I can’t be more humble that what I am because I want these kids that have been addicted to drugs and these kids that I give a second chances to say, you know what, this guy that did drugs for 15 years of his life and has been sober now for 6 years and he goes to work every day, I haven’t missed the day of work and he won, I won 5 awards in one week and now this kid has won the James Beard award and he gave us a second chance. – Donnie Simmons, born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Multiple Awarded Chef
How do you manage your time in every passion that you have?
Chef Donnie Simmons: You know it’s pretty hard. I, you know I’ve done a lot in my music, I’ve done a lot with my career. I started my career in 1995 professionally. And I’ve been doing my career, I started at 14 and a half as a dishwasher working for some Greek guys which were friends with my grandfather and then kind of worked myself up and then in 1995, 1996, at the end of 1995 the beginning of 96, I went to work place called Eddie’s Place and Danny’s too which was a second expansion of Hotel Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina and I was a dishwasher there and then a prep cook quit and I went to work as a prep cook.
And then a fry guy quit, then I went to work as the fry-guy and then a grill guy quit and then I went to work as a grill guy and then sauté and then working myself up from there.
Left there and did some other things and then did an internship at Atlanta, Georgia and worked under a guy named Chef Anthony, which is, you know one of the number one Italian chef in the world.
I left there and came back to Charlotte for a little while and went into the music business, worked with a lot of rock and roll stars. I worked with everybody from Paul McCartney to Gene Simmons to Lil Wayne to anybody and everybody.
I went to Savannah, Georgia opened up some restaurants in Savannah, Georgia became one of the biggest names in Georgia yet somehow lost some of the investment money in my restaurant adventure and it was a huge amount of money was taken away from me.
Bernard: Oh shit!
Chef Donnie Simmons: Yeah, and I came back to North Carolina and went to work and got bored with that, with the creativity, the lack of creativity.
Then I left there and went to work for a lady that owned a farm that wanted to do a restaurant. And this is the first time she ever had a restaurant and I did her restaurant for her and I won best in four restaurants in North Carolina in Charlotte and won the Best Chef in 2015 and that was right after I had a stroke, I got sick and I had a stroke.
Bernard: Yeah, you told me about that.
Chef Donnie Simmons: Yeah I had a stroke, I got, and I lost all my memory I forgot how to cook, I forgot, I mean I forgot everything: I forgot my name, everything man, an excessive amount of my memory was gone. So I had to teach myself how to cook again, I had to teach myself everything.
And right after that stroke, man I was on the Food Network, I was on Diners Drive Ins and Dives and then I left that restaurant and went onto a new adventure at a Farm to Fork Restaurant in NC where I won Best Chef in Charlotte, Best Lunch Spot in Charlotte, Best Farm to Fork Restaurant in Charlotte 2015.
Everything and then she closed the restaurant down to focus more on her farm. I left there and went with The Mandrake which I’m at now.
And I just won Best Chef 2016, Best New Restaurant in Charlotte 2016, Best Restaurant in Charlotte 2016, Best in Charlotte 2016 and Best Restaurant in Charlotte and Best Lunch Restaurant in Charlotte.
Bernard: Wow, pretty and so impressive, yeah, so impressive.
Chef Donnie Simmons: And then today I’m meeting the National Stroke Association. They want me to be the face of the National Stroke Association.
So I mean I have a lot of accolades, you know I think I have come a long way. Kind of beat the system for what I have done you know.
You mentioned very quickly that you we’re going down the wrong path a while ago when, you know, when you had a stroke, you told me that you were in a bad, bad situation. I mean, how did you manage to overcome it? And, you know, how about your childhood friends, what did they think about your success now?
Chef Donnie Simmons: You know man I think of a lot of people they look at me differently, you know, I was addicted to drugs for a long time as a matter of fact today marks 70, I think today is 70… I have to look at it. 76 months, I think 76 months sober? You know man I use drugs for a long time and, you know everybody says oh man you’re never going to amount for anything. I’m the guy that’s just going to party my whole life away, you know.
Bernard: I understand.
Chef Donnie Simmons: And now I look back and all those people that talk shit! They haven’t amounted too anything and I switched my life up and I became sober and I’m the guy that made it and nobody else made it which was very unfortunate. And I don’t wish that on anybody but it’s just different, you know. They didn’t make it and I did. You know?
Bernard: Yeah, I understand like it is so really impressive. What’s your greatest motivation? What makes you, I mean what makes you do that? Every morning when you wake up, this should I do.
There should be like a motivation there should be a link between from your past and what you’re doing right now. Would you mind if you can share it to us?
Chef Donnie Simmons: Yeah. So when I leave the restaurant at night time, my restaurant, I’m into kids who are addicted to drugs. I have guys that work for me that I give second chances too. So the kids that work in my restaurant cant, you know people won’t hire because they’ve been in trouble or, you know they have a criminal history related to drugs not related to a violent past or, you know anything weird, you know nothing sexual or anything like that just pertaining to drugs. You know where there is other people that won’t hire them because they’ve got busted with drugs or busted for using drugs or having drugs, you know just some bullshit like that.
And I give them a second chance.
So that’s my motivation man, waking up and them seeing me getting up I mean you know I text you early you know I’m up at 5 AM, every morning, you now and I get my day going and I’m texting them and a lot of them they are like damn why did you text me so early and I’m like well I want to make sure you’re up, you know you’re eating breakfast, you know you’re getting your day started, you know you’re making sure you’re up, you’re doing exercises, when you’re up you’re healthy, you know you mean you’re doing stuff to get your day started and that’s my motivation man making sure these kids, and I call them kids, but making sure these kids are up, doing what they’re supposed to do man and they’re starting the day out it.
So these are awards, man, so these are awards that I won, these are awards that I’m pushing for, a lot of people man they say that, you know these awards are focused a lot on the words and somebody recently told me, like my James Beard Award. I’m really trying to win the James Beard Award. That’s what I’m focusing on right now, is winning the James Beard award. And that’s what my key thing is right now.
And I posted recently online that it’s like the Super Bowl, or it’s like winning the Super Bowl, it’s like winning the World Series. And somebody said to me online that that’s not the case that I need to do research that I need to be more humble.
And I disagree with him, and I said you know what, people really don’t know who I am and I just want people to understand who I am. That’s what I want, that it’s not about me winning the award, it’s about you know man it’s about these kids, it’s about the kids man. I can’t be more humble that what I am because I want these kids that have been addicted to drugs and these kids that I give a second chances to say, you know what, this guy that did drugs for 15 years of his life and has been sober now for 6 years and he goes to work every day, I haven’t missed the day of work and he won, I won 5 awards in one week and now this kid as won the James Beard award and he gave us a second chance.
And I want to win the award for these kids when they hypothetically maybe one day they give up and they can say you know what I am not going to give up, because if he did it I can do it, you know so when somebody posted on line that okay well the James Beard Award is not the Super Bowl or it’s not the Wold Series I think they are full of shit because I think it means something different to every person, and for them to say that to me I think was incorrect.
I want to be there inspiration man that’s what I want to be I want people to share my story like your reaching out to me that means more to me than it does probably to you because let my voice be heard, you know I want people to understand that I am doing this not for me there is not one bone in my body that I’m doing it for me and its always for somebody else.
What advice that you can give to all the young chefs like some of them they posted online this and this and that so I think from you from your own perspective what advice can you give to them for them to make this in this industry and to be for you to be like a very successful one.
Chef Donnie Simmons: You know I think the advice man is to you know
do it your own way that’s what I’ve done is stick to your roots,
Stick to your roots I cook what I grew up doing I didn’t I like French cuisine I like a lot of different cuisines but I grew up in the South I grew up with my grandmothers cooking I grew up doing that and that’s what I stuck to, I didn’t try to do something different, you know stick to what you know, you should put a twist on it but stick to what you know stick to what you grew up doing and just do it to the best of your ability.
I think a lot of chefs after I had a stroke there is a gentleman by the name of Tim Rutherford he is one of my mentors he is in the food industry you can mention his name he is one of guys that I look up to he is an older gentleman you can look him up he is phenomenal phenomenal phenomenal guy, after I had my stroke he was over in Italy as a matter of fact doing a tour doing a food tour, and after I had my stroke and I called him and I said look man I need to know how I can regain my momentum and he says you know what man there is so many chefs right now that are doing food whether it’s the molecular gastronomy and there is a lot of stuff when you go to a restaurant and you sit down and the people put a menu in front of you there is so much shit on the menu you have no idea what it is.
I mean even me as a chef when I go to places I have no idea what it is, you need to make a menu that’s friendly you need to make a menu that people understand, you just need to cook food correctly and that’s what I’ve done and I think that every chef needs to understand that, that’s what I tell every kid that comes in my restaurant, you just need to cook food correctly and if you do that you will succeed.
Photo Credits to Donnie Simmons