Sherrod, Clayton 1944–
Clayton Sherrod 1944–
Grilled tuna steak crusted with macadamia nuts … sweetcorn and lobster pancake … just a couple of the delectable items enjoyed in December of 1997 by 100 lucky guests at a dinner in Birmingham, Alabama. When dessert time rolled around, there was another irresistible treat-sweet, smooth, flourless chocolate cake served with ice cream sauce, flavored with fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers.
These unusual dishes are just a few of the many culinary creations by Chef Clayton Sherrod. The founder of a Birmingham-based catering company called Chef Clayton’s Food Systems, Inc, Sherrod is an indefatigable explorer in the realm of food. The recipe for this tangy ice cream sauce came home with him from one of his many visits to the Caribbean, and it shares pride of place with the details of many other unusual dishes tasted during trips to various parts of America as well as from places as far away as South Africa.
Chef Clayton Sherrod is a firm believer in regional cuisine. Like the chefs of New Orleans whose seafood fare have spiced up respect for their Cajun culture, he believes that local ingredients and recipes can draw welcome attention to an area’s heritage if they are put together in the right way. He urges all chefs to remember that “great menus are inspired by the food you grew up with,” while advocating the necessity for balance between dependency on the cuisine of only one region, and the classical—yet impractical—recipes taught in culinary courses. Sherrod believes that chefs should expand their repertoires by seeking out recipes and ingredients from many different places, in order to find the individual taste and texture that brings the sweet taste of success.
While Sherrod spends many hours pondering the finer points of culinary industry practices, he is just as concerned with the problems of young African Americans who have not yet found their career direction. A tireless recruiter, he has noted repeatedly that high school career counselors overlook the many opportunities that black chefs are finding in the hospitality field, and neglect to suggest culinary schools to students trying to map their working future. To make matters worse, students looking for post-graduate career potential often mistakenly dismiss the culinary industry as “kitch-enwork,” without realizing that chefs are highly specialized
Born 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama; widowed; one daughter. Education: American Culinary Institute, New York.
Career: Vestavia Country Club, 1959-78; rising to rank of executive chef, 1965; Chef Clayton’s Food Systems, Inc. 1978—.
Memberships: American Culinary Federation (ACF); Charter Member, Caribbean Chefs Association; American Academy of Chefs; mem, board of trustees, ACF Educational Institute; national chairman, Scholarship Committee, ACF; Founded c. irmingham, Alabama, chapter of ACF, 1977; ACF National Black Family Reunion culinary coordinator, 1990-93; chairman, “World Cooks’ Tour for Hunger/’ Johannesburg, South Africa, 1993.
Awards: “Great American Chef” Sullivan College, 1992; “Caterer of the Year,” Jefferson County Commission’s Minority Enterprises Division, 1993; “Distinguished Service Award,” Bahamas Culinary Chefs Association; “President’s Medallion,” 1995; Southeast Region Distinction” award, R.L Schreiber, 1997; “National Chef Professionalism,” ACF, 1997.
Addresses: PO Box 599, J19-A, Fairfield, AL 35064.
workers entitled to the status of professional people, and that they must keep up with new culinary trends and methods if they expect to stay competitive.
Nobody understands the value of professional status better than Sherrod himself, who has climbed the ladder of success from its bottommost rung. His working life began at age 13, when his father had a catastrophic heart attack that made it necessary for him to take a job that would help support his 10 siblings. Finding a vacancy as a caddy at the upscale Vestavia Country Club just south of Birmingham, Alabama, he grabbed it, but he was not destined to stay on the golf course for long. Just a few weeks after he started, the club’s chef put out a call for temporary help and made the offer of a regular paycheck even more appetizing by including the benefit of free meals. Clayton Sherrod was well aware that a day in a kitchen was always longer and harder than a set number of hours spent on a golf course. Nevertheless, the prospect of both regular wages and free food were far too tempting to pass up. He reported to the chef immediately, expecting to work for him for no more than four months. In fact, he stayed for 19 years.
From the time he walked into the Vestavia kitchen, young Clayton found himself fascinated by the homemade breads, the colorful salads and the succulent roasts he was seeing for the first time in his life. In fact, he found his workday so interesting that diligence and hard work were easy habits to form. The first delicacy he prepared as a chef was a club sandwich. He described this experience to Michael Donahue in Appeal, saying, “They told me the wrong way to make it. They told me to put tuna fish in it.” The sandwich turned out fine, however, and his career was on its way. Before he reached his 20th birthday, Clayton Sherrod had been promoted right through the culinary ranks to reach the peak-the exalted position of executive chef. He was now in charge of all the club’s food service, including budgets, recipes, menu designs and the operation of its kitchens.
Chef Clayton’s post brought him a great deal of hard work and responsibility. A young man just 19-years-old, he might have been forgiven for wanting to take time off for relaxation during scheduled vacations. Still, knowing he could not attain professional status without formal study, Sherrod chose to spend his sparse leisure time at the prestigious American Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York.
In 1978, Sherrod left the Vestavia Country Club to start his own business, which he called Chef Clayton’s Food Systems. Having kept in touch with the diners who had enjoyed his food at the club, he found himself with a built-in network of contacts who recommended him to friends and companies looking for top-quality catering service. Twenty years later, his company routinely provides daily lunches for such customers as US Steel and Alabama Gas, plus box lunches for business meetings and, of course, more elaborate food for banquets and dinners. On his current payroll are 18 permanent members, one of whom has been with him for 28 years, plus an assortment of part-timers who are college and high school students.
From the very beginning of his years at the helm of his own business, Chef Clayton has somehow found time for volunteer work. He puts a great deal of energy into the American Culinary Federation, (ACF) a professional chefs’ association with more than 25,000 members who belong to 281 local groups in the Caribbean as well as in the United States of America itself. Like the ACF, Sherrod sees the advancement of the culinary profession as a top priority. So he helps to steer the continuing education program that keeps ACF members abreast of new developments in all food service areas, and also keeps the ACF in the public eye by doing demonstrations for charitable groups.
A favorite Sherrod mission is the rejuvenation of fading ACF chapters. His first success at this was in 1978, when the ACF sent him to Kingston, Jamaica to fire up a dwindling number of members and to share with them some of. the latest advances in the profession. His unquenchable zest for his own work and his sparkling presentation were an experience for his audience that they have enjoyed many times since then. Another place that has benefited by his interest is Nassau, in the Bahamas. “In 1989, the first time I came, there was just one certified chef,” he later recalled. “So I stayed in Nassau an extra couple of days to work one-on-one with interested cooks.”
Since that time, many Caribbean ports have become favorite haunts, where he brushes up techniques, fires up jaded members and gives them renewed pride in their shared professional status. When he heads back to the United States, he always leaves the same message behind him: that there is great opportunity for African American chefs who take the trouble to expand their skills by trying new recipes and new methods.
At the same time, he regards these visits as learning experiences made on behalf of other culinarians who are not as free to travel as he is. Never does he come back without new spices and recipes to pass on.
At the beginning of the 1990s Sherrod became involved with the Black Family Reunion, a celebration that usually takes place during the summer. An annual festival, it was established in 1986 by Dr. Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women, in order to encourage self-help strategies for single black parents living in environments blighted by unemployment, crime, abuse and illiteracy. Held in Memphis, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., as well as in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Atlanta, the celebration provides excellent food and music as well as information on education and the job-market.
In 1990 Sherrod became involved with the Reunion for the first time, when he was asked to prepare food for the Memphis celebration. The following year he became the coordinating chef, a post which required him to travel from venue to venue with Dr. Height. Since then, his involvement has become an annual event, which he slots in with the active recruitment of African Americans interested in becoming professional chefs.
Another volunteer opportunity came his way in 1993, when he chaired a 41-person delegation sent to South Africa on behalf of the World Cooks Tour For Hunger. Taking place in four major centers, the Tour invited 124 fine chefs from various countries to enjoy complimentary accommodation from a sponsoring hotel chain, while cooking such basics as hamburgers, hotdogs, rice and stiff corn porridge for busloads of hungry children. In company with five other chefs, Sherrod was sent to Durban, a South Coast resort town. Honored guests, the six were welcomed by the chef of the elite Umhlanga Rocks Hotel, who entertained them with true South African hospitality. Sherrod sampled the local cuisine and formed a great respect for South African wines as well as a firm fondness for ostrich meat. Since this first visit, Sherrod has been back to South Africa for Hostex, a large exposition organized every two years by the South African Chefs Association. There he participates in food demonstrations, judges contests when invited, and adds American taste and flair to dishes presented by national contest winners. Busy as he is, Chef Clayton somehow finds time to appear on local television shows devoted to the fine art of catering, and is currently co-authoring a cookbook called Top of the Morning. His creativity in the culinary arts will no doubt only expand his reputation in the years to come. “The American cook’s influence on today’s cuisine is paramount,” he stated in a news release from The American Culinary Federation. That statement is certainly true when connected to the name of Chef Clayton Sherrod.
Encyclopedia of Associations, Gale Research, 1998, p. 726.
Atlanta Constitution, December 12, 1990, p. C2.
Center of the Plate, (American Chefs Federation) September, 1997, p. 5.
Commercial Appeal, September 19, 1990, p. E7; September 16, 1991, p. C1; November 2, 1994, p. C1.
Courier-Journal, (Louisville, KY) February 26, 1996, Section C. p.1.
Ebony, March 1995, p. 68.
Additional information was provided by an interview with Chef Clayton Sherrod on November 4, 1997.
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