Wesleyon “Wes” Zollicoffer scrolls through original recipes worthy of Food & Wine magazine: charred watermelon with pistachio, feta cheese and vinaigrette; charcuterie board with homemade crackers, bacon, salami and pickled pineapple; gumbo-inspired shrimp croquettes with creamy grits and andouille sausage purée. The north Omaha native created them all.

“I go back to what I loved the most growing up – Southern flavors, especially Créole,” Zollicoffer says. “I won’t say I make Créole food, but I’ll say I’m inspired by it.”

The burgeoning chef knows the golden rules: Keep your knives sharp. Let your meat rest after grilling. Simmer, never boil, your stock.

“As a kid, I was attracted to food, and in retrospect, I realized that I was always making up different recipes. We’d have hot dogs, and I’d want to make six different sauces,” he says.“Over the last three or four years, that dream (of being a chef) kept popping up. ‘You should go to cooking school.’”

Zollicoffer found a prime opportunity through No More Empty Pots and its 15-week Culinary Workforce Training Program. He graduated in January.

“Watching Wes’ growth was inspiring. He asked questions, took risks, shared his dreams and put in the effort to pursue them,” says Nancy Williams, president and CEO of No More Empty Pots in Omaha.

Supported in part with grant funding from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska, the grassroots nonprofit is focused on developing strong, food-secure communities through community education, job training, food distribution and entrepreneurial programs.

“Our intention is to meet people where they are, figure out where they want to go and help them get there,” Williams says.

Zollicoffer, who describes himself as a “soaker” (“I’m always soaking it in”), eagerly gained additional culinary experience through stages (unpaid internships) at The Boiler Room and Modern Love restaurants in Omaha.

“One of my main goals is to travel around and cook at different restaurants for weeks or months just to get some more skills,” he says.

For Zollicoffer, cooking is about seasoning and experimentation, but it’s also about connection. His late mother, Sherry, inspired his love of food. “She and her mother used to cook all the time,” Zollicoffer says. Mother and son connected that way, too, and even dreamed of starting a restaurant together.

Now Zollicoffer is passing on his passion for food as a youth culinary instructor for No More Empty Pots.

“My goal is to push kids and youth to become extremely confident in the kitchen so they can work in the kitchen, work for themselves or go on to become the next master chef,” he says. His motto: “Don’t let your age limit you. Push yourself to be the most you can be.”

That dream of opening his own restaurant is still simmering. For now, he and his wife, Candy, are pleasing palates with their in-home gourmet catering business, Feeding Royals.
As the culinary talent serves up his Créole-inspired cuisine, he’s also serving as an inspiration.

“When other (Culinary Workforce Training) Program participants and community residents see Wes, they have proof that if they put in the effort and take advantage of the support, they have a fighting chance to pursue their dreams,” Williams says.

“Faces of Fearless” is a storytelling series in Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska‘s “Live Fearless” campaign celebrating people living their very best lives and inspiring others to do the same. Read the series at omaha.com.