Chef’s Secrets: Southern Roots and Southern Comfort Food

By Chef Marcus Webster

Chef Marcus

Photo credit: Gary Harbour

First things first; let me express my delight and appreciation to Conejo Valley Happening magazine for extending a warm invitation for me to write about what is near and dear to me: food.

Who doesn’t love food, anyway? I, for one, grew up in a loving home in Fort Smith, Arkansas where food was the center of everything. I was the youngest of three children and my mom and dad were both excellent cooks. My Dad was in the restaurant and catering industry in the 50s and 60s.

I loved watching them cook for the family everyday. Weekend barbecues–crab, shrimp and crawfish boils in the late evenings during the scorching summer months–were a normal family activity for the Websters.

Dinner table conversations were spirited as we gobbled up plates of my Mom’s homemade waffles, country fried chicken, shrimp creole, barbecues and just about every Southern comfort food you can think of.

My early memories include cleaning up this smoker that my Dad got when I was about 11. We always made our own homemade seasoning for meat at home and put it in the backyard brick smoker when it was too hot to cook inside.

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The seafood gumbo is one of Chef Marcus’ signature dishes.

With my parents’ blessings, I left home in 1975 at the young age of 15 and moved to Santa Barbara, California. My dad gave me a thick Playboy cookbook because of my passion for food.  So at 16, I was making crab cakes and Béarnaise sauce and knew it was my destiny. However, I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef till I was about 25. I went to school for something else.

In 1990, I moved back to Arkansas to work at this Rock ‘n Roll radio station. I hosted an independent jazz radio program and used to cook for all of the station’s events. When I was asked to cook backstage for one of the shows for about 200 people, that sparked my interest to do this professionally.

Then I begin to prepare food for the Riverfront Blues Festival and cook for the likes of Buddy Guy, KoKo Taylor, Gatemouth Brown and a host of other great blues artists. I also had a food booth we called The Gumbo Shack at the festivals. That one-man stint probably sparked my interest in catering. In 1995 I opened up my first restaurant called JazzyBlues Creole & Southern, specializing in smoked meats and Southern comfort foods.

I didn’t intentionally want to specialize in Southern cuisine just because of my Southern roots. I also dabbled in Southwestern cuisine, specifically food from New Mexico, and barbecues, of course, and anything with spices, but everything was always from scratch.

In 2000, I moved back to California and another genre of cuisine got my attention, I mean, you can’t be in California and not love Mexican food, right? So I started flirting with Italian, Caribbean and other “fusion” cuisines.

Whatever I didn’t know how to make, I bought a book for it. I am 100 percent self-taught. I am just a very determined and passionate person, especially when it comes to food. But I did “warn” you about that early on, right?

Enough about me. Next week: Let me share one of my favorite recipes with you. Let’s also get started on some party planning as Mother’s Day, graduations and summer barbecues are just around the corner.

Chef Marcus Webster has been a professional chef for over 20 years, starting as a private chef before becoming a corporate chef at the Thousand Oaks-based Auctions in Motion. He is currently the executive chef and co-owner for Nawlinz Bistro in downtown Oxnard and Conejo Valley Catering, the catering arm of Nawlinz Bistro


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