August / September 2014
If hindsight is 20/20, it would appear all roads led Chef Miles McMath to St. Jude. McMath grew up in the Goodsprings community of Alabama, in what he describes as a “little, tiny, small town outside of Jasper.” He enjoyed a childhood that today would seem foreign to many younger generations. Before supermarkets could be found on just about every street corner, friends and families gathered together in kitchens or on front porches to shell peas or hull corn. Home gardens and canning fruits and vegetables were the norm rather than a novelty.
“I have memories of eating poke sallet in the spring and canning everything. Everyone had storm shelters that were filled with canned goods that we grew and canned ourselves,” McMath recalls. “We hunted rabbit, deer, squirrel, and turtle. But when fast food came in the 80’s, everything changed. People stopped doing those things. Maybe I was destined to become a chef. As you get older, you start to look for ways to get those memories back.”
McMath attended Sullivan College in Louisville, KY, before launching his culinary career under Chef John Castro at Hasenour’s Restaurant in Louisville. He left Louisville to accept the position of chef de cuisine at the Grand Casino in Gulfport, working his way to corporate research and development for all seven establishments owned by Grand Casino, Inc.
Eventually, McMath found his way to Hernando where he opened Timbeaux’s, his first of three restaurants in the area. He currently lives in a small community in Hernando where he says many of his neighbors share his love of home grown food. McMath and his family maintain a full garden and at one point raised their own pigs on the property.
Anyone who works in the restaurant indsutry can attest that the hours are long and they don’t fit into the traditional 8-5 workday. By 2008, McMath was married with children and wasn’t keen on spending nights away from his family. He was just about to sign a contract for another job when a friend told him about a huge $16 million cafeteria renovation at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis. The Kay Kafe, which was funded by Sterling Jewelers Inc., parent company of Kay Jewelers and Jared The Galleria of Jewelry, was designed to accommodate up to 1,000 diners. It features numerous food stations, each featuring a different food variety. In addition to McMath, the hospital employs four certified executive chefs, each with different backgrounds who are able to bring different cooking techniques and experiences to the kitchen.
Upon accepting the job as Director of Culinary operations for St. Jude, McMath knew, “a beautiful place like that had to have good food.” That’s when the idea was “planted” in McMath’s head to draw from his childhood experiences in rural Alabama and establish a garden on the St. Jude campus.
Through the help of employees and volunteers, the garden slowly began to grow. An unused adjacent lot owned by the hospital was reallocated for the space. What started as a small herb garden has now grown into almost sixty raised beds that contain everything from vegetables to herbs, in addition to a greenhouse and hoop houses for growing lettuce and tomatoes year round. The garden is tended by volunteers, many of whom are hospital employees.
Everything harvested from the garden is used in the 2,500 meals the Kay Kafe puts out each day. Not only does the garden save donor dollars, but the nutritional value is unsurpassed. Fruits and vegetables begin to lose their nutrients shortly after they are picked. Everything harvested from the St. Jude garden is typically used within 12 hours. Those added nutrients can go a long way when it comes to the health of a sick child.
McMath has even taken his unique approach to the “farm-to-table” movement one step further. What they are not able to produce on the grounds, they source from farmers within 150 miles of the hospital. This includes not only fruits and vegetables, but farm-raised meat.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had, but it’s not really even a job to me,” McMath admits. “St. Jude has allowed me to bring everything together – all these experiences I’ve had. It’s my way of giving back.”
McMath’s contributions haven’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this year he was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City. An invitation to cook at the James Beard House is highly coveted and has been extended to other noteworthy chefs such Emeril Lagasse, Daniel Boulud, Nobu Matsuhisa, Jacques Pépin, and Charlie Trotter. Currently, McMath is the only documented chef from an institution to have been extended this honor.
Says McMath, “It’s hard not to get excited about this program. We’re just people taking care of these children. They deserve the best.”