A passion for food leads to a new career

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Carol Sorgen

Dara Bunjon is the first to admit that neither she nor her home would make the centerpiece of a style magazine. (“I’m a fashion don’t!” she laughed.)

But what she does guarantee is that if you came to her home, you’d eat some really great food. Food has not only been a lifelong passion for the 64-year-old Pikesville resident, but has also fueled both her career and her charitable efforts.

Professionally, Bunjon’s culinary endeavors have included being a regular cooking personality on WBAL-TV’s early news in Baltimore, serving as president of the Epicurean Club of Maryland, and working as marketing and public relations director for Vanns Spices.

Then about six years ago, she gave the corporate world the heave-ho and started her own home-based business: Dara Does It — Creative Solutions for the Food Industry.

Bunjon now applies her broad range of culinary skills as a food stylist on behalf of chefs and cookbook authors. She also plans culinary events and implements public relations and marketing activities for restaurateurs and food-related businesses.

In addition, she is a contributing writer to Foodservice Monthlyand Examiner.com, has written for numerous lifestyle publications, maintains an award-winning food-related blog called Dining Dish (she just posted her 1000th entry), and co-authored her first cookbook, Yum! Tasty Recipes from Culinary Greats.

An early focus on food

Bunjon’s passion for food was originally inculcated by her family during her childhood. Growing up, Bunjon recalled, her family would come to the table for dinner and share their news of the day.

“There were no smartphones, no texting, no TV,” she said. “It was just all of us eating together. And this, to me, was an expression of love.”

As a young single woman, Bunjon enjoyed trying out new recipes on friends and neighbors. “It’s no fun cooking for just one,” she said.

Eventually — inspired by a similar club she read about elsewhere — she founded the Epicurean Club, which organized cooking classes in local restaurant kitchens. (The club operated for about 13 years.)

After winding down her successful corporate PR career, Bunjon decided it was time for a change. “I wasn’t planning on retiring,” she said, “but with the house and the cars paid off, no kids and no debt, I thought it would be a good time to leave the security of a regular paycheck.”

With her reinvented career as a business owner, Bunjon keeps a whirlwind of a schedule but couldn’t be happier. “At my age, I should be doing the things I love to do, not the things I ‘should’ be doing,” she said.

One of those things, as we said, is cooking for others. So, twice a week she travels to Washington, D.C., at the break of dawn, to put in a full day as a kitchen assistant for a friend who prepares meals for visiting scholars at the Center for Hellenic Studies.

Bunjon will set up for lunch, prep the salad, cook or wash dishes…whatever is asked of her. “It’s not glamorous, but my friend is a great cook, so I eat well!”

Bunjon also enjoys sharing her culinary skills and knowledge with others. She serves as a board member for the Restaurant Association of Maryland Education Foundation, as a mentor to high school students studying for careers in the food industry at the Carver Center for the Arts and Technology, and as a member of the national public relations committee for Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.

“There are many great causes to be involved with,” said Bunjon, “but most of my charities are food-related. My motivation is making sure that nobody’s plate is empty.”

Why food’s a popular business

To Bunjon, it is not surprising that so many people harbor fantasies of working in the food business. Food pulls people together, Bunjon believes. “It’s something we can all relate to and we can all talk about.”

There are numerous avenues into the food industry — from becoming a personal chef, to catering, to developing a product line and selling items online or through local stores. “The door is wide open if you have the skills and are passionate about what you do,” said Bunjon.

She adds that it’s not necessary to know every detail about running a business. “Surround yourself with a good team that includes people who can support you,” she advised. “You don’t have to do everything yourself.”

Still, she’s quick to point out that if you think you’re going to become a celebrity chef with your own TV show on the Food Network, you should know from the outset the chances of that happening are slim!

To really get to know the food business, Bunjon suggests asking a local restaurant if you can volunteer in its kitchen. “It’s challenging and physically demanding,” she said, “but you’ll get a great education.”

One of the perks of Bunjon’s work is having the opportunity to meet some of the country’s most prominent chefs and dine in some of the poshest restaurants.

But these days, Bunjon is just as happy to be at home with a pot of chicken stock or pasta sauce simmering on the stove, or eating at one of Baltimore’s local ethnic restaurants.

“I’m all about back-to-basics now,” she said. “Nothing pleases me more than a simple boiled lobster or a bowl of soup. Simple food is really the best.”