Dream job

Teacher leaves classroom for a stint in a chef’s kitchen

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PUBLISHER’S NOTE:
Whether you love your job or hate it, there’s a good chance it’s not the job you dreamed about when you were 10. Many of us have a "dream job," something we always wanted to do, a path not taken, for a myriad of reasons.

Wouldn’t it be a kick, just for a day, to experience that job? The team here at Blount Today thought so. In July, we shared Marty Millsaps dream job as he followed the Smokies in his dream of being a professional baseball player. David Dudley shared his dream job with us of being a conductor, and, with the help of Bill Robinson and the Orchestra at Maryville College, we were able to give him a taste of that experience. Chuck Finley shared his dream of being a pilot. With the help of the 134th Air Refueling Wing, it became reality for a day.

Today, Natasha McMurray leaves behind the classroom at Maryville High School to experience a day as a chef, with the help of the team at Foothills Milling Company. Her experience, told by senior reporter Lance Coleman, follows.

We look to continue this dream jobs series this year. So let us know what YOUR dream job is. Is it something that Blount Today can make happen for you, for a day, and then share with our readers? Let us know. Email or call Lance Coleman at colemanl@BlountToday.com or 865-981-9106. We will take a look at the responses and see if they are within our capabilities.

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

Natasha McMurray’s dream job takes her out of the classroom and into the kitchen. McMurray left behind the books and students at Maryville High School where she teaches a senior transition class and Spanish recently to indulge her dream of being a chef.

With the help of the chefs at Foothills Milling Company on Washington Street, McMurray, 28, got to bake and chop and mix, helping the chef’s prepare the specialty dishes they serve nightly at Foothills Milling.

McMurray’s dream is rooted in the reality of her family’s business.

"My parents have had a restaurant for 20 years, but I didn’t get to cook a lot. In high school, my dad taught me how to cook. That was my favorite thing," she said. "I love Southern food. I really love to cook breakfast foods. My parent’s restaurant, The Mountain Lodge in Gatlinburg, is a breakfast/lunch (business). I love to cook and bake a lot."

On this particular Wednesday, McMurray came to the restaurant in mid-afternoon to watch as Bart and Whitney Vaughan’s staff worked like a well-timed orchestra as they hurried to prepare for the first guests. She watched and helped Bart make Blackeyed Pea Cakes. The cakes were the restaurant’s free appetizer for the evening. "We give every customer a little bit of something," Bart said. "It gets their taste buds going."

Bart has been in the restaurant business for about 17 years. His path to the kitchen started in an airplane cockpit.

"Out of college I didn’t know what I wanted to do," he said, so he obtained his license to fly, reaching the commercial pilot’s license. He also was working part time at Bosco’s Pizza Kitchen in Memphis. There he learned to make entrées from scratch and that was a lesson he used in starting his own business. "It gives customers something no one else has," he said of
making menu items from scratch.

Bart had advice for Natasha and anyone else wanting to become a chef: Get experience in the kitchen before going through school. "I have had people who went to culinary school and found out they didn’t like it," he said. "Get a feel for the industry. It is long hours and takes a lot of dedication. I say, get in the kitchen and work for a while."

Bart and his wife Whitney moved to Sevierville where his parents had a second home. His parents told him the area
needed "a real nice restaurant," he said. "A lot of the bed- and-breakfast folks said there was a need for a little more
upscale restaurant."

About six years ago when Whitney, Bart and Bart’s brother Tommy Vaughan opened Foothills Milling Company, they wanted to serve tourists at establishments in the Sevierville area. This past summer, they decided to move toward the crowd that had become their clientele. "We found a lot of our customers were coming from Knoxville, Townsend and Maryville," Bart said.

They opened in Maryville in June at the former Luce restaurant location on Washington Street and went from having a 36-seat dining room to a facility with room for 60 to 70 seats.

Bart shared with Natasha that the perception some have of chefs who work mostly in the evenings when their businesses are open isn’t the way the business works. Bart said he works 60 hour weeks. The job is fast paced. Usually Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest. "If we get hit, you have to move as quickly as you can," he said.

The afternoons Natasha helped, much of what they did was prepare the food so it could be cooked and/or served when needed. "You really have to build up inventory as you go," Bart said of the staff’s daily workload. "A lot of what we do is a process, and you have to plan ahead."

Whitney has been in the business for about 11 years and she and Bart have been married 10 years this year, she said.
Whitney and Bart said there are rules McMurray or anyone working in the kitchen should abide by to stay safe.

Communication is the key, and the chefs have their own code in the fast-paced kitchens. For example, if someone is walking with something and steps behind another in the kitchen, they say, "Behind you," or if they’re carrying something hot, "Hot pan behind you."

"The main thing we worry about is sanitation and being aware of where everyone is," Bart added. "We have a lot of hot
items."

Whitney’s other rules were also centered around sanitation and communication, telling McMurray that washing hands is crucial. "If you spill anything, clean it up," Whitney said. "And don’t throw knives. And -- we’re big on this -- if you don’t know something, ask us. I’d rather be asked 15 times than send something out not right."

Bart said being a successful chef and having a successful restaurant often comes down to good food and good service. "As long as you treat people right and use good ingredients, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel," Bart said.

Culinary school grad and Milling Company line cook Chris Thompson also lent a hand to the teacher-turned-chef. Thompson graduated Heritage High School and started working in the business when he was in high school as an employee at RJ’s Courtyard in Alcoa. One of the pluses of the job, he said, is that "every night’s not the same."

At the same time, Thompson said he realized his schedule and work wasn’t for everyone. "It’s hard on people," he said. "It’s stressful, and (you work) nights. It’s not what it is on TV," he said. "It’s worth the time if you’re really interested in it."

Pantry chef Patrick Vaughn has worked in the business for 18 years. He worked at his family’s bed and breakfast, the Von Bryan Inn in Sevier County, before coming to Foothills Milling Co. As a pantry chef, he prepares salads and deserts.

McMurray watched and helped as he prepared the ingredients for the house salads.

Regardless of rigors of the schedule, Bart said being a chef and running a business are worth the sacrifices. "Sometimes after long hours, I wonder why, but I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do," he said.

After her time in the kitchen, Natasha talked about experiencing a little of what it means to be a chef.

"I was excited and a little nervous. I think there was a lot I learned about the restaurant business growing up. There’s a lot I’m excited to find out about. I know to follow a recipe. I don’t know how to be creative," she said.

A true chef, she says, can alter recipes and make things better. "You can be creative and make your own thing and not just follow the recipe."

She also picked up on the importance of the quality of the ingredients in making a successful dish. "They use the freshest ingredients. I think it does make a difference," she said. "Talking to Whitney, before we get to be creative, you start with a single ingredient and go from there. This helps you to be creative."

Natasha said that the classroom also offers a chance to be creative, but "this is a different way to be creative," she said. Being a chef is her dream job because of that different way of showing creativity.

"For me, it’s the creativity and being able to cook good food."

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