Business with flavor

(First published in the January 10, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Firefighter Jim Whitehead kicks up the heat in the kitchen with his spice business


Jim Whitehead, a firefighter during the day, is launching a spice business, Bayou St. James

Looking through Jim Whitehead’s photos of his cooking makes a person hungry—hundreds of shots of mouthwatering creations like lobster tails ready to be dipped in butter, juicy steaks just off the grill, and endless pies, all of which could be on the cover of Bon Appétit magazine.

Cooking is his passion. “I like the mechanics of it,” says Whitehead. “I like figuring out how to get the best out of ingredients.”

It made sense that Whitehead would veer toward something culinary as a future income option for when he retires as a lieutenant with the Wausau Fire Department. It’s that job that helped hone his cooking and seasoning skills, and now launch his seasoning company, Bayou St. James. His products will be in local grocery stores soon. Whitehead hopes to launch in the next few weeks.

When he started his job at the fire department in 1996, most of the staff there was brown bagging their meals, even with a full kitchen available at the facility. So Whitehead began cooking for them. “I was happy. It gravitated crews eating together and food is communal and an exceptional catalyst,” he says. “Eventually, I was cooking all the time, probably around 100 days a year. I love it. It’s right in my wheelhouse.”

Cooking meals at the fire department allowed Whitehead to experiment and get a wide range of feedback. “They are good eaters. If you really want to expand your horizons, you have to try new things, and for me, the fire department is a good place to do that,” he says. “Shrimp bisque is a fan favorite.”

When he’s not at the firehouse cooking, he’s either cooking or researching about food at home. That interest started as a young boy, helping his mother and grandmother bake. It followed him throughout life. “When I got married, we didn’t have a lot of money, but cooking was the one thing we could do,” says Whitehead. “Maybe we couldn’t splurge to go out to eat but we could get some decent ingredients.”

Whitehead and his wife also love to travel to the South, specifically New Orleans, where his wife is from and one of their favorite cities to visit. “When I would come back from New Orleans I would be dreaming of the food,” he says.

What vexed him was not being able to find the right seasonings here to recreate what he ate in New Orleans, so he experimented with mixing his own. Soon he was giving his flavor concoctions to family members during Christmas and found they were quite a hit—so much so that he wondered if it could grow into something commercially. Whitehead talked to Romey Wagner, manager at the Marathon County Entrepreneurial and Education Center in Wausau about the possibilities. Whitehead then attended the center’s business boot camp this past November and from there began launching his brand.

Bayou St. James currently has three options: Chick Magnet, Steakburger and Creole. “The Creole is a little sweet with some cayenne in it. It’s great with chicken, fish and Southern style cooking like beans and rice and crab cakes,” says Whitehead. The Steakburger seasoning has onion and garlic. Chick Magnet includes tarragon and parsley and is great on chicken and fish.

He’s excited to see the reaction of local consumers. “If I didn’t try this, I would really regret it. Let’s see where it goes.”