BY LANDON WOODROOF
Chef Brandon Crosby doesn’t do recipes. Putting ingredients down on paper, making a meal like you are assembling a piece of furniture, that is just not what cooking is about for Crosby.
He’s got to be in the moment, on his toes, interacting with his ongoing creation to feel fulfilled in his work. “I make everything by sight and taste and texture, and that’s just the way I roll,” the Brentwood-raised, Huntsville-based chef said.
That sense of spontaneity has served Crosby well over his career, whether he was cooking for touring musicians on the road, working at Nashville-area restaurants or doing what he is doing now, operating Chupper Time Catering with his wife, Casey.
As his recent victory on the Food Network’s “Cook vs. Cons” television program can attest, Crosby’s got the goods. He’s also seeking inspiration in a skillet seven days a week, keeping his dreams alive and his customers happy.
Speaking of dreams, food is a prominent theme in Crosby’s own. The food in his dreams is not abstract at all. His unconscious mind actually conjures up cuisine.
“I’ll dream of making a certain dish and in all actuality I’ve never made it before,” he said.
After a dream is the only time Crosby, 39, says he ever writes anything food-related. “I’ll jot stuff down if I have a dream of something,” he said. “It won’t make sense to anybody, but somehow I get it on to a plate.”
The dream one night was of Chilean sea bass wrapped in collard greens with mashed potatoes and a red-eye-like gravy. He made it and, well, the dream did not lead him astray.
If dreams are one of the sources of Crosby’s ideas, a few others are a little less mysterious. First, there is the southern family he grew up around, mostly by his mom, Bessie’s, side.
“My mother had five other siblings and they grew up on a farm,” he said. “We’d have big gatherings on my mother’s side of the family every year. I’d watch my aunts cook and my grandmother, and my mom cooked every night for us as a kid. My mom’s not a chef or a gourmet or anything. She’s just a southern cook.”
Additionally, there are the other chefs Crosby has encountered since he first entered the food industry.
He describes his style of cooking as “kind of a mixture of a lot of good chefs I’ve worked under for a lot of years.” He said in some cases he’s “turned their ideas into something with my own flair on it.” Other times, he just takes southern classics and makes them a little fancier.
For all of his passion about cuisine, though, Crosby did not grow up aspiring to be a chef. Cooking was something he only got into after he graduated from Brentwood High School.
Some of his friends went to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and when Crosby would go to visit them, he somehow fell into the role of cook, especially on away game days.
“It’s not like I felt obligated or anything like that, I just enjoyed doing it,” he said.
Pretty soon he realized that people really liked the food he was making. It was a good feeling. “That’s what made me want to continue to do it,” he said.
At the age of 21, he decided to pursue his new avocation in culinary school, moving to Gulf Shores, Alabama to attend Faulkner State Community College.
From there “I just pushed forward, and just continued, and I haven’t stopped,” he said.
Over the years he has worked at such places as the Governor’s Club, the Red Pony in Franklin and Lockeland Table in East Nashville.
In 2006, he got involved in the world of catering for music events and festivals, when he was hired to help cook for Pearl Jam at Bonnaroo. This facet of his career started off in a supporting role.
“They had a traveling chef, a guy who came from California who toured with them,” he said. “I just helped. I had nothing to do with the menu. I was just a grunt. I just did what I was told.”
That experience, though, led to Crosby being connected with Jim Woods, the owner of Wild Hare Catering, a company based in Asheville, North Carolina. Wild Hare Catering provides food for touring bands and festivals.
The longer he worked there, the more leeway he began to earn in crafting his own menus.
They “started handing the keys over to me so to speak and letting me do my own thing,” he said.
A childhood friend, Jack Seraphine, next helped him land a position at Nashville-based Dega Catering, a company that caters for lots of headlining musicians.
In the role of traveling chef, Crosby cooked for Jason Aldean, the Zac Brown Band and even toured with the WWE.
The work appealed to him on multiple levels. On the food level, the job offered up a chance for variety that Crosby missed in his more traditional restaurant jobs. “Instead of working at a restaurant where you’re cooking the same stuff over and over again, this was different menus and me being able to be creative with my food,” he said.
There was also the fact that Crosby just felt an affinity with the itinerant members of the touring community. “Those are just my kind of folks I guess, musicians and roadies,” he said. “Just rough around the edges kind of people. Those are just my kinds of folks.”
Although Crosby might say he’s a little rough around the edges, he’s also a family man. Three years ago, he married Casey, 37, who he’s known since high school. The couple have a 2-year-old son, Wyatt, and another son is due in August.
For years, Casey worked at a company in Huntsville that makes windshields and windows for airplanes. The couple, though, decided they wanted a change. They would start their own business.
“All the stress we were gonna get from those jobs, we figured why not just let it be ours instead of theirs,” she said.
That’s how Chupper Time Catering was born.
The name comes from a silly little thing his dad, Benny, a retired Secret Service agent, used to say around the dinner table.
“My father when we would set down to eat dinner at night, we had a little Yorkshire Terrier named Smoky,” Brandon explained. “He loved that dog more than he loved us, I can guarantee that. He would talk to Smoky in baby talk and say, Smoky you want to eat some chupper?”
The word “chupper” became a catchphrase in Brandon’s household. Shortly after they got married, Casey suggested incorporating it into the name of their new catering company.
The division of labor at Chupper Time is simple. Brandon does the cooking, Casey does everything else. “She’s the rock star, really, she does all the work,” he said. “I just cook. She does branding, marketing, scheduling, booking of new clients on top of being a mother. I just cook.”
Casey seems okay with this. She knows her strengths and her weaknesses. “I’m five star, I can do all that,” she says of her work with customers. “When it comes to cooking, I used to think I was kind of a good cook, but then Brandon had to ruin it and cook something.”
She is enthusiastic when discussing Brandon and the meals he creates. Casey compares his gift to that of a talented musician. “He’s amazing,” she said. “You know how people can play music by ear? He can do that with food. He makes it so much better, that’s what’s crazy.”
A few months ago, in her capacity as Chupper Time’s media relations expert, Casey began submitting Brandon’s name to a plethora of reality television cooking shows. They got a few nibbles of interest, before the Food Network chomped and chose Brandon for its show “Cooks vs. Cons.”
“It’s my wife’s fault,” he joked of his TV debut.
In an episode that first aired May 3, “Breakfast in Bedlam,” Brandon won his installment of the show with a dish consisting of “grilled pork tenderloin with stone ground cheddar grits with bacon maple mostarda.”
As for Brandon’s personal tastes in food, Casey lets it slip that he is not always as discerning when it comes to what he puts in his own mouth.
“His go-to food when he’s done with work, we always have a stack of frozen pizzas in his refrigerator,” Casey said. “He will make me whatever I want for breakfast or lunch or dinner, but his go-to, he eats frozen pizzas with hot sauce and ranch.”
Sometimes she has wondered if he does this just for convenience, but it does not seem so. “I ask him, do you like it or are you just eating it, and, no, he likes it,” Casey said, amused.
Frozen pizza is not on the menu at Chupper Time, though. Ingredients are of paramount importance to any chef, and Brandon is careful about what he uses. “We try to use local farmers here,” he said. “Anywhere from beef and chicken to vegetables. We hand make everything.” Brandon also cures his own meat and bacon.
As important as the ingredients are, though, the Crosbys have also put a lot of time and effort into ensuring that Chupper Time gives back to the Huntsville community. Casey estimates Chupper Time donated $25,000 to $30,000 worth of free food and labor to charities like the March of Dimes and the North Alabama Food Bank last year. Additionally, because many charities do not accept prepared foods, when the Crosbys finish an event and have leftovers, oftentimes Brandon will pack up the food and take it over to the police or fire departments.
Of course, chefs are known for their fervor, and Casey admits that Brandon does occasionally have his Gordon Ramsay-esque moments in the kitchen. Those times, though, only tell part of the story of who he is.
“He has a really good heart,” Casey said. “He has great intentions. He never means to hurt feelings because of his intensity. That’s just where he’s at. That’s how passionate he is.”
That good heart leads Brandon to always pick up a check for a veteran if one is eating at the same place he is, Casey said. It doesn’t matter how much or how little Brandon has in his pocket.
Thankfully, though, business has been good. Casey said Chupper Time is consistently booked solid.
“We’re not just the run of the mill catering company,” Brandon said. “We care about the food I guess, and it shows in the end product.”