Meet Your Chef: Mark McKinney

Chef Mark McKinneySenior Executive Chef Mark McKinney, culinary arts graduate of Johnson & Wales University, has worked at Magnolias and The Woodlands in South Carolina and several Knoxville-area restaurants, including The Inn at Blackberry Farm, Little City Bistro, and as executive sous chef at Bravo. He also helped develop the room service program at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Chef Mark is on the faculty at the UT Culinary & Catering Program, and he also teaches non-credit food courses through UT Conferences & Non-Credit Programs.

Chef Mark had some helpful things to say about the importance of culinary education and what it really means when you introduce yourself as a chef in the real world.

Q: What made you want to become a chef?

A: My love for the industry started at a young age. My dad managed a restaurant and owned a market with a butcher shop and a deli. I would go over there after school and watch the butcher chop up huge chunks of meat; I thought it was the coolest thing. When I went to college, I was originally an art major, but I decided to take some time off and began working in a restaurant. When I was 23-24, a friend told me about his experience at Johnson & Wales, and I decided to go there, too, and learn “officially” how to cook and run a food business. I found a way to express myself creatively with food. It’s even better because you can’t eat paint.

Q: What is your favorite part about teaching?

A: With so many TV reality shows out there, the fundamentals of cooking have gotten lost. You can’t just pick up a knife and be a chef. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people who don’t understand that. Teaching at the UT Culinary & Catering Program allows me to impress upon the students the importance of the fundamentals, making sure they understand the basics of how to cook.

Q: In your opinion, what is the most important part about food, cooking, etc.?

A: The culinary craft is evolving and booming, but you need to make sure you have a strong foundation to build on before you try to be someone great.

Q: When running a food business, what is the key to success?

A: Make sure your customer is happy and you’re putting out the best product you can. You have to have a product that there’s a demand for, and if you can turn it into your signature dish, you’re golden.

Q: If there is one thing you’d want your student chefs to remember, what would it be?

A: Always remember, “You’re only as good as your last meal.” We say it in the kitchen so often, it seems cliché sometimes, but it’s true.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s thinking about enrolling in the UT Culinary & Catering Program?

A: I’m always brutally honest about the industry. Learning how to really chef is a slow-moving process. If you want to do it right, you’ll have to understand it’s an investment—physically, emotionally, mentally, financially. At the end of the day, we all work hard, some of us don’t make a lot of money, and we sacrifice a lot of things to get to where we are, including time with our families. But if you stick it out, you’ll reap so many benefits of doing what you love, and you can’t put a price tag on happiness.

In addition to teaching students enrolled in the UT Culinary & Catering Program, Chef Mark also teaches a variety of cooking classes, including: knife skills, Italian, grilling, sautéing, soups, and sauces. If you’re interested in reading about these classes or would like to take a look at other ones we offer, you can do so here.

If you’re ready to advance your career in the restaurant or catering industry, we encourage you to learn more about our 12-week certificate program by registering for a free information session.