By Gary Haber, The Bradenton Herald, Fla.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
BRADENTON, Fla.--May 25--If you need a recipe for nine gallons of onion soup, Jeffrey Bowlin is your man.
Bowlin, 39, corporate executive chef for Sysco Food Services West Coast division in Palmetto can provide the recipe for such large-scale delights as a drum of onion soup (start by peeling 30 pounds of onions) or 24 servings of shrimp and nectarine salad capri. Bowlin develops recipes for Sysco's institutional customers such as restaurants, hospitals and nursing homes that purchase bulk quantities of foods from the company's line of more than 10,000 products.
It's a varied job for a chef, encompassing everything from, well, soup to nuts. A typical day may find Bowlin cooking up a batch of corn dogs in the company's on-site test kitchen for representatives of a convenience store chain. That same day, he may travel to a fancy area restaurant to give the chef advice on safe food handling, and share a new cooking technique or perhaps a recipe for chicken Portofino, made with Sysco products.
You might think it's an odd setting for someone who's a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., a cooking school that has produced chefs who ply their trade at some of the swankiest five-star eateries in America.
While many of his former classmates are cooking up creme brulee, Bowlin works out of an office cubicle at Sysco's headquarters, where his computer shares desk space with bottles of Sysco-brand hot sauce, ketsup and balsamic vinegar.
Bowlin's starched white chef's uniform is a far cry from the shirts and ties his co-workers wear -- not to mention the meat thermometer sticking out of his shirt pocket. But it was the chance to work on a variety of new recipes, both fancy and plain, that lured Bowlin to Sysco two months ago, after more than 20 years as a chef for Sarasota-area restaurants such as Brenton Reef and the Sawmill Inn.
"I love all food, all cuisines, from sports bars to white table cloth restaurants," he said. Plus, the hours are far more regular than the restaurant business, where Bowlin routinely worked 10-12 hour shifts, including nights, holidays and weekends, taking him away from his wife and three children, ages 6, 3 and 1.
Bowlin was already familiar with Sysco, having purchased its products for the kitchens in which he worked. "For me, it's a natural progression, the best of both worlds. I get to keep in contact with and touch so many people in the field," Bowlin said. "It's a great fit for me."
Bowlin is not the only Culinary Institute of America alumnus on Sysco's staff. Jonathan Dunford, the company's brand manager, also graduated from the school. Dunford, 38, joined Sysco four and one-half years ago, after seven years as food service director and executive chef at a pair of Cleveland area hospitals.
Dunford, 38, trains Sysco's 120-person sales force, which covers an area from Crystal River south to Marco Island. Several of the company's salespeople, including Dunford's wife, are culinary school graduates.
Bowlin and Dunford are part of a team that works with Sysco customers to improve their cooking operations and show them how use the company's products.
"We look at these guys as consultants to our customers, to add value to our products," Sysco Vice President for Marketing Michael Birnbaum said. And their fellow employees don't mind heading over to the company's test kitchen after Bowlin or Dunford have cooked up a demonstration dish like spicy Caribbean fried chicken or coffee buttercrunch pie. Somehow, they always know when something tasty's going on in the kitchen. "They seem to have a sixth-sense," Bowlin said.