The Down South, Big City Chef

There were 130 banquet attendees, a line of customers coming to visit a restaurant, and one woman at the center of it all.

Sarah Wade, an Oklahoma native, had gotten her first sous-chef job at the Renaissance Hotel in Charlotte, NC when disaster struck. The main chef had gone on vacation so she was in charge of running the hotel’s restaurant as well as running the banquet that was set to take place that night. Fortunately she wasn’t alone; there was another cook on duty. Wade planned to take care of the restaurant while her fellow chef would do a carving station for the banquet. When that chef decided that she “didn’t want to do it” and walked out, it was all up to Wade.

“The hardest part about being a chef is keeping a very even attitude,” Wade said. “ You have days where someone can call out, days where the meat guy doesn’t send you what you need for dinner that night and it makes you want to yell and you do yell.”

But time and time again Wade has had to go against her first instinct to start yelling and instead enter the kitchen as the “calm mom”.

“If I freak out everyone freaks out,” she said, “but if I’m cool about it everybody is cool about it.”

Seven years and four restaurants later, Wade is now the executive chef of Lulu’s Allston, whose southern comfort food has quickly become popular here in Boston. She left the corporate hotel world behind for her current position at the gastropub where she is, for the first time in her life, in charge of the menu.

When she worked in the hotel industry she was often just following whatever menu or instructions were given to her.

Wade heard about the job through a craigslist ad placed by the owners of the restaurant: Justin Dalton-Ameen and Josh Culpo. After a preliminary phone interview, Dalton-Ameen and Culpo went to Connecticut, where Wade was working as an executive chef at the Hyatt Regency, to meet her and do a taste test.

“Cooking in hotels is a very different kind of cooking and food service,” Wade said. “I was kicking around with the idea of getting out of Connecticut and going to a big city.”

Wade put together a tasting menu for the pair to try and met them at a friend’s hotel so that her hotel wouldn’t know that she was trying to leave behind the corporate lifestyle. She let her southern flair shine through her creative choices.

She created items like Mama’s fried chicken, smoked wings, and short rib mac & cheese, all of which are still on Lulu’s menu today.

Dalton-Ameen and Culpo were happy to find a chef who was “the total package”.

“It’s rare to find someone that you can just click with right off the bat,” Dalton-Ameen said.

If you were to travel back in time and tell Wade that she would become a chef, she probably would’ve laughed.

“I had no desire to be a chef,” she said, “it was just something I enjoyed.”

Her mom bought her a cookbook when she was 11 and when they would cook together Wade was given most of the control. She would pick out the recipes herself and make dinner.

“Sarah’s a very bright person,” her dad Lindel Hutson said. “She could’ve been anything she wanted to be, we’re happy that she’s doing what she’s doing.”

Hutson couldn’t stop listing off Wade’s accolades including winning a Latin award in high school, being invited to join the national honor society, and being named the outstanding graduate of her college senior class.

While in high school she worked at a coffee shop and fell in love with it. She decided to get her bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma State University in Restaurant Management; the plan was to own her own coffee shop one day.

The plan changed when she attended the chef series dinner, a dinner the university puts on where the food is prepared by chefs from around the world. Wade was required to work a dishwashing shift there and was introduced to a new world. It was “the coolest thing” she had ever seen.

In the back of her mind she always knew that she had to leave home to pursue her dream. Right out of college she got a job in Texas, 395 miles from home, and then got the job in North Carolina, 1,199 miles from home, before landing the job in Connecticut, 1,376 miles. And now she’s the farthest she’s ever been: 1,716 miles.

Wade had come to terms with the lack of good restaurants in Oklahoma and was prepared to go wherever she needed to in order to advance her career.

“I didn’t learn to become a chef to stay in Oklahoma,” she said. “I knew that I had to move.”

Through her menu, she brought a little bit of Oklahoma here with her. Lulu’s serves southern “comfort food with a creative twist” which is hard to come by in the New England area with the domination of seafood. As the saying goes, ‘You can take the girl out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the girl.’

Dalton-Ameen fondly remembered hanging out with Wade at his family’s beach house in Rhode Island before the restaurant opened and how she was still the same Oklahoma girl.

“We were trying to start a fire after it rained and she had this country attitude about it,” he said. “She said ‘I just need one match, doesn’t matter if I’m at the swamp or the beach, just one match and I could get the job done’”.

Wade is still amazed at how far she’s come, literally and figuratively, from the corporate chef lifestyle she got accustomed to. Today she cooks for 300-400 people daily, oversees 16 cooks and dishwashers, and creates her own new dishes. While she’s far from her real family who she sees a few times a year, she now has a family away from home consisting of her coworkers and customers.

“It’s awesome,” Wade smiled. “I’m the luckiest girl in Boston.”

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