Interview conducted with assistance from Joi Taylor. Video by Noah Glenn.
Within minutes of meeting Martavious McGee, you’ll come to understand that for him, food really is life.
The 23 year-old head chef of Caminos de Michoacan can hardly contain his passion and expertise as every question leads to a recipe, unfolding mouthwatering descriptions of unusual combinations and crossing cultural cuisines. It’s maybe an unexpected obsession for the Soulsville Charter School grad who spent his high school career immersed in music and trained as a violinist. During those years, he developed an affinity for the Food Network and now, his symphonies take place in the kitchen.
Choose901 spoke to Martavious about his training at some of the city’s most high-profile restaurants, the dishes he’s creating at Caminos de Michoacan, the private dining venture he’s started, and how all of it is building up to his dream to give Memphis something it does not yet have in its thriving food scene — a Michelin Star Restaurant.
Tell us about life at Soulsville Charter and the moment you decided to pursue the culinary arts.
When I was in high school, all we did was music all the time. I played violin and I got to dabble in the piano and guitar. We got to perform for different celebrities all the time like John Legend— we met him two or three times. We played for him, he sang and played for us. We played for Alicia Keys and Stevie Wonder, too.
Around junior year, I started to get into watching Food Network and I was like, ‘I would love to just work at a restaurant or be a chef.’ It seemed pretty easy. I’m into music. It’s like the arts. Then my mom was like, “You gotta go to college. You can’t sacrifice four years of [working toward] getting into college and not go.” So I went to the University of Memphis and joined the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality & Resort Management because that’s closest to food.
In addition to the Kemmons Wilson program, a lot of your training has been at some notable Memphis restaurants. Where have you worked?
I started off at Capriccio Grill in the Peabody Hotel as a busboy working doubles every weekend and missed every holiday with my family for six months. I was the only worker sometimes and dealing with 300 people a night. It was pretty tough at first but I made it through and was able to get my first cooking position as a morning breakfast cook. After that, I transferred to night shift where I quickly learned that morning shift was easy. I was making 40 pizzas or more a day and dealing with burns and coming into work and having no prep. As a chef and proud supporter of true cooks, I have learned that I will never depend on other cooks for help. I need to always be fast enough and a strong enough cook on my own to be able to make it through any service alone.
Soon after, I was able to work at Chez Philippe and learn French technique and distinguish between different types of fish, perfect butter sauces, and little techniques that you could only learn in France. Chef Andreas Kisler was my mentor and the chef that taught me the most and let me know how with training, it could be easy to cook Michelin star food, but also how much dedication it took to do so.
After Chez, I was able to go to Andrew Micheal Italian Kitchen and learned how to make pasta and about different types of dough. Like, you have a ravioli dough which is a softer texture because you have to freeze it, and then you have a tagliatelle which is a bit more firm and chewy because it takes longer to cook. Soon after I got to help open up Catherine and Mary’s. These experiences along with my college courses have been building up to me having the skills to become a head chef and provide great food for people in their homes.
Was it ever a struggle for you to keep up with everything you were learning or was there something about food and recipes and planning that just kind of came naturally to you?
I love being in a fast-paced environment. Anytime it’s slow in a restaurant, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. It was never a struggle for me to keep up speed-wise because I love cooking so much and I am very passionate about it. There are times when I would run out of something and have to turn into The Flash and make it immediately.
For example, we sold oysters that were topped with a salted cod cream with folded cheese and baked off in the oven until perfectly golden brown. We would sell out by 9:00 pm and still be busy enough for people to continue to want them. After 6 trays of oysters you would think your night will slow down but no, it’s time to start shucking more oysters and you better have them done in 1 min because having a guest wait is more upsetting than having an angry chef staring at you until you’re done.
Also Brussels sprouts… I never knew how much people loved them until I had made 100 orders in a day everyday for 6 months. It’s something you never want to run out of but sometimes people love it so much it runs through all of the restaurant’s supply. This is the only time it is acceptable to give a guest a heads up about something not being available and letting them know the item is 86-ed.
Can you think back and try to name a quality that Soulsville might have helped cultivate in you that helps you today?
They were very much about discipline and about always being a level above everybody else performance-wise. We had this principal, Dr. Hill who would always stress being at the highest level we could be. Like, I know you’re thinking that we’re just right here on this level where it’s easy. You can get by. You can make it, but is that enough? What else are you going to do with yourself?
What’s it like leading the kitchen at Caminos de Michoacan?
At Caminos de Michoacan, I am able to learn Spanish and teach a little English at the same time, and also create a fusion of modern food with Mexican ingredients. One dish that was inspired by my cooking roots is my Black Bean Tortellini with a carnita mousse spiced with adobo, cilantro, and cumin and then served on top of a molé.
Another dish that I am able to elevate is elotes. The basic Mexican corn is slathered in mayo and then sprinkled with cotija cheese, chile powder, and soft butter. It’s a party in your mouth. A way I have elevated it is to confit it with garlic and lard which is basically a slow poach in oil, and then make a roasted garlic and avocado aioli, fancy word for mayo, and with the same cheese, add crumbled chicharrones, which is a fried pork skin for a final crunch. It’s really really crispy. So you get corn, but in a super Southern way. I like to try Mexican food with a Southern twist or Italian twist.
Outside your work at Caminos de Michoacan, you also have a business that you’re building with private dining experiences. Tell us about that.
My plan now is to basically go out and find people and provide private dinner parties. As a private chef, I am able to make dinner more personal and perfectly fit for any group of people. I meet with you first and then create a menu based on your favorite foods, or I can give you a sample menu and we can modify it together based on your preference. My girlfriend Maria creates the cocktails to pair with the courses.
I’m doing the private dinners to meet new people and let them know that while we have some famous chefs in Memphis, there are other talented people, too. There are people who don’t know who I am yet, but I can cook and I’ve done a lot of research on my own. I’ve worked for some great chefs who saw talent in me.
What are you doing now to prepare for the next step in your career?
I’m buying really nice cookbooks from the top chefs of America and around the world and studying them and their disciplines. Marco Pierre White is one of the chefs I look up to and his book, The Devil in the Kitchen, is really important to me because it lets people know what it takes to run a Michelin starred restaurant. The discipline and skill that it takes and the sacrifices that you need to make because your family will miss you. It requires so much of your time and will mold you into something you never knew you could be.
What’s your biggest dream or ultimate goal when it comes to your work as a chef?
I want to open a Michelin Star Restaurant in Memphis. I want to do it here because I feel like people in Memphis feel that we can’t have anything like that, and I think that we can. They all think that other people are coming in and are just taking over [the food scene], but there’s talent already here.
You can have burger places and pizza places and wings. Anybody can do that. The type of food quality I’m trying to bring here, you can’t just have anybody come here and do. You need a chef that has had years of training and multiple connections, and you need food critics to be coming in all the time and make sure that they’re writing articles on your food and making sure it’s of quality.
If someone wants to become a chef, what qualities do you think they should they possess?
You need to be willing to sacrifice a lot of time because you can’t learn everything that you need to know about being a chef in a month or even a year or two. You need multiple years of practice. You need to be able to take criticism and not be upset because you’re going to mess up sometimes. You’re never going to be perfect every single day. You’re going to make a mistake somewhere in your chef life. That’s the only way you’ll get better. The greatest chefs have made the most mistakes so they know how not to make the same mistake again.