There’s a full spread set out in front of us. And it’s an impressive one. Chef Jim Churches, CEC, CCA stands at the head of the steel table, detailing the delicacies we’ll soon be sampling. All the dishes, of course, feature LAND O LAKES brand products. There is rice pudding with a strawberry and rhubarb compote, chicken wings tossed in a root beer butter sauce reduction, fried shrimp coated in a spicy butter sauce, and the most mouth-watering option of them all—creamy triple bacon mac and cheese.
“For a one-biter, I wanted something a little over the top,” Jim says. “Bacon is hot. So, first there is bacon baked into the mac and cheese. Bacon drippings are folded into the Panko breadcrumbs. And finally, the bacon jam on top!”
As a field-based culinary sales manager for Land O’Lakes’ Foodservice division, Jim could walk you through his creations in his sleep. Part chef, part salesman and part culinary wizard, he spends a lot of his time out on the road doing just this, cooking in kitchens, meeting with customers and showing them what LAND O LAKES foodservice products can do.
Considering the first thing he cooked on his own was a “JIFFY” blueberry muffin mix, he’s come a long way. And there is no sign of Jim slowing down anytime soon.
Home ec star
Born and raised in Detroit, Jim still calls the city home. A few things have kept him there, family included. According to Jim, they’ve always been big into food.
“My dad is 6’2” and he’s the smallest out of seven kids. These are big guys. When they make sandwiches, it is loaves at a time,” he laughs. “There was always food around, and that started my journey. Grandma is the cook in the family, and I always partnered with grandma.”
But it wasn’t until Jim started taking junior high electives—you know the standards, shop, metal class—that his passion for cooking really took off.
“I loved home ec. People seemed to fall apart making brownies, but I enjoyed it,” he says. “My high school didn’t have a big home ec program, but I still took every class they had. Because of that, I was able to go to a specialized cooking school. Well, and bribing the counseling office with treats helped, too.”
Jim had to be on his game his senior year. He’d leave for school at 6:30 a.m. every morning. First up, three hours in traditional classes. Next, three hours at the specialized culinary school. It was here that he honed fundamentals skills such as proper knife work and sauce basics. And when he wrapped up his final year of high school, college came next.
“Surprisingly, I didn’t go into culinary classes my first year. I worked two jobs and hit all the books first,” he says. “I kept up my skills as a chef throughout the remaining two years of my program.”
By the time Jim was 22, he’d already achieved the title of executive chef. Donning a double breasted chef jacket and crisp white hat, Jim’s adventures in the culinary world were just getting started.
Jim stuck with the corporate chef role for a number of years with other manufacturers. And in January 2015, Land O’Lakes came calling.
“I was approached at a food show, and I was ready to go,” he says. “I joined as a field-based culinary sales manager on the Dairy Foods Foodservice team. My uncle actually is the longest running Foodservice employee, having worked at Land O’Lakes for 30 years.”
A small-but-mighty team, the Foodservice business is broken down into three areas: commercial (restaurants), non-commercial (these are the customers Jim primarily works with, think hospitals, colleges, business & industry cafeterias, cruise ships, airlines, etc.) and multi-unit regional chains (your chain restaurants).
Land O’Lakes makes a variety of sauces (butter base, cream base and cheese base) that customers can use as part of their own recipes. A base is a foundation used to create finished soups, sauces and gravies. And whether it’s helping customers get hollandaise to hold using Butter Sauce Base, or recommending a hot, new trend supported by Extra Melt Cheese Sauce, Jim’s job is to show customers what the products can do.
This means a lot of time is spent fiddling over recipes at his home kitchen (he keeps a fridge full of bagged cheese and sauce in his garage). You’re also likely to find him at headquarters in Minnesota, working in the corporate test kitchens with the Foodservice Culinary team or with R&D to develop products that can then be taken out into the field.
On the road, he’s at food conferences, shows and demonstrations. Jim makes a point to not be a, “one trick pony,” and spends his travel time reading recipes, researching what could work with the natural, butter sauce profile—making them trendy and making them relevant.
“I like doing different recipes and presentations. Restaurant operators want our help,” he says. “We can provide recipes and products to help their businesses succeed. We can also help them stay on trend. For example, craft sodas are big. I had an idea, ‘What if I took a root beer syrup and folded that into the butter sauce? What kind of flavor would that give chicken wings?’ So, I reduced 2 gallons down to a syrup—and then learned they sell the syrup on its own. My house smelled great, though!”
Back at the table, Jim’s root beer butter sauce chicken wings were a smashing success.
“Everyone knows us as butter and cheese, they don’t know about our other products. As a chef, I want to bring the culinary focus forward,” says Jim. “And, I want it known that we are owned by farmers. For a chef to show customers that farm-to-table story, that’s something I can stand behind.”