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Wed, Aug 2, 2017 at 05:00 AM

Chef brings New Orleans flair and healthy heart cooking classes to South

Joseph Vance was still a teenager when his enthusiasm for cooking prompted his training manager to point him to a career in food.

“He saw the eye I had,” Vance remembers. “He saw how much passion and love for food I had. He suggested I go to culinary school.”

That was cool with Vance. He didn’t know what kind of work he wanted to do at the time. 

“My first love was basketball,” he recalls. “Anytime I wasn’t in the kitchen, I was on the basketball court.”

Thirty years later, Vance, 50, is executive chef at Marshall Medical Center South in Boaz. As executive chef, his mission is to elevate meals for patients and staff to fine restaurant dining quality.

“My staff members and I want to give the hospital more than just hospital food,” he says. “It’s a restaurant experience. You can’t get this caliber of cooking just going to anywhere, in just any restaurant or just any hospital. We’re bringing the restaurant to the hospital.”

Born in New Orleans, Vance grew up around what is arguably the best food in the country. His father worked as a body and finder mechanic and his mother was a seamstress at Gus Mayer department store. On the side, she crafted magnificent costumes for parades, Krewes and Indians, all carnival revelers in New Orleans who dress up for Mardi Gras in ceremonial apparel. 

At 19, Vance was working at Copeland’s of New Orleans, a well-known restaurant chain in Louisiana, when the executive chef noticed a talent blooming in the teen. He steered Vance toward Delgado Community College, where he earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts. He received the Culinary Excellence Award in 1992 from the National Restaurant Association in Chicago, where he had the honor of meeting culinary legend Julia Child. 

Vance’s first chef position was at City Park Country Club in New Orleans, where he cooked for weddings, art exhibits, concerts and festivals. Next was the Westin Hotel and then on to Commander’s Palace, a New Orleans landmark where he worked alongside the Brennan family and Chef Jamie Shannon, who are credited with fostering a rich culinary tradition widely considered the epitome of New Orleans fine dining.

“It was very eventful,” he says. 

After that, Vance went to work for Sodexo/Marriott, a worldwide company that manages Marshall South’s food services. His first appointment was as executive chef at Loyola University. In 1996, he left his beloved ‘Big Easy’ to move to Huntsville to work with the Marriott Space and Rocket Center Hotel. 

The following year he applied for the same position as his future wife, Arnetta. Vance got the job and eventually got Arnetta’s hand in marriage.

Now, Arnetta is a food services director at Signature Health Care in Huntsville. The couple lives in Bailey Cove and has two daughters, a son, one grandchild and a second on the way.  

Vance said he enjoys cooking at home but his wife and granddaughter often beat him to the kitchen.

“She likes to play around with great meals, too,” he says. 

Vance spent a couple of years as executive chef at Troy University then Oakwood University before returning to a hospital setting. 

“I have my niche to do things the way I like,” he says.

It’s been a positive experience at Marshall South since he arrived in February. 

“It’s a wonderful staff,” he says. “They’re sponges. They feed off all the information you give them and they run with it.”

The kitchen has increased its entrees, vegetables and soups. Sales are up and patient satisfaction has increased.

“The patrons walk out with a smile,” he said. “We give the customers what they ask for.”

One example of giving customers what they want is the coffee shop that opened last year in the Women’s Center of the hospital. Sunrise Brew serves Starbucks beverages along with sweet and savory foods. 

“Food is a common language, I don’t care who you are,” he says. “I love what I do.”

Chef Joe introduced Healthy Heart cooking demonstrations in June. The classes are free to the public and samples are served. The next class is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 3 at 3 pm. Classes are held in the Women’s Center on the north side of Marshall South. A sidewalk sign will indicate the closest entrance. Please register by calling 256.571-8000.