Imagine the culinary genius behind food suspensions, compounds, foams and gels. The kind of robust flavors served in dishes that make you grin with delight and your taste buds ecstatic. It is science.
Cooking that is packed with what seems like endless flavor is something Chef Toya Terry has mastered. Holding a degree in molecular biology, this chef’s New American and Peruvian style has taken her on a very unique and extensive food journey.
Banned From the Kitchen
“She made sure to keep us out of the kitchen,” tells Terry when explaining her mother’s strict household rule for her and her siblings. However, cooking was something Terry was destined to do.
“I was born and raised in Houston, Texas,” she shares. “My first introduction to food was probably with my grandmother and my mother. My grandmother had a café in Clarksdale, Mississippi, called Turner’s Grill and so I was always around food because everyone in my family cooked.”
She continues, “The life of a cook was a very hard life for my grandmother, so my mother just never allowed me in the kitchen. She really pushed us [me and my siblings] towards STEM fields — science, technology and medicine — because she really wanted better for us. She made sure we all stayed in school and became scholars. We were in every program. We were doing everything related to science in order to elevate ourselves. But I always found myself continuing to navigate and circumvent back to the kitchen… I always found myself feeling comfortable there,” she says.
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“So, I took a different route in life. I did not become a chef first; I became a scientist. I went to school, and I got a degree in molecular biology and I did stem cell research for the Texas Heart Institute for almost ten years.”
During this time, Terry engaged in the activities one does as a scientist before listening to her true calling, saying, “I wrote academic papers and I spoke at science conferences. I was a research scientist for quite some time before I stepped out on faith and decided to go to culinary school.”
Given her mother's emphasis on building a career outside the kitchen, one has to wonder what she thought about Terry’s decision to go to culinary school. “I didn’t tell my mother,” Terry shares. “I only told a couple of friends. I went to culinary school at night and I went to my lab in the mornings throughout the day.”
This back and forth went on for almost a year before Chef Terry built up the courage to tell her mother about her dream and aspiration.
“One day, I just sat down with her. I was doing really well in school and I had enough gumption. My mother said, ‘What! So, you quit your job?’ I said I didn’t quit my job mom, but I’m doing really well professionally. She was like, ‘Do you have your job?’ And I said I do, but I’m going to quit my job as soon as I see this coming to fruition, and she said, ‘Okay Toya whatever you want to do. All I need to know is that you have your job.’”
Relieved about the interaction, Terry says, “Once I started winning awards in culinary school and once I started working in fine dining and she saw how I was excelling, she started to believe like okay maybe my daughter is good at this. Maybe she can make a career out of this. Maybe I don’t have to be so hard on her for stepping away from science. And she saw that I was using my science in my culinary field. I do a lot of gastronomy and I do a lot of applications with gels and foams and things that have a science application but with food as a medium. So, she finally came around.”
Cooking in the Castle – Culinary Science
Diving fully into a new chapter of her life, she says, “Once I quit my job, I left the lab, stepped out on faith, and joined a restaurant under a Master Chef in Houston. After that, I didn’t look back. I’ve been cooking ever since.”
In 2016, Terry took yet another risk. She decided to apply to travel to South America to learn and study at one of the most prestigious restaurants in Latin America. For several months there was no reply. Then, in January 2017, she received her invitation.
“I lived in Peru and worked at a restaurant called Astride y Gastón. It is one of the top-ranked restaurants in the world, and I learned so many things that apply to the art of molecular gastronomy and culinary science.”
She continues, “It is a castle that you live in, Casa Moreyra, and it has hundreds of workers, and they specialize in doing pre-fixed tasting menus. So, they make from nine up to 14-course parings. They are serious about food!” Terry explains.
“Food does not have to be in its original form. You can change a zucchini into stone. You can dehydrate it or freeze it with liquid nitrogen. You can sprinkle it on top of a salad to give a salad a different flavor, texture or mouth feel,” she further explains. “You can do so many things with food if you just open your mind to the scientific part of it and that interests me!”
When Chef Terry returned to the United States in the fall of 2017, she brought all her newly acquired skills and began partnering with the who's-who of the culinary world.
“I started doing pop-up dinners. I did a couple of dinners for Remy Martin. I did several dinners for Aces of Taste. I did an event for Courvoisier and then I got referred to an athlete and after that, I ended up in the personal and private sectors for elite athletes and entertainers. That’s how I transitioned to becoming a private chef.” She then combined her science and culinary background to craft meals and programs for several elite athletes in the NFL and NBA. Terry is currently the private chef of James Harden, who plays for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Another place where the chef scientist showcased her expertise was at this past November’s Black Chef Table, a dinner series in Houston specifically created for Black chefs to showcase their talents. Terry says, “It was a great experience. I was impressed with how they allow Black chefs to display their talents and so glad that they allowed me to tell my story by combining the culinary roots of my grandmother from the American South with my work in Peru. It allowed me to bring those two narratives together to share their story on the plate. And the guests were impressed! All in all, I really enjoyed the experience and I hope to work with them again.”
Terry definitely has an amazing food journey. As a matter of fact, she is an example of how living your true passion brings rich rewards and joy to oneself and others. Also, how sometimes stepping out on faith allows you to look back without regret.