Tallahassee’s Chef Shac goes from adversity to Food Network victory
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
When Shacafrica Herring-Simmons gets emotional, it’s not just because she recently won Food Network’s Chopped competition.
It’s the journey on the way to her appearance on national television in primetime that almost always brings her to tears.
Affectionately known by her professional name, Chef Shac, Herring-Simmons has endured the kind of adversity that would have destroyed someone with less fortitude. While going through an acrimonious divorce, she lost her job. That eventually led to an eviction that left her sleeping in her vehicle, while she fought for custody of her three children.
That went on for years in Birmingham, Ala., before she landed in Tallahassee in 2009. She had one more round of struggles – losing her job and homelessness for a second time — before finding some semblance of balance in her life.
Three months ago, Food Network came calling, giving Herring-Simmons national recognition that has kept her phone ringing.
“I feel excited and I cry a lot,” Herring-Simmons said with a hearty laugh. “A lot of days it’s unbelievable. I’ve gone through so much and had so much disappointments.”
Herring-Simmons had no clue that the day her grandfather taught her to fry eggs would lead to a culinary career. With each passing day in her native Delray Beach, her Bahamian grandfather introduced her to various island recipes.
She whipped them up whenever possible, developing a liking for the taste and feel of food that wouldn’t go away. She took it a step further, earning a degree from the Culinary Institute of Virginia College.
She eventually relocated in Tallahassee, getting married before moving to Birmingham, where she earned another degree from Culinard Culinary School.
She got her first job as an executive chef. Shortly after, her world began spiraling out of control.
Her support base shrunk, but Dennie Streeter, one of her instructors and mentor at Culinard, encouraged her.
She didn’t need a lot of urging, though.
“She always seem to have a mind of her own about what she will do with it (her culinary skills),” said Streeter. “She cares a lot about healthy eating how people can take care of themselves.
“Back in those times in the culinary kitchen it was all about as much butter as possible and adding salt to make it taste good. She was never in line with that. She wanted to do something different.”
Indeed she did. Herring-Simmons turned her focus to recipes for healthier dishes. That has since become part of her brand, although she has a knack for cooking up most Southern fixings.
During the last few years, demand for Chef Shac’s style of cooking has risen. So has her popularity.
She’s parlayed that notoriety into giving back to the community, working with several non-profit organizations.
It was her involvement with one of those non-profits, Whole Child Leon, that led to an invitation to compete in Chopped. Courtney Atkins, executive director of Whole Child Leon, called on State House representative Loranne Ausley to reach out to a mutual friend who is the producer of Chopped.
Selling Chef Shac wasn’t hard since her resume included working with Food Network’s Chop Jr. in Tallahassee.
A meeting was arranged between Chef Shac and the producer and the deal was done for her to fly to New York for the contest three months ago. All that time, Chef Shac couldn’t divulge the outcome of the contest, which she had won.
Several of her friends and family members joined her for a watch party last week when the taped show aired.
“It was a relief but it was also emotional to see everybody’s reaction,” she said.
What viewers didn’t see was the behind-the-scene logistics that goes into 13 hours of producing the show for a one-hour broadcast. Packed into the one-hour show were scenes of Herring-Simmons getting through each of the three rounds of the cooking competition.
It was tense, she said, all the time trusting the same higher power that got her through the personal turmoil she experienced years earlier.
She remembers letting out a sigh with every round she got through and saying, “Thank you, Jesus.”
“I felt like an anointing was there in that place,” she said. “Even though it was hard, there was a level of ease.”
The win was worth $10,000, money that she said will go toward her fledgling business, Chef Shac LLC, which she owns with a business partner.
If the calls that have followed her television appearance are an indication, Herring-Simmons has a very busy schedule in her immediate future. She’s been getting requests to make appearances across the country.
She intends to make as many as possible. It’s all part of her view that the sky is the limit.
“Now I’m like how far could I go,” she said. “I’m enjoying what’s happening and preparing myself for the success of that and expecting greater.”