Zachary Barnes Wants You to Have a “Purpose-Driven Palate”


The Mississippi native is putting his talents to good use as Metropole’s new executive chef.

Illustration by Chris Danger

How did you get into cooking? Who taught you how to cook?

Growing up in Mississippi, I was primarily taught to cook by both my mother and my grandmother. These two women have had the most profound influence on my career; I draw inspiration from them every single day. My mother always said I was destined for kitchens, because my dream job as a 2 year old was to work the line at a Waffle House. 

What other restaurants did you work at before coming to Metropole?

Before coming to Metropole, I lived in Seattle, Washington, worked in everything from family-owned restaurants to gourmet food markets, and served as an executive chef for a local brewery. One of my favorite places was a restaurant called Herb & Bitter, which was Spanish-inspired. The chef there at the time, Alex Golden, was a great mentor and could talk flavors for hours with anyone. At that point in my career, I had not had many positive experiences working with other chefs. This industry used to be much more cutthroat and militant. If a chef deemed you “unworthy” of their time and training, you would get stuck with the same work over and over with no development to your skillset until you decided to move on. Alex was the first chef I had ever met who did not have that mindset. He would train/educate anyone who was willing to learn about his craft. For that and for him, I will be forever grateful and I hope he knows just how much of impact he had on at least one young cook. Without that experience, I don’t know where I would be.

How did you end up at Metropole?

This is a pretty funny story actually. Originally, my then-fiancé (now husband) was interviewing for the beverage manager position with 21c. His interview was with Metropole’s previous executive chef, Vanessa Miller. During his interview he mentioned that I also worked in the industry but was in the back of the house. From there, she asked him to have me apply if I was interested because she wanted to meet with me. I interviewed a few days later and truth be told, I was pretty burnt out from my last big job in Seattle, so I was looking to find my love for cooking again and I made that known. I told Chef Vanessa that I just needed to cook in an environment that would make me fall in love with food again. I think it was that right there that sold her on hiring me because here we are, less than two years later.

Why did you want to take on the executive chef role?

That’s easy—Chef Vanessa! She very much reignited my passion for this industry and taught me an entirely new way to approach and think about taste and food. During my time with her, we developed a mutual bond in our love and passion for food and the food and beverage industry as a whole. When she began discussing her transition, I had made way into the banquet sous chef role and had my own kitchen. Quite often, she would come up to my kitchen and would throw out ideas about who her replacement might be, so I decided to put my head down and work hard and learn every little thing I could from her. That way when the time came, I could throw my hat in the ring.

What’s your cooking philosophy?

“Purpose driven palate.” Everything in a dish or on a plate should serve a purpose, down to the garnish. Every technique that is used in the cooking process should also serve a purpose toward the final product. I think the days of using a proper technique for the sake of saying, “Hey, we did this thing,” are slowly slipping away and we are forging a new direction in the culinary world that places value in purpose over technique. Cooking in this way is very traditionally Southern and very much my style and how I was raised to cook. It can be so much fun and very liberating to throw the rule book out the window and just play around with flavors and their relationships! Proper technique very much has its place in my kitchen and in every kitchen, I just think that every little component should serve a purpose to the final product.

What’s your favorite dish to make?

This is such a tough question because I love making all different types of dishes. If I had to name a favorite, though, it wouldn’t be what anyone who knew me would expect. It would be some variation of fried chicken, which is ironic because I do not make it very often at all. Making fried chicken takes me back home to my Maw Maw’s kitchen, standing on a step stool with her standing over me, guiding my hands through her process. All the while taking the time to explain each step and why she took the time to do it that way and what purpose it served in the final product. There were many dishes she did this with, but her fried chicken was always the family favorite.

What’s the first thing you think of when contemplating a new dish?

What’s this dish’s story? What am I trying to say with this set/dish that hasn’t already been said? Those are the first two questions I always think to myself when approaching something new. And yes, I totally stole these two questions from my husband when we worked together years ago, so thanks boo!

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