Munchery Chef Dane Helms

I grew up in Wenatchee, Washington, a small town on the banks of the Columbia River in the warmer, drier, apple-growing region of the state. I didn’t grow up in a foodie household. We had PB&J sandwiches on white bread for lunch, and Hamburger Helper for dinner a couple times a week. After high school, I did a couple of years at junior college before deciding to join the Air Force. I’d always been interested in things like history, geography, and foreign cultures, so I became a cryptologic linguist (what the Air Force calls their foreign language translators) and was trained in Arabic.

The Air Force may seem like an unlikely place to discover a deep love of food, but my experience in the military was the first time I recognized the profound impact food has on culture. Not only was I introduced to cuisines of the Middle East, but I also developed a deeper appreciation for food’s role in American culture during my time stationed in little pockets of Americana in California, Texas, and Georgia.

After my stint in the military, I chose to forgo lucrative offers in government contracting work and pursue a career of passion. I was blissfully unaware of the low-wage, high-stress world of working in restaurant kitchens… or the looming economic recession. During the last few months of my military career I found easy work in a local pizzeria, where I could wait out the last few weeks while my paperwork was processed before returning to my hometown in Washington State. I had little experience and no professional connections, so I ended up doing some short stints at local restaurants. In a small town where chain-restaurants dominate, it was hard seeking out independent kitchens whose chefs were willing to create from scratch.

But working in small-town restaurants gave me one unexpected gift. Orchard wood was abundant in the area, so many of the restaurants had wood-fired ovens. I was able to learn the art of live-fire cooking and tending an open oven. Between my wood-fire skills, my military background, and my willingness to learn, I sped through the kitchen ranks up to the position of sous chef.

But I felt like a big fish in a small pond. I decided to move to Seattle, where I was hired at a line cook for the Ethan Stowell Restaurant Group — a big name out here in Seattle. ESR focuses mainly on Italian cuisine, so I was a shoo-in with my extensive wood-fired experience. Several years at ESR allowed me to hone my management chops as a sous chef and chef/manager, but after awhile, I felt like I needed to take a step back from the restaurant industry.

I had two young daughters who were growing up quickly, and I felt like there was no way that I could be in the fast-paced restaurant world and maintain a family life. Something had to give. I contacted a line-cook friend, who had left restaurants to work for a new startup company called Munchery. I didn’t know much about it, but I thought that he could put in a good word so that I could get my foot in the door. Maybe I could be a prep-cook and have evenings off, then I would have time to find a real job.

I interviewed at Munchery and instantly hit it off with the management team. I considered them to be kindred spirits in the sense that they loved food, but found the restaurant world to be unfulfilling. We wanted to cook, but for people that actually needed it, like working professionals, busy families, and those unable to care for themselves. It seemed like a perfect fit. Initially, I was hired on as an assistant manager on the culinary side. I supervised plating and managed inventory for several months until I was able to transfer to the Research and Development Chef position.

My experience, cooking for celebrities and high-rollers in Seattle, to small-town, regular folks in places like Wenatchee, has given me a unique perspective that governs my thought-process while creating food at Munchery. When I prepare a Munchery meal, I don’t ask myself “is this the best dish I’ve ever done?” I ask myself “will my wife like this? What would my parents think of this? Would my kids eat this? Because, ultimately, that’s who I am cooking for: someone’s spouse, someone’s parents, someone’s kids. It’s important to me that they are fed, full, and satisfied.

Dane Helms

Posted by Dane Helms

Dane Helms is the R&D Chef of Munchery, Seattle. Dane grew up in Wenatchee, Washington: a small town on the bank of the Columbia River in the warmer, drier, apple-growing region of the state. After high school he did a couple of years at junior college then decided to join the Air Force. It was during his time in the military where he learned to recognize and appreciate food and the impact that it had on culture. Not only was he introduced to the cuisine of the Middle East but he learned to appreciate the little pockets of Americana in the places that he was stationed: namely California, Texas, and Georgia. His military background and willingness to learn helped him speed through the kitchen ranks up to the position of sous chef. Along the way he was hired as a line cook for the Ethan Stowell Restaurant Group. Several years at ESR allowed him to hone his management chops as a sous chef and chef/manager. He interviewed at Munchery and really hit it off with the management team. Initially, he was hired on as an assistant manager on the culinary side. He supervised plating and managed inventory for several months until he was able to transfer to the Research and Development Chef position.

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