When he's in his kitchen, chef Terence Locke is often preparing more than a dish for a catering job or his new food truck.
The owner/operator of Chef Express is also preparing his son, 7-year-old Terence Jr., for potentially trying times ahead – adolescence, followed by the teen years.
"My mom was a single mom, but I had strong Black men in my life," Locke says. "In showing [my son] my craft, I'm trying to teach him to be able to stand on his own and be a gentleman.
"I don't want to force anything," Locke says, "but I'd love for him to follow in my footsteps."
A Memphis native, Locke was raised in Chattanooga and graduated in 2010 from Brainerd High School. He says his initial plan was to become a classroom teacher, but his plan changed when he took a culinary arts class at Brainerd.
"Our instructor was chef Leon Rice, who's also my uncle," Locke says. "He was one of the first to inspire me to start cooking."
Locke started college, but the pull of the kitchen proved too strong. He says he worked a couple of jobs after high school, but dove into cooking in 2014. He got kitchen experience cooking for his family, he says, and valuable business advice from his aunts, Sheila Ward and Nicole Frazier.
"I started selling [food] right out of my mom's house," Locke says. "With my aunts' help on the business side, I felt like it was time to take care of my own business."
Locke started Chef Express in 2015. Two years later, he turned it into his full-time gig under the auspices of LAUNCH, a Chattanooga-based nonprofit organization focused primarily on entrepreneurial training and support for women and minorities. His workplace was the Kitchen Institute of Chattanooga, renamed when LAUNCH took over from the former Virginia College culinary school.
Chef Express got off to a fast start, Locke says. He was able to hire several of his high-school friends to staff the weddings and private parties he was booking. He adds that Chef Express expanded into bartending in 2018.
"The phone was ringing," Locke recalls. "I was proud."
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Locke says he lost more than 80 percent of his bookings at the time, but found a refuge of sorts with LAUNCH.
Hal Bowling, executive director of LAUNCH, says the group contracted with Locke and some of his counterparts to prepare meals during the pandemic for area organizations serving the elderly and homeless. From April to September 2020, Bowling says, the initiative produced 40,000 meals.
"Terence did an amazing job helping us with that," Bowling says, "and the community was better for it.
"He's just one of those people who's got what it takes to be successful," Bowling says. "And he's always thinking about the next generation, paying it forward, teaching the culinary trade."
In addition to running Chef Express, Locke teaches Pots for Tots, a cooking class for kids 8-12 years old. He's also written a children's book, "Daddy, What You Cooking?" based on those kitchen interactions with his son.
"I always get that question," Locke says. "Then I can hold his attention for about five minutes."
"I wanted to show how African American men and their families can bond through cooking – a father teaching his son, showing him how to make a special dish," he says.
In the midst of the pandemic, Locke bet on himself – he says he obtained loans from the federal Small Business Administration and bought a food truck, which he rolled out in March.
"I've been blessed," he says. "We're bouncing back, and looking to expand our bartending [business].
"I'm a caterer and an author, and now I'm a food-truck owner. I'd love to see a fleet of food trucks with our name," Locke says.