If you live in Birmingham and haven’t met him before or tasted his food, you’ve probably heard of Chef Clayton Sherrod. Since the earliest days of the Market at Pepper Place, Chef Clayton was one of the most popular chefs to host a cooking demo. According to Market Board Member Chef Franklin Biggs, “Clayton would do the last big cooking demo of the market season every year and bring a gospel choir with him too.” Chef Clayton doesn’t travel with a choir these days, but he has plenty of supporters to back him up. As a consultant to Lawson State Community College and their Culinary Arts Program which he’s helped build since 2013, and also as culinary instructor for residents of the Birmingham Housing Authority, he’s teaching and mentoring a new batch of hopeful culinary students and instructors every year. With his guidance, despite the pandemic, they’ll be better positioned to get jobs and launch their culinary careers, wherever they lead.
Chef Clayton is a native son, who grew up in downtown Birmingham just a few blocks from the 16th Street Baptist Church. His older brother got him his first job as a golf caddy at the Vestavia Country Club at the age of 13. “One day they needed someone to help in the kitchen, and I was the only caddy who volunteered,” he said. “I liked what I saw and pretty soon I was working in the kitchen every Sunday.” He went on, “The Country Club was famous for its orange rolls, and I learned how to make them. I was just a kid but I could make between 200 and 300 rolls a day, so I became the official baker. After a while though, I realized chefs made more money than bakers, so I went back to the “hot station,” helping whoever was the executive chef at the time. I learned everything I could. I even learned how to carve ice sculptures, which were really popular back then. That was good for me, because then I was the only ice carver in the state of Alabama.”
Through hard work, ingenuity and a winning smile, Clayton Sherrod became Vestavia Country Club Executive Chef at the age of 19, and thrived there for the next 17 years. He was ultimately hired away by U.S. Steel and Interstate United, their food service management company. Time passed, he obtained a degree from the Culinary Institute in New Haven, Connecticut, started his own food services company and became corporate chef for Alagasco. During that time he founded the American Culinary Federation Birmingham Chapter. He represented the United States for a number of years as part of the “World Chefs Tour Against Hunger,” an initiative lead by philanthropist Sol Kirchner, in which celebrity chefs from all over the world prepared special menus in the finest hotels to raise money for starving children in South Africa. “I was a big shot riding around in a limousine,” he said.
Through it all though, Chef Clayton remained firmly rooted in Birmingham. He married and raised a family here. He ran his own business, Chef Clayton’s Food Systems, and mentored countless young people along the way. When the President of Lawson State Community College, Dr. Perry Ward, asked him to help them create a top-flight Culinary Arts Program in 2013, Chef Clayton agreed to join the team as a consultant. He’s been involved with the program ever since. “I oversee how things are run, teach teachers how to teach, we serve Senators and legislators. I’ve really enjoyed it,” he said. In 2018, the Birmingham Housing Authority enlisted him to oversee a cooking school program for its residents. The program subsequently received a commendation from HUD Secretary Ben Carson for excellent work.
“I’ve enjoyed being a mentor,” Chef Clayton said. “I’ve given a lot away, but I’m always happy to do it when it helps my students.” He continued, “This fall, I was supposed to receive a national award from the American Academy of Chefs for mentoring young people, but because of the pandemic, the ceremony has been canceled.” He added, “COVID has been terrible for our students and everybody in the food industry. Jobs in white-tablecloth restaurants and fine hotels have diminished and I’m not sure they’ll return in the same form. Right now I’m writing changes to the curriculum for the new post-COVID world, training students for fast-casual dining, but maybe higher quality.” The future of restaurants and food service are a big unknown for all of us, but one thing is certain – as long as Chef Clayton Sherrod is working on it, there is a ray of hope and the promise of good food on the other side. People can enjoy two examples of the cooking that made him famous and support the Culinary Arts Program at Lawson State by ordering online before 9am Friday, July 10th, with pickup at the Drive-Thru Market at Pepper Place this Saturday, July 11.