Dishing About Delish with Courtney Matheson

by Jun 7, 2018Food & Drink, North Brunswick, People

After retiring from a busy restaurant kitchen after the birth of her son, Courtney Matheson found a new career in personal chef services, cooking classes and food tours.

At an age when most kids are forbidden from standing too close to the oven, Courtney Matheson was cooking inventive dinners for herself on a regular basis, experimenting with whatever food was in the house.

“We were on welfare,” Matheson shares, “so by no means was it gourmet … but I liked cooking. It was kind of an outlet in some ways.”

Matheson grew up outside of Syracuse, New York. She attended Buffalo State College, where she studied fashion textile technology with a concentration in computer textile design. She continued to enjoy cooking in college and recalls how her roommates would often throw in five dollars so she could make them all a family meal.

Courtney Matheson Gourmet Chef North Carolina

After graduating, Matheson moved to New York City to find work as a textile designer. But the Big Apple proved to be much more than a hub for career opportunities. The vast array of eclectic and multicultural cuisine greatly appealed to the foodie in Matheson. She was trying new foods and restaurants every week and — without realizing it at the time — gaining inspiration for her next career move.

Itching to travel and ready for new adventures Matheson left New York City in 2003. She toured the United States, hitting all of the national parks and exploring California, where she thought she might plant roots. But four months later, Matheson reconnected with a childhood friend who lived in Wilmington, North Carolina, a city she’d never heard of until then. He told her about the quaint downtown, good weather and gorgeous beaches and offered Matheson a couch to sleep on at his place. She packed her bags and never looked back — a decision that transformed her professional trajectory in ways she never imagined.

In Wilmington Matheson found that her job options were limited to seasonal touristy work. She took jobs bussing tables and hostessing at restaurants and eventually tried out her luck as a cook. On her very first day working in a restaurant kitchen, she knew she’d found her niche.

“I knew this is what I want to be doing,” she says. “I want to be sweating and under pressure, freaking out and moving up through the ranks … I had always cooked for the household, but the change of cooking commercially was insane and crazy and fun, and I loved it.”

In 2005 Matheson landed a job working in the pantry, making salads and plating desserts, at the downtown riverfront restaurant Elijah’s. Within a few months she was moved to the hot line and shortly thereafter she advanced to chef de partie. In 2007 Matheson was promoted to the position of sous chef and eventually she became Elijah’s executive sous chef. Working at one of the busiest and top-rated restaurants in town taught her much about the production and business aspects of cooking.

As for the creative and artistic part, Matheson explains that she first had to learn the basics, like which flavor profiles go together. She asserts that 50 percent of cooking is common sense, and that most any culinary skills can be self-taught by utilizing the resources at our fingertips, such as YouTube videos demonstrating how to break down an entire fish.

Matheson draws culinary inspiration from dining out with her husband, Greg, whom she met through the restaurant scene. The two love traveling to culinary hotspots and incorporating new flavors into their cooking. One of the couple’s all-time favorite places to visit for this reason is New Orleans, which inspires tasty gumbo and hot sauce recipes.

Back home in Wilmington, Matheson says there’s no shortage of great places to eat. In fact, she shares that in the 14 years she’s lived in the Port City, the restaurant industry has never been better.

“If you looked at the restaurant scene in 2005 or 2006, it was very scarce of progressive restaurants that were willing to go outside the box or not just serve fried seafood,” she says. “But [in recent years] we’ve really just exploded, slowly becoming competitive with Charleston, with bigger Southern foodie cities and putting ourselves on the map with some celebrity chefs … I’ve been very lucky to be a part of and to witness this huge movement.”

Matheson says that what Wilmington is missing at this point is global cuisine. She’d love to see more authentic ethnic food specific to various regions in other countries. “We don’t have an Ethiopian restaurant or a Columbian restaurant,” she says. “I do miss that.”

In 2012 Matheson’s son, Hendrix, was born, and she decided to make a career shift that would enable her to spend more time with him. For the next eight months, she gradually transitioned out of her role at Elijah’s and began building her own business: Delish – Fresh Eats with Courtney.

Courtney Matheson Fresh Eats

Matheson now works as a personal chef, offering weekly meal services where she works out a (typically 4 to 5 day) menu with her clients, cooks for them and packages up the meals for them to reheat throughout the week. She also cooks for special events, such as dinner parties, birthday parties, ladies’ nights and anniversaries. Plus she teaches in-home or party-style cooking classes. Many of Matheson’s clients reside in Brunswick Forest in Leland.

Some choose specific foods or themes they wish to learn how to cook, such as red sauce or French cuisine, whereas others give a price point and leave the rest up to the chef. Some of Matheson’s favorite skills to teach are how to break down lobsters, make crepes or fillet a fish and fry it up to make fish tacos with salsa and guacamole.

“I’m constantly trying to come up with new ideas and fun stuff,” she says.

Matheson also makes it a point to create nutritious dishes with the freshest possible ingredients.

“I love cooking super healthy food,” she says, “alternative grains, great local produce, simple veggie dishes … I eat meat and stuff like that, too, but I really enjoy seasonal produce, it’s delicious.”

Matheson shares that she grocery shops “everywhere,” frequenting four or five grocery stores each week to find specific and specialty items. As for what the professional chef serves her family at home, she says she maintains that she’s just like the rest of us: some days she’s able to make impressive, elaborate meals, whereas other days time constraints mean dinner is PB&J.

In addition to Delish, Matheson works on the weekends, teaching classes with the Cape Fear Food and Wine Club at the Seasoned Gourmet and leading downtown farmers market tours and dinner and drink tours with Taste Carolina. Her favorite part of the tasting tours is teaching facts about food and spirits and sharing the histories of local bars and restaurants.

With all of the different hats she wears, Matheson says her biggest challenge is overbooking herself.  “I rarely say no,” she admits. But the busy business owner, chef and mother thrives under the pressure, making it all work by keeping a detailed schedule, writing down her tasks in 15-minute increments that fill up her whole day. “It’s intense,” she says, adding that it’s worth it.

“I love what I do … The best part is when I get return clients, [when] people ask me to come back and cook for their family or friends or Christmas party.”

Matheson is also deeply grateful for the quality time with her son that self-employment affords her, and the ability to actively participate in his education. Each Friday she volunteers in Hendrix’s classroom, teaching cooking lessons to 14 children range from age 5 to 7.

In 2018 Matheson plans to continue creating delicious food for new and returning clients. She also hopes to expand her business and reach different markets. Last year she worked as the personal chef at a yoga retreat, and she recently produced a menu for guests at a local vacation rental. In-home private events like these are what Matheson aims to do more of. Going forward, she’d also love to broaden her catering services and one day have a full, inspected kitchen in which to work her magic.

“I love creating menus, prepping and cooking locally sourced food right in front of my clients,” she says.

Soon, Matheson will start sending out menus to local marinas. Cooking on a boat would be amazing and also challenging, she says. But never one to back down from a challenge, she looks forward to digging into new projects in her unexpected but truly fitting and fulfilling culinary career.

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