Michelle Huffman Wells, owner of Events With Taste, a local catering company, grew up in Chattanooga and graduated from Notre Dame High School and Middle Tennessee State University. She didn't go to culinary school. In fact, one of her childhood memories is working alongside her mother — "an amazing cook," she says — shucking corn and snapping peas. "I hated getting things ready to be 'put up' in the summer," she recalls. "And oh how I hated weeding the garden."
But all that changed when she moved out West and soon found herself pursuing a culinary career.
"I was so lucky in Phoenix to rub elbows with some of today's culinary greats," she says, clicking off names like Alessandro Stratta (Iron Chef Italian on "Iron Chef USA"); Robert McGrath (James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southwest); celebrity chef Eddie Matney; and Mark Miller, known as the father of modern Southwestern cuisine.
"I always liked to say I was in the right place at the right time, and I was very motivated to succeed," she says. "There was a lot less ego in the kitchen in the 1990s, so I was in a position to learn and grow quickly."
She traveled around Arizona, Colorado, Washington state and Northern California before moving back to Chattanooga in 2000 and opening The Cupboard. She operated the popular downtown eatery for several years before closing it to enter the catering business full-time. Her company, Events With Taste, is now celebrating 20 years as one of Chattanooga's premier upscale and corporate caterers.
Q: Whom do you consider your mentor?
A: Tudie Frank-Johnson, who, interestingly enough, was Lawton Haygood's (SideTrack, Boathouse, Sugar's Ribs) chef at his first restaurant in Texas many moons ago — such a small world. Tudie is a real-estate agent and lives in Utah now, but she was my mentor and good friend for many years in Phoenix. As far as a local regional chef who inspires me, I would have to say Frank Stitt of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Alabama. He really was a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement, and his elevated Southern food menus inspire me. I love modern Southern cuisine.
Q: What's one of your earliest food memories?
A: Having to eat canned green peas. Ick. I still hate canned green peas. But now, I love having some fresh English peas, but only fresh — not frozen and never canned. I also remember trying to get my Brownie badge for cooking, and it was a disaster. Totally inedible, but since my mom was the Brownie leader, she gave me the badge anyway so the family did not have to endure another attempt at me cooking. Mom was also a great baker. I remember wanting to have processed desserts so bad — Chips Ahoy cookies, honey buns, Twinkies, etc. But no. We had to have all this homemade crap. I was so stupid.
Q: Who influenced you to become a chef?
A: No one, really. In fact, exactly the opposite. In 1989, being a chef was not trendy nor very well paid, and not going to college in order to work in a restaurant seemed like a poor career move. But here I am. And I can't really imagine doing anything else.
Q: What was the first restaurant you worked in?
A: Hardee's. My parents gave me an allowance for spending money at school, but I blew through it in about a day, so I got a job working breakfast at a Hardee's in Murfreesboro. My first restaurant that was legit was probably Mere Bulles on Second Avenue in Nashville. After I had been there a couple of years, my chef called me in his office and told me I had learned all I could learn from him and it was time to learn from someone else. He had secured a job for me at Jody Faison's restaurant, Faison's. I'm sure I cried thinking he did not want me around, but now I understand it was one of the highest compliments I have ever received.
Q: Why did you decide to close your restaurant and open Events With Taste?
A: When I moved back here, I didn't think anyone knew me well enough to trust me to be their caterer. I decided having a little restaurant in order to get my name out there would be a good way to gain people's trust. I never really wanted a restaurant; I'm a caterer. I love big events. I love planning.
Q: How did the coronavirus and self-quarantine change things for you?
A: During quarantine time, we started out having our employees clock in and going over to the YMCA to volunteer at the Fun Food Kitchen making breakfast and lunches for Hamilton County schoolkids so they could still get nutritious meals while out of school. We had the idea to try family meals for our clients, friends and neighbors, and it took off like a rocket. That kept my staff in the kitchen and working to provide for their families. The support we have received from our community has been overwhelming, and we are so touched by it. Now we are just anxiously awaiting Events to get back to normal.
Q: What's the one kitchen tool you can't live without?
A: I'm not much for gadgets. I use my chef knife and cutting board hourly — and my carbon-steel saute pan, I suppose. I'm a messy cook, so towels, lots of towels. And a good assistant to clean up after me — my husband, Ted.
Q: Complete this sentence: If I hadn't become a chef, I would be ...
A: An attorney — and probably a good one. Criminal defense, not corporate.
Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?
A: Popcorn. Always popcorn. All the popcorn.
Q: What's one of your most-memorable catering events?
A: We catered a Pakistani wedding a few years ago, and it was a traditional multicourse, family-style meal. Ninety percent of the guests were Pakistani, and the groom's mom came to the kitchen multiple times to help us with seasoning and procedure. It was fun learning from her and not just reading recipes. My kibbeh and kanafa are on point.
Q: Who would be at the table for your dream dinner?
A: Henry VIII, Winston Churchill, Aria Stark and, oh, can Jon Snow come, too?
Q: Where do you go for recipe inspiration?
A: I love the websites Smitten Kitchen and Food 52. And Pinterest is a great place to collect and organize ideas and recipes.
Here's one of her favorites for summer grilling:
Rosemary Balsamic Grilled Flank Steak With Summer Farro Salad
1 1/2 to 2 pounds flank steak
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
5 cloves minced garlic
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
3 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
Summer Farro Salad:
1/3 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 cups cooked farro
2 cups spinach or kale
2 large ripe peaches, pitted and sliced
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
1 1/2 cups heirloom cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
2 ears corn kernels (fresh, removed from cob)
1/2 cup queso fresco, crumbled
3 tablespoons fresh basil, torn or chiffonade
For steak: Mix all ingredients together in resealable bag, and allow to marinate 2 hours to overnight. When ready to grill, heat grill to 450 degrees and grill for 4 minutes per side for medium-rare. Slice and serve with Summer Farro Salad.
For salad: Mix together olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, garlic and salt and pepper. In separate bowl, combine farro, spinach, peaches, blueberries, tomatoes, corn, queso fresco and basil. Toss with dressing. Serve immediately.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.