In this episode we speak with Lance McWhorter, Executive Chef and Owner of Culture ETX restaurant in eastern Texas.
After leaving the military, Lance returned to his love of cooking where he found success as an entrepreneur and competitor. He was a contestant on the Food Network’s Chopped, and more recently the local winner of the prestigious Cochon 555 competition.
Listen as we chat with Lance about adjusting to life after the military, launching a restaurant, winning cooking competitions, and the importance of service.
Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Lance McWhorter, Executive Chef and owner of Culture ETX, a restaurant in Eastern Texas.
Lance has dedicated his life to serving others. After enlisting in the military at age 17, he served in both the Army and the Navy, in addition to working as a professional firefighter and EMT. More recently, he was a contestant on the Food Network’s “Chopped,” and a local winner of the prestigious Cochon 555 competition. Join us today as we chat with Lance about adjusting to life after the military, how to be successful in cooking competitions, running a restaurant and the importance of service.
Welcome, Lance. It’s so good to see you, man. Thanks for chatting with us today. How are you doing?
Lance McWhorter: Great to be here.
Kirk Bachmann: Excellent. Got the hat on backwards? Did I just pull you off the line or…?
Lance McWhorter: Yeah, right. As always. I had to make a little clean spot in the back and unclutter everything and get it all lined up and ready for you. You’re going to have to run out and tell everybody to shut up. (laughter)
Kirk Bachmann: (Laughter) Give ’em my thanks and respect. Hey, I’ll talk to you on the line anytime. I’m patient that way. I’m so excited about chatting today. God, there’s so much. The more I watch, the more I want to find another YouTube video. You’re doing a lot of stuff.
Lance McWhorter: I mean, you gotta stay active. I always tell people on social media and whatever. Just never stop hustling. Always keep going, keep doing what you want to do, chase your dreams. I mean, that’s how you do a lot of things. That’s what originally got me to Escoffier in the first place and learning and now I’m here. Now, a few short years later, I’ve got my own restaurant, done some really cool competitions and just killing it.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. When we chatted you, and I’m gonna dive right in because I’m fascinated by this. This kayak-angler competition thing that you’re working on. This is for my son-in-law. You gotta fill me in on this.
Lance McWhorter: Well, it’s something that I’ve been doing for a lot of years. It was something that was very therapeutic to me. When I was at the tail end of my my service career, I was working as a high threat security contractor in Iraq. This is a 2008/2009 up until 2013. And I was back and forth in Iraq all the time. One of the things that kind of kept me sane when I was at home was living in the hill country in Texas at the time, and I got into kayak fishing. It’s just like it sounds. Peaceful, paddling around, a couple rods and reels in the boat, go catch some nice fish. Fast forward, 10 years after that, or I guess a little longer than that, 12 years after that, we get into COVID. The restaurant is…I mean, it was tough. I don’t have to tell everybody in the restaurant scene how tough it was.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah.
Lance McWhorter: Culture ETX, my restaurant, was six months old, when COVID hit, we went into the first shutdown. I was just completely depressed. Completely, beside myself. This was supposed to be all those things that you just said: my new restaurant, my episode of Chopped just aired, we just won Cochon 555, and then a month later COVID hits, and everything is dangling by a thread.
It was such a time of uncertainty and it was such a stressful time that I either had one of two options: I could sit at home during the lockdown and drink myself to death. Or I could get up and I could go do something. So I thought back through all the things that I loved and all the past times that I really enjoyed. And the one that I had just given up when I moved to Dallas to really work for some of these great chefs, was kayak fishing. Because I just didn’t have time. Working 100 hour weeks, last thing I wanted to do is get in the hot water on a boat and go fish. So I went out found a nice kayak, restocked rods, reels, all that and just really dove into it and got good at it. I mean, got good again at it. I was always a really good angler. But then I got into these competitions, these local regional things. Then I started branching out driving a little bit further. Then I discovered, there’s an entire National Bassmaster-type big events all over the country.
Kirk Bachmann: I mean, who knew? I had no idea.
Lance McWhorter: So this year, this spring, I had gotten good enough and experienced enough to the point where I started branching out doing some, some national competitions. This year, I think I’ve done, I want to say it’s about, 20 to 25 tournaments already this year.
Kirk Bachmann: So you were in the tournament, and now you’re thinking about posting your own tournament, right?
Lance McWhorter: Well, there’s a few friends and I, also former military guys, most of us and we started one called Northeast Texas Kayak Bass League, and we kind of had this little regional thing going on in. That’s just kind of like more for fun. I mean, you can still win some money, but it’s not like the national ones. I qualified for the kayak bass fishing national championship this year and total winnings for that, you win a couple key events and it’s up around $200,000 in winnings. It’s no joke. It’s pretty crazy.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s a serious sport, yeah.
Lance McWhorter: It’s been something that’s been so therapeutic to me. It’s made me learn those final lessons as being a restaurant owner of being able to find, after surviving COVID, train people, trust people, guide people into taking more the reins and going, “Okay, I’m a chef. I own my restaurant, I’ve paid my dues, so to speak. Now I’ve built my crew to the point of where if I need to go to South Carolina, like I did last time I was talking to Mo, I can go out there for five days, three days of practice and two days of competition, and know that the restaurant is in great hands. Not only was it therapeutic, and it kept me sane throughout COVID, but now it has really given me the drive to be a better leader and be a better boss.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s such good feedback. It’s a point of pride too, when you’re able to leave your crew behind and they take care of business for you – on behalf of the business.
Lance McWhorter: Super proud of my crew. My Chef de Cuisine is Justin Dzwonczyk. He’s cooked in Miami, he’s cooked in Scottsdale, Arizona. He’s been around, he’s got some great chops, just a great chef. I’ve got some baby chefs that are really coming up, Chevy and Josh, and then also my wife, Bailey, she’s a very accomplished professional barbeque pit master. We were working on opening up her restaurant, and then COVID hit. So that side barred. Whenever there’s a real emergency, and we’re like a person down or whatever, she’s always the first one to jump up and run in there.
Kirk Bachmann: She jumps in.
Lance McWhorter: She’s a very accomplished chef as well. She used to work at some pretty killer restaurants back in the day, she can flip pans.
Kirk Bachmann: (laughter) That’s great.
Lance McWhorter: She can flip pans with the best of them. She’s one of those angry line cuts we’re talking about. You’ll stab you, she’ll sabotage you. She’s a savage. (laughter)
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh. It feels like a family affair. I really appreciate that. So let’s talk… what a background. I don’t even know where to begin. But where did the interest in cooking come from? Is this pre-military or post-military?
Lance McWhorter: Oh, I didn’t have much of a home life as a kid. From the point of being around 12 or so I kind of bounced around a lot. Host homes, foster homes. I met my real dad for a little bit. But he worked in the restaurant industry. Lived with him for a very brief moment, I think I was around 13. But he worked in the restaurant industries so his apartment was full of cookbooks and he’d vanish for weeks at a time. And I’d be there by myself amd learn to read the cookbooks and recipes and things like that. And one of the first things he did, it was summertime and we were living in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and he was managing a restaurant and across the street was this little greasy spoon diner., I was like, 13, coming on 14. And he went over to the diner and he got me a job, there as a dishwasher, just because he knew the guy that owned it, or whatever. This is 1985/ 1986, sometime around there. So I mean, child labor laws weren’t really there yet. We could hold knives, the servers are back there smoking cigarettes. (laughter)
Kirk Bachmann: (laughter) Times have changed…
Lance McWhorter: My first day working in a restaurant was mountains of syrup-coated, tourist pancake plates. If you ever worked a dish pit and the hot water starts running low at the end of the push, you’ll learn to hate syrup. That was nasty. After that, I started working on the on the prep line, just kind of worked my way up super quick. Wound up kind of bouncing around living situation and all that. I wound up working some fast food joints, a little Chinese restaurant, I was prep cooking at. I was kind of always working in restaurants as a kid. Being kind of a homeless kid, house-hopping kid, one, it gave me money. Two, I always had something to eat. There was never one of those places that I couldn’t walk away with a bag of food. So it was kind of like this necessity, that was just met on multiple faces.
Kirk Bachmann: It feels like survival, right?
Lance McWhorter: Yeah, it was. But at the same time, it’s just, the restaurant people were my people. You get around a bunch of rough line cooks and stuff like that and servers and the dish pit guys, and busboys, and you start learning. These are the people that are kind of… you know, Bourdain was right… they’re kind of on the fringes. It’s kind of the land of the broken toys. Which was a place that I found that I really fit in. It’s something that even after going into military and public service for as long as I did, it always kind of called to me. It really blossomed again, when I was working as a firefighter. Because we cook all of our own meals, we do all of our own shopping. As a probationary firefighter, I found out that people were requesting me at their stations, because they heard I could cook. I was getting all these good station assignments, because I could cook. I was like, “Alright, cool. That works.”
Kirk Bachmann: That’s not a bad thing. So then you enlisted in the military at 17. Four years in the Army, four years in the Navy, professional firefighter, EMT…
Lance McWhorter: Got hurt or retired, yeah.
Kirk Bachmann: …security contractor for the Department of Defense, I believe, and the State Department.
Lance McWhorter: The Department of State, yeah.
Kirk Bachmann: First of all, thank you for your service.
Lance McWhorter: Thank you guys for paying me all the way through all of it. (laughter)
Kirk Bachmann: So walk us through four years in the Army, and then four years in the Navy. How does that work?
Lance McWhorter: It’s so easy a caveman can do it, man. You just sign up for one and then you can sign up for another. Buy into hopes and dreams and aspirations of maybe getting to go the Navy SEAL route. That was kind of my whole purpose in switching. But mid 90s, early 90s, Clinton just gutted special operations. And the class slots never materialized. So I never got the chance.
But I wound up on a cool little ship. We had this anti-piracy mission. I got to do this, it’s called vessel boarding, VBSS teams, anti-piracy. We were enforcing trade sanctions against Iraq and Iran in the Persian Gulf. The UN gave us the authority to…not the UN, the…whatever I don’t even remember which one it was (laughter). NATO gave us the authority to board any ship going to or coming from any of these countries that were sanctioned. We were allowed to search their cargo and make sure that they only had medical supplies, food – necessities, because of the restrictions that were put in place against them. So it was a pretty cool job. We were around Africa, we were around all of the Middle East. I got to go to a lot of places.
And this is when my palate developed. I went from my little East Texas Grandma’s home cooking, a lot of cornmeal and fish and Cajun flavors – then I started discovering Middle Eastern food, Indian…
Kirk Bachmann: Spices, yeah.
Lance McWhorter: …Pacific Rim, China, Russia, Japan, Latin America, Africa. I started hitting all these countries, and I was like, “Man, this is cool.” I would always go to where they don’t speak English. And that’s where I go eat. That’s where I’d go hang out, in countries that I could that’s where I’d go drink. I remember some little Pacific Island, me and a couple buddies wound up sitting in some witch doctor’s hut drinking something or another. We don’t even know what it was to this day. You know, eating their food, we couldn’t speak to each other but it was known that we were all cool. Because here we were eating and drinking together.
Kirk Bachmann: Sharing food, sharing drink together. It’s a great theme. I was going to ask, you sort of started down that path, how your experiences in the military shaped who Chef Lance is today as a person and as a chef. So a lot of it had to do with being exposed to different cultures, different cuisines. That’s a great story. So how does that all translate into, I hate the word, but the struggles. A lot of veterans go through struggles when they’re trying to transition from their work in the military to a civilian life. Is that a path you were on as well?
Lance McWhorter: Yeah, very much so. Especially later on. I mean, I had my struggles after coming back out of the military. But the wars, the conflicts, the sporadic engagements of 1990-1997 weren’t that long drawn out or super intense. Firefighting and EMS – so I got hurt and I was retired from firefighting. I was a Salt Lake County firefighter, and I busted my back pretty bad in a house fire and was forced to retire pretty quickly. I was like 30 but I had a ton of ghosts from that.
That was a lot more…probably than anything else that I’ve ever experienced in my life, and that’s mostly just from the EMS. A lot of people miss that part about the firefighters. They go, “Oh, these guys who run into the buildings, they got the axe, your backdraft. If the door opens and it’s hot, don’t get out.” That kind of stuff. But in reality, we do a lot more medical calls than we do fire. We’re in people’s homes, we’re the first ones there when grandma has a heart attack at Thanksgiving dinner, which I’ve experienced. To little kids, to drownings, to SIDS, or horrific traffic accidents, that was a real tough. So that was kind of like my primer for PTS. I always say PTS because it’s not a disorder. It’s a natural reaction to events that most people don’t experience.
But then after going back and contracting, now I’m in more of the new OIF/OEF combat areas, it’s a lot different than anything that I was ever used to. The enemy was of course, vanished into the society, they were mixed in with everybody, the threat of IEDs… I still lift my feet off the ground anytime I drive past a cardboard box. It’s something that will never leave me. I open my mouth so I don’t get over pressured when it blows up. It’s tough, you come back and you miss that thrill. As a contractor they were paying us really well but it was rough. There’s a lot of stress there. Coming home, it just vanishes. You’re back in the loving arms of America and the flags are waving and everything’s happy and you’re kind of like, still waiting for the for the other shoe to drop.
Kirk Bachmann: You just don’t flip the switch. Do you spend time with colleagues, with other vets who collaborate and help?
Lance McWhorter: Yeah, my Chef de Cuisine is a vet. I’ve tried to hire as many vets as I can, right as the restaurant was getting set up. Then going into COVID that’s one of the things I’m still going to do is offer free cooking classes to vets, like on a day off. Once or twice a month, just kind of do some basic stuff, basic knife work and what have you.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. That’s great.
Lance McWhorter: Cooking is something that filled that void, because, man, thank you Anthony Bourdain, for reminding me of this when I was in Iraq. Because I was sitting there and I was like, “Man, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.” I was like, 39 years old and I was like, I’m the old man over here. I’m the one with gray hair and my beard. There was 20-22 year old dudes out here doing the stuff now. Everything hurts. I was just trying to figure out what was next in my chapter. Like, what did I really want to do and cooking just kept coming up. Whether I’d be watching shows or reading books, reading Bourdain or reading White Heat by MPW, reading Devil in the Kitchen, or Gabrielle Hamilton, her book.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, Bones. Yeah, great.
Lance McWhorter: Yeah, like Blood Bones or Bones? I read that book and I was just floored. That’s one that’s really been missed by a lot of people. And like her involvement in opening Prune, and her life was just like one of those things that I’ve kind of really looked at, and I’m like, “Okay, I dig her. I get her.”
Kirk Bachmann: I found inspiration. I think like you from a lot of those stories, whether it was Marco Pierre White, and how they love the industry so much that they overcame. It’s courage. It’s, this love of food, this love of cooking, this love of serving.
Lance McWhorter: It just continues on and it’s all dialed in together. It’s like we’re service means art. I’ve always been kind of a square peg, doesn’t matter what hole, I could just smash, I can just crush it in. But this was like, the one artistic thing that I was good at, and really enjoyed it. It just called and called and called. I left, because I was making about $215,000 a year at the time. And I just pulled the plug and I’m like, “I’m gonna go be a cook.” And my buddies were like, “Wait, you’re going to what?” I just took a $180,000 year pay cut. It’s like, I ruined myself financially for this, but I didn’t care.
Kirk Bachmann: The heart pulls, right?
Lance McWhorter: And it’s all about chasing those dreams. I’m guessing it is… 11 o’clock on a Tuesday, on the first Tuesday of the month, because they’re testing the tornado sirens so sorry if you can hear that.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, let’s talk about Culture ETX. I mean, first of all, congratulations. There’s a plug, the website is cool. I’m not gonna lie. I’ve kind of trended like a lot of people to this plant-based diet over the last few years, for health reasons. And just because it’s cool and vegetables are awesome and all of that. But I gotta say, the pork that you’re cooking up and this particular video that I was watching for Cochon… wow, wow. And the respect. Well, we’ll come to it in a minute. Let’s, talk about the restaurant.
Lance McWhorter: For sure.
Kirk Bachmann: Well, how did that come to be? It just feels like when I listened to your story, and if I had to guess, what kind of restaurant would Lance open? That’s the restaurant Lance would open.
Lance McWhorter: Yeah, it’s Culture ETX. I remember some of the early reviews that we got, aside from people saying, “The music’s too loud,” which I’m like, “I don’t care.” When you open your restaurant, you can do your music, however you want to do it. Like me, I’m gonna play old school hip hop and grunge and 90s alternative, whatever I want to do. But yeah, it’s me on a plate. It’s me and four walls. It’s me on a soundtrack. It’s Culture ETX man. It’s fun. It used to be a Subway.
Backstory, I’m working in Dallas and I’m really digging it. I’m feeling it, I’m learning. I know that I’m ready. I was an executive chef when I went to culinary school. I worked my way up quickly to running restaurants. And that’s more mostly because I think of my military bearing, my leadership skills, my business skills, my communication skills, were better than most others. So kids don’t ever knock that, some schools do some good, or at least pretend, you know, at least pretend you’re smart. You know what it’s down to. So I worked my way up. And then I worked my way back down. I went from executive chef to working as a line cook a couple of really killer chefs in Dallas. James Beard types, you know, food wine, Best New Chef, great chefs also one of them was a previous Cochon winner and the other one was a previous Cochon contestant. But I was looking for where I wanted to open. You know, and I love the outdoors. I love fishing. I love East Texas, East Texas is beautiful. My family moved to East Texas in 1835 when it was still Mexico.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, wow.
Lance McWhorter: All my grandparents live within, you know, 45 minutes of where my restaurant is. Now. My earliest memory of cooking was with my great grandmother and my and my grandmother on a match-lit propane stove and a little farmhouse in Athens, Texas. And we’re standing on a bucket on a metal bucket with a wooden spoon stirring group. And it was bacon grease and flour. And she had this old rusty can of you know, like no hills brothers or whatever up on the shelf above the stove with another spoon.
Kirk Bachmann: Kept collecting the bacon grease.
Lance McWhorter: I was like, probably three. But I remember just the smell. And I remember it developing. And I remember that being the basis of almost everything that she cooked. And the singed, old handmade wooden spoon that my great-grandfather made her… he made all of her utensils. And I still have them. That spoon? I still have that spoon.
Kirk Bachmann: Amazing. The stories.
Lance McWhorter: The apple pie? Yeah, for reals. She got this in like the 1920s you know, 1910s. I still have her pie dishes. Those old pie dishes. That’s what we make the apple pies in the restaurant. One of my chefs, Chevy, he is terrified of my grandmother’s pie dishes. Because I told him that if he breaks them, I will no doubt kill him. (laughter) But that’s all part of the story.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s part of the culture, right?
Lance McWhorter: Exactly. But people were going, “This isn’t East Texas culture.” I’m like, it’s kind of rooted in it, in my view. But they’re like, “This isn’t East Texas culture.” And I’m like, exactly. This is culture coming to ETX. We’re combining it with East Texas. We’re taking the roots of how I learned to cook here. We’re combining that local culture with all the cultures that I’ve experienced all over the world and 40 plus different countries. I wanted it to be… Grant Achatz famously said I think was on Spinning Plates on the documentary, it was like rules. There are no rules, do what you want. You can do whatever you want. Who says that a plate has to be flat?
Kirk Bachmann: And people like that today. They want to be entertained. What’s beautiful about the story is like so many great chefs, the restaurant is manifesting itself in who you are and how you became you. From the greasy spoon where you had to get the pancake syrup off the plates to all the James Beard. And your literacy around cooking history is so impressive. Tyler, Texas, right? The restaurants in Tyler, Texas. There’s our shameless plug. There you go. I love that. So I’m not even going to ask a question. I know that Escoffier has a very, very kind of special place in your heart. I’ve heard you talk about it. So no questions just talk about Escoffier a little bit.
Lance McWhorter: Escoffier is like where my high threat security job still keeps going. (laughter) I think a lot of the media folks and a lot of the social media team at Escoffier has known me for a long, long time. And that’s because I’ve been in a lot of their ads. You know, I’ve got the flame tattoo and I’ve got the backwards hat, and I’ve got the pig on the other arm.
I’m a Gen X Dude, all the millennials that like to poke fun at the stereotypical chef, I’ve looked like this since they were pooping yellow. So me being in a lot of Escoffier ads it draws some heat about one, “Nobody should go to culinary school, culinary school is a waste of money.” The laundry list that you hear from all these chefs that work at chain outfits, dropping boiling bags of food in the water, and then dumping them on a plate. They love to get out and call people that have actually taken time to go get an education and build up tons of work experience in the industry. They like to look at us and go, “Those guys aren’t real chefs. I’ve hired people out of culinary school and they ain’t no good.” You know, whatever. And then double-pronged, Escoffier’s online program really blows people’s minds because people can’t bend their noodle around, “How can you learn anything on the internet?” So Escoffier, I went to their online program. I was already an executive chef, when I went. I did it because I wanted to check that box. I did it for me.
And I will tell you this, I don’t care if you’re going for an engineering degree, underwater basket weaving degree, culinary degree, whatever you want to do, if you’re doing it for any other reason than you, you’re wrong. Like don’t do it for, “Oh, if I go to culinary school, I’m gonna be a chef.” No, that’s not how it works. That’s not how anything works. You can go to doctor school, you can go to medical school and not be a doctor when you get done. There’s still a lot of real-world residencies, internships, things like that. You have criteria that need to be met after you graduate. Cooking’s the same thing. You really have to put in the work, you’ve got to put in your time in the trenches.
And so my trench time continues now as being kind of the linebacker for Escoffier that when people come in, and they start getting disrespectful towards me or the school, I’m the one that says, “Hey, man, throw down and put up a plate. Let’s see what you do. Let’s see where you’ve been. What restaurant’s yours. What are you running?” Usually they don’t put up plates. I find that they like to talk a lot. It’s just the internet and it’s funny. I don’t know, I’ve invited them all to my restaurant, none of them show up.
Kirk Bachmann: Well, I will say that I am so appreciative of the respect for the craft and Auguste would be so delighted to meet you. You know, it’s respect for the craft.
Lance McWhorter: I’m not quite that old but I would love it. I remember when I onboarded for the online program, and I got to meet one of his grandsons.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, Michel. Michel Escoffier, his great-grandson. Yeah, absolutely.
Lance McWhorter: I got to meet him, got to meet some great chefs through Escoffier, Curtis Duffy. Some people that were definitely inspirations to me, before I ever even went to school.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. Let’s talk about “Chopped” a little bit. Now, all of this comes together and boom, you’re a celebrity Saturday. So what was that experience like? It’s different to be on TV, right?
Lance McWhorter: I mean, I’m pretty used to just being on regular TV. I’ll do like cooking segments. Whenever there’s something going on in the culinary world, it seems like the news always comes and talks to me, probably because I just never have a shortage of stuff to say. Man, “Chopped.” We were talking a little bit about that, transitioning when you get home from the military. Undoubtedly, the darkest point for me it was right when I was first getting into cooking. That was right when I came home from contracting in Iraq and I had some really dark days. I mean, really dark days. I was kind of spiraling, I was kind of just not doing well.
One of my chefs, her name is Sydney Cook, she’s amazing. She came to me and she goes, “You know this is what you’re supposed to be doing. You know this is where you need to be. You preach this to everybody.” She goes “Shut up and listen to yourself for once. You need to be cooking.” Then she hired me to be her CDC at the same restaurant that she opened and really taught me a ton, saved my life. I wholeheartedly believe that. The camaraderie and the speed and the excitement, the intensity. If anybody watches “Chopped” these days, you’ll hear a little sound bite that plays in all their commercials. They’ve been doing it this whole season where “It’s fast, it’s hot, it’s loud.” You’ll hear somebody say that the background and that’s me. They literally pulled that out when I’m talking about military service, transferring over the line.
So long story short, my wife comes to me, Bailey, “Chopped is doing this open audition. I think you should do it.” I’m like, “Nah. I’m a chef.” I was like knee-deep in it. I was the executive of a restaurant out here, in northeast Texas. And I was like, any, you know, that was when I was like, chef life and my career, you know? Yeah, I was in that phase of my career. And, man, she’s like, “Sometimes you can be such a hypocrite.” And I was like, “What?” She goes, “Think of the opportunity that you have to get that message that you’re always preaching to people about getting more vets in the kitchen.” She goes, “What better platform in the world than one that millions and millions and millions of people are going to watch.” And I was like, “All right, you’re right.”
Kirk Bachmann: Bravo, bravo Bailey. Wow.
Lance McWhorter: But I was thinking it was more like a game show. And man, it wasn’t. It was nothing like a game show.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s the real thing, yeah.
Lance McWhorter: I applied for it that night. They called me the next day, did video interviews and it was just fast tracked. And then, fast forward to February of 2018. I was at FT33. in Dallas. That’s where they came in and shot my my hero reel. I mean, that took 9-10 hours, just to shoot that little one minute thing. Went to New York, which was awesome. I love New York. I love Manhattan and Bailey had never been there. So I took her and you know, we went around to some really killer places to eat, took her to Barbalu, took her to The Aviary for cocktails.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, my goodness.
Lance McWhorter: We went to Dirty Water Dogs, Gray’s Papaya. I was just taking her to everywhere epic. And then filming day came in at six o’clock in the morning, standing in front of a seedy McDonald’s, out in the middle of kind of the hood. It was cool. And I was like, you know, the whole city is dead. And then this, this lady comes walking around the corner. She’s like, Oh, hey, chefs, you guys ready, you know, in boxes around Showtime walks away. This, you know, nondescript-looking building, and you walk in and it’s “Chopped.” I mean, it’s like, it’s a lot of people who’ve never been in one of these big production things. Like when you looked at the Chopped Kitchen Stadium thing, whatever. I mean, it looks like this really, super cool kitchen. Right? It’s all two by fours on the back.
Kirk Bachmann: Just propped up, yeah.
Lance McWhorter: It’s like a construction scene. And then you hear his voice, “10 out.” I’m like “That’s 10 hours.” 15 hours later, you shot your episode, the better you do, the longer you stay in. Even if you lose first round. Man, you’ve got this exit interview that’s like two and a half hours long, where they go through and that’s where they get a lot of your descriptions, a lot of your sound bites that they use for the actual episode isn’t that.
Kirk Bachmann: The theme through all of your storytelling is that you’re so respectful of giving back to your, to your team, to your wife, to the people to the gal that helps you get to the right place for chat. I mean, I love that. That of your team.
Lance McWhorter: Whether it be military, whether it be culinary, this will fall on deaf ears and a lot of chefs that are just coming up. But if you the first time you run a restaurant, or the first time you own a restaurant, for sure, you will not listen to these words, you will not listen to trust your team, you won’t listen to accept input and help from others, because you’re going to be stubborn. And you’re going to work yourself to death when you know, like, like I am a stay like everybody almost didn’t you know, I landed in the hospital, you know, early, early 2020 from a fit from stress, you know, it’s like, take a breath, trust your team, respect your team, grow your team. Love them, like your own family. You know, I mean, my restaurants tiny it used to be a sandwich artist station, you know, it’s 1500 square feet. And now the kitchens are right in the dining room. It’s a ton of fun and we put on a show every night that we have service and when I’m not there, my team can do it without me.
Kirk Bachmann: And the music’s loud. Is that a theme? So many chefs that I speak with it’s cooking it’s food, it’s music, whether they play or they listen and it’s motorcyclists, all the above for you.
Lance McWhorter: I used to be really big into riding motorcycles, I mean like really, really big into like the Harley scene and all that. A lot of vets coming home you know, that’s where all motorcycle clubs came from. As all the vets coming home and they needed that camaraderie is that was not enough. Yeah, stay together. For me. That was one of the things that led me into the dark paths of my life. You know that I that cooking saved me from but not so much the motorcycles anymore. The music you Using using door that’s, I mean, you know, I’m 48 years old. I was born in 1972 every step of the way, my generation, your generation, you know, like Gen X, we’ve had the greatest soundtrack.
Kirk Bachmann: Agree 100%.
Lance McWhorter: It’s like we’ve had the whole arc of video games and music our entire life. So, Culture is kind of like this like Gen X anthem. I mean, you’re gonna get grunge if you walk in, you’re gonna get alternatives. You may get 80s New Wave you might get. I mean, some night you get in there Friday or Saturday night and it’s eight o’clock at night. You might get Dre you might get a gangster you might get most def you might get you know, who knows you might get old school hip hop because that’s what I listened to more than anything else. That’s kind of my thing.
Kirk Bachmann: I could see why the Food Network loves you. The sound bites coming from your rhetoric, it’s unbelievable. I’ve written so many cool things down. It’s just awesome. You know, in our time left, I’m just fascinated by Cochon 555. Wasn’t aware of it. The coolest thing that I have researched in a long time. Give us a high level synopsis of how cool this is.
Lance McWhorter: Yeah, Cochon. C-O-C-H-O-N 555.
Kirk Bachmann: What’s the 555?
Lance McWhorter: Five chefs, five winemakers, five farms.
Kirk Bachmann: Love it. Love it.
Lance McWhorter: Cochon is… man, if you haven’t been to one, if you’re close to one of the nine cities that they do them in, you absolutely owe it to yourself to go. Tickets are a little spendy, absolutely worth it. Nine stops total, this fine dining heritage pork festival. Five chefs at each stop. So each one of those five chefs is matched up with a local heritage farmer that raises these pigs. We’re paired up with a farm. With my farm, I was working with Chubby Dog Farm, who’s no longer with us after COVID. But I was involved with the finishing process of the animal it’s a form that I worked with in the past, thankfully, so we got a really great relationship and rapport.
Kirk Bachmann: Okay, okay. That’s cool.
Lance McWhorter: Cochon gives you the opportunity to work with this farmer. Help finish the animal, select the animal. In their approach, chefs that have a background in whole animal utilization, already working with farmers in heritage, heritage breed animals. And man, you’ve got to take this 200-pound pig, and you need to make six courses for 13 judges. Then three of those courses need to be translated into some sort of dish or dishes for the attendees, which are 500-600 people. So you got a lot of work ahead of you. But man, is it fun. It is just crazy.
Kirk Bachmann: What a great concept and you won in you’re region.
Lance McWhorter: Yeah that’s nine stops, five chefs per stop. So there’s what… 45 chefs nationwide that get to participate. Except one of my chefs, Matt McAllister, he was in Cochon and my other chef David he was in the Dallas stop in Cochon. Then there’s New York, Denver, San Francisco, Nashville, Houston, and they kind of go all over.
So the people that have won these things, when you go look at the list of the people who have won…you get crowned either the Prince or Princess of Pork at your stop. Then they have Grand Cochon in Chicago every September, October, and that’s where all the all the Princes and Princesses of Pork will compete to be the King or Queen of Pork. Of course that got sidelined for COVID. We’re waiting for things to kick back off again and we’re going to get to go compete for Grand Cochon hopefully soon. I don’t think it’s gonna be this year, hopefully next year. But the event is just crazy cool. We had such a laundry list of great judges. I mean, Josh been a misty Norris food and wine Best New chef Petra and the beast in Dallas. She was one of my judges, john T star, who is you know, bravo Top Chef a million times owner of nice steak house, and he’s got like some steak and seafood joints in the east and west coast as well.
And one thing that luck was the full turnaround for me. What as I’ve gotten to know John over the years, he’s Jimmy Sears man, like, he’s Jimmy Sears and name Kitchen Confidential. You know, it’s like he was Anthony Bourdain. Chef. Yeah, yeah. He’s the one that gave him the name Flacco you know, it’s like you get around that guy. I mean it but I mean, this is your judges and coach on you know, so it’s like, his story, the story of the star-studded lineup just eating your food and it’s unbelievable. Yeah, crazy. Yeah, we want it and it was insane. It was like one of those surreal moments. I just remember I did a Bobby Flay as I jumped on the table.
Kirk Bachmann: No one will ever forget that. Congratulations. Oh, that that is super, super cool. One final thought the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish so chef in your mind, what is the ultimate dish?
Lance McWhorter: Oh man, it’s just one of those things that and I get a lot of, what’s my favorite dish, what’s the ultimate dish? I don’t know it changes, it’s like a song. What’s your favorite song? I don’t know. It’s sort of depends on my mood. Ultimate dish… I think back to everything that I’ve eaten in my whole life. My great uncle out here in Athens was real close to us. He used to make this kind of like a Hoppin’ John, black-eyed peas, okra tomatoes all from his garden with lima beans. And then my mama would fry up whatever fish that we caught that day. Like me and my papa would be out fishing and whether it be perched bass catfish, she would just take it and she’d dixie fry it up in the cast iron skillet and put it on top of that. Like Hoppin’ John, and we’d all sit around and eat that. That is probably still this day… that’s probably like the first composed dish that I ever ate as a kid. Everything is on top, everything’s ready. She’d have some homemade chow she’d break out or cornbread. That’s probably the ultimate dish. if I can have that dish one more time.
Kirk Bachmann: And that’s culture. It’s all coming together. I hoped that your answer would be wrapped around family and culture and it certainly is.
Lance McWhorter: Well, I don’t really have family left anymore you know, and I haven’t for a long, long time. But those are my memories of family, like grandparents. That was really cool.
Kirk Bachmann: Hey Chef, special thanks to your team. Special thanks to Bailey. Kayak anglers – look it up, I love it. Cochon 555, I’m obsessed. Escoffier, and the stories that old wooden spoon could tell if that spoon could talk.
Lance McWhorter: I’ll send you a picture of it. I’ve got a little kitchen beater tool that my great-grandpa made and you can see it’s carved in there by hand by a pocketknife. I think it says January 20 or January 12, 1920 or something.
Kirk Bachmann: Just phenomenal. Hey, thanks for spending some time with us. You’re a rock star. You’re rockin the gray beard just beautifully. I love it. Thanks for everything you do.
Lance McWhorter: Thank you Chef, appreciate it.
Kirk Bachmann: And we’re gonna have you come back, okay?
Lance McWhorter: All right. Yeah, absolutely. That’d be fun.
Kirk Bachmann: All right. Take care of yourself. I appreciate it. Thank you for listening to The Ultimate Dish podcast brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit us escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.