By Morgan Bryce
To Executive Chef Chris Wilton, food and music are the common threads that bind humanity together.
“We wouldn’t have wars if people came together to listen to music and eat. To me, food and music help us understand each other more and become closer,” Wilton said. “What better way can people live their lives (than) by having a good time and eating some great food?”
Wilton, executive chef of both his family’s business Wilton Catering and downtown Opelika’s Bottling Plant Event Center, said he traces his love of cooking back to his father, Charles Sr.
In Mobile, a city where the Cajun, Creole and Southern cuisines intersect, Wilton said his father learned the ropes of cooking from a cast of characters like Uncle Buddha and Johnny Vella, who were all well-versed in the area’s culinary heritage.
“My father has always cooked. He learned to cook from other family and friends because his mother only cooked seven things, and all seven things were Monday through Sunday,” Wilton said. “He passed that love of cooking down to me and my brothers … and all of us know how to cook. We all have a knack for fixing dinners and nice meals … it’s definitely a family thing.”
Instead of going to culinary school after high school, Wilton traveled northeast to Auburn University, where he received degrees in journalism and mass communication.
After college, Wilton worked in television for two years before returning to the culinary world, honing his skills as a chef in Baton Rouge before taking a corporate job in Atlanta with Ruby Tuesday’s.
The occupation’s daily grind and demanding schedule prompted Wilton to change careers, this time as a computer programmer.
Twelve years later, looking to move closer to family, Wilton left Atlanta and moved in with his parents in Auburn.
“For a month, I just kinda soul searched and realized I needed to go back to food. After a while, I talked to my dad and asked him about opening up our own catering business,” Wilton said. “I pitched him my plan and he was like, ‘yeah, let’s do this.’”
Following months of careful planning and consideration, the father-son duo opened their business in 2007 in Loachapoka, a building shared with the town’s lone post office.
In the early years, building up a strong clientele base proved to be a challenge, but through mutual connections and participating in events like the ‘Old 280 Boogie’, Wilton said the now 10-year old business is thriving.
“We were selected earlier this year as the best caterer in Lee County, and when he called to tell me about it, you could hear the joy in his voice,” Wilton said. “I’ve always wanted to make him proud because I think he’s a phenomenal cook. My parents really drove me to have a strong work ethic, and that’s a big part of where I am right now.”
Wilton said he prides himself on the business’s extensive menu, which features an array of Cajun-influenced dishes that he likes to reinterpret with international flair and flavor.
“My wife (Lisa) and I are foodies, but we also love to travel. When we plan to go somewhere, we always look somewhere and ask ourselves, ‘where are the top places to eat, and which places can you go and experience the cuisine of that country or state?’” Wilton said. “And whenever we try something that we like, I try to take that idea and incorporate it into what I make. With anything I cook, I want people to take a bite and experience an explosion of flavors and textures and go, ‘wow.’ “
In July, Bottling Plant Event Center owner Lisa Ditchkoff hired Wilton to be her executive chef, a move that she said has been a huge boost to her business.
“I’ve worked with him for over a decade. He’s a delight to work with,” Ditchkoff said. “He’s very professional, organized and is one of the hardest working people I know. He cares deeply about food quality and service. Food is his life.”
Now 52, Wilton said he believes he has found his life’s calling.
“All I wanna do is have people eat food and enjoy themselves. I don’t care about how much money I make, that’s not why I do this,” Wilton said. “I’m happier now than I’ve ever been at any other point in my life.”