Tim Mulderink, owner of The Chef and His Wife, well remembers his first successful attempt at making pancakes.
"My interest in cooking started when I would watch my father make breakfast," he recalls. "At 7 years old, I was so excited the day I flipped my first pancake."
A few years later, at a time when celebrity chefs were just beginning to appear on TV, his interest in the culinary arts was piqued by Julia Child, Graham Kerr and Justin Wilson. So it was only natural Mulderink would enroll in a two-year culinary program at Washburne Trade School in his native Chicago, all while he practiced his skills working full-time in various kitchens every night till midnight.
Since then, he's been a baker, culinary instructor, executive chef and mentor. He's worked in contract-business cafeterias around the Midwest, including as a research and development chef for Schwann's Food Service in Minnesota, where he learned the art of retaining flavor in frozen, packaged foods. His favorite job was at the Opryland theme park in Nashville. It was there that he learned a great deal about cooking in volume.
"Any given day at Opryland, we'd prepared food for 20,000-plus people. Plus, we made special meals for all the entertainers, like Garth Brooks and Minnie Pearl," he says.
His last corporate position was at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, where he was executive chef for four years. At the same time, he was starting a small catering business. As his side business grew, he realized a decision must be made, so he left Volkswagen to start The Chef and His Wife in his home kitchen. It didn't take long to outgrow that, so he moved the business into a church kitchen before relocating to its current location in Middle Valley,
The Chef and his Wife is a food-service model built on three concepts: fully cooked, made-from-scratch carry-out meals; catering; and grocery-store retail with four flavors of pimento cheese sold in area Food City stores.
Q: Why did you decide to go into catering rather than work in a restaurant?
A: The primary reason I worked in contract-business cafeterias was because I wanted a balance of life, raising a family and following my passion to cook.
Q: Was it difficult getting your pimento cheese into Food City?
A: It took almost a year to get the approval to stock Food City with all four flavors — original, smoked gouda, jalapeno and Smokin' Hot. We're now in 25 Food City stores in Cleveland, Chattanooga and Dalton, and we've been invited to grow into the other 100 Food City grocery stores. Locally, we are in Vinterest Antiques and Chattanooga Mercantile, too.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to sell food on a retail level?
A: You have to be patient, know the process and have a product with a sustainable point of difference.
Q: What's the most-memorable party you've catered?
A: There was the time we served 2,000 people at the opening of the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago. It was a black-tie, sit-down meal, and someone accidentally put salt in the sugar bowls. We scrambled to remove them from the tables before coffee was served.
Q: What's the most-popular menu item at The Chef and His Wife?
A: Chicken potpie. It's become so popular, we make them all year long.
Q: What's your favorite menu item to prepare?
A: Sausage and chicken gumbo. It's a long process to make sure the roux is cooked to the right color and the flavors are balanced.
Q: Whom do you consider your mentor in the culinary world?
A: There've been many chefs who mentored me in culinary and people management, including chef Frank Lopez, one of my baking instructors in Chicago, and Doc Jensen, who was at Opryland. They were amazing teachers who taught me the "no-shortcuts" disciplines in the kitchen.
Q: Describe your dream dinner?
A: I'd invite Julia Child, so I could tap into her knowledge; Red Skelton for his humor; and my wife, Shelley, there to share the experience.
Q: What is your most unforgettable food experience?
A: Shelley and I attended the Banquet of Hoshena in Nashville. It was an intimate, three-dimensional, animated story projected onto our table as we were served a delicious, five-course meal.
Q: What cookbook or website do you turn to for inspiration?
A: I mostly use Eating Well and the Food Network website for healthy menu ideas.
Q: What's the most-important tool in your kitchen?
A: I call it the "million-dollar spatula." A spatula will save a million dollars' worth of food product that might otherwise be trashed down the drain. It's the perfect tool for scraping out food remaining in your pans, cans and pots.
Here's one of Mulderink's recipes that's quick and easy and perfect for your holiday parties.
Chili Pimento Cheese Party Dip
2 (8-ounce) containers Chef Tim's pimento cheese, any flavor, or your favorite brand
1 (16-ounce) container Chef Tim's Chili or your favorite brand (see note)
Combine ingredients well, pour into a casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until bubbly. Serve with tortilla chips.
Note: Chef Tim's chili is available at The Chef and His Wife store in Hixson or online at thechefandwife.com.
Email Anne Braly at email@example.com.