Christopher McClendon, Executive Chef at SavannahBlue in downtown Detroit, learned the restaurant business literally from the ground up. The lessons imparted and experience gained along the way are like so many ingredients in a life and career that continues to simmer.
A key moment for McClendon was meeting Chef Shawn Loving, previously the chair for Schoolcraft College’s Culinary Arts department and now the Executive Chef for the Detroit Athletic Club. The education and, as important, the mentoring that McClendon received at Schoolcraft College helped build a foundation for a strong business as well as a desire to be a positive force in the community.
The beginning of the journey was quite humble.
“I started at a banquet hall called Crystal Gardens in Southgate when I was 12,” McClendon said. “I started just opening the door for people, then dishwashing, then busboy, then prep cook. That place taught me hard work early, and to appreciate good work culture.”
McClendon put that hard work ethic to a few years later when he was 19.
“I opened up a branch of my dad’s company, Mac’s All Star Catering,” he said. “The main location was on the west side I opened up on the east side. That experience taught me perseverance because I struggled, man.
“It gave me very early on in my career the plight of ownership, but it made me a better employee once I started working in the industry because I had a deeper understanding of food cost, labor, professionalism and all the other factors that go into a great restaurant.”
It’s been said that effort and desire can help you make your own luck. And so it was for McClendon on the next step of his journey.
“One day a customer comes into my restaurant and tells me she loves my food and she loves my professionalism and that I NEED to meet Chef Shawn Loving, who has this restaurant in Farmington Hills called Loving Spoonful, and she felt he would get me to the next level,” McClendon said. “I don’t know her name and don’t even remember what she looked like – maybe she was an angel – but anyway I went to his restaurant.”
Loving, one of only 72 Certified Master Chefs in the world, attended Golightly Vocational School in Detroit before graduating from the Culinary Arts Program in 1991. He understood the challenges of the restaurant business because he lived it. As an instructor, Loving seamlessly blended passion, intensity and compassion – balancing these important ingredients like the master chef he is.
“Chef Loving is my mentor, brother, friend and counselor all wrapped in one,” McClendon said. “He changed my life. I’m extremely proud of him and what he has been able to accomplish. He inspires me every day and keeps me sharp.
“It’s like running a relay race with Usain Bolt and he is running full speed – trying to catch that baton only makes you better.”
Loving no doubt is proud of what McClendon has accomplished at SavannahBlue.
“SavannahBlue is a southern-inspired restaurant that takes recipes and cooking techniques that I’ve learned throughout my career, but using southern ingredients with a northern influence,” McClendon said. “We stylistically are very northern in our aesthetics but have that same southern hospitality – we believe we are kings and queens serving kings and queens.”
As the leader of his restaurant, he’s ultimately responsible for everything.
“My day starts by reading the shift report from the day before and addressing any issues,” McClendon said. “I reach out to my Chef de Cuisine and recap projects, I check my temp logs, line checks and any other systems. I create a prep list for my team and began to prepare for service, I have a pre-shift with my staff about featured wines or specials for the day, then we execute service.
“Then I go home and sleep in my clothes because I’m so tired – ha ha!”
Despite the demands, McClendon finds the time and energy to serve beyond his restaurant. He’s the Chef for the McKinney Foundation, which fights illiteracy and childhood obesity through health, education and entrepreneurship. He also runs the culinary arts program for the CTE (Career and Technical Education) program at Harper Woods High School.
If that’s not enough, McClendon is a member of the Big Green board, a non-profit dedicated to work as allies and advocates for marginalized communities. And did we mention the cookbook he’s written and to be released soon?
It all adds up to very full plate for this chef, who credits Schoolcraft College as a strong influence.
“Schoolcraft changed my life,” McClendon said. “It put me around excellence. I got to see it and touch it. We used the best ingredients and equipment.
“I learned cooking philosophy and technique from the best of the best: Chef Loving, Dan Hugelier, Jeffrey Gabriel, Joseph Decker, Chris Misiak, Marcus Haight, Kevin Gawronski, Brian Polcyn. These guys are the Mount Rushmore of my culinary career. What an amazing team.”
McClendon is grateful for their positive influence, something he wants to pay forward as well.
“I just desire to leave my mark on this industry that has taught me so much about myself, life, passion, love. I want to give the next generation of young chefs that same feeling,” he said.
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