Chef simplifies his menu; Civic Center’s culinary artist plans on slowing the pace

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, September 14, 2013

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You might say Gary Souder has a lot less on his plate these days.

The Chef, as most people know him, has run the kitchen at the Decatur Civic Center for the past seven-and-a-half years, producing the food that put the facility on the map as one of the area’s top event venues.

SHOWMANSHIP – Gary Souder does a lot of chicken-fried steak, but sometimes he got to put on a little show for his guests. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

He retired at the end of August, with plans to travel a little, raise a garden, even open a produce stand next summer.

Right now, he’s just trying to learn how to sleep past 5 a.m.

“I really want to break that habit,” he said last week. “But here it’s been a week now, and I’m still getting up every morning.”

Souder’s workday usually started at 6, feeding lunch to as many as four groups a day and sometimes handling hundreds for big evening events. Planning menus, ordering the groceries and overseeing a small staff, he still did almost all the cooking himself.

“Gary did a great job for us,” Civic Center Ddirector Lori Sherwood said. “When I go out and sell, that’s one thing I never have to be worried about. Everyone knows us for our food and our service.”

The Decatur Civic Center was actually one of the least stressful stops on his career path.

“I went to the Army and got trained in 1970,” he said. “My first gig was with the Arlington Park Corp. which brought in the Texas Rangers when they first came to town.”

Despite having no real experience, he found himself on the infield for the Rangers’ first game in Arlington’s old Turnpike Stadium – with 35,000 people in the stands.

“I said, ‘What do I do?’ and he said, ‘Just raise the window, and it’ll come naturally.’ It was one of my worst days ever in the kitchen.”

Despite that rough start, he stayed with the company for more than two years, then went to work for Fort Worth’s biggest caterer, whose customers included the LBJ Ranch.

“I went into a five-year training program for them, and in two years I was running their 800-seat cafeteria,” he said. “That was a great training ground – we were a commissary for 13 units, so I had five bakers and five salad women, probably eight cooks and 50 laborers.”

He had stints at Fort Worth’s Headliner’s Club, the Waterfront Grill and Riscky’s Steak House before taking a corporate position with the Tandy Corp., then going to another large-scale caterer. He ran Harbor One on Eagle Mountain Lake for several years, specializing in seafood at a resort-type facility that could seat 300.

He found the Civic Center a bit more relaxing.

“This is not a high-pressure job,” he said. “You know in advance how many you’re going to have, roughly, what you’re going to fix – you just have to do it.”

At a large restaurant, he noted, you’re feeding 500-600 people one at a time “and you don’t know what they’re going to order until they order it. It’s a huge difference.”

Souder’s larger-than-life presence and signature chef’s hat have become a Decatur institution. He enjoyed coming out of the kitchen, visiting with the diners and making them feel welcome. Needless to say, he also enjoyed the compliments he heard about the food.

“I feel like part of the success of the Civic Center is keeping good food,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told this is the best catered food they’ve ever had.”

There’s no secret recipe. It’s just a matter of hard work and high standards – ordering quality groceries and preparing it by hand, the old-fashioned way.

“On chicken-fried steak, yeah, I can pick up the phone and get them already breaded and all I have to do is throw them in there,” he said. “I can have them out in 15 minutes – but it’s not the same as doing it yourself and doing it from scratch.

“I can save money by using canned vegetables over frozen, but the frozen produces a better quality product.”

He even used fresh vegetables when they were in season and the price was reasonable.

“I try to keep it consistent,” he said.

Running the Civic Center’s kitchen was much more labor than management.

“They say an executive chef, all he has to do is sit at his desk and read the newspaper,” he laughed. “That ain’t the fact. The thing at the Civic Center, you can have slow days, and you only have to feed 15 or 20 people here or 30 here or whatever.

“Or you can have 200, and 40, and 50, and 13 – with four different menus, all going simultaneously.”

He’s proud of the staff there, who are currently handling things until the new chef is in place. After giving Sherwood a year’s notice, he has worked to train his people to do the job without him.

“I’m past Hell’s Kitchen,” he laughed. “I’ve mellowed in the old age. The best thing to do is teach your employees how to do everything and it all works better.

“You don’t sit around and be a la-di-da chef – you want everybody to know everything you know. The staff I’ve got there now, they pretty much know what I know.”

Most people would be amazed at how few people it takes to produce the smorgasbord that shows up on the buffet table.

“The average gig we only had three people, and that included washing the dishes and everything,” he said. “It’s really better with four.”

Cooking for as many as 400, he would put two on salad and dessert and one person just cleaning, constantly.

“Then the chef does the entree, the vegetable and the potato,” he said. “I might get some help from somebody to do this or do that, help me peel potatoes or something, but it’s divvied up.

“The bigger the event, the more planning you have to do, and the more thinking you have to do in advance to knock it off,” he said. “That’s what it all boils down to. We might make cakes or pies a day in advance, if we have huge event, Things like that.”

Over the years, he has found his suppliers – a company out of Lubbock has the certified Hereford he uses in prime rib, and a manufacturer in Azle produces four different blends of spices – and perfected the art of ordering just the right amount of food, anticipating needs and selecting menus his customers would appreciate.

“After a while, we got to where all the clients would let me select their menus,” he said. “I would rotate menus in my head with different products, and they’d let me decide what to do.

“They had enough trust in me that I would feed them something quite edible.”

It’s all about knowing your customer. Energy company meetings and safety trainings make up a huge part of the Civic Center’s bookings – working men and women who generally aren’t interested in fancy food.

“A lot of these guys, you could throw some fancy chicken on them, and they wouldn’t know what to do with it – and they wouldn’t be very happy with it,” he said.

His favorite dish, a flaming steak that involves tableside preparation, has rarely been seen at the Civic Center. And his specialty, seafood, also has made very few appearances on the menu here.

“It’s meat and potatoes, good old country cooking,” he said. “We try to keep a low price point for these guys, too. I seriously doubt if you could go to a restaurant and feed these guys for what we feed them for, and because of that we’ve got almost all the business.”

Sherwood and the Civic Center board have been doing interviews for the past few weeks and have narrowed down the field of potential replacements. Last week, they held a taste-testing tryout, and she hopes to have a new chef on the job by the end of September.

Souder is taking September off, but he can come back part-time starting Oct. 1, as long as he works less than 1,000 hours a year.

“Ideally, they’re going to use me part-time, call me in on the big gigs, and I can assist,” he said. “I’m going to take the back seat, no matter what. It’s going to be their kitchen, and they’ll tell me what they want.”

A resident of Paradise for the past 16-plus years, Souder’s wife is a teacher in Springtown ISD. Next year they plan to open a produce market on Farm Road 51 just south of Springtown – if the city OKs it.

“We’ll just have to see,” he said. “I’ll worry about that next year. There’s no way I can make a living doing that, but it’ll keep me out of trouble.”

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