Cooking Up Excitement for the Community

By Brad McEwen

As a lover of food and the fine art of cooking, there are few things that I enjoy more than heading up to Albany Technical College and spending some time with my good friend and local treasure Chef Todd White, who serves as chair of the school’s increasingly popular culinary arts program.

No doubt part of the allure of visiting Chef Todd is getting an opportunity to taste one of the extraordinary and always impressive culinary delights he and his students are whipping up on a daily basis, but that’s hardly the extent of it.

What I truly cherish most about hanging with Todd, even more than the Asian-style, pan-seared Salmon, the veal osso buco, the grilled and pickled quail eggs, the delicate cream cheese crepes, or any number of the countless treats I’ve gotten to sample during my visits, is his unbridled passion for food and his equally enthusiastic belief that food can improve lives and have a positive impact on the city where he grew up.

In the interest of full disclosure, choosing Todd as a subject for Beyond the Bank was an easy decision. Not only have I known him since our days playing church league hoops for St. Teresa’s he is also one of those kindred spirits whose love of the things that really matter prompted him to proudly return home to Albany after a successful run as executive chef at the Savannah Marriott Riverfront.

“I came home because of family and friends,” Todd told me during a recent visit to ATC’s culinary arts headquarters. “I wanted to be able to spend more time with my family. Friends and family are number one on my list, next to God. You’ve got God, family, job.

“Do I miss being in a restaurant? Yes and no. I love sharing food with people, and being in that environment, but restaurants, they will consume you. The time you invest in a restaurant is your life; you have to be there open to close.

“And again it goes back to God, family and THEN job and I feel like job would take over.”

Fortunately for those of us in the Albany area, Todd’s desire to return home—where he could not only be closer to his parents, siblings and extended family, but also raise his growing family—ultimately led him to his current role at Albany Tech where he is able to touch countless lives.

But he had no idea that was in the cards when he decided to come home. Back then he just wanted a gig that would allow him to leave behind the grueling hours needed to run a successful restaurant and spend more time being a husband and father.

“Rick Bishop, when he was at Phoebe, called me about an opening over there, told me that he had a 9-5, Monday through Friday,” Todd explained. “All he had to do was say 9-5 and it was a lateral move pay-wise to come back home so they moved me and my family here.”

Despite his excitement in being back home, Todd said he soon realized that his new position wasn’t the best fit for his more creative leanings, which led him to take a real leap of faith.

“I was trying to make it just so that I could make a life here and be with my family and I got away from doing what I was doing at the Marriott, which I loved, and the people that I loved,” he said. “I was working at a hospital, a totally different atmosphere.

“Every morning I’d pull up and I’d sit there and look at the hospital for like 10 minutes and say, ‘Am I really going into this place again today?’ And I’d have to walk by a dumpster, walk by the morgue to get into the kitchen and I started thinking, ‘I’m not happy cooking anymore.’

“So, I walked up to the general manager at the time and told him, ‘this is not me, I can’t do this.’ And I walked away. I had never done that before in my life.”

Despite his fear over leaving behind a good job without having any future prospects, Todd—who is not one to hide his faith in God—said he had a sense that things would work out, one way or another. He had no idea, however, that the decision would lead him to a life-changing opportunity that put him squarely in a position to have meaningful impact on the community he loves.

Todd said the day after he left the hospital he got a call about an opening in Albany Tech’s culinary arts department, about which he knew very little, and decided to check it out.

“I got all my stuff together and interviewed and went and hung out there and that was when the wheels started spinning and that’s when my brain started working again,” he said. “I was waiting for everything to go through—because I was going to start on like August 22 or something—and I went up to Atlanta for a couple of days to hang out with (childhood friends fellow culinary wizzes Hudson and Bradley Rouse) to just kind of get my thoughts back together culinary-wise and everything and talk to them about it. I left feeling good about it.”

Todd said the positive vibes he had going in to the new position only blossomed once he dug-in at Albany Tech and he discovered quickly that he had found a new passion and an awesome avenue through which to share his love of food and inspire others.

“I got the job and I came in and it was different, but I fell in love with it quick because you feel like you’re actually making a difference,” he said. “And I’m able to brush up on my skills and I’m able to play with food again. I’m able to do what I love to do with food. AND I’m able to take people with me on the journey, you know. I LOVE it!”

Having watched Todd in action in the Albany Tech kitchen—instructing his charges on the importance of safety and sanitation, how to juggle the chaos of a commercial kitchen, and challenging them to think outside of the box and leave their comfort zones to chase their creativity—there’s little doubt that he was born to do the job and relishes the opportunity he’s been given.

His easy rapport, his use of humor and his engaging and kind demeanor, blended with his attention to detail, his demanding standards and his unbridled zest for food, help him command the classrooms and kitchen and truly inspire his students to succeed.

Todd’s interactions with his fellow instructors and the fun-family atmosphere he has helped to cultivate only add to the thrill of getting to spend some time in a magical world where you can feel how the power and importance of food can change lives. There’s simply an excitement, a different energy, in the Albany Tech culinary arts department. You can’t visit there and not feel it and I attribute much of that to Todd and his belief in the power of food.

Because of that enthusiasm the sense of food having healing and transformative powers also extends outside of the ATC culinary wing thanks to Todd’s drive to make sure that through the culinary arts department and beyond he can be a true force for good in the community.

In addition to his duties with Albany Tech, Todd has become active in a number of areas, including helping the Boys and Girls Clubs of Albany, an organization he feels very strongly about. Through that connection he has been instrumental in starting a community garden in the Holly Homes area that he sees as a model for future gardens that could help teach urban kids how to grow and consume healthy food and thus transform neighborhoods in the community.

“These kids really appreciate being able to go and do this,” Todd said of the garden. “And it’s coming along great right now. It’s still not to a full harvest yet and we’re still trying to figure out how it’s going to be able to benefit the Boys and Girls Club and that small community right there. But we’ll get there.

“My goal is to teach the kids over there how to start it, grow it, cook out of it, eat it, care for it to where we can let them take the reins. Once we get it to where we think that it’s thriving well enough, then my goal is to be able to invite that local community right there to come in and see what’s going on, then get some retired volunteers from that area to come in and say, ‘you know, this is my community right here, this is my area. Let’s teach our youth how to eat healthy.’

“I want to give it to them and then go do another one. And then another one and another one, you know.”

One of the important facets of his mission with the Boys and Girls Clubs is Todd’s desire to help area residents learn about the important health benefits of healthy eating. In fact, the chef gets extra fired up talking about some of the negative health trends in the community and relishes the chance to espouse how good, healthy food can reverse those trends and save lives.

“It goes back to losing people to disease and seeing people suffer,” he said. “And seeing kids, what they go through with disease—cancer, high blood pressure, people having heart attacks, stroke, diabetes—and it’s all this sugar and processed foods. I hate seeing, the things that they put in our food now, it’s very alarming. You see, a 12 year-old girl that looks like she’s 18 or 19 because of the things that they’re eating—the steroids in some of the food. And it’s really contributing to the decline of America.

“Food is healing. It is true medicine. Eating healthy can eliminate a lot of these diseases completely in natural ways.”

And, Todd believes many of the arguments that healthy eating is too expensive or too difficult don’t really hold water or stand up to logical thinking.

“People say they can’t afford to eat healthy and to me that’s (nonsense),” he said. “Here’s the way they have to look at it—you eat seasonal. We’re in southwest Georgia so we have a lot of fresh seasonal items that when they’re in season they’re priced well and they’re all fresh. If you think that it costs you now, wait til you see what it costs you later.

“Man it goes back to your body being your temple and it’s the truth. You feel so much better when you eat healthy, there’s no doubt. People, they have to train their bodies, they have to train their thoughts. They’ve got to look at the real reason there’s food, not just something to throw something in your stomach you know. They’ve got to understand. They’ve got to appreciate food a little bit more. I think we’re not appreciating our meals you know. Everybody wants something for nothing when it comes down to dining. 

“If they pay that little extra now, then they’re going to thrive later.”

That same passion is also evident when Todd talks about lending his culinary skills to other local organizations like Albany’s Morningside assisted living community and the Albany Museum of Art, two organizations that have benefited from having Todd prepare meals for fundraising efforts.

In the case of the AMA, Todd also lent his talents to teaching the “Eat Your Art Out!” sessions during the museum’s summer camp series, an activity he thoroughly enjoyed as it gave him an opportunity to teach an impressionable audience about the importance of healthy eating.

“Being able to talk to those kids was awesome,” he said. “I was talking to a lady the other night at the grand re-opening (of the museum’s space on Gillionville). She had two beautiful little girls, cute as they could be, (at the camp). Instead of just having regular water we would infuse some mint leaves in there, and she said as soon as they got home that’s all they were making.

“But they learned from it. Those girls soaked things up. And that was the whole point of making it fun for them, so they would enjoy it and it would make them understand how important food is for them. A kid will soak that up and they’ll try to replicate it. The parents still need educating, but they can also dictate what the parents do.”

Of course in addition to educating some of the community’s children through his volunteer efforts, Todd’s chief charge is providing a quality education to the students at Albany Tech. Although he feels more can be done to expand that program, he does feel things are moving in the right direction as more and more students not only enroll in the program, but graduate and then go on to higher education or find jobs in the food service industry.

“It’s improving,” Todd said when asked about the state of the culinary arts program. “Thriving? I would look at thriving as I’ve got this whole building (referring to ATC’s logistics building which houses the culinary arts department among other things). My vision is grand.

“My process right now is getting people to come into this program. That’s why I do so many things. My brother calls me a ham because he sees me on TV sometimes, but all I’m trying to do it promote culinary. I’m trying to get culinary acknowledged in this area. I want people to come here and I want people to learn.

“I want people to see that culinary arts can thrive in Albany. You don’t have to go work in a burger joint, a fast food place. You can be your own chef one day and thrive here. But it’s going to take a huge effort.

“So thriving? I don’t believe we’re thriving yet, but I think that we have the opportunity to thrive. You always want more enrollment and you want the word out there so that’s what I do. I try to get the word out there as much as possible.”

And once those students arrive they too will be exposed to Todd’s enthusiasm for food and, if he has his druthers, they can join him on his journey to change the community one meal at a time.

“The opportunities here are limitless,” Todd told me. “I fell in love with cooking, with sharing that food. It brings people together. And I look at it in a sense that food is healing and it brings people together. You’re able to sit down and you’re able to talk to people. And, I get an opportunity to create things, and then tell the world about a product that I get to fool around with and make something out of.

“And I want to share as much as I know with as many people as I know. And I want to learn as much as I can. Whatever comes in I want it to come back out. It’s got to be shared because it you hold all that to yourself what good are you? If you can’t make a difference, move on. You’ve got to be able to be able to share.

“I am blessed to have an opportunity to share the knowledge and it starts right here with my students. I teach them, ‘you go out and you tell people at your church, you go tell your family members,’ and that knowledge is going to grow and people are going to start to understand.

“Seriously it goes back to what you teach your kids—‘sharing is caring.’ And it is. I mean you’ve got to give back.

“I love Albany man. I’m proud to be from Albany. There are so many good people here, GOOD people. They’ve been doing so many good things and I’m just trying to follow in people’s footsteps you know.”

“You’ve got to give back.”

As always I left my most recent visit with my friend not only with a belly full of excellent food—prepared with care and love—but also excited about the future and proud to know that there’s folks in this area like Todd White, whose fire and passion are having positive impact on my community.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen