For some, the term “unpaid internship” ignites hellacious memories of frantic coffee excursions and awkward conference room shuffles. That’s not the case for Anna Davis. Although the private chef is based in Springfield, Missouri, she spends months at a time staging in kitchens around the world. Staging is essentially an unpaid internship that allows chefs like Davis to train under some of the world’s top culinary masterminds. No lowly coffee runs here: Staging opens serious doors for chefs. Since Davis started staging, she’s worked in prestigious restaurants including Lyszverket and Maaemo – experience she channels for her private dinner clients, who rave about her simple, Scandinavian-inspired cooking.
Davis started preparing meals for her family at seven years old. As a piano major in college, she stretched her skills as a one-woman catering operation, providing small bites for friends’ piano recitals and private dinners for visiting conductors. At 23, Davis won the Food Network’s national “Chopped at Home Challenge,” earning her $10,000 to launch her career as a private chef.
These recipes are inspired by signature comfort foods from each country in Scandinavia.
Davis stays busy traveling the world and building her private client roster, but she can’t resist the pull of competition. This October, she’ll compete in the World Food Championships in Dallas, Texas, along with two other Springfield chefs: Kymberlee Matney of Lost Signal Brewing Co. and Chaz Koeppen of Cafe B-29.
Although her cuisine is often vegetable-forward, Davis qualified for the competition in the Bacon category, beating out seasoned barbecue professionals at the qualifiers in St. Louis. Now, she’ll compete against more than 1,500 other chefs for the $300,000 grand prize at the international competition in October. “It’s a little bit overwhelming,” she says. “But it’s very exciting. I’m viewing it as a wonderful opportunity to connect with a lot of chefs. It’s supposed to be a good environment – not a hardcore competition where everyone’s at each other’s throats.” Bacon may seem like an unorthodox choice for Davis, who’s made a name for herself with an innovative approach to fresh, simple, vegetable-forward dining. However, if her past successes have shown us anything, it’s her appreciation for quality ingredients – and a razor-sharp attention to detail that’s sure to take her far in the industry.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? I love garlic and onions, and I love butter. Definitely simple things like that. I also love making sauces and marinades for vegetable dishes; something I’m really big into right now is showing that vegetables are just as important as meat, and can also taste just as good. For example, I love taking a head of cabbage and turning it into something just as good as a steak.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? A technique I really enjoy is using a specific ingredient – something fresh – and trying to highlight it in many different ways as I can. So I’ll do an onion seven ways or a carrot done five different ways. It’s about really highlighting that ingredient instead of hiding it by breading or frying it or putting it in a heavy sauce. Scandinavian cuisine highlights the ingredients instead of obscuring them.
What’s your perfect day of eating in Springfield? I’d start my morning at The Coffee Ethic. I don’t eat breakfast out very often, so I’d probably stick to coffee. It it’s a Saturday, I might go for brunch at The Order – I love their salads, so that could also work for lunch. I also love Queen City Wine Dive for their small plates, or Cherry Picker [Package x Fare] if it’s a summer day. I’d opt for Cherry Picker’s chilled soups or a cheese platter – it’s a great casual atmosphere for eating with friends. From there, I’d probably head to Reverie for a cocktail.
How has the local food scene evolved over the past year? Five years ago, I couldn’t have been doing what I’m doing. For one, there’s a lot more interest in local farmers and the fresh, organic food that’s grown around here. People also care more about eating healthy, and they will try new things instead of sticking to their steak and potatoes. I think we’re also getting away from having a big piece of meat as the centerpiece of the meal. Also, portion control – we’re moving away from huge quantities and moving more toward small plates so you can try more things.
Who are Springfield chefs you admire at the moment? Someone who helped me along the way was chef Roland Parny with La Galette Berrichonne. I’ve had a lot of communication with him, and he’s been extremely helpful. I also really admire Craig Von Foerster at Harvest. He’s incredible – if I want a formal dinner, I’m going there for sure. I also think Caleb Stangroom at The Order is doing a really amazing job. He’s so young, and The Order already has such high standing. He’s really kept that up.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in Springfield? I’d love to get some good Israeli food. I’m going to be in South Africa in December studying at a restaurant, and I’m very interested in that kind of cuisine. I’d also love to see more of an emphasis on fresh foods – using local farmers, local cheese and meat, which I think can lend itself well to New American cuisine.
What’s your favorite comfort food? A cheese board. I’ll go to the Brown Derby International Wine Center and stock up on some really good cheese. I’m also a huge fan of chips and salsa, although I wouldn’t do those two things together.
What is your first food memory? When I was a kid, my mom made this dish that I’d always ask for on my birthday. It was a mashed potato pie with spaghetti sauce, ground beef, green beens, mashed potatoes and cheese on top. I also remember cooking for my family at a really young age – I made tuna noodle casserole, and it burnt very badly. Everyone still ate it, even though it had that bad smoky flavor. My family has always been supportive of my cooking. [Laughs]
What are your future plans? I’ve always said I don’t want to open my own concept – I love traveling and doing private chef work, and I do want to continue that. Still, I really want to bring more Scandinavian cuisine to the Springfield area, and the only way to do that would be opening a place of my own. I wouldn’t want to do a full restaurant – I do a lot of seven-course dinners for my clients and don’t have the flexibility for a restaurant right now – so I’d aim for more of a café or bistro-style eatery. Something with small plates, a smaller menu that’s really focused on Scandinavian cuisine. Right now, I don’t have time to plan what that looks like, but it’s something I’m eyeing within the next 10 years or so.
For more information, visit privatechefanna.com.