Cooper Thomas has been the general manager of Victors in the Hotel Florence since May 2014, and became the chef in August. He lives with his wife, a Florence native and a physical therapy manager at McLeod Regional Medical Center, and two young children. Thomas grew up in Columbia, attending Irmo High School and the College of Charleston, where he graduated in 1996 with a communications degree. He was named one of South Carolina's four chef ambassadors for 2014-2015.
Q: How did you go from general manager to chef?
A: I actually started as a chef in my career and then wanted a different experience so I started working as a food service director in the college setting. I worked for Aramark at the University of Cincinnati for three years. I actually moved up there to be the chef in a steakhouse. It was a floating barge on the Ohio River. About 11 months into the job, it broke away from the shore with guests on it - and me. And it was funny because my job literally floated down the river - about a hundred feet. That's when I went over to the University of Cincinnati as a chef and then became food service director. I started here as general manager, then when the previous chef left, I became the chef also.
Q: What chefs inspire you?
A: I don't follow one particular chef. The people that I work for and that I work with are the people I admire the most. I'm often inspired by the people who work for me. My mentors would be Chefs Bob Waggoner and Michelle Weaver at Charleston Grill. I was there for six years. Those are the two that I look up to the most. They were crucial in that time when I was really starting out. They didn't fire me even though I didn't know anything. Michelle says she didn't think I even talked for the first six months.
Q: What was your first job in restaurants and food?
A: I worked in a Sub Station II in high school. I made sandwiches, was the cashier. Everybody kind of did everything. I went and became a busboy and a dishwasher at Olive Garden my senior year in high school. I went to the College of Charleston after I graduated from Irmo. I really didn't do that much in the first couple of years in food service. I worked at the Banana Republic stocking shelves. A buddy of mine got me a job working as a short-order cook in a place called Reubens. It was a delicatessen. It was me and four older ladies and they were just a hoot. They were great. They started teaching me how to cook. I could cook burgers and I could make sandwiches, but they also had blue plate specials, so I started learning how to cook grits and collard greens and black-eyed peas and rice. I was there for just a little while, then I graduated and moved to Colorado for a year to see if that was really what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn more and I wanted to know if it was what I truly wanted to do for a living. In Colorado, I got two jobs and I worked 70 hours a week and I figured that would either turn me off or on. And it stuck.
Q: If you could create a dream meal, what would it be?
A: I love steak and potatoes. I am a fan of rib-eye or New York strip. I love short ribs. I could eat a whole meat dinner. Throw some potatoes in there. If I had to pick, it would probably be short ribs, a little barbecue demi-glaze, au gratin potatoes. I think asparagus would probably be my choice of vegetable, steamed or sautéed.
Q: Who or what most influences your cooking and why?
A: I like to bounce my ideas off other people. I find that a lot of times, even with my line cooks, I'll say, "This is what I was thinking." Then they'll throw out an idea that complements it and we will tinker with it a bit and that might be the special.
Everybody has a different view on things. I just think with cooking, we've been doing it for so long, it's really difficult to reinvent the wheel. I think that's one of the reasons why the move toward molecular gastronomy happened, because no one had ever done that before.
I think it's amazing that some of the people I work with come up with some of these great ideas. One of my co-workers had an idea for a crispy poached egg. We poach the egg just long enough for it to set up, then we bread it and fry it. It's still runny in the middle, but you get that fried texture and the runniness of the egg. So that started with someone adding a poached egg to a chicken dish and someone else saying, "Well, can you fry that?" And I said, "Well let's find out." It's fun to do that kind of stuff.
Q: What are five things that are always in your home fridge?
A: I don't cook much at home. I'd like to say, you know, butter and cream and all this stuff. It's usually all kid-related. Probably going to be V-8 vegetable and fruit juice. There's always going to be Diet Coke. That's for me. We're going to have applesauce and waffles. Other than that, I'll have butter in there and stuff. I am at the point in my life where my kids are really small, 8 and 5, and I am trying to get them to eat other stuff. Right now, I just need to get them to eat and if that is premade waffles with Nutella, that's what I am going to do. We always have fresh fruit because the kids love fruit and we do, too.
Q: What is the biggest mistake or most embarrassing thing you've ever done in the kitchen?
A: I was at Charleston Place and I was moving a large cart that was full of dirty banquet plates - they called it the Queen Mary - it had several hundred plates and glasses and silverware on it and I rolled it over the drain and the drain cover flipped and the wheel went into the drain. It had to be a hundred plates and 75 or 80 glasses and I was just freaking out. I thought I was going to get fired. I never really broke things a lot; I was really good about that stuff, so I kind of got it all done at one time. I went and got a buddy of mine and he helped me get it cleaned up. I said, "We're going to dump it and I'm going to tell them what I did, but we're not going to let them see it because it looks much worse than it is."
Q: What new menu items can people expect at Victors?
A: We just had a big menu change in September. We didn't change a lot of proteins, but we tried to make it a little more modern with more consideration to the detail of the plating and making folks want to take that first bite. I think the people of Florence have come a long way. I have seen it progress over the years. I think there are plenty of people here that are just as sophisticated as they are in other places and I think they deserve the kind of experience that they would get in larger cities that you don't normally get in smaller towns. I think Florence is at the point now where they will support that. They will support something different.
Q: What's your best tip for the home cook?
A: Start out with the right ingredients and be organized. Too many times, people rush into starting to cook something and they don't have everything they need or they don't have the right ingredients. They don't have quality ingredients. I would lean toward using a butcher shop or a fishmonger who can give you solid sound advice and suggestions when you are trying to decide what you want to cook. Utilize the resources out there. There are so many resources nowadays. If you plan the meal out and the process in which you are going to cook it, actually think through, I am going to do this, this, this and this in that order. There is nothing worse than getting to a point and you forgot to do something and then you've got to go back and do it and you get all discombobulated. That, and let your meat rest.