“Everyone has a story,” said Seth Bixby Daugherty. “I know that I’ve got a great one.”
The most recent chapter in this chef’s ongoing tale is his new role: running the kitchen at Open Arms of Minnesota, a volunteer-driven Minneapolis nonprofit that provides nutritious meals, free of charge, to Twin Citians made vulnerable by life-threatening illnesses.
“I’m a consummate volunteer — I met my wife, years ago, while I was volunteering — so it only makes sense that I’ve ended up working here,” he said. “I feel that the greatest work that I’ll do, as a chef and as a person, is right here at Open Arms.”
Daugherty has been working with food for 40 years (“It’s the only way I’ve ever made a living,” he said), starting at age 12 at a restaurant in upstate New York, where he buttered toast and washed dishes. A broken kneecap put an end to a college soccer scholarship, and inadvertently set him on a career path.
“I loved cooking, and I’d always worked in restaurants, so I went to the Culinary Institute of America,” he said. An internship at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., was followed by a cross-country American-Soviet peace march, cooking for 700 people as they and their tent city moved from D.C. to San Francisco. He met his future wife, an Edina native, on the march.
The couple returned to D.C. and Daugherty apprenticed at the hotel for nearly four years. After a brief stint in the Twin Cities — where he cooked at D’Amico Cucina — he set off for New York City, splitting gigs at top-rated Le Bernardin with opening another ritzy Four Seasons hotel.
From there, it was a three-year layover in Colorado, then a return to Minneapolis, where Daugherty ran D’Amico Cucina for two years before opening the dazzling Cosmos in what is now the Loews Minneapolis Hotel. By this time, he was also raising serious money as a volunteer with Share Our Strength, which works to end childhood hunger nationwide. In 2005, his stellar handicraft at Cosmos landed Daugherty on the cover of Food & Wine, as one of the magazine’s best new chefs, rarefied territory in his profession.
“That’s when I started thinking ‘What is going to be my legacy?’ ” he said. “That’s when I started focusing on the schools, and healthy eating, and all the pieces of the puzzle that make me who I am today.”
A year later, he left Cosmos after forming Real Food Initiatives, an advocacy and education group that focuses on improving the nutritional quality of school kitchens from St. Paul to Sartell.
For nearly the next decade, he paid the bills by working as a culinary teacher at Art Institutes International Minnesota in downtown Minneapolis.
“Nine years at the school, and there isn’t a kitchen in this town that doesn’t have a former student of mine working in it,” he said. “And that’s awesome. What a great feeling.”
With teaching consuming just 25 hours each week, Daugherty channeled his formidable energies into another hunger-related enterprise, this time through the University of Minnesota Extension. It’s called Cooking Matters Minnesota, and it’s a curriculum that relies upon an intense, hands-on process to teach kitchen skills to at-risk families.
“We started with one location and five volunteers,” he said. “And now we have 80 locations and 400 volunteers, and three full-time employees.”
After losing his teaching job in a layoff (Art Institutes International eventually closed its Minneapolis school, in 2017), Daugherty returned to his roots — hotels — taking on the challenges of the Minneapolis Marriott Southwest in Minnetonka. Still, something was missing. “Don’t get me wrong, it was a great job, and I loved working there,” he said. “But it wasn’t feeding my soul the way this place does.”
Late last year, he became an Open Arms volunteer, and soon enough, he was hired. Within a few weeks, he was executive chef.
“If you ask him, he’ll say that fate brought him here,” said Open Arms executive director Leah Hébert Welles. “But from our perspective, he has the passion, and the heart, for what we do, which is using food as a tool, to help people, and to make a difference in the world. And his knowledge is huge, and his experience is huge, and all of that furthers our mission.”
Making every step count
The Open Arms kitchen is the heartbeat of the organization’s welcoming building. It’s an airy, sunny food factory/people magnet designed to turn out nutritious, delicious fare that’s sturdy enough to handle being frozen, delivered to clients’ doors, thawed and/or reheated, and relished.
Daugherty oversees a complex process. The kitchen — a handful of staffers and a league of volunteers — prepares recipes across nine menus, each based on different dietary and cultural needs. They range from heart-healthy (low-fat, low-sodium, with an emphasis on vegetables and whole grains) to African-style (flavors and traditions that will provide comfort to African-born clients) to vegetarian/vegan fare.
Working with a dietitian and nutritionist, it’s up to Daugherty to make the output delicious while remaining within the budget. He’s revamping recipes that have been in play for three and four years.
So far, no day is typical. Last Monday, he arrived at 6 a.m. and jumped into his first duty — preparing coffee for volunteers — before diving deep into setting up various kitchen stations so that volunteers’ time would be maximized. They assembled sandwiches, trimmed green beans, chopped broccoli and performed the other countless tasks required of the starting-from-scratch cooking that is an Open Arms hallmark.
“There can’t be a lull,” he said. “We only have them for two hours, so we have to capture every moment. We can’t afford to underutilize anyone, and we don’t want anyone to feel underutilized. Our volunteers are everything.”
Part of his job is to create revenue streams.
That evening, Open Arms was hosting a Charlie Awards dinner, which explained why Daugherty had salmon curing in ginger and cilantro in one of the kitchen’s impressive walk-in coolers. He’s hosting a half-dozen pop-up dinners (already sold out) this year, at $95 a person.
Spend two minutes with Daugherty, and a major takeaway is his infectious enthusiasm. “He’s real low-energy, isn’t he?” Hébert Welles said with a laugh. “It’s really important that we have a place that’s fun, that’s joyful, and Seth’s personality is a perfect fit for that.”
Twenty-three years ago, Daugherty was sidelined by a debilitating skiing accident. He was in a wheelchair for six months, and wasn’t sure if he’d ever walk again. He did. Although you’d never know it by watching him, he’s in constant pain.
“Which is why I want every step to count,” he said. “When you’re working in a for-profit venture, every step does count, but every step you take, you’re making someone else richer.
“Here, every step potentially means that I’m changing someone’s life through food. That’s immeasurable.”