?

Amber: Yes. 

I certainly feel a part of it. And I love chatting with Stephen Satterfield for Whetstone. He was somebody from the beginning that has always taken my calls. And he answered my emails on how to do this thing from a business perspective, how to do this thing. And even Kerry Diamond from Cherry Bomb also has welcomed me into this indie magazine landscape. It's been exciting and new. 

And I definitely feel While Entertaining fits in, I think about our perspective is food and entertaining specifically, and then also looking at home and personal stories. So I think we've kind of created a lane that's very specific to us, but also fits in this larger indie magazine landscape and Black-owned publishing landscape. Again, we're only a yearly magazine. And we print on very heavy paper. Everything is independently shot and really leans into the beauty of it all. 

My vision is to be in the collector's category. This is something that's super functional. And you can cook from it, and you can read and relate and can spark conversation. But also, this is something that you want to have each one, because it kind of commemorates where Black food and drink people were in this moment of time for each year and kind of holding on to that. 

Alicia: And that's what I love about the magazine too, because it's going deeper and getting broader because of its specificity. You're bringing in so many people who might be not necessarily ignored by mainstream food media, but not get this kind of space and this kind of depth of spread.

And so, how do you see mainstream food media? Do you read it? Do you see it as good? Do you see it changing for the better? What is your perspective?

Amber: I definitely read it, because I love—I do love talking about food. So I do read other publications. 

And when I think about some of the mainstream media and the bigger food media, I wish we could challenge them even more than we have in the past year in terms of the different voices and the different stories that they tell. From a business perspective, I also respect your decision to not do so or not change your perspective or fields of voice. So in that case, I'd love to see them create more championing of the indie magazines and the more niche perspective media that is arising because of their lack of coverage for the stories that we want to cover. 

I think there's a need for all of this, right? We're always going to want to read a couple articles before we go try a new restaurant or understand why this person's concept for this location is different than that location. I think there's a place for all of it. But I think what I think about While Entertaining and what I want to do as an indie magazine, I think about making food-related art more so than just pumping out a lot of different stories or pumping out a lot of different recipes. We have the luxury of being able to slow down and not answer to any advertisers or any clicks and really do things that we're passionate about.

Alicia: And now that the world is opening up a bit, we're being told vaccinated people can gather at home. What are you envisioning for the next issue with this new new world and new ways? [Laughter.]

Amber: I envision so many things. 

I mean, first of all, I'm super excited for post-vax parties and dinner parties and to have that come back and have more people feel comfortable about doing shared plates. [Laughs.] So I'm really excited about that. 

I hope that people who have the magazine and who have gone through and read the stories are now starting to envision how this recipe lives on their table and who they want to cook it for and who they want to invite over to talk about different things. So I'm excited for people to start having that experience. 

I mean, I've already started thinking about the 2022 issue. We start working on it in the next month or two. I bounce between themes. I mentioned that I come from a very athletic family. And one thing that I recall hearing my dad say is this is a rebuilding year, in a reference to a basketball team that just lost a really big player. 

I'm like, ‘What is there about a rebuilding year? How are we rebuilding our businesses and rebuilding our families because a lot of people lost loved ones and, and just rebuilding our world and rebuilding our social calendar?’ Something like that feels really interesting to me. I also feel I'm on the fence. I could run away from the pandemic and pretend it didn't happen and do editorial and filing entirely based on something else. 

So I think that's the nice thing about the magazine is, I can just keep a running list of themes and find the right moment for that theme and then find the right people that want to talk about that theme.

Alicia: And what are your plans for To-Be-Hosted? Is it coming back in full force? Are you already making plans for new events?

Amber: Yes, we are already making plans for new events. We have a few books for this summer and the fall. And I'm really just trying to expand that brand. We’ll still focus on dinner parties. But I'd love to focus on more like video content, and storytelling in the experience world. 

I mean, this is a whole separate tangent. But I'd also like To-Be-Hosted to have a venue where we can be hosting our dinners and also recording content, because I think there's something to the necessity of safe spaces for Black creators and Black culinary talents have a space where they can go where the venue coordinator isn't going to change rules and change energy when they see that the whole staff is Black, right? I really want to build safe spaces around To-Be-Hosted. So I think venue is next on my mind.

Alicia: That's amazing. And I love that plan. I just think it's a brilliant idea. And it's a brilliant expansion of that concept. 

And I am a little jealous because I do love planning events. [Laughs.] I know how hard it is, like deeply, deeply difficult and exhausting. But also so fun. 

Amber: So fun and rewarding.

Alicia: Yeah, it’s really rewarding. And I mean, I get to plan my wedding, but that’s about it. [Laughs.] 

Well, for you, is cooking a political act? 

Amber: Yes.

I hesitate, because I am not a chef. I understand why a lot of chefs and food people have, feel that cooking is very politically charged. And historically, there's many reasons why it should be. But I'm hesitant to answer that question, because I don't feel I'm a chef or a professional cook that I can really do that question justice. 

Where my mind also kind of went when you said that into my specific niche of hosting and entertaining. For me, that is very political, because we exist in this kind of space where if Black people are talking about entertaining and hosting and cooking and doing kind things to people when they're in their home, you kind of lean toward these mammy vibes, right? And if you're thinking about for lack of a better term, the ‘domestic goddess’ of it all, those are all white women, or Martha Stewart–adjacent women. And I don't really fit that. 

So when I'm talking about entertaining and doing a magazine about entertaining and having a company about entertaining and having Black people lead those things? And those Black people not subscribing to either the stereotypes that America has put upon us, or the stereotypes that social media gives their energy too. But just being Black, being Black or brown, being a person of color, and being really empowered about cooking and entertaining and not feeling you're subscribing to anything problematic. But I work, I cook, I clean and I do these things because I want to and I want to make people feel good. 

And I want people to come over and have fun, not just to be the person that's serving them something. That, for me, is very political. And I take that part of my work very seriously about not subscribing to these really problematic views of perfection that comes with a domestic goddess, or problematic views of servitude that comes with being American. That's where the politics kind of hit for me.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much again for taking the time today.

Amber: Yes, thank you for having me. I loved this chat. And I love what you're doing with your platform. So I'm excited to be part of it.

Alicia: Thank you.