A former Navy mess specialist who paid his shipboard dues as a “jack of the dust” and gained a measure of celebrity as a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef” has been nominated for one of the nation’s most prestigious culinary honors, the James Beard Award.
Chad White joined the Navy hours after the Twin Towers fell in New York City. The long lines at the Marine Corps recruiting office convinced him to become a sailor. His less than stellar ASVAB score guaranteed him a spot as culinary specialist. Such a combination is not necessarily a recipe for success, but it became White’s secret sauce.
White served about the USS John C Stennis and USS Ronald Reagan before discovering his passion for cooking during a Navy-sponsored externship at San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado. When he left the Navy in 2006, White took with him a work ethic and laser-focused determination that have fueled his rise in the culinary world.
“If there’s one thing I learned in the military,” White explains, “it is that ‘can’t’ doesn’t exist.”
After leaving the Navy, White worked two jobs and struggled to make ends meet in San Diego. But he went on to have more than a decade of culinary success, opening a string of award-winning restaurants with a Baja-inspired theme. He also raised his profile with appearances on Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” and Bravo’s “Top Chef” Season 13.
White abruptly left California in late 2015 and moved back to his hometown of Spokane, Washington, where he’s bootstrapped a restaurant group that includes James Beard Award–nominated Zona Blanca, High Tide Lobster Bar (two locations) and TT’s Old Iron Brewery and BBQ. He’s turning inside out the adage “you can’t go home again.”
White was interviewed as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered Washington State restaurants. But he is confident his Navy food-storage and inventory-management training combined with his restaurants’ unique footprints — three out of four establishments are low-overhead counter-service concepts — will enable him to weather the storm.
“I would say my time as ‘jack of the dust’ in the Navy has served me good,” White said of his time managing and inventorying shipboard provisions. “When a lot of restaurants fail, it’s because they’re overordering or underordering and then running to the grocery store; whereas, we’ve built extreme systems that match how I managed my inventory in the Navy.”
Though White didn’t doubt he could be successful in his hometown, he never anticipated success coming so quickly or that he would build a national reputation on the back of Zona Blanca, a ceviche bar inside a tap room. News earlier this spring that he was a James Beard Award Semifinalist for “Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific” for Zona Blanca stunned the 37-year-old chef.
“This has been a career-long goal for me,” White said of the accolade. “For my little 400-square-foot indoor ceviche counter to be nominated is incredible. I don’t think in my wildest dreams that specific restaurant would be what got me a nomination for a James Beard Award.”
Achieving such success in his rough-around-the-edges hometown has made the experience all the more special.
“To come home and exceed in four years’ time the success I had in San Diego has been remarkable,” he said. “It just goes to show that community does really support community. To come back and have these people look at me as something special — that I’m bringing something unique to their area — I don’t know if there is a greater reward.”
White acknowledges his situation may be unique, but he believes there is a lesson in his experience for service members toying with eventually returning to their hometowns.
“All those tools you’ve learned that make you successful in a large market can make you three times as successful in a smaller market,” White said. “The local community will support those people who have gone and done great things in their life and come back and provide a service to their community.”
As his “I love me” wall grows with local, regional and national culinary awards, White hopes his success can inspire military chefs to dream big.
“Having somebody who’s been successful in culinary arts after leaving the military, continuing their careers, following their passion and finding success could be the biggest cheerleader of all time,” White said. “But you have to get them to believe you’re not that 1% and everybody has equal opportunity to find success. They have to determine whether or not they’re willing to bleed for it. I’ve never settled for ‘this is good enough.’”Read comments