Unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, won the lottery, or have a very generous sugar momma/daddy, the chances of being in charge of your own super-large restaurant kitchen in your mid-20s are slim-to-none. After all, a professional kitchen is filled with tons of ridiculously expensive equipment to operate, a crew of tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners cooks and dishwashers to supervise. And it requires a ton of knowledge to oversee the restaurant’s entire menu development, purchasing, staffing and scheduling duties. Being executive chef is the kitchen equivalent of a CEO, and the job typically takes years, sometimes decades, to attain.
But at just 27, chef Megan McAllister is the executive chef at Four Bridges Country Club in Liberty Township, an achievement she attributes to her former employer, chef Jimmy Gibson of downtown steakhouse Jimmy G’s.
“Jimmy is the reason why I became an executive chef at a country club at the age of 27, after only cooking for three years,” she says. “Being with a chef that’s as difficult to work with but as brilliant as he is, I never would be where I am right now if I didn’t work with Jimmy.”
“I learned more working with him in the morning when it was just the two of us than I did my entire time in culinary school,” she adds.
And Gibson himself is quick to turn the compliment around, attributing McAllister’s early success to kaizen, a Japanese term that means the practice of continuous improvement.
“It is a way of life, not just a one-time outcome; she is performance-driven,” Gibson says. “The most important thing about Megan when she was the sous chef at Jimmy G’s, if I was not there, I was certain that the only difference in kitchen operations was that there was one less male in it.”
Born in South Korea, McAllister was adopted at 6 months old and brought to the United States to live. “My mom worked for children’s services and we were one of the first families to start adopting and bring children in from Korea,” she says.
“My brother was adopted from a different part of Korea two years later.”
“I grew up with white people in the country in Martinsville, Ohio,” she continues. “We got into art and music in high school. I moved out of the house at 18, met my husband, started my tattoo apprenticeship, opened my own shop, and had that for about three years.”
When McAllister’s husband decided to go to culinary school at The Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State, McAllister decided to sell her tattoo shop to an apprentice and join him. “My mom kept telling me that tattooing wasn’t a real job,” she says, “and so I was like, ‘Well, I’ll go to college with him,’ and I loved it instantly, got it and I was at the head of the class.”
McAllister became involved in almost every American Culinary Federation competition the school offered and won gold during her first competition. She was the lead for the Junior Competition in 2012, won the state championship and went with the team to the championships in New York, where they placed second overall out of 103 schools in the region. She also received Student of the Year from the ACF. After culinary school, McAllister began working with chef Dave Taylor at La Poste Eatery in Clifton and then as sous chef at Jimmy G’s.
When the executive chef position at Four Bridges came up, McAllister jumped at it without letting the fact that she was a young, seemingly inexperienced woman in a male-dominated field stand in her way.
“I find that once people see me they seriously underestimate me,” she says. “I’ve always had issues with the macho man not wanting to take orders from a girl, especially a young one. I never walk in somewhere and demand respect, but once you’ve worked for me for a few weeks and you see me here 13 to 15 hours a day, and you see me hop on dish tank and clean right alongside my crew, respect usually follows. But I’m not above firing some old cocky guy who just won’t listen and is set in his ways.”
The job wasn’t necessarily what she expected; surprisingly, cooking isn’t the “meat” of an executive chef’s day.
“Well, no one ever told me as an executive chef I would spend the majority of my hours doing paperwork and having meetings instead of in the kitchen where I love to be,” she says. “I was not prepared for all of this when I took it on, but through teaching myself and never accepting no for an answer, I’ve figured it out and I’m on the right track. I live by the motto ‘failure is not an option.’ ” ©