Daniel Starkey: Head Chef & Culinary Artist
When it comes to holding the title of head chef, whether in fine dining or a local food truck, there is a standard of excellence, dedication, and passion that must follow. With Vibrant Meals head chef Daniel Starkey, those standards are not only met, but tremendously exceeded.
Daniel has been a pivotal part of the Vibrant team since beginning stages of the company in 2016. With a starting position of delivery driver, Daniel’s skills quickly became apparent and a crucial incentive for growth. He swiftly rose to hold the position of kitchen manager, setting him in the direction towards his current title, head chef.
As a chef, Daniel’s relationship with food surpasses any career or degree. With experience in numerous different restaurants, actually ranging from fine dining to food trucks, he supplies expert-like exposure and understanding influential to the community and business of Vibrant Meals. Whenever Daniel approaches a recipe or creation of one, he explains he is overwhelmed with a sense of calm.
“I really enjoy the process, maybe the control over it too. I like working with my hands and creating,” he said. “I like the stress of it and I thrive on problem solving.”
His relationship with cooking dates all the way back to his time as a middle schooler. “My parents couldn’t cook growing up, so going to restaurants and seeing better food out there made me interested,” he said. “I was just interested in it for a really long time. Probably middle school I started actually experimenting and making just very easy dishes to start.”
After a few years claiming his family’s Michigan kitchen, Daniel and his family moved to Cookeville, TN where he attended high school and a few cooking competitions. “They were grilling competitions,” he said. “I won the first one.” While sharing this story, Daniel lead towards downgrading his success, “it was dumb, just a bunch of highschoolers,” but being self taught and winning his first cooking competition as a high schooler definitely showed promise.
“I guess technically I would be self taught, but mostly just learning from other people through jobs,” he explained. “I’ve learned quite a bit here [at Vibrant Meals] and Back Inn Cafe a few years ago was a huge one from the chef there. It was mostly fine dining restaurants, just through those, learning.”
From teaching himself how to cook at a young age, to winning cooking competitions shortly after, Daniel has yet to receive a degree in culinary arts, but his creations in the kitchen elude to a multitude of education.
Daniel moved to Chattanooga after high school to receive a degree from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga double majoring in Chemistry and Biochemistry. “There was one class in particular that was quantitative analysis, which is a self guided lab for the whole semester, and I crushed it,” he said. “The lab is basically cooking, you just don’t eat it.”
After a few years studying chemistry, Daniel had a revelation. “I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to cook,” he said.
Daniel’s involvement with The House Ministries, a UTC Christian campus ministry, was a huge factor in his decision to pursue cooking full time. “The final, ‘I’m probably going to do this,’ was actually through The House,” he explained. After The House pastor, Jason Leonard, asked Daniel to create, cook, and serve the menu for their annual discernment retreat, a retreat dedicated to helping college students discover a career aligned with their passions, Daniel had a revelation. “I remember having a conversation with him after it and being like ‘I really enjoyed that, everyone loved it.’ I thought maybe I can do this,” he said.
Soon after this realization and major career change, Vibrant snagged Daniel and has yet to let him go. “The team here is great,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point where we are really efficient and everybody has a job that they do.”
Outside of cooking and creating the meals that arrive on doorsteps and retail spaces, Daniel can be found cooking his bread buns, a mix between brioche and a japanese milk bun, which he describes “Dude, they're so good,” or improving his homemade pasta recipe.
After years working in numerous kitchens in Chattanooga, homes, and retreats, Daniel exhibits his skills with commitment, insight, and originality.
“Once you have a foundation of cooking, the creativity is what drives you more and more,” he said.
Written by Abigail Frazier
Photography by Uriah Young