On Saturday mornings in Oxford, patrons of the local Farmers' Market bundle up against the crisp autumn air, make their way Uptown and explore the various stalls to sample and purchase everything from fresh produce and festive artwork to pour-over coffee and flaky pastries. As they mosey past the chef chopping onions with speed and professional precision, many are lured in by the spicy aroma emanating from his table.
"What are you cooking up today, Steve?" many ask.
His response is practiced, but not rehearsed. He's repeated it to countless customers throughout the morning, but every time, his answer retains the natural excitement of a Food Network chef, as if he's discovering the ingredients and flavors anew as he prepares his dish.
"I decided today to make a nice Mediterranean stir fry," he says. "I'm using a garlic Mediterranean-infused olive oil. I'm gonna finish it off a little later on with a garlic cilantro balsamic vinegar. I have some ginger, and today I'm gonna use a garam masala. That's gonna give it a lot of flavor."
He places the spice back on the table and picks up a large, green vegetable.
"I've also got a nice thin-leaf cabbage. Green onions. Red and regular white onions. Fresh garlic. Carrots. I'm gonna stir fry that all up. I'll get a few tomatoes. Nice and simple. Just a little bit of salt to taste. Not a whole lot of ingredients. And oh, I'm gonna give it a few peppers as well."
This is Steve Townsend, the official chef of the Oxford Farmers' Market. Every Saturday morning, Steve sets up shop wherever he can find space at the market, bringing along his kitchen tools, a grill and maybe a few spices. He makes his way around to the various stalls, in search of ingredients to cook this week's dish. Rarely does he arrive with an idea of what he's going to whip up. Rather, he prefers to let inspiration strike during this early-morning exploration.
"As I walk around, I see what's plentiful for the year," he says. "It's a crapshoot in a lot of senses according to who's got what growing. If I see it, my mind might start to click, thinking about the different spices and herbs."
It's been about six years since Steve began working at the market. He used to cook just with his friends who, eventually, impressed by his skill and natural charisma, introduced him to Larry Slocum, the manager of the Oxford Farmers Market. Larry suggested he try out a food demo at the market, and Steve agreed to give it a shot.
He enjoyed the experience so much, he kept coming back every week to cook up something new. In the years since, he's made everything from BBQ pork sliders to fruit napoleons. Today, his table is a regular staple at the market, as vendors and customers alike find their way over throughout the morning to find out what he's making. As he chops and slices, he greets the regulars and makes himself available for questions to any newcomers hovering around his table.
When a customer points out a particular ingredient, Steve jumps at the opportunity to promote a fellow vendor.
"This here is a garlic Mediterranean-infused olive oil," he explains, holding it up for the customer to see. "Miss Evie back here has all sorts of delicious olive oils."
Steve explains that this is part of what he loves about this job.
"Everything here is from the farmers market, except the spices. So people know that this is all available here. You give people different ideas, show them how easy it is."
Watching Steve cook, you become fascinated by his skill. He chops with a soothing rhythm, dicing the veggies with ease before scraping them off the wooden cutting board and into a metal mixing bowl. At one point a bee lands near his knife, and he flicks it away with his finger without missing a beat in his chopping.
With this sort of natural ability, it's hard to believe that Steve has no formal training. He's been cooking for about 33 years, experimenting with ingredients at home, and though he's had mentors throughout the decades, he has never taken any official cooking classes. Instead, he's learned and developed his talents along the way.
In his 11 years in Oxford, Steve has earned a living working at various local restaurants. He cooked at Stella's, made soup at Steinkeller's (where he earned his nickname, "Soupy"), even grilled gourmet hot dogs at The Wood's. Today, he spends his weeks in the deli department of the Moon Co-Op. He's worked as a chef in the military, in Idaho, in North Carolina, but despite all of the adventures his cooking has brought him on, he still looks forward to Saturday mornings.
"This is like vacation for me," he says. "This is freelancing. You never have to have a plan. In the restaurants, everything is always the same. People enjoy that, but I like to expand it a little more. I give them the idea that there are more things out there you can do at home just as fast as you get it in the restaurants. Also, it keeps my mind clicking."
If the market has a heartbeat, it must be generated at Steve's table. The distinct smell of ginger and oil permeates the air around him, and his hearty laugh draws people in. Almost all of the vendors make their way over at some point, calling out, "Hey, Soupy! It always smells great over here!"
Some of his biggest fans are children. They split from their parents and inch shyly toward his table, eager to lend a hand. As long as their parents are okay with it, he always lets them.
"I've had times where I've got eight or nine kids around me all chopping something," he says. "They learn more. That type of community engagement I truly enjoy. All of a sudden I look down and one's grabbing an apron out of my bag... Those are the other rewards I enjoy."
Steve smiles as he recalls a time when a young girl, after helping him complete his dish, took one bite and exclaimed, "Mommy don't cook like that! This tastes good" He belts out a laugh: "I told her, 'Don't tell your mom!'"
The market loves it chef, and for Steve, the feeling is mutual. His skills have earned him guest appearances at other markets, such as the Richmond farmers market in Indiana where he cooked this past weekend, but he always looks forward to returning to Oxford.
He has his finger on the pulse of the town. When he notices a slight increase the market's activity, he asks, "Is there a football game today? You can always tell who's from here and who's visiting."
For as much as he loves cooking, it's clear this is what Steve is truly here for -- the community. As he finishes his dish and begins selling it for "one-two-three dollars a bowl!" a heavy-set man approaches and introduces himself, saying he was in town a few weeks ago when Steve had made BBQ pork shoulders. He loved them so much he came back for seconds and thirds. The man purchases a bowl of the stir fry, takes one bite and exclaims that it's delicious. After he finishes, Steve welcomes the man back to Oxford and wishes him a good day.
"And that's just the fun right there," he says.