words DOUG GEYER  |  photography DEOGRACIAS LERMA

Like her inherited cast iron skillet that seared fresh vegetables over a portable gas grill at Gorman Heritage Farm, Dionne “Mac Alston” McCaskill-Alston is seasoned, durable, and time-tested. She is in it for the long haul. She can most certainly take the heat. Okra, squash, and tomatoes sizzled in the olive oil as Mac Alston gripped the handle sans glove and a speckled rooster pecked for seed on the barn floor. Cooking calmly as photos were shot and video captured, she added peace to the atypical setting as easily as she placed an edible, nasturtium blossom atop the colorful mix. A courageous spirit has empowered Mac Alston through the years to embrace trials in order to learn her craft. This same spirit stirs in her still as she begins a new chapter in her culinary narrative.

Mac Alston can trace her love for preparing and sharing great food to her childhood. Growing up in Florida, food and family were consistently paired to celebrate life events both large and small. Learning at the elbows of her grandmother and mother, Mac Alston picked up on the power and privilege of creating meals that satisfy more than empty stomachs. Over time, she was able to craft this cherished tradition into a career.

As a licensed caterer, Mac Alston was awarded a bid through Fresh for Florida Kids — a program with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This special opportunity allowed her to serve young women who were not able to attend traditional public schools. After learning that her catered meals were the only warm food some of the girls would get on a daily basis, she was motivated to provide them with the very best.

“Though it was not the most profitable business model, it did my heart good to hear, ‘Lunch was real good, Ms. Alston.’ Attendance improved due to the anticipation of ‘what’s for lunch?’ That was better than money in the bank,” Mac Alston shared.

Her drive to be excellent, to work hard, grow, kept her eyes open to what might be next.

“After reading the Anthony Bourdain essay ‘So You Wanna Be a Chef,’ I wanted to learn from the best. Chef Chad Johnson was and still is the Executive Chef at Élevage [Epicurean Hotel in Tampa, FL]. I’m sure I was a thorn in his side for a while, but I was grateful for the opportunity. The restaurant would host James Beard dinners, and the kitchen would be swarming with award-winning chefs.”

This rare opportunity came as a direct result of Mac Alston’s tenacity and humility. When she was told there was no open spot in the kitchen, she accepted a role in the front of the house as hostess. During quiet moments, she’d study the menu, look up unfamiliar cheeses and new wines, and think through the various combinations and offerings. Night after night, she kept after Johnson for her shot. Night after night, the answer was no. Undeterred, Mac Alston stayed focused on her goal, refusing to listen to the voices that told her she should quit, as seasoned as she was. After five months, Johnson handed her a chef jacket. The door to the kitchen finally opened — leading straight to the deep end of the pool.

“It was very difficult. There was no ‘This is how you do this.’ There was a lot of looking over shoulders. I had to pick up things very quickly. Was I ready? No. But I became ready.”

Though profoundly hard and harrowing, there was one major takeaway in addition to all the cooking techniques and experience.

“It made me unflappable. There are very few things I get rattled by. I learned exponentially in that pressure cooker.”

After two years with Johnson, Mac Alston went on to work at other restaurants and breweries as well as hosting pop-ups to build up her base and confidence. When her husband was offered a job with the University of Cincinnati, Mac Alston, along with their teenage son, decided to start from scratch — again.

But she’s ready. Her eyes are still scanning the horizon for the next test, the new challenge to further her ongoing education. Though this chapter of her life is still coming together, Mac Alston’s vision incorporates family and “close to home” on a whole new level. Blending unique ingredients, cooking techniques, and the profound experiences of her ancestors, Mac Alston is prepared to be both hostess and chef, storyteller and guide.