“You won’t make an impact by sitting on your couch.” This quote is from Olivia Chessé, and sums up the active, enthusiastic vision of philanthropy she has adopted with her husband Jean-Pierre. She founded the non-profit Chefs for Impact in New York City, which promotes healthy, sustainable diets among underprivileged populations in Chinatown and Harlem. Meanwhile, he oversaw the creation of National Sawdust, an innovative, non-profit music venue in Brooklyn. Their venture capital investment fund, Bleu Capital, designed to grow their family’s assets, has also invested in several impactful start-ups.
Olivia and Jean-Pierre Chessé have lived two lives. They first met in Shanghai, where he was managing his European food import company Sinodis, founded in 1996. She was a globetrotter with a passion for gastronomy, and worked for French chocolate brand Valrhona after having collaborated with chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, who represented France at the Expo 2010 Shanghai China. Four years later, after selling Sinodis to food giant Savencia, the Chessés moved to the United States.
Jean-Pierre Chessé already had two children in New York City from a previous marriage. He and Olivia then had two others. In the living room of their beautiful townhouse with a garden between Chelsea and the West Village, an enormous photograph features this blended family striding across an avenue in Manhattan – a nod to the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover. The sale of Sinodis, with its 600 employees and 200 million dollars in revenue, certainly set the Chessé family up for life. “I managed to survive in China for 20 years, as I lived frugally and put almost everything I earned into my company,” says the entrepreneur. “This meant that I was one of the first to benefit from the Westernization of Chinese lifestyles and diets. And I sold my business at the right time.”
One Watchword: Taste
Jean-Pierre Chessé was 44 at the time – “the age at which my father founded his own company” – and did not want to launch a new business or remain idle. This sentiment was shared by Olivia, who was younger and still on the career ladder. “She is an incredibly independent, determined, and organized woman,” he says. “She always tries to avoid being overwhelmed by her projects, whatever they might be, and to reserve time for her family and for enjoying life.”
When she arrived in New York City, Olivia Chessé combined her passion for good food and her vast network. She started a consulting firm, Gourmet and the City, to help French brands carve out a niche in the American market. She then founded Epicurean Nights, a company in the events sector: “We would host immersive dinners complete with video-projectors, the diffusion of fragrances, and artistic performances,” she says. “There was one watchword: taste.” These dinners were held in Brooklyn, the Hamptons, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but were stopped short in March 2020 because of Covid. “The concept was totally incompatible with social distancing.”
At the start of lockdown, Olivia Chessé laid the foundations of her new venture, Chefs for Impact: “Our mission is to promote more sustainable gastronomy while making it accessible to as many people as possible.” This approach began with Zoom calls with leading chefs, including those working for Emmanuel Macron and Michelle Obama. Soon after, they launched local initiatives in collaboration with community centers and schools, inviting chefs and developing public vegetable gardens. “In these often difficult neighborhoods, young people have so much fun growing produce and cooking,” says Jean-Pierre Chessé. His wife’s organization now employs around a dozen people and has become “our family non-profit.”
An Innovative Venue in Brooklyn
Before Chefs for Impact, Jean-Pierre Chessé took his first philanthropic steps in New York City by financing National Sawdust, a music venue opened in Williamsburg in 2015, and spent some time as the president of the board of directors. “I have always loved music, and I was looking for a project to support when I got here. I met the venue’s creator, Kevin Dolan, through a cellist, a mutual friend. I was just a Frenchie who had arrived from China, but overnight I found myself immersed in the New York cultural scene.” Both elitist and eclectic, the venue has hosted composer Philip Glass, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and the Russian activists of Pussy Riot.
Over the last two years, the entrepreneur has taken a step back from the venue to focus on another non-profit initiative, Action Against Hunger, the American branch of the French NGO Action Contre la Faim (cofounded by Guy Sorman, the former director of France-Amérique). “I was lucky enough to accompany the charity to Africa with my two teenage sons, and I found the organization to be unbelievably effective.” However, Jean-Pierre’s main activity is still Bleu Capital, an investment fund created to grow the money made by the sale of Sinodis. He defines himself as an “interventionist investor,” and tries to connect with other entrepreneurs to help them develop. “I feel close to the investors, because I am investing my money, and to the founders, because I know how much time and effort it takes to launch a business.”
Since it was founded in 2015, Bleu Capital has invested in some 20 companies including FrenchFounders (a network of entrepreneurs), Contentsquare (data analytics), Hubcycle (waste upcycling), La Vie Foods (plant-based bacon and lardons), and Goodeed (charity project financing). “We invest in inspiring projects, but that’s not all,” says Jean-Pierre Chessé. “Impactful companies often have long cycles because it sometimes takes years to create change. We therefore also finance profitable projects in the short term. The idea is to put our assets to good use and to grow them, which then enables us to fund our philanthropic activities.” Chefs for Impact is the current priority. “We both come from relatively low-income backgrounds, and we are lucky to be where we are today. But giving back has always been in my DNA,” says Olivia Chessé. “What’s more, this concept is hugely important in New York City, and so creating this sort of project was entirely natural!”