At the mention of food trucks, most people think of hot dogs, hamburgers and tacos—not award winning chefs. Madison County is now home to an unusual mobile eatery—Over The Top Chef—a food truck owned and operated by Ender and Erica Oktayuren.
The Oktayurens, acclaimed chefs with reputations for creative farm-to-table cooking with a French influence, have created a menu that combines seasonal local ingredients with the creative flair of a five-star restaurant.
Last March, Ender Oktayuren was a featured chef at the James Beard Foundation in New York City. He had been working as the executive chef at Steadfast, a critically acclaimed Chicago restaurant, the latest in a series of high-profile jobs in the industry. For Oktayuren, it was another feather in his cap, one more line on an already stellar resume for the Chicago resident. Despite Oktayuren’s success, he was tired of the long hours and the pressure of running a top kitchen.
City restaurant life left little time for Oktayuren and his wife, a pastry chef, to spend with their children. That led the Oktayurens to look for a change in lifestyle. They decided to move away from the city and back to Ender’s home in central Virginia.
“I was growing tired of working 14 to 18 hour days, tired of having no help and the pressure of running a top kitchen,” said Oktayuren. “I grew up here in Madison County and one day was talking to my buddy, Tyler Berry. Tyler was telling me about his success with his Catch the Chef food truck and it really got me thinking about that. I was frustrated because I never got to see my family and really wanted a change in lifestyle and started to give some thought to the idea that having a food truck might be a way for us to get some balance back in our lives.”
Ender, a 2004 graduate of Madison County High School, began his career working in the kitchen at The Bavarian Chef before moving to Chicago to study culinary arts at Joliet Junior College. After graduating, he took a job at Trump Tower Chicago where he met Erica, and worked his way to being the lead line cook at Terrace 16, the fine-dining restaurant at Trump Tower. Oktayuren then went on to become executive chef for World of Whirlpool for six years before moving to Steadfast in 2017. During the 15 years he lived in Chicago, Oktayuren’s culinary skills were well-received and recognized, and he twice was featured at the Beard Foundation in New York.
Committing to the lifestyle change, the couple and their three children moved to Madison early in the summer of 2019 and began working on plans for their Over The Top Chef in July. The mobile eatery’s first outing was on Labor Day weekend at Madison County’s Taste of the Mountains festival.
Oktayuren is enthusiastic about the freedom the new venture allows.
“Even though Erica and I worked in the same restaurants, we didn’t really see each other 90 percent of the time,” he said. “Yes, we’d ride to work together and see each other at meals but that was it for 12 hours a day,” he said. “In my last couple of jobs, I was managing more than cooking. I like that I have gotten back to having more of a relationship with both the food and the customer. I’m enjoying the more personal aspect.”
The food truck operates five or six days each week and is parked in different locations throughout Madison County and Charlottesville. The couple is expanding their services to include catering for parties and special events and take-home dinners.
The move from the big city to the country hasn’t come without some adjustment patches. Oktayuren acknowledged that he still has has friends and family in Madison, while his wife grew up in Chicago.
“It has been a little bit of culture shock for Erica,” he said. “The idea of planning your day around grocery shopping took getting used to. It’s very different than the city where there are markets and grocery stores in every neighborhood. Here, you might have to go to Charlottesville for certain ingredients. All-in-all, it has been a nice change of pace. We get to work together doing what we love and are able to spend time with our family. It’s a nice change of scenery not being stuck behind the same four walls every day. I had a great time cooking in Chicago but it’s great to be home.”