See Chef Jeff's recipe for Meditarranean hummus here.
Jeffrey Riley’s family once owned Ted Cook’s 19th Hole BBQ in Minneapolis and modeled a healthy obsession with good food and hard work. Riley began his career in food there early in life, then worked his way up through multiple restaurants and roles to eventually become banquet chef at Nicollet Island Inn. It was in the restaurant industry that Riley first found real community. He also never forgot his neighbors in the inner city, where Riley saw a lot of struggles growing up.
“I knew this business had the potential to impact others—to make money, legally,” says Riley with a chuckle. “But I wanted to find a way to do it while benefitting those who are down and out—and instilling in staff members excellence, service, creativity, and a passion for what they do.”
Fifteen years ago with a mission in mind, Riley launched a licensed catering business, “Chef Jeff,” based out of Colonial Church in Edina. It grew, so he later moved to Plymouth Congregational Church. The company coordinates full-service catering for corporate and residential clients, orchestrating informal and formal events for groups of all sizes while using proceeds to benefit those in need. It does so either through direct financial support or by providing low- or no-cost catering for ministry events at its partner churches and other local non-profit organizations. Along the way, there’s been a focus on the personal development of staff members with a unique working atmosphere that fosters deep relationships in the kitchen and toward clients.
Food is made from scratch. Attention is paid to the details of service, timeliness and presentation. But to Riley, it’s all a means to an end. The food business—with its demanding schedules, repetitive tasks, and reliance on teamwork—”can shape everything about you,” he says. He tells his team members—who come in with all levels of experience—that they should “just be the best you can be, and you’ll either lead positively or negatively. That’s true in the kitchen, and it’s true in life.”
Amber Stewart is Riley’s daughter and is client and operations manager for Chef Jeff. She’s on the front lines of creating completely custom events, helping clients analyze the space and tools they have to work with, the menu they have in mind, and the flow and feel they’re going for. She pulls together a team of Chef Jeff staff members and external vendors, when needed, who prepare food off-site—in their two church-based prep kitchens—and put the final touches on it just before serving it at “eat time.” They’ve done buffet-style meals for the homeless and for families heading to Wednesday night church ministry gatherings. They’ve done high-end corporate dinners and full-service appetizer parties in honor of corporate retirements, boisterous ethnic weddings and somber funerals. And while the menus and décor vary greatly, there’s one thing in common: a selfless approach.
“There’s a lot of bad things going on in the world. It’s such a privilege being a part of people’s events and moments,” says Stewart. She remembers vividly the day one woman called after her husband died unexpectedly, saying she didn’t want to have to think about anything when it came to food for his memorial. “Clients trust us with so much—we get to be in the trenches with them, and it’s more than just food for us,” Stewart says. “People can feel that.”
Chef Jeff by the Numbers
in food and services given to those in need each year. “I tell my team, some jobs you’re not going to get paid for … and customer service isn’t a department, but an attitude,” Riley says. “No matter who we’re serving, we go way beyond the food. Jesus was a servant-leader, and we believe we should serve others, too. No matter what.”
meals (and counting) served to those in need. Riley remembers one meal his team served to the homeless, calling it one of the best meals he can remember. “Those really bless my heart,” he says.
bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers served at St. Paul Saints stadium for the Bacon and Beer Classic.
straight hours the team spent supplying catering to private jets during the Super Bowl.
most catering events ever completed in one day.
stars Chef Jeff has on Yelp, Facebook and Google Reviews. “We’re really proud of our reputation,” says Stewart.