By Marilyn Tinnin
Damien Cavicchi is passionate about food, but despite his impressive resume including a five- year stint as the corporate executive chef at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, he is no food snob—not by a long shot. The Regional Director of Culinary Operations for The Blake Retirement Communities also has a passion for family and the traditions families share around the kitchen table.
A New Orleans native, Damien is one of four sons in a close-knit, but unique family. His mom who had come through the social upheaval of the 1960s retained a certain devotion to the “hippie health food” of that era. She packed school lunches with sandwiches made from sprouts and chickpeas. Damien’s Italian father, however, was a connoisseur of authentic Italian fare. And of course, in New Orleans there was the local Cajun Cuisine. A good crawfish po’boy still rates near the top of his to-die-for favorites.
Few children had a more diverse and thorough appreciation—or understanding—of food at such a young age! And because his parents loved to cook, cooking became something the family did together. Damien was not even six years old before he could put together a dinner salad with a homemade simple vinaigrette dressing. (I don’t think he was one of those typical American kids who thrive on peanut butter and chicken tenders—not that I would know).
When the family moved to Kentucky a few years later to help care for aging grandparents, Damien learned about another style of Southern cooking. As he says, “Good food was just the expectation no matter where we lived.” He took special note of the way each region created their recipes from what was fresh and seasonal. There was always the opportunity to be imaginative and original. He gravitated to that idea.
He makes an astute observation about the way food differed from one region to the next. Just as his father’s Southern Italy was not an affluent area, so neither was the South at this point in time. People learned to “make do” with the ingredients that were handy, and the world is richer for their originality!
When he graduated from high school, he headed off to culinary school at the prestigious Johnson and Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. Damien says, “I only lasted four months.” He was eager to learn by doing, and the approach there was not “hands on.” So, Damien began to travel the United States eventually settling in Asheville—because there was family close by—and it was there where he got his official career in the commercial kitchen, working for others in the beginning, but eventually opening his own fine dining Italian restaurant and catering business with a café.
It was also in Asheville that he met and married his wife, Lindsey, a San Francisco native who arrived in Asheville by way of Madison, Mississippi. Even after Damien took on the role of corporate executive chef at the Biltmore Estate, the couple made trips back to Madison to visit family. Damien was keenly aware of the way his two favorite components blended so beautifully here in Mississippi. Food and family were treasured. Eventually he and Lindsey made the big decision to bring their five children back to Mississippi and call it “home.”
Sitting in on a cooking demonstration recently at The Blake in Ridgeland, I can see that Damien is something akin to the favorite nephew to the residents. He was really quite the artist as he created divine chocolate delicacies that looked almost simple to imitate. Giving the history of the food as he worked made everything even more entertaining. But he says that is all part of it for him. He is always interested in the origin of the dish, the reason certain ingredients were chosen instead of certain others, and by the time he is done, it is clear that a history lesson has been a part of the demonstration.
One of Damien’s favorite things about his present position is that residents of The Blake share their family recipes with him, and he loves to use them. Residents may dine on Duck Breast with a Cherry Port Sauce one evening and enjoy Purple Hull Peas and cornbread the very next night. Those index cards with family recipes preserved in beautiful cursive handwriting are among his most prized possessions.
His love for family certainly keeps his heart receptive to the privilege of being entrusted with a family recipe that just may have never been shared outside the bloodline!
“I’ve been very blessed to realize that there is a lot of value to the tradition of the South with food because a lot of it came about through a sort-of not very affluent process,” he says. People used the simple things that were available and they created cuisine that is exquisite in its simplicity. Damien has a special appreciation for that simplicity, and he says it is a “craft,” which he equates in certain ways to our walk as Believers.
Simplicity is never simple, but the basics are what matters. Get the basics right, and you can discover so much more!
Damien and his family are enthusiastic members of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Jackson.
Try your hand at this pie, which Damien calls, “My favorite dessert currently.” Chess Pie could not be simpler and yet proper. Thanks!
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 /2 cup butter, melted
- 1 /4 cup whole buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon bourbon
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
Blind bake a nine-inch pie shell at 425 degrees for about five minutes. Using a wire whip, beat eggs and sugar together in a large bowl, and then stir in remaining ingredients. Add mixture to pie shell and bake at 350 degrees on low or no convection for approximately 45-50 minutes. Cover edges with foil in the event of too much browning.
Serve warm or at room temperature dusted with powdered sugar.
Makes one 9″pie