“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s a question that echoes from our most innocent memories and the days of our youth; a question asked by caregivers, educators and well-meaning acquaintances before we’ve even learned how to tie our shoelaces. Before we’ve come anywhere close to knowing who we are, we’re encouraged to decide who we’re going to be, and so set ourselves on a path to achieve. But as we venture out into the world our dreams inevitably evolve, sometimes creeping up on us so stealthily that one has to wonder if universal forces didn’t conspire to make it so. Such was the case for one Chef Tyger Stewart, Middle Tennessee’s own Wandering Chef. Sporting an MTSU blue chef’s jacket and a warm smile has graciously welcomed me and a colleague into his home for a hot meal on a chilly afternoon in November. Music is playing softly in the background as light filters in through the kitchen window, and with his famous chili brewing in a pot near the stove — a recipe that took 6 months to perfect, mind you — it smells a bit like heaven is in the air.
“I didn’t grow up being a foodie or a person that was that interested in anything culinary,” Tyger says, preparing a homemade vanilla latte for me. "I didn’t know that this was going to be my career until around 2010.”
Born and raised in Chattanooga, Tyger stumbled upon his calling while wandering around a grocery store.
“For whatever reason, I was drawn to this place called Fresh Market. It’s basically Chattanooga’s version of Whole Foods. How’s your latte by the way?” He asks, interrupting himself to ensure my satisfaction. I assure him it’s divine (and it is), and he continues on.
“I would just go back to the meat department and watch them work; I could not tell you why… I went about six times, and by the seventh time, I was just like ‘I gotta stop being a creep. I need to buy something.’ And with what money I had at the time, I got this little half cut, and I held it in my hands, and that’s when I got a call from the Lord. I was like, ‘Lord, am I gonna be doing this?’ And I got confirmation, right then and there. Once I got that, I was like ‘I gotta learn how to cook.’”
Tyger spent years honing his craft by day and perfecting his serving skills at The Melting Pot in Nashville by night, often using his friends and family as taste-testers (he assures me many of them have had so many versions of his chili that they’ve likely had enough of the dish for the rest of their lives). It was only a matter of time before he got the opportunity to prepare his first-anniversary lunch, an experience he was so nervous about he took his wife along with him for the ride.
“2017, New Years Day — that’s when we finally said, ‘This can be something.’ And I don’t have near the capital, I don’t have near the investors, I don’t have near the connections to start a brick and mortar. So I said ‘I’m gonna come straight to you.’”
Thus, The Wandering Chef was born.
“It’s literally all about giving someone a fantastic meal that you thought you could only get in a restaurant but in your home, with chef-cooked-style service and a server, all meant for you,” Stewart says. “There’s a lot of really cool moments that can come from having dinner done for you in your own house in that type of way; you can play your own music, use your own equipment, your own dishes — it’s all tailored to you. People get happy when they’re able to say ‘Let me get my grandma’s china.’ You understand how special that feels sometimes?”
I remark on the intimate nature of his profession; not only walking into other people’s homes but preparing food for them to eat. “Is it terrifying?” I ask between spoonfuls of chili.
“No,” he replies, shaking his head. “I relish any time that I get to serve someone. Anything that I get to create with the work of my hands…I don’t take that lightly. I try to present it as a gift, each and every time…If there’s a way that I can give you some tangible form of love, through my servitude or whatever I’m making, I wanna give my best to it.”
Tyger goes on to observe that during the last six months of 2020, he prepared and served 62 dinners — masked up and taking all proper precautions, of course. “I tried to approach it with a sense of gratitude. Of course, people are still wanting to have these experiences, they’re still wanting to celebrate their special occasions… but it’s all about, you know what, I came here so that I can make you feel welcome in your own house, I came here so that we can transform the space and make you forget about what’s going on. Cause I’m sure we can all agree that 2020 in itself was a nerve-wracking year.”
But it’s important to note that the Wandering Chef isn’t just available to facilitate your special occasions. With personally tailored in-home cooking classes, he also wants to empower you to be the master chef of your own kitchen.
“I want people to know that cooking is something that anybody can do,” he says of his teaching style. “I can teach you how to cook braised short ribs, a good steak, how to make the perfect piece of chicken, but the difference maker is the intangibles that you put behind it. It’s about whether or not someone can really tell the love you put into it.”