At 2 am in the morning, most 8-year-olds are asleep with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, but not Glenn Thompson. The now executive chef of the Fenix in San Rafael, Calif. was so excited about being a chef while growing up that he thought he would get an early start on dinner by preparing fried chicken and spaghetti as the rest of the family slept. “I don’t know why I did it,” says Thompson, remembering the childhood moment that woke up his parents, who were less than pleased. “I remember my mother saying to my father, ‘Aren’t you going to say something to this boy,’ and he said, ’Yeah, but did you taste his chicken?’”
I remember asking the same question while dining at the Fenix as Thompson served his perfectly seasoned fried chicken and other Southern dishes, as well as Creole fare, to a hungry crowd at the Creole United Festival pre-party with Grammy-nominated artist Andre Thierry last month. Thompson, who specializes in healthy Southern cuisine, is set to headline the culinary offerings in the VIP area at this year’s festival that will take place on Saturday, October 1 from 11 am – 6 pm at Lagoon Park in San Rafael.
We first learned of Thompson’s latest stint at the Fenix last year and quickly alerted the Bay Area masses. His restaurant, Gator’s Neo Soul Café in San Mateo, Calif., was the talk of the town and quickly outgrew its location. In the midst of an expansion, the economy took a dip and so did business causing, Thompson to close his doors. From there, it was about making his next move and getting prepared for the road ahead.
Finding One’s Life Calling Young
Born in Bayou Pigeon, La., Thompson’s family migrated to California when many families did, during or after World War II. Additional childhood memories take him back to family gatherings and Sunday dinners. “In most African-American families, it is all about family and food and we always cooked.” He says, on any given Sunday, there would be more than 30 relatives cooking while the kids played in the yard. He took an interest in cooking at the age of six, even telling his grandmother that he wanted to be a chef and she always encouraged him to follow his dream.
Nine years later, he was on his way to becoming a chef after taking his first job as a dishwasher at the age of 15 at the former restaurant chain Hungry Hunter. From there, he moved up to prep cook and was cooking by 16. At 17 he went off to the military but that didn’t stop his desire to become a chef. Connecting with his previous employer, he was off to the Beverly Wilshire as a line prep cook when he returned and from there, his tenure in the culinary industry truly began.
Thompson worked for a variety of restaurants throughout California as well as opened a few of his own. These included a small eatery in Pittsburg, Calif, called Mesquite that fused Creole and Mexican dishes and Alcatraces in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, both before opening Gator’s Neo Soul. While the art of cooking comes easily to Thompson, it is finding the right business partners and financial backing that has often been a challenge. But not one to give up, he knows that when one door closes, another will open. “I ran a successful restaurant without the financial capability to support and the Zagat’s awards and all that I got [accolades, etc.] for the restaurants that I did, proved to me who I was as a restaurateur.”
If you didn’t see Thompson working in a restaurant, you could catch him catering for clients around the Bay Area. While catering kept his name out there and business going, his health was beginning to suffer with the scales tipping to almost 460 pounds. He says he was always worried about his health and wondered how long he would live until a tragic accident that could have taken his life changed it all and allowed him to focus on making some changes. Thompson survived an accident caused when all four wheels on the truck he was driving locked up. He immediately lost control and the truck flipped and eventually caught on fire. He was removed from the wreckage with minimal injuries. He called it a spiritual awakening for him to get his life right and that he did.
Putting Health First
Completing gastric bypass surgery in 2006, he decided to “clean up” the food that almost took his life due to unhealthy preparation. Today, he is very conscious about the ingredients used to create his signature dishes. Not only do they have to taste good but he wants them to be good for you. “My food is rustic. It pretty much lays as it is. I just use the right colors and it looks good when it comes to the table. I don’t overly sauce it, I don’t overly fill the plate. I just put enough food on there that you can enjoy this experience,” says Thompson.
Currently, he is working on a healthy burger concept that he hopes to launch in the near future as well as a line of products called Gator’s Southern Lovin, due to come out later this year that will include barbecue sauces, gumbo bases, gravies, spices and salad dressings.
Reflecting on lessons learned as a chef and restaurateur, he is looking forward to his next venture, saying, “Will I ever open up another Gator’s? Yeah, yeah I will.”