By Robin Gallaher Branch | Photography by Adam Mitchell
Southern Chef founders find their niche focusing on backyard
barbecues and family inspired seasonings.
Conversations at the Lookadoo home in East Memphis center around blending, spices, and honoring mothers-in-law! The numerous testing and tasting parties that flow from the kitchen to the deck make it not only a busy place, but also a fun “lab” for bringing new products to market.
The blended family of David and Jan and their son and daughter congregates in the home’s heart, the kitchen. Guests are so frequent that they just arrive. Weekend dinners morph into tasting parties. After all, everybody likes to give an opinion.
And the topic? Meat on the grill and the seasoning that goes with it.
David, 50, and Jan, 46, married in 2014 and started a second career in 2016, a company called Southern Chef. It currently markets five meat seasonings in shakers. “Our niche is corporate gifts,” David says, “the kind you give your best clients.”
The two met when they worked together as financial advisors. Jan is at First Tennessee Bank and David now works for Principal Financial Group. Their other shared interests include barbecue and cooking.
“We started dating and I dragged Jan to contests. We competed in gumbo, chili, and wings. We enjoyed it,” says David, winner of six awards in various barbecue contests over the last eight years. “Jan and I were on the team that won third place in Memphis in May in 2017.”
The awards validate the couple’s expertise. Cooking is a generational family enterprise. “It’s nice that Jan and I both grew up cooking with our families. Our grandmothers and mothers were incredible Southern cooks,” David says.
And they’re passing on the skill to their middle schoolers. “The kitchen is our lab,” David says. “Our daughter Jordan is more involved in cooking and our son Matthew is more involved in eating.” Then he laughed and added, “Actually, they’re both always involved.”
Located in Memphis, Southern Chef, an LLC, specializes in dry seasonings that are applied to meat before, during, and after cooking. “We produce quality products and we’re focused on family,” says David, explaining the company’s vision.
The two original products are Granny Mary’s BBQ Rub, which is named after David’s mother, and Gourmet Steak Seasoning. Packaging is in individual glass shakers selling for $7.99 and $8.99. Labeling is an attractive white-on-black combination; the company logo is a crossed knife and fork.
“Feedback has been great. People send us pictures of Granny’s Mary’s Rub on deviled eggs and sprinkled on popcorn,” David says. Trial tests on a new product, Garlic Butter Seasoning, show it “is great on French bread and also great on seafood,” David says.
are up in 2018. Jan’s mother is honored with one of them, Yia Yia’s Poultry Seasoning (her nickname is pronounced Ya Ya).
David describes the marketing process this way: “We’ve got to live it, test it, play with it, and have tasting parties. Any given weekend, our kitchen and deck are full of people trying out what we’re doing.”
Julie Caldwell, Jan’s high school friend and an optometrist in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, has come to many tasting parties with her husband Jerry, a civil engineer. She remembers getting to know David before he married Jan. “David made a good impression on us. We’re very glad that Jan snagged him,” she says with a smile.
Describing a typical tasting party, Julie says, “David is a great cook. Jan is too. He makes the outside stuff and Jan, the inside stuff.”
Julie appreciates in particular David’s descriptions. “He explains how to taste what we’re trying. The sweet is on the front of your tongue and the spicy or kick or hot is on the back of your tongue.” She finds Southern Chef seasonings quite versatile; they work well with chicken and on a sausage and cheese tray.
Michael Mendez, owner of an industrial equipment business in Loma Linda, California, met David at Memphis in May in 2010. A self-described “backyard barbecue guy and lounge lizard,” Mendez comes annually to the city’s signature festival “specifically for the barbecue.”
He finds the yearly trip well worth it. “I talk barbecue, eat barbecue, and have fun with good friends and good people,” says Mendez, commending Memphis for its Southern hospitality and good cooking.
Although Mendez does not compete as does his friend David, he appreciates the Southern Chef wares. “The steak seasoning of black pepper and garlic is very good. It’s a perfect combo on a steak. The barbecue rub is sweet with a little heat on it,” he says.
Back home in California, Mendez cooks for friends. “I use David’s products and everybody is fascinated by the taste.” Mendez then paused and chuckled as he complimented his friend, “Yeah, David makes me look good and he makes it look easy.”
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