The path to success isn't always a glamorous one
Recently back from the TV studio where the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series was once shot, Marcus Meacham — who has “rock star chef” written all over him — was telling me about some of his glamorous, great-paying Los Angeles gigs.
As one of the conspicuously telegenic personalities for Tastemade — which is like the Food Network for Snapchat and YouTube enthusiasts — Meacham has starred in countless cooking-show videos. One of those glossy productions, called “Marcus's Best Burger Ever,” has alone logged over three million views.
So why, at the time that I was hearing about his LA exploits, was Meacham toiling away in obscurity rolling tacos in the shadows of somebody else's pop-up? And why was Meacham relieved to have just secured more thankless grunt work as a part-time bar back in a new and unestablished local tavern?
Welcome to the hard-working, up-and-down, feast-or-famine life of a talented Columbus chef.
Based on food blogs, Instagram accounts and magazine features, you might be tempted to think that the life of a successful local chef is bubbling over with Champagne, haute cuisine and accolades — or at least craft beers, reimagined hot chicken sandwiches and glowing reviews.
But here's what often gets lost in the glare of those flashy photographs and trumpeting headlines: A local chef's life isn't quite so enviable. In fact, few have the time or disposable income to regularly eat and drink the kind of celebrated things that bring them praise in the first place.
Plus, it's hardly a picnic coping with the unforgiving heat both in and outside of a hectic, pricey-to-maintain professional kitchen. Even more troubling: the ever-present question of job security in an exhausting and fiercely competitive field. Frankly, the not-so-delicious truth is that, even in a city with a thriving restaurant scene such as ours, a chef's next paycheck might just be the last one he or she sees for a while.
Chalk some of this up to bottom-line economics affected by skyrocketing rents and a fickle dining public constantly on the hunt for the Next Big Thing — and then moving on again. Toss in hot-and-dirty work that can lead to the kind of cuts and bruises you might expect on a cage-fighter and, with few exceptions, being a successful Columbus chef is far from a cushy job. If you doubt this, just ask three longtime local “top 10” restaurateur/chefs no longer working in Columbus: Kent Rigsby, Alana Shock and Magdiale Wolmark.
“Sprinkle some real shit on the page,” 36-year-old Meacham said when addressing this article during a recent interview I conducted with him in Paulie Gee's pizzeria — one of many area eateries where Meacham has done part-time work.
“I don't care if I come off looking bad. I want people to know that I get pissed off when I hear people say ‘local this' and ‘local that' — and then they don't support the kind of restaurants they claim they want,” he said.
I should clarify that this was months after I'd seen Meacham rolling those tacos, and in the interim, he'd landed a plum cooking job in Columbus — so this wasn't a case of sour grapes.
But it is a cautionary tale for wannabe local chefs — and a behind-the-pantry peek at the bumpy roads frequently traveled by the kind of people who cook those eye-popping dishes you like to take pictures of yourself triumphantly enjoying.
For Meacham, the journey to Columbus chef-dom began in the suburb of Dublin. That's where the Houston, Texas native and OU alum was first employed in Central Ohio — at a posh spa and country club called The Club at Corazon. That entry-level gig would be one of many flameouts, but it taught Meacham indelible lessons.
One thing he picked up on might be summarized as, “If you build it they won't necessarily come.” A positive takeaway: The discipline and exemplary work ethic exhibited by Corazon colleague Anton Thurn — of venerable Thurn's Specialty Meats — would stick with Meacham as he moved up the employment ladder.
As Meacham put it, marveling at Thurn's impeccably maintained workstation would later influence a policy of personal responsibility that the future executive chef would ask of his staff. Meacham refers to this as “zero bitch-asses.”
General Po's Chicken
The next rung on Meacham's career climb came as morning cook at Latitude 41. His time at that ambitious hotel restaurant — which premiered under the aegis of Dean Max, a nationally prominent chef heralded by Gourmet magazine and the James Beard Foundation — would again be short-but-influential.
At Latitude, along with Max, Meacham would interact with Chef Tony Miller, a mentor Meacham still consults. He'd also meet some new pals: the forward-thinking sous chefs who'd later open edgy, farm-to-table-focused, Old North-based Angry Bear Kitchen, which — and I wish this were more surprising — closed last year.
“I'm taking my talents to Spring Street,” is how Meacham said he joked about his next job at once-hot, now-defunct Barrio Tapas Lounge. Obviously, Meacham was sending up a phrase made famous by something else that happened that year: LeBron James' oddly orchestrated decision to play for the Miami Heat. Like LeBron in Miami, Meacham would finally make his way to the top at Barrio, assuming his first position as executive chef.
At Spanish-centric Barrio, Meacham began honing his globally influenced but Ohio-minded cooking style, which he characterizes as, “Take something and break it to make it better. If it's comforting, kick your feet up on it.”
But even as top dog in the kitchen of a chic eatery like Barrio, Meacham continued to endure “a lot of broke-ass days.” Besides, like so many other worthy Next Big Thing eateries, Barrio's popularity eventually waned.
Meacham's next stop was as executive chef at another local hot spot, Bodega in the Short North. There, he worked to transform a poorly equipped kitchen primarily known for churning out cheap grilled cheese sandwiches into something befitting a destination restaurant. So vanilla-scented, cold-smoked lobster rolls and moules et frites enriched with bacon and blue cheese made their way onto the radically revamped menu.
Meacham also became especially active on social media around this time. As so often happens in the digital realm, one thing leads to another — and another and another — and Meacham suddenly found himself in Las Vegas competing against throngs of “Iron Chef”-style aspirants in the World Food Championships (WFC).
Meacham didn't expect much from his self-financed Vegas getaway, and he thought the immense and unwieldy WFC cooking competition was chaotic and crazy. But he finished high, in the top 10. This outcome would prove to be a game-changer — just not right away.
Meanwhile, growing pains ensued for Bodega, a place that was still probably more famous for its booze than its food. After two years of cooking there, and his share of ups and downs, Meacham again found himself unemployed.
As jobless days spread to jobless weeks, his car got repossessed. The prospect of homelessness morphed from something calamitous-but-abstract into something all too real.
The irony of a chef going hungry is particularly sad. Exacerbating Meacham's situation was being recognized around town as “Chef Meach,” a public figure often photographed and celebrated in numerous publications.
Like a grim meal you have to knock back while trapped in an airport, Meacham swallowed his pride and settled for any jobs he could find to help pay the bills. Many were far out of his chosen field and include stints moving furniture and cleaning houses.
Occasionally bailing him out were the discounted and free groceries available from our city's food pantries. Meacham put these resources to good use, tapping into his skills to whip up delicacies on the cheap. One dish he perfected during those dicey days he liked to call “General Po's Chicken” — so-named because it's an enhanced riff on General Tso's chicken made by somebody “po as fuck,” as he explained.
Almost a year later, in 2014, Meacham's prospects brightened. A connection from his old Corazon job led to the restaurant-launching executive-chef position at Kraft House No. 5 — a buzzy and ambitious gastropub in Powell. Specializing in comfort foods with dressed-up flair, the place would go from “much-anticipated” to “hard-to-get-a-table” status quicker than you can say “hottest new Columbus-area restaurant.”
Here's what else started to heat up: Meacham on video. The camera-friendly, charismatic and art-loving chef with an eye for style, taste for competition and nose for social media — and that strong Vegas finish on his resume — began to find his way onto cooking show segments.
His first big video foray was largely due to his Instagram account sufficiently impressing the producers of “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a Food Network program. “Cutthroat” recruited him to appear in an episode — Meacham stepped up to the plate and banged out a hit.
Word and videos spread. The ex-high school running back and Wu-Tang Clan fanatic with an infectious smile, irreverent sense of humor, serious smarts and get-it-done-quick cooking chops was a natural.
I Love L.A.
“Is this really my life now?” Meacham wondered as his video career started to blossom. His appearance on “Cutthroat Kitchen,” plus new Facebook contacts and Snapchat developments led to Meacham hooking up with the Cooking Channel and Tastemade.
This meant more taped competitions and eventually earning a spot as a regular Tastemade host. Meacham also got his own show, “Tailgate U,” a tailgate-cuisine series in which Meacham met, and cooked with, folks on large college campuses all across the country.
This also meant routinely being flown out to L.A. and being put up in boutique hotels while he often created as many as 10 to 20 videos in a day in the studio. And it meant getting paid “real L.A. money,” which was more cash in a week than Meacham was used to seeing for months of work as a Columbus chef.
Being recognized while strolling around Venice beach one day tickled Meacham's ego as a budding celebrity. While staring out at the beach on another day, Meacham dreamed up STEAM, a Chinese-bun/sandwich operation designed for replication.
Brainstorming later became reality back home in Columbus, when the STEAM prototype set up shop inside Italian Village's Little Rock Bar, offering sandwiches such as the Cubano — a lusty Cuban-Chinese hybrid that Meacham, who loves to indulge his inner prankster, facetiously said would allow him to “piss off two cultures at once.” Plans to expand STEAM to the North Market were developed.
But, as the commercial says, “life comes at you fast.” And after less than a year, although popular, STEAM went bust because of unbreachable differences between Meacham and his business partners. Meacham and Kraft House parted ways, too. Although the restaurant had always been supportive and allowed him time off to pursue his showbiz career, Meacham told me that he began to disagree with management over the sourcing of ingredients.
It was in the midst of this particular sequence of setbacks, on a dreary early spring evening, that I spotted Meacham — who was also on leave from his lucrative LA gigs — glumly rolling those tacos at someone else's pop up.
With his sunny West Coast life so very far away, you couldn't blame Meacham for wondering if L.A. had all just been a dream. Meacham — an African-American who sometimes walks to work in well-worn cooking clothes — also expressed sadness that in Columbus, instead of being recognized as a “somebody” as on the streets of L.A., he had repeatedly been treated as somebody who'd cause bourgeois passersby to clutch their belongings when they saw him.
Heeding his own “no bitch-asses” policy, Meacham did what he always did when things went south: worked hard, brainstormed and waited for the pendulum to swing the other way. And it would.
In May, Meacham reconnected with Latitude 41, and is employed there once more, but this time in the prestigious and much better-paying position of “Executive Chef of Destination Restaurant” dining. (“There are a lot of titles in the corporate world,” Meacham observed.) As his personality begins to flavor Latitude's tasting menus, diners can expect fare such as a savory wild rice waffle topped with chicken-fried lobster and OYO stone fruit-infused maple syrup.
Meacham is also excited to be working with a TV production team on an ambitious new show wherein he samples pork and hams from all over the world. Called, yes, “Going HAM,” Meacham and his crew have high hopes that the series will get picked up by the Food Network, the Travel Channel or the Esquire Network.
Meacham is also planning to reheat STEAM as well, telling me that STEAM has been “on the backburner only so its flavors can develop.”
And he's enthusiastic about where Columbus is heading food-wise, praising the numerous and talented area craftspeople and farmers who now produce so many amazing breads, cheeses, meats and other high-grade commodities that local chefs can showcase.
So things are definitely on the upswing again for Meacham. Like a complex dessert with a faint sour note, though, lurking unseen in the sweet spot he's now enjoying is a keen and nagging awareness of the precarious business he's chosen. In fact, right after detailing all of his recent good fortune and rising prospects, Meacham gazed out of the window in Paulie Gee's and warily said: “Who knows, I still might wind up like that old guy.”
Swiveling my head to meet Meacham's focus, I saw a man in tattered clothes with wild hair and even wilder eyes furiously stomping on the High Street sidewalk while muttering and picking his nose.