Originally from Birmingham, Miles McMath, 41, is one of Memphis' most regarded chefs, even though you may have never heard of him. He's quietly turning St. Jude's Kay Café into a model of efficiency and wellness, while racking up awards, participating in local charity events, and raising a family.
The recent second-place winner in the Cochon Heritage BBQ competition, McMath once owned three restaurants in north Mississippi: Timbeaux's, Boiling Point, and Junior's. He sold them in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. "There was a chef who needed help in New Orleans and I always loved it there, so we moved there to help out for a year before the kids were old enough to go to school," he says.
When McMath returned to the Mid-South, it was to help launch a new seafood restaurant. However, before he could sign a management contract, a friend from culinary school told him about the renovation of Kay Café at St. Jude. "I talked to my wife about it. It would be a Monday through Friday job, which would be good for the family, and I could still cook pretty good food there," he says. When he started in March 2008, Kay Café was just a set of drawings. Today, he is the director of culinary operations with a staff of 80.
McMath lives east of Hernando, Mississippi, with his wife, three children, and a lot of animals. There are three pigs, laying chickens, meat chickens that he calls freedom rangers, 60 Angus cattle, and wild deer. "We don't eat much meat we don't raise ourselves," McMath says. He and his wife have two acres of land. His father-in-law keeps the cattle and pigs on another eight acres. His wife's extended family has another 35 to 40 acres with even more cows.
McMath says it's a community where everyone knows everyone else, and they share everything. "Everyone has a special thing they do. A friend grows watermelons so no one else plants watermelon, my father-in-law does peas, etc."
He says his family is very committed to eating seasonally, and they have been known to go "forever" without eating bacon. McMath recently "processed" 25 chickens. "It had been six months since we ate any chicken. The kids watched most of it, and it didn't bother them at all," he says. "We have a lot of conversations about where food comes from."
"I use everything," he says of the chickens. "The gizzard, heart, feet — everything except the head."
The first thing McMath made was chicken tenders for the kids. "We have never eaten at McDonald's. That's just not what we do," he says, admitting that their grandparents have been known to take them to Sonic for an ice cream or two.
Feeding his kids is easy compared to feeding the employees, patients, and visitors at St. Jude. That adds up to 2,000 meals a day, plus catering. "There aren't many places where you have the same customers every day," McMath says. "It can be a challenge."
Plate by plate, the food is ever-changing at Kay Café. To an outsider, it pretty much looks like the best cafeteria ever. (Kay Café is not open to the general public.) There's a sushi station with grass-fed beef, a grill area with the usual suspects (hamburgers, chicken tenders, hot dogs), a bakery with fresh bread and pastries, a basic salad bar, a seriously fancy salad bar, a deli with homemade spreads like sunbutter and homemade pickles, wood-fired pizzas, and so much more.
McMath uses vegetables grown on site at St. Jude and is doing a special focus on sustainable seafood right now. He's got food trucks coming on a regular basis and is also looking to partner with local chefs, like Ryan Trimm of Sweet Grass, to serve restaurant-quality dishes in the café. "I want to promote local restaurants to patients and families and give them a taste," he says.
Ninety-five percent of patients at St. Jude are outpatient. However, there is an average of 50 beds with really sick kids. McMath says they have a room-service menu, but these kids can pretty much have whatever they want. "They want comfort food from home, wherever home is. We have an arsenal of ingredients and staples in the kitchen, and we spend time with parents to get specific brands, etc.," he says. Right now, they have an enamel pot full of beans on the stove at all times to soothe the stomach of one Chinese patient. "His mom gave us the recipe and it took us a couple of days, but Rick Farmer nailed it," McMath says.
Farmer and Luahn Thomas both recently left L'Ecole Culinaire to work as executive chefs in Kay Café. Of the seven certified executive chefs in Memphis, four of them work at Kay Café.
McMath says he doesn't get to do a lot of actual cooking anymore, but he tries to cook something every day. "Cooking used to be 90 percent of my job. The administrative part can be draining, but I can always go cook when I get fed up," he says.