Photo of Chris Headecker by Darrow Montgomery

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“There are so many interesting new venues to get out there and do something that’s not that restaurant grind,” says Chris Spear. The caterer behind Perfect Little Bites launched a Facebook group in January that’s part job posting board and part support group for chefs that work outside of a traditional restaurant setting. Chefs Without Restaurants already has close to 500 members. “We’re helping people find a way to grow their businesses,” Spear says.

Given the food revolution that’s been ramping up over the past decade—where consumers have higher expectations and are more educated about what they’re eating—any place that prepares food, from schoolhouse to sporting facility, is under pressure to serve nutritious meals that also please the taste buds. This movement is ushering in fresh employment opportunities for culinary professionals who want to carve out unique niches, innovate, and get their food in front of diners they might not otherwise encounter. 

Meet three of them.

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The Football Feeder

If you want to see D.C.’s football team revolt, don’t put them in front of the Dallas Cowboys. Put them in front of something other than fajitas for Friday lunch. “A couple years back when we won the NFC East [division], we started to do fajita Fridays,” explains the team’s 30-year-old executive chef Connor McGuire. “We did it one week and we won. We didn’t do it the next week and we lost.” 

An ongoing battle ensued, and it lasted two years. The players were superstitious and demanded fajita Fridays, while the chefs prioritized variety. The players won. Every Friday during the season, the kitchen in the team’s practice facility in Ashburn smells and sounds like a Houlihan’s.  

McGuire, who graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in consumer foods, once worked for late Chef Michel Richard at his eponymous Tysons Corner restaurant as well as at BLT Steak. But when the opportunity came to serve as a sous chef for the ’Skins, McGuire seized it. He stayed in that role for five years before being promoted to executive chef in July. 

During the season he cooks for almost everyone on the payroll, from players and coaches to scouts and equipment managers. He typically feeds 80 to 100 people for breakfast, 100 to 150 for lunch, and about 35 to 40 people for dinner during the week. If the team has an away game, McGuire will make the team breakfast plus mock Chick-fil-A sandwiches for the road on Saturday. If the team plays at home he’ll cook breakfast on Saturday, and on Sunday he heads to FedExField to cook for Dan Snyder and others in the owner’s box. Days off are few and far between.

Scottish salmon is another dish McGuire has to serve once a week to placate players. “Without the bones, just prepared salmon weight, we go through about 40 pounds,” he explains. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan “always takes two or three plates of the fish option,” according to McGuire, who calculates that Kerrigan has one of the healthiest appetites on the squad.

Other than salmon and fajitas, McGuire won’t repeat a dish in any given month. And, the players aren’t scooping chow out of chafing dishes. Entrees such as Greek-style chicken breast with farro and dill-spiced carrots come plated. 

McGuire doesn’t have nutritional requirements limiting his creativity, but he does work with a team dietician to ensure players are eating what they need when they need it. “Monday and Tuesday after a game they’re recovering from the beating they took,” he says. “There will be more starchy carbs like sweet potatoes and heavier meats like steak and meatloaf.” 

McGuire continues, “The challenge is trying to get giant children to eat food that they normally wouldn’t want to eat, so I have to balance healthy options with food that they’re comfortable with.” He’ll roast chicken until the skin practically snaps instead of frying it, for example. 

The young chef was eager to leave the “unhealthy atmosphere” of restaurants behind him. “Everyone in this building has a goal to be healthier,” he says. “Even though I’m still doing long hours, it doesn’t feel like the drain of being in the restaurant kitchen where I’m trying to sneak a chicken finger.” 

The Charter School Chef

When students at Elsie Whitlow Stokes stream into the cafeteria this Thursday, they’ll get trays with sesame noodle salad, a hard boiled egg, roasted greens and red peppers, a peach cup, and milk. The Brookland charter school only serves meals cooked on the premises. “A select few schools do scratch cooking,” says head chef Chris Headecker. “[Other schools] don’t have a kitchen in the building. They might just have warming stations or kitchenette space because they outsource their food.”                 

The D.C. native who is half Brazilian and half Guyanese thought he wanted a career in criminal justice, but rechanneled his passion for helping by putting his childhood love of cooking to use. He graduated from Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School’s culinary program in 2010 and has been employed at E.W. Stokes ever since—advancing from intern to boss.

His alarm chirps at 3 a.m. so he can be in the kitchen by 4 a.m., ready for a day of preparing breakfast for 450 people, lunch for 750 people, and supper for 250 participants in the after school program. The school has students from Pre-K up through 5th grade, and staff often eat Headecker’s menu. 

In dreaming up dishes like Peruvian tofu and taco casserole, Headecker must follow USDA dietary requirements, but he finds ways to stay on trend, like participating in Meatless Monday, and he lets loose on Friday by serving crowd-pleasing pizza or burgers. 

Headecker apprenticed at restaurants and worked for catering company KitchenCray, but ultimately finds cooking at a school more gratifying. “For somebody that wants to continue cooking but the restaurant life isn’t for them, I’d consider coming into the school system,” he says. “A lot more schools are trying to switch to in-house cooking and they’re looking for chefs.” 

Cooking for students can change their home life. “Some kids may never have had an avocado before, but with us exposing new foods to them at a young age, they can go and tell their parents or guardians and say, ‘Can we try to do this here?’” Headecker continues, “They’re here to learn, but they can’t learn if they’re hungry. The fulfillment factor is looking at these kids and teaching them new ways to eat.” 

The Brewery Caterer 

Chef Drew Davis is one of 12 children. “Growing up we had responsibilities to help out our parents,” he says. “I was chosen to help my mom out in the kitchen.” But the Army veteran, who is now just short of 50, didn’t make cooking his livelihood until five years ago. He says the military wouldn’t promote him to director in his field of biomedical engineering, forcing him to find an encore career.

Davis first made a name for himself selling tamales after they were a hit at a retirement party. “It got to the point where every weekend, I was hawking tamales out of the trunk of my car in a Starbucks parking lot near Fort Belvoir.” The business took off. Davis says Whole Foods put his tamales in 10 stores over the course of six months. But he grew tired of losing the percentage of sales the grocer was taking, and pivoted to direct-to-consumer sales at area farmers markets. He went to culinary school with the help of the GI Bill.

More recently Davis, a self-proclaimed beer snob, carved out a niche for himself selling food at bars, breweries, and other businesses only serving alcohol. His first client was at Iron Horse Taproom downtown. “People were clearing out because the Caps game would start and people wouldn’t sit for three hours if they knew they weren’t going to eat,” he says. In came Davis with pans of food.

When the Iron Horse Taproom partnership ran its course, Davis expanded into Fair Winds Brewing Company in Lorton, Virginia; Tucked Away Brewing Company in Manassas, Virginia; and One Eight Distilling and Supreme Core Cider in D.C. His menu ranges from Mexican street tacos and Philly cheesesteaks to beer-boiled bratwursts and sliders. No item costs more than $10, and he always makes vegan or vegetarian options. He calls his business Brew Food DC and personally takes on five or six gigs a week. 

After ramping up too quickly at first, Davis says he’s settled into a rhythm. “I wanted to be at every brewery, and spread myself really thin,” he admits. “I should have been more selective with my hiring.” Now, he says, he can make a good living and he’s having fun. “It’s like going to a different party every night and half of the time, I feel like I’m the guest of honor because I show up and people are like, ‘The taco man is here!’ For anyone in the foodservice industry, this is one of the best gigs out there. No stress. No drama.”

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Caterer Chris Spear of Chefs Without Restaurants doesn’t argue that there’s a exodus of chefs trading in restaurant jobs for cooking professionally in other realms. “I’m 42 and married with kids, but there’s always going to be 18- to 25-year-old single people who want to work in restaurants,” he says. Spear does miss having a full kitchen of peers around him when he’s preparing food, but ultimately he values the flexibility and control his catering business brings him in terms of menu creation and scheduling. 

The community at large is realizing restaurants aren’t always the right fit for someone who wants to turn a passion for cooking into a meaningful career. Liz Reinert, the director of workforce development for DC Central Kitchen, helps culinary job training students find work after graduating from a 14-week, intensive culinary arts and career readiness training course. Cohorts typically have students who are returning citizens or individuals who have experienced trauma or substance abuse.

Reinert prioritizes jobs like working for DC Central Kitchen’s school food program, and working in hotels and cafeterias. “All of those kinds of jobs are good because they’re Monday through Friday,” she says. Work-life balance can be critical for recent graduates. “Outside restaurant placements are something I desire for them because there’s a lot more structure … some restaurants are just really fast. People aren’t ready for it.” 

She continues, “I’m trying to get away from part-time work, and a lot of restaurants tend to be real part-time,” adding that many students think working for “a hot chef in the hottest new restaurant” is the only option. “There are so many exciting things for them to do.”