AFTER three years of nursing school, Erica Oakley decided the medical field wasn’t for her. A personality test suggested that a career in the food industry might be a good fit—and a good fit, it is. Oakley—who is going on her third year as director of food and beverage at downtown fitness and climbing center North Mass Boulder and its on-site restaurant, Top Out Cafe—quickly realized that she had always been passionate about food. “I learned to cook from my grandma. I had a step stool at the counter where I helped her pickle vegetables and make homemade noodles,” says Oakley.
At the beginning of her career change, Oakley studied hospitality management at the Art Institute of Indianapolis and began working at the Local Eatery & Pub on Indy’s north side, where she learned time management, creative menu design, and leadership skills. Working with then-owner Craig Baker, a noted local restaurateur, she also learned how to push her limits and value creative chaos. For seven years, she worked as a sous chef at The Alexander hotel’s Market Table. She also competed in cooking contests and says that focus on vibrant presentation prepared her for her current role.
At the cafe, Oakley’s semi-seasonal menu ranges from post-workout snacks to large plates, including gochujang sticky wings, a chicken pesto panini, and the $7 Dirtbag Special (grilled cheese on Amelia’s bread served with a 16-ounce PBR). The remaining base of juices, smoothies, and acai bowls were inspired by a cafe in Seattle, says Oakley. She has high hopes for the cafe as it grows. With membership on the rise and new businesses moving into the area, both Top Out Cafe and Oakley’s future are climbing sky-high.
(1) Seafood. “Give me all the shellfish.”
(2) Black Eagle Coffee Machine. “It’s smarter than me, and the quality is insane.”
(3) Woodford old fashioned. “Nice and refreshing after an 18-hour day.”
(4) Blackstone griddle. “Good for every style of cooking.”
(5) Clipboards. “Everyone knows I’m on a mission when they see me with my clipboard.”