By Naomi Overby
Matt Highley’s journey to the culinary world received its motivation to start at age 15 after he was told he wouldn’t make it.
At 19 years old, he was named the executive chef of Appleby’s Cafe & Wine Cellar.
“I love to cook. Love the chef life,” Highley said. “When I was 15, I worked at Sonic Drive-In. I remember saying ‘I want to try to be a chef one day’, and my manager told me ‘You’ll never be a chef.’ So, I left Sonic, got into a real restaurant and stayed there until I went to culinary school. All it took was someone telling me I wasn’t going to do it.”
Today, Highley is working to transform a new setting: Trevecca’s. Just last month, Highley began working as the new director of dining services under Chartwells, Trevecca’s first new food service provider in 45 years.
“Matt coming in, he’s got a plethora of experience he’s willing to offer between managerial experience and being a chef himself,” Logan Rodgers, assistant director of dining services said. “He’s got a servant leadership style. He just walks alongside people and wants to get involved in everything.”
Together with the Chartwells staff, Highley’s responsibility ranges from meetings, to planning and implementing new installments in the cafeteria to overseeing any food service location on campus. New additions to the cafeteria that students will begin to see are a direct result of Highley’s work.
Just before coming to campus, Highley worked as part of an operational excellence team, opening up new businesses for Compass Group USA across the nation, He applied for the job at Trevecca to be at home more with his wife and two daughters.
After receiving an associate of science from Sullivan University, a culinary arts school in Louisville, Ky., Highley has held other executive chef titles at fine dining private restaurants, and later stepping into thecorporate side of the culinary industry at 26-years-old.
Much like the kitchen, Highley’s schedule can be hectic and spontaneous. At any given time of the day, he could be throwing on a chef’s coat to lend the kitchen staff a hand, assisting in inputting time clock stamps when the system malfunctions, or printing labels for grab-and-go meals.
His typical day begins at 6 a.m. to greet vendors and team members coming in, and he spends the rest of his day rotating between the Cube, the Hub, the 1901 locations, the dining hall, and his office.
“He wants to be extremely involved. If there’s any opportunity for him to step in and do something, he will. He won’t delegate something that he could do himself,” said Katie Wreyford, manager of 1901. “That to me shows in all kinds of different moments. He sees the bigger picture of what service looks like.”
When he asks employees how they are, he checks the body language and demeanor of his employees, knowing he most likely won’t get an honest response, Highley says.
“I’ll hang out around here a little longer and wait for my moment to strike. I’ll catch them and say ‘You sure you’re alright?’ and they’ll say ‘No, I’m good’ and I’ll break the ice, like, ‘I didn’t catch you as a liar,” Highley said.
Highley’s transition into Trevecca was being mindful of the culture, adjusting to company values, and learning what’s important to Trevecca, he said. He had experience working as a senior executive chef at Belmont, so he was familiar with a university setting.
“That’s where I first got introduced into universities. I fell in love with it. Absolutely love the interaction with the students, the drive behind them, just the way they operate, the new generation. It’s a lot of fun,” said Highley.
Moving forward, the cafeteria will continue to see updates and changes. Highley already had employees remove the old ice cream cooler and is in the process of securing a soft-serve machine to replace it.
“I didn’t say anything. I did it on a Sunday, had my guys pull [the cooler] out. One day all of a sudden there’ll just be a big soft serve machine there,” said Highley. “That’s the way I roll. I quietly change the world.”