Chef Nicholas Whitmire runs city’s Community Café
Nicholas Whitmire has been cooking ever since he was a little boy.
He fondly remembers standing on a step stool to help his grandmother make biscuits from scratch and assisting his family with preparation for holiday dinners.
Whitmire has worked throughout the Southeast in various food service locations, including a NASCAR speedway in Myrtle Beach.
Now, Whitmire is putting his talents to work as the person in charge of special meals prepared by the Tullahoma Parks and Recreation Department.
Whitmire took over the job last June, and he’s been putting out delicious meals for the community on a regular basis ever since.
History in food service
Working in the restaurant world is what Whitmire said he has done almost his entire life. His first job was at an Arby’s when he was 15, and he’s never looked back.
While he’s worked around the Southeast, he said he owes the bulk of his skills to a friend in South Carolina who got him into catering.
“I got a lot of my experience from him for a catering style,” he said.
He also credits his family life for fostering his love of cooking.
“We were involved in the church, too, and I used to always help … do the meals for that,” he said.
Growing up on a military base, he said, having holiday meals with relatives wasn’t always possible, so his family would typically invite the other base families over for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners.
“We had a big family,” he said, “and even if we weren’t near home we’d just invite the base. On a military base, everyone’s family.”
He’s taken all the different styles of cooking he’s practiced and used those skills in the kitchen for the parks and rec department.
Though it may be small, the Community Café’, nestled in the heart of D.W. Wilson Community Center, routinely feeds the learners, movers and shakers of Tullahoma through the parks and rec department’s monthly Lunch and Learn programs.
These monthly educational programs welcome a variety of speakers to Tullahoma to educate the public for an hour or so on numerous topics, from antiquing to minerals to Civil War artifacts to the history of the town.
The program attendees are served a nutritious lunch provided by Whitmire and his staff in the Community Café, which is typically closed once the summer pool season has concluded.
According to Whitmire, the majority of the food served by the café during the summer is the more traditional concession-stand foods: hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza slices and the like.
During the off-season, however, Whitmire and his staff step up their game and present professional catering-style food for the attendees of the Lunch and Learn programs.
“We try to keep it casual because it’s open to anybody,” he said.
Lunch and Learn meals
Lunches for the monthly programs vary in their culinary category, but Whitmire said he always follows a simple outline: protein, starch and salad are a part of every meal he makes.
“I always try to do one protein,” he said. The sides may vary, and he said he tries to do “a few different” ones, but he always includes a starch and a salad.
“You’ve got to have a salad. I love salad,” he said.
“Then, for the desserts, sometimes I make them and sometimes things are store bought. It all depends,” he said.
Though the menus typically follow that outline, there is never one particular item he sets out to make.
“A lot of the stuff is just whatever I’ve been craving at the time, and I’ll just make large portions of that,” he said.
In addition to his outline, Whitmire said he always adds his own personal touch to at least one item in each meal he prepares.
“Every meal, like the Lunch and Learn, I try to have at least one thing made from scratch, so there’s a little bit of good Southern home cooking in there,” he said.
Depending on the number of attendees for the Lunch and Learns and the number of people who pay in advance, Whitmire said he usually will have some food leftover, though it does not go to waste, he said.
“The city staff enjoys that, because they help me clean it up,” he said. “None of the food here goes to waste.”
If there are more leftovers than anticipated, Whitmire said he and his staff will package them up and take them over to Shepherd’s House for the people there to enjoy.
It hasn’t happened too frequently, however, as Whitmire said he’s more than adept at estimating how much food to make.
While the Lunch and Learn meals include more casual fare, Whitmire has also coordinated more elegant, sit-down meals for a variety of meetings and dinners hosted by the city.
One such meeting is the mayor’s monthly planning and coordinating committee, he said, for which he provides a lunch.
Additionally, Whitmire recently took on the catering the mayor’s annual legislative dinner, which sees the city’s state representatives visit Tullahoma to take stock of the city’s legislative needs.
The meal is for anywhere from 20 to 40 people, and is a more elegant affair.
“It was a little more upscale than our regular lunch and learn,” he said.
The legislative dinner involves bringing in special tables, glasses and plates, he said, in an effort to put forth a uniform display for the city.
“Depending on the event itself, we will step it up a little bit, you know, for a fancier kind of thing,” he said.
Catering for special events like the legislative dinner, Whitmire said, is more time consuming, but also more efficient, as they require RSVPs.
“It’s a lot easier to prepare exact amounts (of food),” he said.
Additionally, Whitmire found he is able to cater meals off-site as well.
“I did one for the West Middle (School) boys basketball … banquet,” he said. “I actually catered that for them.”
‘Doing a lot with a little’
Whitmire’s kitchen in the Community Café isn’t what anyone would consider a standard size. While he has a number of special gadgets and small appliances that he and his staff can use to prepare food, they lack a full range stove or oven.
“That kitchen is small,” he said. The only full-size appliances he has are a double-stacked pizza oven and a proofing drawer for breads. “That’s the only permanent fixtures, and then everything else I have a storage area (for),” he said.
“I’m doing a lot with a little,” Whitmire said. “It’s a little bit less than a residential kitchen.”
“I do a lot of stuff that people don’t anticipate coming out of that little kitchen,” he said.
Though he lacks many of the features of a traditional residential or industrial kitchen, Whitmire said he utilizes a number of tricks of the trade he’s picked up over the years.
One trick is to use his proofing drawer as holding space for pre-made foods.
“I use it as a holding cabinet to keep things moist,” he said. He can pour a little water in the drawer and heat up the drawer to about 185 degrees to keep things warm.
He also makes sure that he’s got as many things prepared as he can before the day of a big meal.
“For a lot of these special events, I’ll prepare the food previously, or I’ll run a test batch the day before and then go and have everything prepped cold,” he said. “Then when I get here I’ll run it through the (pizza) oven.”
Whitmire always makes sure he sets himself up for success, he said, though it can get “crazy” in the kitchen regardless of how well he’s prepared.
“It gets a little jumbled back there, and there’s a lot of moving equipment off the storage area into the kitchen,” he said.
“It gets a little hectic at times,” he said.
He’s not going it alone, though. Whitmire has a dedicated staff of about five to eight high school students whom he knows he can count on to help with events on a regular basis.
“I’ve got a select number of them that … I can call to come help me,” he said.
For the most part, the students help Whitmire with the prep work, such as dicing tomatoes or shredding vegetables.
‘A testament to good food’
Throughout his years of experience, Whitmire said the most rewarding aspect of working in food service is knowing he’s made something people love to eat.
“I know I’ve done a good job because there are 30 or 40 people in a room, and you can’t hear anything, because they’re all eating,” he said.
That silence is his favorite sound in the world, he said.
“I just think that’s a testament to good food,” he said. “That’s what I look for.
Planning for the future
Whitmire has more than a few ideas on how to expand the café’s reach, including opening it up during the off-season and potentially purchasing a food truck.
“I had this idea even before I got the position,” he said of opening up the café to a wider audience.
“We call this the Community Café, but a lot of the community doesn’t even know about it.”
His plan is to allow members of the community to stop by and purchase a low-cost meal during lunch hours.
“There’s a lot of places around here that’ll do a meet-and-three for a set price,” he said. “I’d like to be able to offer something like that, just to give people that dine out a variation, something different, than what they would have normally,” Whitmire said.
While it’s too late in the season to implement that idea this year, Whitmire says it’s something he’s looking at trying next year.
Another large idea Whitmire has in store for the center is to purchase a food truck, which he said will help with the outdoor events the parks and recreation department hosts during the summer.
Because the kitchen itself is so small, Whitmire said there is only so much he and his staff can do to expand in their existing space.
“Because this kitchen is so limited in its space, there’s only so much more that we can add,” he said.
So when he was thinking of ways he could get his food out into the community more efficiently, a food truck was the first thing that came to mind.
“We do the concerts in the park, the movies in the park and then our fireworks celebration, and lots of stuff over there,” he said. “The logistics of that are horrible. We don’t have enough vehicles right now.”
With a food truck, he said, he’ll be able to have access to a full range stove and have increased portability, which would make catering the parks and recreation events in the park more logistically feasible.
“I think once we get the word out and people taste my food, it’ll be easier to pull something like that (the food truck) off and make it worthwhile,” he said.
For now, though, he’s happy with just getting a freezer in the kitchen, which he said will make batch-preparing his monthly lunch and learn meals more economical.
For more information on the Lunch and Learn programs, check out Tullahoma Parks and Recreation on Facebook. Whitmire says he and the other department staff keep the page regularly updated with information on the Lunch and Learns, fitness classes and menus for upcoming events.
Erin McCullough may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.