Rags to riches: Man who lived in Alton Park tells of becoming a master chef, business owner, author

Rags to riches: Man who lived in Alton Park tells of becoming a master chef, business owner, author

August 9th, 2012 by Yolanda Putman in News

Elliot Farmer

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

* What: Book signing, cooking demonstration

* When: 2-5 p.m. Saturday

* Where: Thankful Baptist Church, 980 N. Orchard Knob Ave., Chattanooga.

* Admission: Free

A man who says he grew up living where he could, raised by church members and teachers who rewarded him for good behavior by allowing him to stay weekends at their homes, has become a master chef, business owner and author.

"I am from the Alton Park projects, the ghetto," said Elliot Farmer. "I've come from rags to riches."

Farmer, who lived more than a decade in the now-defunct Spencer J. McCallie Homes, at one time Chattanooga's largest public housing site, is a doctoral student at the University of Phoenix, the owner of Farmer's Gourmet Catering in Atlanta and author of the cookbook "Entertaining with Soul."

Farmer, a Brainerd High School graduate and now an Atlanta resident, will stop at Thankful Baptist Church on Saturday as part of a three-month book promotion tour to give a free cooking demonstration featuring recipes in his book.

Farmer said he is motivated to help others because of the help he received from people in Chattanooga. He mentors several youths and said he tries to teach all of them the value of remaining teachable.

"I try to teach my mentees to always believe in yourself. But no matter how high you get, never get too important," said Farmer, who declined to give his age. "Humility will take you further than pride."

The book includes 100 Farmer's Gourmet Catering signature recipes for everything from simple dining to a five-course meal.

Farmer got his start in the kitchen at age 5 when his mother taught him how to make cornbread. That recipe is in the cookbook, he said.

But it was during the early and mid-1980s in his teenage years while working his way up from busboy to chef at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel -- it was once in downtown Chattanooga near what is now the Tennessee Aquarium -- that Farmer got most of his experience as a cook.

By the time Farmer graduated from high school, he was catering his own high school functions.

Farmer said he came from a childhood of abuse and poverty and was raised by church members at Union Grove Baptist, then pastored by the late W.D. Clark.

"I had some people in that church, mothers in that church, deacons of the church, who understood my living situation, and they were determined that I was going to come out of that. Whatever they could do, they did," Farmer said.

Forestine Watson Haynes was among the church members at Union Grove when Farmer attended during the late 1970s and '80s, and she plans to be at his book signing Saturday.

"I'm proud of him," said Haynes. "As a very young kid he had such a passion for the Lord. He attended Sunday school. He sang in the choir. He was just a good young man."

The Rev. Oscar Lockhart, pastor of Thankful Baptist Church, was on the deacon board at Union Grove when Farmer was a member.

"Elliot is a fine young man. Somebody has to support him," Lockhart said.

Farmer started his own catering business in 2002 after losing his job as a representative for BellSouth Yellow Pages in a downsizing. He called his business Farmer's Kitchen.

In 2008, the economy got so bad that he almost quit, but clients encouraged him to keep going. That year he changed the name from Farmer's Kitchen to Farmer's Gourmet Catering. Business since has taken off, and he has hired 30 part-time and as-needed employees. He published his first cookbook this year.

Although most of his cooking experience came from the Sheraton, Farmer also recalls teachers who let him cook in their homes and sleep over on weekends when he made good grades.

But for all of his success in the kitchen, none of his formal training is in culinary science.

The father of two and husband of 15 years has an associate degree in nursing, a bachelor's in economics and psychology and a master's in industrial organizational psychology, and he's working on a doctorate in industrial organizational psychology.

His goal is to be a food and beverage organizational consultant.

"The Lord has really shown favor to me," Farmer said. "I would have never thought I'd be working on my doctorate degree from where I came from, never in my days."