Self-taught Chef Aryen Moore-Alston is the owner of Sweet Potato Baby, her catering/baked goods business, as well as producer and host of “This House is Cooking,” a TV show that creatively combines cooking with real estate advice and has aired monthly since 2008 in Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee on ABC-24-WPTY. Aryen was recently a finalist on “Food Network Star,” competing against 11 other chefs. She was the first contestant on the show from Memphis, or Tennessee, for that matter! A graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, Aryen was raised in Naples, Italy, and has also lived in Tokyo, but she now calls Memphis home. Welcome Aryen as today’s FACES of Memphis feature!
You’ve lived all over the world. How did you end up in Memphis?
To say Memphis has always been like home would be an understatement. In the ’70s, my parents met, fell in love and married in Memphis, and in 1996 (three years after my father’s passing), my mother moved my sister and me back here from Naples to finish school at Overton High School. After college and many careers later, my mother had an idea for a cooking/real estate show called “This House is Cooking!” and asked me to come back to Memphis to tape the show. From there, I met a guy (Kenon Walker), fell in love, had a baby (Kennedi Walker) and decided that Memphis was destined to be my home.
What languages do you speak?
In addition to English, I speak Japanese and Italian, but I have also been formally educated/trained in French, Spanish and Chinese.
What types of jobs have you had outside of cooking, and do any of them help you as a chef?
I’ve had myriad jobs outside of the culinary field, and every single one has prepared me to be a chef. As a computer scientist, I wrote computational programs and coding algorithms, which prepared me for recipe development and testing. As an actor and dancer, I was used to constant critiques, long hours and staying up on my “toes” literally for hours on end. In the culinary world, your food is constantly scrutinized by you, your clients and customers, and some days you actually stand behind a stove anywhere from seven to 14 hours. And as a Japanese linguist, I had to constantly step outside my comfort zone and learn how to translate and effectively communicate with others, which is crucial in being a business owner and television show host.
I feel like I’m living out the movie Slumdog Millionaire, where the main character knew all the answers to the questions because his life experiences were the answers.
What was it like to compete on “Food Network Star?”
Competing on “Food Network Star” was a magical experience. So much so that sometimes I lie in bed thinking, “Did that really happen?”
From “Food Network Star,” I’ve gained friends, colleagues, a notch in my culinary belt and had the most amazing opportunity to showcase my culinary skills in front of millions of people on national television. I’m blessed and very humbled by the attention I’ve received because of the show, but most importantly, I credit “Food Network Star” for helping me shed my fear of going forward with Sweet Potato Baby.
When did your interest in cooking begin?
My interest in cooking began at age 7. Every year, I would tell my parents that I wanted a cookbook for Christmas … or for my birthdays … or at the checkout counter … a cookbook just seemed appropriate. [She giggles.] It seems completely obvious now that I would be a chef, but as a child, it was simply a hobby, one that took me away (more so than Calgon). Now, it’s a way to connect with my father spiritually and spend the time we never got to spend with each other while he was living. He introduced me to the most fantastic occupation in the world … who knew?
What inspired you to create Sweet Potato Baby?
When my daughter was young, I made all of her baby food, and one day I had a crazy idea to create a gourmet cupcake fundraiser for her daycare and decided that I would produce cupcakes with vegetables or fruit in every bite. I joke that pureed foods are not just for babies.
I designed the forms, logo, website, developed the recipes and it sat on the shelf. At the time, I was working for Apple as a technical support adviser and was preempted by “Food Network Star,” and afterwards had to make a decision to go back to the corporate world or stay in the culinary world. The choice was easy! I decided to launch Sweet Potato Baby gourmet baked goods, which is now a full-service catering company, as well as a specialty baked goods company.
What’s in a name: When we used to visit the United States in the summer months, my grandmother would say that my sister and I were the color of sweet potatoes (referring to our tanned skin). The name stuck around, and when I was deciding on what to call our signature sweet potato cupcake I added a sugar baby on top of the cream cheese frosting, and it was a perfect fit.
What do you do in your spare time that is not cooking-related?
That’s almost laughable! I wish I had more spare time, but I would probably fill it up with more things to do. I’m a busy bee, so my spare time is rare, but when I have it I’m addicted to Netflix, Hulu and almost all things self-help/empowering. I love reading about purpose, goals, dreams and wealth; it keeps me motivated.
What are your favorite Memphis restaurants?
Outside of your own dishes, what is your favorite Memphis dessert?
My favorite Memphis dessert is the chocolate rock sugar confection by Chef Phillip Ashley Rix.
What three lighthearted things could you not live without?
House/dance music, great conversations/laughter and a good glass of wine!
Thank you, Aryen, for sharing your inspiring story with StyleBlueprint Memphis!
Today’s photos of Aryen were taken by Micki Martin.