Talk of the Town
Jim Whaley was a long-established and nicely paid executive chef when he cooked up a recipe for financial discomfort in 2009. His employer, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wanted out of the self-operated food service business and brought in a contract company that offered Whaley the option of staying. Yet he declined. At 52, Whaley was reaping some of the benefits of middle age: lower bills, an empty nest and the satisfaction that his and his wife’s college-tuitionpaying days were behind them. He saw the change in employers as an opportunity to chart a new course that would allow him to realize his beliefs about furthering farmto- table cooking.
“I think it’s sort of typical for people in my age group to look for more values-based work,” said Whaley, recalling his choice. When the couple downsized their home to lower expenses, the move returned to Whaley more time to research ideas that would further his passion and ultimately produce revenue. “When I struck out on my own path, there was some risk because I had to establish a lot of relationships and find work to pay the bills.”
While at the seminary, Whaley had begun purchasing a modest amount of food from area farmers with whom he became friends. Entering into that farmer network helped lead to cooking demonstrations at farmers’ markets using vendors’ ingredients.
“I wanted to lend my skills as a chef to enhance what they were doing,” said Whaley, who did regular demonstrations for free at a pair of Old Louisville farmers’ markets. “Since I wasn’t working regularly, I did a lot of volunteer work to keep me in the mix. And that ultimately put me with the types of people who I wanted to partner with.”
Whaley attended neighborhood meetings concerned with healthful food efforts, got involved in Louisville’s Mayor’s Healthy Hometown initiative, connected with producer groups such as Kentucky’s sheep and goat ranchers and a beekeepers’ association. He closed the loop by hooking up with like-minded retailers such as ValuMarket and Whole Foods.
Those efforts led him to cross paths with other Louisville chefs, who called on him when shorthanded or needing help with a large event. The work brought in needed income, but it commonly meant the longtime executive chef earned his keep doing the kind of prep work he’d moved beyond decades before.
“One wonderful thing about Louisville is that it’s a sort of small town, especially in its micro-community of chefs,” Whaley said. Brown-Forman executive chef Mark Williams hired Whaley for help, as did Wiltshire Pantry owner Susan Hershberg. “I had those angels along the way who were looking out for me by hiring me.”
The bulk of Whaley’s thinking was devoted to writing grants to secure funds for projects that would fulfill his mission and provide future income. Those designs began materializing in 2010 when he received a call from Julia Bauscher, director of school and community nutrition services for Jefferson County Public Schools. Bauscher needed help developing school recipes that included farm-fresh foods, and Whaley successfully solicited funding for the work from the federal Centers for Disease Control.
“What’s impressed me most about Jim is his passion for what we’re trying to do,” Bauscher said. Working in JCPS’s central kitchen, Whaley revised many of the school’s recipes to reduce sugar, sodium and fat through the addition of healthful fresh foods. Bauscher also said Whaley’s worked has involved students in the process of changing meals they’re served. “He’s worked in a number of schools to prepare samples he’s served to students and listened to their feedback.
“But what’s cool is when he shows up in that toque; he might as well be a rock star. They really listen to the message he delivers — messages we’ve tried to deliver ourselves forever, but never seem to get across. He commands instant respect,” Bauscher added.
In the service of JCPS, Whaley has successfully directed meats from Ashbourne Farms, Stone Cross Farm and Harned Ranch into the school lunch system — no small task for relatively small farms, he added. “When you think that the schools here require 2,000 pounds of meat just for one day, you start to see the demand that puts on smaller farms” and why it’s so challenging to connect them to such large systems, he said. The week of Derby, all JCPS students had access to burgoo made with local vegetables and antibiotic-free beef — Whaley’s recipe.
Whaley’s work extends to the state level through personal visits paid to school food service directors around Kentucky, where he conducts hands-on demonstrations on how to use fresh foods in cafeterias.
“Jim’s really good at working with the equipment [the schools] have and showing [the staffs] how to use it to create recipes from fresh and local foods that students would be open to trying,” said Tina Garland, Farm to School program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. “Sometimes it’s using things as simple as the right presentation, such as a head of lettuce [as a garnish] to make food more appealing to kids.”
Garland admitted her admiration of Whaley’s courage not only to go it alone but to go where professional chefs don’t usually venture. “He had to step out on faith to do this, because who was sending a real chef to schools to do this? He’s highly unusual.” And highly creative, said Ellen McGeeney, president of Grasshoppers Distribution in Louisville. As a provider of seasonal foods to subscriber customers, Grasshoppers is often introducing people to unusual vegetables. Whaley’s task becomes turning less popular vegetables into desirable and saleable finished products.
“I go to Jim and I say ‘I have a problem crop, such as eggplant, and I don’t know what to do with it all,’” McGeeney said. “His mission becomes turning that into a something [customers] will pay for and be happy about. … And then he comes back with eggplant agrodolce [sweet and sour], which my customers love.”
McGeeney said Whaley helped Grasshoppers achieve its goal of zero-waste at its processing facility by taking blemished goods, such as tomatoes, and turning them into savory salsas. “Jim can develop something, test it and tweak it until it’s right, plus do it with an eye toward cost. That’s hard to get: someone who’s a chef with the experience he has and understands all those details.”
Busy as he is, Whaley is constantly marketing himself to stay employed and further his all-consuming assignment. That includes appearing radio programs and cooking videos, and even allowing his picture to be used on billboards and bus signs.
“It’s all an extension of the work I do to get the message out,” he said. That he’s become a man in demand and the face of some increasingly popular programs “has affirmed to me that I’d been on the right path when I started thinking about leaving the seminary back then. It’s all helped answer that question, ‘How I can I benefit a larger group of people by focusing on connecting farmers with people who could buy their foods?’ It’s become really satisfying.” Steve Coomes is a former chef and freelance writer who lives in Goshen.