Jeffrey Martinez started cooking with his mother when he was 12 years old.
"She was a gourmet cook and owned a catering business here in Chattanooga — Scenic City Catering," he says, adding that his sister now owns the catering business.
Martinez followed in his mother's footsteps, in a fashion. He graduated from the American Culinary Federation apprenticeship program in St. Augustine, Florida, and received training at Pinehurst Resort, a AAA four-diamond property in Pinehurst, North Carolina. He now works as a personal chef for Chattanooga-area clients, calling his business Simple 2 Elegant. In addition, he's a chef for the residents of Garden Plaza at Greenbriar Cove in Ooltewah/Collegedale.
Here, he talks about what it takes to accommodate the different diets of residents at the retirement center and his job as a personal chef.
Q: What is your earliest cooking memory?
A: Learning how to make homemade pizza dough and pizza sauce with my mom when I was about 12 years old.
Q: What was your first restaurant job?
A: It was when I was 15 years old at a Bennigan's. I washed dishes and made salads when the kitchen staff was shorthanded. I learned everything about working in a professional kitchen from the ground up.
Q: Whom do you consider your mentor?
A: I can't name just one. I've been fortunate to have had several culinary mentors over the years while gaining experience in hotels, restaurants and country clubs across the United States.
Q: Residents at retirement centers have so many different diets. Did you have to receive extra training to be able to serve them?
A: When I started working as a chef at Garden Plaza of Greenbriar Cove, I already had the necessary experience and skills as a chef to accommodate the residents' requests.
Q: When and why did you transition into the personal chef world?
A: I worked for a time as a chef with my sister's catering business, Scenic City Catering, and we were hired by clients to come cook weekly meal prep, grocery-shop and consult with different dietary meal plans. So in 2018, I began working as a personal chef.
Q: What's one of the more-interesting meals you've prepared as a personal chef?
A: A week of vegan meals, which taught me about the vegan diet and the different anti-inflammatory ingredients that have helped people manage their weight loss and chronic diseases.
Q: Do you work with clients to create menus, or do you have set menus from which they can choose?
A: I give each new client a questionnaire that helps me determine their personal preferences, dietary restrictions, food allergies and specific meal plans they would like to follow. Then I follow each profile to create a weekly menu to present to my clients before shopping.
Q: What's one of the wildest things a client has asked you to make?
A: I had a client who would order grass-fed organic wild game from a farm out West to prepare each week. I had to research my recipes to give myself ideas and keep it interesting and creative. Then there was the client who asked me to follow only Weight Watchers recipes. I had to research the Weight Watchers website and create menus accordingly.
Q: What other three people would be at your dream dinner, and what would you serve? And what wine would go with it?
A: I would invite three friends from my past or a friend I have lost and reflect on friendship and good times. I would serve a Robert Mondavi Carbernet Sauvignon
Q: Is there a particular spice or other ingredient you're liking these days?
A: I enjoy shopping at Asian grocery stores and finding exotic Asian spices, noodles and condiments to incorporate in Asian-style cuisine.
Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?
A: I like checking out new pizza restaurants in the Chattanooga area that specialize in artisan pizza crusts and toppings and use a firewood brick pizza oven. Right now, I'm liking Fiamma Pizza Co. on Market Street.
Here's one of chef Jeffrey Martinez' favorite ways to use up a bumper crop of zucchini from your summer garden.
Garlic Butter Turkey Meatballs With Zucchini Noodles
1 pound ground turkey meat
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella (or cheddar or provolone)
4 cloves garlic, grated
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon red crushed chili pepper flakes
1 cup fresh chopped cilantro (or parsley), divided
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons butter, divided
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon sriracha sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 medium zucchini, spiralized
Lemon wedge and fresh cilantro, for garnish
To make the turkey meatballs: In a large bowl, combine ground turkey, cheese, grated garlic, Italian seasoning, red chili pepper flakes, chopped cilantro, salt and black pepper. Mix well with your hands or fork, and form medium balls. Arrange the turkey meatballs on a plate, and set aside.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook the turkey meatballs for 8-10 minutes on all sides, until browned and cooked through. While cooking, baste the meatballs with the mix of butter and juices. Remove to a clean plate, and set aside.
In the same skillet, melt remaining tablespoon butter; then add lemon juice, sriracha sauce and minced garlic. Add the zucchini noodles, and cook for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring regularly, until zucchini is done but still crisp and juices have reduced a bit. Garnish with lemon wedge and fresh cilantro. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.