For chef Rhonda McCullar, service meets sustainability

Growing up in the small town of Ennis, Texas, McCullar spent a lot of time in the kitchen helping his mother and aunt prepare meals for family reunions and parties. The chef says that was when his love of food and service began.

“From a young age, I associated food with joy and happy times because, essentially, every time we cooked or ate it was like a party or some kind of party,” he says. she.

Her mother also taught her the importance of not wasting food or ingredients, especially when so many people still face food insecurity. McCullar has taken this philosophy to heart, and she always informs the way she cooks, especially with a mission to use as many ingredients as possible, especially when it comes to animal protein.

At Uchi, leftover bones are turned into broths, while vegetable trimmings and other miscellaneous ingredients are reused for staff meals.

“I just can’t get rid of the garbage,” she says. “When you waste like that, you are basically saying that it doesn’t matter who is in need. It tells me that you have no respect for anyone else.

And whenever there is a surplus of ingredients that does not end up in staff stocks or meals, the chef will load whatever is left at the end and distribute the leftovers to the unhoused members of the community. The garbage is just not in his wheelhouse.

“It’s so close and dear to me because I feel like there’s always someone there who really needs it,” she says. “I don’t do it to be seen; I do this because I really have a passion for serving people, and I just want to give back as much as possible.

McCullar’s journey in the restaurant business has not been as straightforward as that of some chefs. In fact, she was both an athlete and an educator before pursuing the culinary arts on a professional level.

While in college, McCullar planned to pursue a basketball career, at least until her mother became terminally ill, which prompted her to return home. Following the advice of his mentor and former coach, McCullar decided to look to a career in teaching.

She worked for a time as a sixth grade science teacher, but eventually decided to enroll in a cooking school not only to pursue a passion, but also in the hope of better supporting her younger brother. and his sister.

Today, her deep understanding of chemistry and food science helps her prepare fine dishes.

“Having this solid scientific background and understanding what happens to foods at the molecular level has helped me a lot,” she says.

This expertise and knowledge base is especially crucial given McCullar’s dietary restrictions. As a vegetarian, she doesn’t taste dishes like Uchi’s tataki wagyu and his sasami yaki (chicken, coconut milk and cilantro). Instead, she relies on her staff to help her assess whether a dish is a winner or if it needs to be improved.

As for the animal components of the menu, McCullar will taste the rubs or marinades meant to season the protein, but that’s it. And if she creates a plate that requires an ingredient like fish sauce, she’ll taste it until the moment the fish sauce is added. After that, she calls her colleagues.

“I have become very good at knowing if someone is just trying to be nice to me or if they give me a real representation of what they are thinking,” she says. “If I go to five people and they all say it lacks a bit of acidity but the salt is perfect, then I know we need to add something to the dish.”

Uchi’s menu has plenty of carnivorous offerings, but McCullar’s love for vegetables is manifested through dishes like green tomato katsu (served with chili aioli and lemon) and kabocha tempura. (fried Japanese pumpkin). Her talent particularly shines when she puts a vegetarian touch on plates traditionally rooted in animal proteins, such as crispy tofu maki, served with inari, avocado and red kosho.

McCullar joined Uchi in Dallas when it opened in 2015 and has been rising through the ranks since. In the restaurant business, it’s relatively long to stay in one place, but she has no plans to leave anytime soon, especially following her promotion last September. She says she enjoys working in a place that allows her to be creative and be part of a team, something she had missed from her basketball years.

However, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t thought about a more distant future and what the next step in her career might be. Like most chefs, she eventually wants to have her own business, but unlike many of her peers, she isn’t looking for a permanent store or even a food truck. She has her eyes set on a different concept: a pop-up that she can move around Dallas.

McCullar says a pop-up would give him the ability to change the menu based on what’s available in local markets on any given day. It is yet another way to provide services, reduce waste and promote sustainability.

“I think for me that’s my ultimate goal, my ultimate vision for myself: service and sustainability,” she says.

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