Meet PCG Member – Joy Turner: Chef and Farmer, Student and Teacher

Six years ago, Joy Turner found herself at a career crossroads. In the wake of the 2008 recession, her paralegal job had shifted away from estate planning and probate, toward family law.

“That’s a tough gig,” she says, lowering her ringing, friendly voice to a somber note. She’s referring to the pain of seeing children — “small people” in her informal style – embroiled in divorce and custody battles. She wanted out, and after a year of reflection and prayer, she says, “[God] answered, loud and clear. I got laid off!”

Turner laughs as she recounts her story today, seated comfortably on a couch in the long, window-paneled front room of Project 658. It took her four years to arrive here, but she focuses her intense blue-eyed gaze only forward.

Six months after completing her culinary degree at Johnson & Wales, she has worked with some of the most lauded chefs in Charlotte. She now carries double titles of Catering Director and Head Catering Chef at this nonprofit ministry and community hub on Central Avenue in Charlotte.

But her involvement with local food goes beyond the kitchen.

After her layoff, Turner’s first thought was to get a business degree. Then she recalled her happiest times were helping her mother organize and run chef-led cooking demonstrations in her native Dayton, OH.

Enrollment at Johnson & Wales quickly followed. Between the confidence of life experience and her own no-nonsense personality, she didn’t hold back. “I exploited that education!” she says, taking advantage of events, visiting chefs, and any networking opportunities.

It was thanks to Chef Instructor (and PCG member) Megan Lambert that Turner first attended a PCG event in May 2015, Back Porch Brunch. She remembers seeing the chefs and restaurants in attendance and thinking, “I want to be involved with these people, I want to do what they’re doing.”

She wasn’t thinking as a chef-in-training, but rather as a farmer.

Even while wearing chef’s whites, when asked what she does for a living, Turner’s first response is “the farmer’s wife.” Several years before her layoff, her husband Mark had found his way back to his family’s heritage of farming.

On leased land in Lancaster County, SC, he started by managing the landowner’s small cow herd, then added pigs and chickens.

The Turner’s Farm at Flat Creek has found a niche wholesaling high-value heritage meats to chefs in the Charlotte area.

“It’s my responsibility to really talk about the farm to people and drum up the business,” Chef Turner claims, but it’s clear she’s nearly as versed in herd management as her spouse. She details the importance of species rotation for healthy pastureland, and rattles off names and characteristics of heritage breeds with the familiarity of someone born to it.

“The meat on an Ossabaw-Berkshire cross [pig] is gorgeous,” she gushes. “You get the length of the Berkshire and the fat qualities of the Ossabaw.” She’s visibly excited at the prospect of adding Mangalitsas and a Mulefoot-Red Wattle cross to the herd, and enthuses about the careful pasturing of their several hundred meat chickens.

“We take good care of the ground that those little buggers go on,” she says in typical no-nonsense fashion. She says they’ve increased the amount of good soil on their pastures by 20% in less than a decade.

That attention to the animals’ quality of life is not missed by the farm’s customers. Chef Paul Verica of Heritage Food & Drink immediately noticed the difference in the Turners’ chickens.

“The birds that they raise are one of the best that I have ever had, in coloring, flavor and texture,”says Chef Verica. “Chicken is a big deal for me, and we are very proud to serve their animals at Heritage.”

But in the long run, Verica appreciated more than just the chicken. In June 2016, while Turner was still a student, the James-Beard nominated chef brought her onto his team at the restaurant, a relationship that both have enjoyed.

“Joy was great to work with,” says Verica. “She had an open mind, a great work ethic, and an even better attitude. She is one of my favorites over the years, and I would have her back in my kitchen any day!”

It’s easy to see why, to hear Turner explain her role there. “When I worked for Paul at Heritage Food & Drink, it wasn’t about me,” she says. “It was making sure his vision of what he wanted on that plate was right.”

She still occasionally helps out with events and busy shifts when she can, and even as she steps into her own leadership position at Project 658, she says with some solemnity, “I rely on [Paul] to mentor me. I need him and his wisdom.”

Still, she is finding her own way in a different kind of chef position, teaching and guiding recent alumni of the ministry’s nine-week culinary program. These are not starry-eyed young graduates, but members of a vulnerable population—immigrants, unemployed, sometimes homeless—looking for productive work. So Turner focuses on continuing to build essential skills.

“They’re learning knife skills, the language of a commercial kitchen, the difference in products, and just being able to execute quickly and effectively. Really, it’s just giving them a hand to help integrate.”

Turner wears her Christian faith unabashedly on her sleeve, making this ministry a perfect fit, and her commitment to community feel natural. The connection to the PCG also feels right, offering her not only farm customers, but an opportunity to help ease Charlotte’s restaurant labor shortage.

Though she may not look backwards, it’s worth recalling one special moment, when she first put a chicken she helped raise in the window at Heritage Food & Drink.

“[It was] an ‘Aha!” moment,” she says. “Exactly what God intended for me to do when I prayed for him to get me out from behind the desk.”

Profile written by Alison Leininger