Last fall, Stuart Tracy quietly left his post as the executive chef at Parish in Inman Park. He didn’t jump to another high-end restaurant. He joined Chick-fil-A.
You won’t find Tracy poking his head out of a drive-thru window or working the line at one of the company’s 2,300 units around the country. Instead, you’ll find him at the Chick-fil-A corporate campus in Atlanta, working alongside a small culinary team of food scientists, nutritionists and other chefs who are the brains, cooks and first tasters behind Chick-fil-A menu innovations.
Why did Tracy trade the fine dining world for that of fast food?
Early last year, when his wife was a few months pregnant with their son, Tracy considered what life would be like when their child was born.
“When working in a traditional restaurant world, you work a ton of hours, nights and weekends. Working those kind of hours, I thought: I’m not going to be home for dinner every night. I will miss holidays and birthdays. That made me really sad. It was super important for me to watch my son grow up and to help my wife.”
As luck would have it, a recruiter cold-called Tracy. Chick-fil-A was looking for someone to join its culinary team. The skill set they wanted was that of a chef with a farm-to-table background.
“I fit the bill,” said Tracy, who, prior to joining Parish in 2015 worked for 5 years as the founding chef at sandwich destination Butcher & Bee in Charleston, S.C.
Now nine months into his CFA position as a Senior Culinary Lead, Tracy is part of the research and development team (that also includes Ford Fry as a consulting chef) that creates new menu items and tries to “improve existing processes that can be a step or two simpler,” he said.
Thus far, he’s been assigned a handful of projects. One of those is expected to make its way to the masses in the next few weeks.
One of the notable differences between his former and current workplace, Tracy noted, is the methodical work process. At Parish or Butcher & Bee, he could “shoot from the hip.” Imagine that a windfall of Sungold tomatoes landed in the kitchen. “I could come up with something,” he said of that scenario, even though the dish “might not be 100 percent what it could be.” At CFA, on the other hand, measuring is everything. “There are a hundred ways to test something before we make a decision and get it to restaurants nationwide.”
Tracy’s world may no longer involve regular menu changes and white tablecloths, yet he finds numerous crossovers with his old job.
“It is more similar than you might think,” he said. Farmers don’t drive up in a pickup to the back door anymore, but those relationships still exist, he said, it’s just that the company is buying from growers and producers on a much larger scale.
In addition, technique is still very much a part of his work life, with the goal of simplifying cooking processes at all Chick-fil-A units.
He’s accustomed to working with fresh product. That hasn’t changed since he joined CFA. They are constantly experimenting with salads. Currently, they are testing out a lemon-Kale Caesar.
As he assesses the decision to trade brasserie finery for projects that bring him “up to elbows” in chicken, Tracy couldn’t be happier. The hours – he leaves the house at 8 a.m. and gets home by 5:30 p.m. – are ideal. And his workplace on the corporate campus includes a day care facility, a gym and a cafeteria “that feeds us really good food.”
“I feel like I work at Google,” Tracy said.