By Ann Cipperly

Since Chef Jonathan Walker went to the Bottling Plant Event Center last October, he has prepared meals for small, intimate dinners for ten to grand banquets for 500. The executive chef is sharing recipes from his collection for preparing a romantic Valentine’s dinner at home.

When the chef was growing up in Athens, Ga., his mother, father and grandmother were good cooks. He enjoyed helping his grandmother prepare large meals making everything from scratch, including homemade biscuits for every meal.

He also learned about cooking from his father and mother as well.  His father grilled and made Brunswick stew. Although he enjoyed cooking, Jonathan didn’t think about a career in food.

In high school, he began working at restaurants. He worked at restaurants while attending the University of North Georgia, receiving a two-year degree in business. He continued the restaurant work when he was a student at the University of Georgia majoring in forestry.

After a while, he began to realize that he was enjoying the restaurant work more than studying forestry although it could be stressful and long hours. He enjoyed the environment and was inspired by several chefs to stay in the restaurant business.

“I have always tried to learn,” says the Chef, “and remain thankful and humble through any good or bad experiences in the kitchen. It is a competitive business.”

After working at different restaurants, he began leaning more toward catering and banquet work. “I do feel fortunate that I do something I enjoy,” he says.

He was a sous chef in Athens and at Auburn University at Montgomery where they did a great deal of catering. Jonathan then went to Tiger Catering at Auburn University where he was the executive chef for four years.

“It was a lot of volume,” says the Chef, “and different types of events because of the student groups. I did a lot for athletics.” He conducted cooking classes at the university for the health and wellness program.

“I like that I am back in small business,” he says, “since that is where I started.”

Chef Walker prepares all the meals at the event center. He talks to clients about the menus, working with budgets and will provide a tasting.

He is working with local farmers and looking for other farmers to provide a wide assortment of fresh foods. The dishes are prepared from scratch, including salad dressings.

His brother is a pastry chef and assists with large weddings and parties. He also has a pastry chef from Montgomery who steps in to assist when needed.

When he is not working, the chef enjoys spending time with his one-year-old daughter, and he has a love of music.

For preparing a special Valentine’s dinner at home, he suggests shopping two days ahead and cooking a day ahead as much as possible. The salad dressing, soup, appetizer and dessert are generally better made the day ahead. Cooking ahead also eliminates so much clean up the day of the dinner.

“You don’t want to ruin the occasion,” he says, “because you are rushing to get things done.”

The Event Center opened in April 2010 and is owned by Lisa Ditchoff. Located in downtown Opelika, the center was originally the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant.

“I have been looking to expand this part of my business for a couple of years,” says Lisa. “I have been looking for a chef that is the right fit. To be a good chef is one thing, but to be a good chef and have the experience doing plated meals for 500 is something every restaurant chef cannot do. Someone who has that experience and creative fare can do high end, five course dinners to reception banquets to soul food.”

They recently had a wine dinner that sold out quickly.

“Jonathan brings a lot of heart and soul,” adds Lisa. “He is working closely with farmers to assure ingredients are fresh. For his banana puddings, he bakes vanilla wafers from scratch.  He makes preserves to serve with cheeses.”

“I am glad to be here and be part of the Opelika community,” says Chef Walker. “I have been welcomed here, and I really love it. I look forward to meeting more people and developing relationships throughout the community.

“I feel very fortunate,” he adds.

Look over Chef Walker’s recipes for lunch and dinner, and assemble special meals to serve on Valentine’s day.

Here is a selection of recipes for a picnic or lunch to pack for your Valentine’s workday. Can be prepared ahead.

Ann Cipperly can be contacted at

Southern Chicken Salad
1 whole cooked chicken (boiled or rotisseried)
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 onion, diced
1 lemon, juice and zest
1 cup real mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. yellow mustard
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Shred chicken and place in bowl with celery and onion. In a separate bowl, mix remaining ingredients then add to chicken and diced onions and celery. Store in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Eggcellent Egg Salad
1 dozen eggs, boiled and chopped
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill (or 1 tsp. dried)
1/2 cup real mayonnaise
1 tsp. yellow mustard
3 large pickle spears, deseeded and diced
Place chopped eggs in a bowl. Add remaining ingredients; combine well. Store in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Loaded Baked Potato Salad
2 large russet potatoes
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper
Rub potatoes with olive oil and sprinkle salt and pepper on potatoes. Bake at 400 for 30 minutes or until cooked. Cool down on counter for 15 minutes. Then place in refrigerator for another 15 minutes.
Meanwhile mix:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
Pull potatoes from refrigerator and cut into ¾ inch cubes. Fold together with mayonnaise and sour cream mixture.
1/2 cup cheddar cheese
1/2 cup cooked bacon (or bacon bits)
1/2 bunch green onions, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Chill and serve.

Balsamic Green Bean Salad
1 lb. fresh green beans
Blanch beans in salted boiling water for 1 minute; place into ice water bath.
1 large red bell pepper, julienned
Then in a blender combine:
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp. honey
Pinch of salt, black pepper
Toss all ingredients together, Chill and serve.

Cream Cheese Brownies
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate
1 1/4 cups sugar
10 Tbsp. butter
3 eggs
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. salt
Cream Cheese Filling:
4 oz. (half of 8 oz. pkg.) cream cheese, softened
2 Tbsp. all purpose flour
2 Tbsp. melted butter
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Melt chocolate over double boiler, add sugar and butter and mix well. Add eggs. Combine sifted flour, baking powder, cocoa and salt; fold into batter and mix well. Pour into baking pan coated with nonstick spray.
Combine ingredients for cream cheese filling. Dollop over brownie batter; swirl through batter with a knife.
Bake at 325 for 30 minutes.

1/2 cup melted butter
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup chocolate chips
Mix butter and sugar well, then add eggs and vanilla. Sift flour, baking powder and salt into bowl. Fold flour ingredients into sugar mixture.  Add chocolate chips. Pour into baking pan coated with nonstick spray.
Bake at 350 for 25 minutes.

Valentine Dinner Menu
Green Salad or Sautéed Shrimp with Honey Citrus Vinaigrette
Steak with Black Forest Steak Seasoning Blend with Rosemary Roasted Fingerling Potatoes
Potato Crusted Salmon with Roasted Vegetables
Flourless Chocolate Torte

Honey Citrus Vinaigrette
Serve with leafy green salad or sautéed shrimp for an appetizer.
1 small shallot, minced (about 2 Tbsp.)
1 small clove garlic, minced (about 1/2 tsp.)
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon, orange or other citrus
1 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. honey
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Add all ingredients and blend, adding oil slowly at the end. Chill until ready to serve.

Black Forest Steak Seasoning Blend
3 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. onion powder
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. coriander
2 tsp. fennel seed (ground)
Mix well. For use on steaks, chicken or fish. Try on filet mignon or ribeye cooked in an iron skillet.

Rosemary Roasted Fingerling Potatoes
1 Tbsp. kosher salt or to taste
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. chili powder
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup olive oil
Mix above ingredients in a food processor or blender.
2 lb. or more fingerling potatoes
Toss potatoes in mixture and roast at 425 for 20 minutes, stirring half way through. If making a small amount of potatoes, cut the olive oil and seasonings in half.

Potato Crusted Salmon
Serve with sautéed or roasted vegetable.
1 pkg. frozen shredded potatoes
1 small red onion, julienned
1 small red bell pepper, julienned
2 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
Four 6 oz. salmon filets
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Fold together potatoes, pepper, onion, eggs and salt and pepper. Then dust topside of salmon filets with cornstarch.
Pack potato mixture on top of the salmon filets.
Heat pan with olive oil to medium high heat. Place salmon potato side down in the pan. Cook for approximately 3 minutes or until golden brown, then flip.
Turn down heat and cook for an additional 5 minutes.

Flourless Chocolate Torte
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (plus extra for garnish)
Preheat over to 375. Butter an 8-inch round baking pan. Cut chocolate into small pieces and heat in a double boiler with butter. Stir until smooth. Remove from heat and whisk in the sugar.
Add eggs and continue to whisk. Sift in 1/2 cup cocoa powder and whisk until combined. Pour batter into pan and bake for 25 minutes. Let cool completely then invert onto serving plate. Dust top with extra cocoa, if desired.

Valentine’s Day Cocktail Recipes
For before and/or during dinner:

Rose Sangria
3 oz. Moscato
1 oz. orange juice
1 oz. cranberry juice
Combine ingredients. Serve chilled over glasses packed with sliced strawberries and lemon wedges.

For after dinner:
“Chocolate Cha-Cha”
1 oz. Grey Goose Cherry Noir
1 oz. Kahlua
1 oz. Malibu
Combine and shake.

Cherry Cordial
Pour cherry cordial over ice for an after dinner cocktail.