The title of “chef” evokes images of someone orchestrating in a restaurant or hotel kitchen—creating masterful dishes that amaze and delight diners. But opportunities for chefs abound beyond the kitchen line, and local chefs are expanding their culinary horizons to explore new careers outside restaurant kitchens.
The Food Fanatic
“It’s all about growing and learning,” says Zack Northcutt, former executive chef at Swift’s Attic and now one of 55 Food Fanatic Chefs working for US Foods, one of the largest national foodservice distributors. “You can find yourself in the kitchen doing the same thing every day for five years straight and not realize that you are doing the same thing every day. I wanted to learn something new.”
Northcutt now inspires his customers through training and food shows to incorporate US Foods’ new offerings into their menus. He helps develop recipes, create menus and even design kitchen layouts so that clients can better serve their diners. He also trains the US Foods sales teams on the company’s new products.
This new life hasn’t come without a little adjustment, of course. Northcutt moved from cooking with a staff of 40 people to working for a company with more than 200 employees in the local office and 25,000 employees nationally. And in addition to flexing his culinary skills, he’s learning to juggle 80 to 100 emails a day and the fine art of building corporate presentations. But for Northcutt, it’s all worth it. “I get to create recipes and try to break in the new [in-development] products before we release them to customers. And during the food-show tour, I get to work with other chefs from across the country and share ideas. Going to work for a larger entity has given me a chance to explore new things.”
Delivering Wellness and Well-Being
After years of dishing up gourmet cuisine, Rebecca Meeker left her post as executive chef at Clarksville restaurants Jeffrey’s and Josephine House because she wanted to draw on her training as a certified holistic-health coach.
She started cooking meals for her friend, Master Sommelier June Rodil of June’s All Day, to help Rodil improve her diet. Rodil posted Meeker’s food on Instagram; Meeker’s phone started ringing with prospective clients—and Lucky Lime was born. The weekly meal service delivers health-conscious, flavorful dishes, such as wraps and salads, which are all gluten-free with some items also dairy-free and vegan. “It’s food that we enjoy eating,” says Meeker. “It’s a balance between wellness and well-being. Wellness means that you are getting things you need from it nutritionally, but well-being means it’s fun and you can have some wine with it.”
Meeker met Chris Duty, previously with RetailMeNot, who became a partner to help grow the weekly client roster and delivery for business lunches. His experience working with the software company brought some important perspective to a potential problem Lucky Lime needed to address. “Chris’s previous company brought in catered lunches every day from great restaurants, but by the time the food got to the employees, it wasn’t as good anymore because of the delivery time and wait,” says Meeker. “We’re tackling how you make prepared food that is delicious when it arrives. The first delivery was a nightmare because the condensation was out of control.”
As they continue to refine recipes, Meeker is working on growing the team and dabbling with the idea of offering her tasty meals through UberEATS or other delivery services to give customers more options.
Chef Ben McBride grew up in Winnie, Texas, near the coast, and spent his summers fishing—fascinated with anything that came out of the water. After 17 years of working in restaurant kitchens, he was ready for a new adventure and decided to start Heritage Seafood—a wholesale seafood company that seemed a natural fit.
“As a chef, service in the seafood industry was a source of anxiety,” says McBride. “Am I going to get great quality seafood in time when I’m relying on people from out of town to deliver?” To address this issue, McBride now drives to and from Freeport, Texas, at least three times each week to meet the boats as they arrive. “Every time I’m driving down, it’s like Christmas,” says McBride.
That excitement makes up for the physical challenges of the work: the nine-hour round trip to the coast, followed by hours of shoveling ice and loading hundreds of pounds of fish. “I took for granted that it was easier work when I was watching others do it,” he says. “I love a challenge and hate to be defeated, so I’m rising to it.”
McBride’s extensive culinary experience gives him an advantage when a catch comes in with unexpected fish. “A chef may have asked for an American red snapper, but I see a vermilion snapper that will work well and it’s more affordable and more unique,” says McBride. “It’s more fun for me and for the chefs and cooks, as well. It’s fun to have some variety.”
While McBride occasionally misses being in the kitchen, he loves spending half of his time with chefs and is looking forward to taking a group of Austin chefs on a commercial offshore charter. “For the first time, the chefs will catch the fish that the restaurants can then purchase to sell to customers—it will be unsurpassed quality.”
As the restaurant and hospitality industries continue to morph in Austin—shouldering shortages of some kinds and gluts of others—Northcutt suggests that chefs keep their eyes, ears and options open. “Look up from the line and realize that there are so many applications for your skills,” he says. “There’s a whole culinary world out there to explore.”
By Kristi Willis • Photography by Dustin Meyer