SOUTH BEND NATIVE and Chef’s Academy grad Paul Dickens grew up loving the food his mother and grandmother cooked at family gatherings, cookouts, and church breakfasts. But he was more interested in being a kid, riding his bike, and playing with friends than he was helping out in the kitchen. And while he later got his certification to be an electronics systems technician from Lincoln Tech, it wasn’t until he enrolled at The Chef’s Academy in downtown Indianapolis that he fell in love with world cuisines, creating things with his hands, and understanding just how complex cooking can be. Now, after operating a successful catering and private dinner company, as well as taking on several high-profile athletes as clients, Dickens is looking to give back to the community with a full-service food truck he hopes to bring to community events, festivals, and the neighborhoods where customers first spread the words about his culinary talents.
Being a private chef wasn’t exactly in your early career plans. What led you to cooking in the first place?
I had a job at Penn Station all through high school, so I had some experience with restaurants. But it took me a few years to figure out what my passions were. I mostly enrolled at the Chef’s Academy to let my mom know I was doing something. Then I found myself pretty quickly falling in love with being in a kitchen. I wasn’t always the most attentive to the lectures and the textbooks. I definitely learn best by working with my hands. Working in a kitchen with so many talented instructors really expanded my mind when it came to different global cuisines and learning how to move around as a team with other people. Writing down your tasks, not just going for it, and planning things out really helped me to see the whole process through to a great end result.
What did you think you would end up doing with your culinary degree?
I figured I would cook at a big hotel or on a cruise ship. Working for myself definitely wasn’t in the game plan. I started off with an internship at Buca di Beppo and then later worked at Harry & Izzy’s on the north side and Crooked Stick Golf Course in Carmel. Things were pretty slow there, and I didn’t have those weeknights where I’d go in and do several hundred covers. I also realized that the members wanted things pretty simple, and I was really hoping to elevate my cuisine. I knew I had the skill set, and I didn’t have to work for someone else to prove myself.
How did you go about becoming a private chef?
I literally just posted on Instagram that I’d be selling dinners on Sunday, and I cooked 27 meals that week. That became more and more meals as the weeks went on. So I turned that into a business, got my LLC, and started introducing myself to the community. One place I went was CrossFit Zionsville, which is where I started thinking more about the health aspects of cooking. It was really like going back to school to learn about portion size and diets like paleo and keto. Later, I was invited to do an event for 100 people at the VA hospital in Atlanta. I got invited back the next year. The third year of working for myself, I had an individual ask me if I could cook for his family on a regular basis, and that started my private chef career. I even started traveling with some clients, which meant cooking everything for the day, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, as well as planning the meals and shopping for groceries.
And you took on a number of high-profile athletes. What were some of the challenges of that?
Most of my clients are basketball and football players, so it’s all about feeding them to the point where they maintain weights and stay healthy. I basically shifted into being a sports nutritionist. One of the things I pay a lot of attention to is cramps and helping my athlete clients eat the kind of diet that will help them avoid inflammation. That means meals with a lot of fiber, leafy greens, citrus, and tart cherry juice. I never thought I would be thinking about that as a chef, but, honestly, I’ve loved every part of this. It’s been a nonstop educational journey, and I’ve learned to take every opportunity that I can.
What are some of the cities that you enjoy visiting with your clients?
Denver and Los Angeles are two of my favorites, just because of the different local markets and availability of fresh produce. They’re both melting pots of culture, and I always bring back ideas from traveling there, eating at new restaurants. It’s fun to come back and think about how I can put my own twist on an ingredient I saw or a dish I had at a new restaurant.
What was the idea behind starting a food truck?
That’s been brewing for at least two years. I even put it on paper, and I knew it was a goal of mine. In 2022, I started putting that idea into place. I bought a new truck and had it built out to my liking. It’s pretty much a restaurant on wheels, so it won’t limit what kind of cooking I can do as some food trucks do. I can have a rotating menu, and I can continue to cater out of the truck.
What can people expect?
I’m basically bringing my approach to cooking to the truck. So that means restaurant-quality dishes, not just tacos or burgers. I lean toward Asian cuisine with a noodle base and sauces with tons of ginger and fresh herbs I’ve seen a few trucks like this in California. I’m starting off with lunches in the parking lot of Broadway United Methodist Church, where I work out of their commissary. I really like how everything they do at the church is community-based, and it’s a great site for my regulars from various parts of the city to come and get a great meal. A lot of my approach is giving some better options, healthier options, while keeping things tasty. I remember when people really didn’t eat much salmon and other seafood in Indiana, and now it’s everywhere. I’ve grown my following while helping my fans to broaden what they eat. It’s been a really great journey to where I am today.