Please forgive chef Darrell Riley if he thinks his new job at the Decatur Civic Center is a pretty easy gig.
It’s just that… it’s not on a boat, or in a tent, and he’s not feeding thousands of people at one time.
Riley, the center’s new executive chef, started Sept. 24 after an exhaustive search to replace Gary Souders, who retired this fall after seven-and-a-half years in which he helped put DCC on the map for its excellent food.
It took a while, but Civic Center director Lori Sherwood believes she, the city, and the board found the right successor.
“We were just very fortunate to snag him, that’s all I can say,” she said. “It was a long process, but it was well worth the wait.”
Riley’s last stop before coming to Decatur was with the PGA Tour. He traveled the country, cooking in tents where sometimes thousands would eat during a day-long golf tournament.
“We went coast-to-coast,” he said. “We’d start in Texas, do all the Texas events, then Mississippi, Tennessee, Rhode Island, way up that way. We did both the women’s and men’s Canadian Opens, Torrey Pines in California…”
Working with the same company, Spectrum Catering, he also cooked for the Governor’s Ball in New York, catered concerts and other events, and did weddings and other huge events at the Conroe Convention Center, north of Houston.
Prior to that, he cooked for the Petroleum Club in downtown Fort Worth and for the crews of offshore drilling rigs and drilling ships. After seven years at sea, he served as chef for a bed-and-breakfast in Glen Rose, then handled all the cooking and lavish private parties at a ranch in Bosque County.
He even took over a little cafe in that area before signing on with Spectrum. But he was ready to get off the road.
“A friend of mine called me and told me about this job and I thought, ‘I don’t know … Decatur?’ Then Lori called me and said ‘We really want you!’ And so I came down and talked to Lori and fell in love with this place,” Riley said.
“It is a beautiful facility, and the people are just extremely friendly here. I felt at home as soon as I walked in the door.”
Riley’s college degree is in television production – but he points out that he “cooked his way through school” even while studying in that field. He was working for the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission and catering events for them during his off-hours.
“When television went from analog to digital, I was going to have to go back to school … so I went to chef school,” he said. He got his culinary training at El Centro College in the Dallas Community College District – one of the top cooking schools in the country.
“This is the kind of job most chefs look for,” Riley said. “I would like to retire here.”
Part of the reason Decatur felt like home was the connections with Devon Energy and other oilfield companies who make so much use of the Civic Center’s meeting rooms.
“I’ve cooked for the oilfield for years, so I’m kind of used to the clientele already,” he said. “Decatur is a small town, and I really enjoy the lack of traffic. I think my experience has brought me here.”
But he’s not fooled by that small-town feel. Decatur Civic Center is big and getting bigger when it comes to hosting events, and its outside catering business is growing even faster. Sherwood’s goal is to outgrow the facility and become a financial plus on the city’s ledger.
“Monday through Friday is more of our corporate training, the Rotary Club, the Area Business Women’s Club, the Retired Teachers and so forth,” she said. “On the weekend is our local social business – our weddings, our quincea eras and birthday parties.”
She said the annual Decatur Chamber of Commerce auction last month was Riley’s first big event here, with about 350 in attendance.
“We did a couple of wedding receptions this summer that were 400, 450 – that’s kind of our top right now until we add more meeting space,” Sherwood said. “That’s our ultimate goal, probably within five years to do a bond package, add another great hall and be able to give Darrell the kitchen he needs to work in.”
Sherwood said having a top chef has become a necessity as she goes out and books events.
“So many Civic Centers don’t have an in-house chef,” she said. “It would be very difficult for us to keep our lights on here if we didn’t. A lot of our success is our location, and what a great facility it is, but also the kitchen staff.”
Riley is a big fan of fresh, local food – and that’s another way in which his style meshes with Sherwood’s.
“One of the things Lori appreciated about my resum was, I like farm-to-table,” he said. “I want the freshest product I can get – vegetables, herbs, everything – if I can get it locally, I want to get it locally.”
That’s something more and more people are asking for, and are willing to pay for, Sherwood said.
“Just in the year-and-a-half I’ve been here, our guests are requiring more,” she said. “We’re getting people who are willing to spend more, but they want something more upscale. Darrell’s right, that’s something that really attracted me to his resum because we do want fresh. We don’t want all the convenience items and pre-packaged items.
“He and I clicked from the very beginning,” she added. “I knew he’d be a very valuable member for our team. He put me at such ease, and I just really felt like we could communicate and we had the same idea about what we want to grow the Civic Center to, what our idea for business is.”
Riley is also a certified wedding and event planner – another area where Sherwood believes the Civic Center has plenty of room to grow.
For now, he’s just happy to have his feet on solid ground, a real roof over his head and only a few hundred people coming over for dinner.