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Meet Virginia: Travis Walker

Perfectly cooked scallops are a lot like the skin on your hand, Chef Travis “T.J.” Walker tells his students.

“All right. So what we’re feeling for, when this is done, relax your hand, you touch this area of your hand, it’ll tell you the feel,” he explains. “That feel that we’re looking for is our pointer finger to our thumb.”

Seventeen Phoebus High School seniors are cooking an elegant appetizer under Walker’s direction: pan seared scallops with ginger carrot puree, dots of raspberry balsamic glaze, and a nest of julienned baby spinach. After demonstrating, Walker circulates as the kids create, ultimately tasting and grading their cooking.

“This is always the worst part, huh?” Walker asks his students, who respond, in. unison, “Yes!”

Taking a bite, Walker jokes, “It’s awful,” before the students giggle their reply, “You’re always such a hater!”

“No, it tastes perfect,” Walker allows. “Good job, ladies.”

Walker spent his early career as head chef in hotel restaurants from Philadelphia to Williamsburg before becoming a father and seeking the more predicable hours and good pay cooking in assisted living and rehabilitation facilities brought. He enjoyed the twin challenges of creating dishes that suited older diners’ health requirements and their stubbornness.

“I will say a lot of them are set in their ways, and like things in a certain way, so if you give it to them differently, they’re kind of like, ‘Eh, I don’t know, I’ve been eating it this way for 72 years. I don’t want you to change it.’ But if you can get them past the change and they try it for the first time, you got them.”

But the jobs came with an unspoken downside. “There were people you kind of get attached to, you get there, and they’re already in their 80s, and then you walk into the dining room the next day, and they’re gone,” Walker said. “And they’re never coming back." 

After becoming head catering chef at NASA’s Langley Research Center and a chance encounter judging high schoolers in a cooking competition there, he was encouraged to apply for a teaching gig at Phoebus High School and landed the job.

Chef Walker demonstrates how to sear the scallops.
Christine Kueter
Chef Walker demonstrates how to sear the scallops.

“I stepped out on faith, and here I am today,” Walker said.

Walker loves tweaking recipes he learned from his grandmother, Lillie—“she’s like the queen of chicken and dumplings”—his father, a military cook, and his grandmother, Irene, who was “probably the best culinarian I’ve ever met in my life,” Walker said.

“She would just fry up pasta, sauté it was butter, garlic, peppers, some onions, and season it well, and that’s it. No cheese or anything in it. As a chef today, now I have to do a little bit more, but those simple things were amazing.”

He always begins as they did: with fresh, high-quality, often local ingredients, many of which are new to his students.

“If I can bring in scallops, or, you know, lump crab, or duck breast, and things like that, a lot of time the students here they’ll never get to see those things again,” Walker said. “It’s almost like an introduction.”

“I’ve never had them before,” said one student, fingering a scallop.

“You never had scallops?” said another in disbelief. “Whaaaat?” 

“They’re good,” said the first.

When COVID struck, Walker got even more creative. He’d cook live on Facebook from his kitchen, drawing hundreds as he made seafood macaroni and cheese, shrimp po’ boy, crabby fries, and crabcakes. He cooked private dinners, bought a food truck, and started catering. At Phoebus, he prepared ingredient packets for his students— “it’d be a bunch of random vegetables and herbs, might be chicken, a piece of pork loin, or a fish, they were packed up in little freezer bags”—to try to get his students to turn their cameras on. Some did.

He is thankful to be back in the gleaming stainless kitchen at Phoebus, with food truck season in front of him, and his 10- and 15-year-old sons, Kayden and Jarmell, at his side. 

“You just got to keep going,” he said, “and I take that through life. I instill that in my students as well. You didn’t get it right the first time, do it again.”

Walker often thinks of the quarter mile stretch of road back in Melfa, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where he and his cousins picked strawberries, squash, and watermelons on his grandparents’ farm before they boarded the school bus in the morning. 

“I think a lot every day about things they’ve taught me along this journey,” Walker said. “I know they’d 100% be proud. They’d probably stand here and say, ‘Yeah, that’s my baby!’”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.