DOWNTOWN — One of the first experiments Whitney McMorris did with food was swapping oil for butter in a box cake recipe. The results blew her mind.
The culinary arts called to McMorris at a young age. Growing up in suburban Phoenix, she was surrounded by culinary inspiration, from her family to what she watched on Food Network.
McMorris’ uncle taught her fishing, skinning and cooking the catch of the day, and on her he imprinted the concept of food as an experience. McMorris’s mother, a nail technician, taught her daughter attention to detail; her grandmother fostered her interest in ingredients and recipes.
“My grandmother and I shared a lot of culinary moments because she would create things … say like tuna salad … no one just says they like tuna salad, but this was literally delicious and incredible,” McMorris said.
McMorris eventually became a professional chef — and now, after a few months leading Bronzeville Winery, she has taken over as executive chef at the Magnificent Mile’s glitzy French brasserie Venteux. She’ll soon reveal her curated fall and winter menu with influences from Morocco and Germany.
At 30, McMorris is younger than the national average for executive chefs in the country — and she is one of the few Black women leading a kitchen in Chicago, according to local chefs and industry data.
Even as McMorris starts this new venture, it wasn’t long ago that illness threatened to derail McMorris’ burgeoning future as a chef.
‘I Wasn’t Really Sure If I Would Be Able To Cook Again’
Despite McMorris’ youth, she has been in Chicago’s restaurant scene for about a decade, honing her skills and talent with some of the industry’s biggest names.
Graduating Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago around 2014, McMorris launched her career at Michelin-starred and technically-driven Moto, where she worked under Richie Farina and the late molecular gastronomist Homaru Cantu.
McMorris arrived at Moto not long after Farina appeared on season 9 of “Top Chef,” making a position at Moto a competitive one.
“She was always willing to learn and wanted to know as much as she could, take on more projects. She wanted to always do more. And I think that was one of the qualities that made me want to hire her,” Farina said. “I can teach someone how to cook, I can teach someone how to clean, but I can’t teach someone passion. And that’s one thing I remember her having, was a huge passion for this.”
Community-focused. Reader-funded. Journalist-run.
Support Chicago’s neighborhood news. Support Block Club today.
McMorris worked up from her stage — a culinary internship — all the way to junior sous chef until the restaurant closed in 2016.
“It was a very small, limited amount of stations, so to be offered a position was very special. There were only about six of us,” McMorris said. “I was very grateful and determined to just be a sponge and soak everything up.”
McMorris took the management and culinary skills she learned to her positions at other well-known restaurants, including Acanto, Terzo Piano and Quartino Ristorante, where she held titles from sous chef to executive sous chef.
Everything changed about two years ago when McMorris was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the joints.
Simple things such as getting dressed, taking the top off of toothpaste or opening a door became extremely painful and difficult. McMorris had to put her career on hold for six months.
“I wasn’t really sure if I would be able to cook again or to be a chef anymore,” she said.
In a moment of doubt, McMorris drew inspiration from American chef and restaurateur Grant Achatz, who opened Alinea in Chicago and temporarily lost his sense of taste when he was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer in 2007.
McMorris did extensive physical therapy, changed her diet and started taking a holistic approach to her care. Even though she still experiences daily pain, she wanted to be a chef.
“When the flare-ups happen, either the joint, flesh or bone feels like it’s sprained or it’s broken, so there’s no in-between. So, having crutches, having an arm brace, a wrist brace or cast … I literally have something to hold up every piece of my body on the days that those body parts aren’t too happy,” McMorris said.
Being offered the executive chef position at Bronzeville Winery earlier this year brought McMorris back into the game. The Black-owned fine dining spot, which opened in April, is a challenge McMorris had always dreamed of.
“It is one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, not just my career,” she said. “I picked out every plate, every small ware, every item on the menu. I was able to be free and created from whichever culture that I chose. It was just awesome.”
McMorris took pride in creating an upscale dining experience for the Black community, exploring ingredients and creating a special vegan watermelon steak that became wildly popular and highly praised.
Although it was hard to leave, McMorris said she was ready for a new challenge and ready to bring other Black women up with her.
There are about 135,200 executive chefs in the United States, according to a 2019 research summary from Zippia, a career search site. Only 12.5 percent are women. Only 10.4 are Black people, with the average age for Black female executive chefs being 38.
McMorris recalls being the only Black woman working the hot line in the kitchen. Even after years in the industry, she only recently met another Black woman chef.
“I’m always picking through the resumes, just to find them and be like, ‘I’ll take care of you,'” McMorris said. “I only need people to show up.”
In McMorris’ position as executive chef, she plans to teach chefs and cooks skills to help them succeed and break down the financial barrier of needing to be able to afford special knives or tools. Her management style is something she says she learned from Farina back in her days at Moto.
“It’s still kind of a male-dominated, white-dominated industry. So, I think it’s really cool that she’s kind of paved her way and put her nose to the grind and fought for the positions that she’s been able to get,” Farina said. “And I think everything that she has done over the past couple years, she deserves.”
It’s hard to know what the industry has in store, McMorris said. At 30, she can only image what she’ll accomplish in her 40s or 50s. In these moments she thinks of the Jhené Aiko song “W.A.Y.S,” which says, “There’s no slowing down and the globe spins ’round and ’round.”
“I’m undeniable,” McMorris said. “Not everybody can be set up that way or feel confident without being arrogant … but I do feel like that is my truth. This is what I’m here for.”
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: