GRANBURY NEWCOMER, CHEF COURTNEY BILLEN, INVITES US TO SAVOR THE EVENTS OF OUR LIVES.
Since her arrival in January 2018, Chef Courtney Billen has been a celebrity chef at several North Texas events, including the Granbury Wine Walk Sip & Savor, and a Cuisine for Healing. On top of that, her unique chef/catering business, The Fusion Table, is currently booked solid through April 2019. So who is this fascinating newcomer and why has she made such a big splash here in such a short time?
Born and raised in East Texas, Chef Billen comes from a family of avid hunters. She has fond memo- ries of big gatherings in the woods. As she tells it, “We’d have huge groups out at our deer lease. The men would hunt and the women would all be cook- ing outside.”
Even if she hadn’t become a chef, Billen was destined to be a fine cook. “My mother is an amaz- ing Southern cook, and so is my grandma and my great-grandma,” according to Billen. “It was just expected of me.”
In Billen’s family, there was nothing trendy about using seasonal produce and locally grown food; it just made sense. To this day, her family still frequents the same roadside farmers market in East Texas. “I grew up on their fresh peaches, fruits and vegetables,” she says fondly. “We were there all the time.”
Chef Billen began cooking at age 4. It was simple fare, of course, but she had a good cause. “My grand- ma had a terrible case of MS. It was debilitating,” she explains. “She was bedridden.”
Billen got into the habit of visiting her after school. Due to her grandmother’s illness she had a strict dietary protocol, but Courtney did her best. “I’d make her snacks – prunes, crackers, peanut but- ter – whatever was in the house.”
As Billen’s culinary experiments continued, she began following recipes and branching out. “By mid- dle school, I was making salsa and jams and giving these as gifts.”
TEENAGE TURNING POINT
Another major influence during Chef Billen’s childhood was her mom. “At home, my mother was always the host to the hilt,” she says, “but it was also part of her job.”
Chef Billen’s mother worked as a corporate events coordinator and this required frequent business trips. When Courtney turned 16, her mom took her on a whirlwind trip that included stops in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Boston.
Teen-aged Courtney enjoyed this window into culinary traditions in different regions of the United States and was particularly struck by her time in San Francisco. “I was blown away by Chinatown, Fisher- man’s Wharf, the sights, the sounds, the smells, and colors,” she explains. “That trip was when I knew. From then on, I wanted to engulf myself in this art, the art of food and entertainment.”
PASSION AND DRIVE
For many teens, a restaurant job is a common en- trance into the working world, but for Chef Billen it was much more than that. At 17, she began working at Razzoo’s Cajun Cafe, and she threw herself into it wholeheartedly. Within a year, Billen qualified for training that allowed her to be part of the opening management team for the restaurant’s Irving venue.
CALIFORNIA CULTURE SHOCK
Meanwhile, Courtney’s personal life was taking off. In 2002, she married her high school sweetheart, David. Since he is in the Marines, it wasn’t long before his military career required a move to California.
For Chef Billen, the west coast provided a tremendous learning opportunity. “We lived in Oceanside, so we had access to fresh sea- food all the time. Plus, the food trends there are five years ahead of Texas,” she explained. “It’s very sophisticated – even the street food is phenomenal.”
After the birth of the couple’s first child in 2005, Courtney left the commercial kitchen for mom-duty. That same year, her husband deployed for 11 months, so Billen returned to Texas. While caring for her infant, she de- voured cookbooks. “I still do this,” she says.
“I read them cover to cover, like a novel, but I never directly follow the recipes. To me, it’s learning. I just absorb it all.”
By the end of that year in Texas, Billen felt an inner nudge to change things up. “Some- thing told me not to go back to commercial kitchens,” Courtney explains. “It was a feel- ing. I knew it was time to get out on my own.”
After her husband’s deployment, the Billens resumed life in California. Rather than return to the restaurant world, however, Courtney took a different route, one focused on being a personal/private chef and on-site caterer.
It started small, but Chef Billen ap- proached this with her characteristic drive and enthusiasm. Her new business, The Fu- sion Table, thrived as she was named one of the Top 10 Chefs in Temecula, California. “It was all just word of mouth and it still is,” she adds with a laugh.
In 2018, David’s work required another move, so the growing family (which now includes three children) found themselves back in Texas. Even though they had never visited Granbury, Courtney felt drawn here. Not only had she heard good things about the area, but, “Even while we were in Califor- nia, I’d been tracking on folks who live here,” she explained. “It felt like Granbury was a little diamond in the rough, and a good place for family, so I did what my heart said.”
TELLING STORIES WITH FOOD
What sets Billen apart from a typical chef/caterer is her dynamic approach. The Fusion Table has no set menu, for instance. In other words, when you hire Chef Courtney Billen you have more choices than simply deciding between chicken or beef. “I tell stories with menus and food,” she explains. “I’m not artistic in any other way. My creativity is all about the food.”
Don’t let that scare you off. Chef Billen considers it part of her job to interpret and develop her client’s vision. For her, that’s part of the fun. “People can be intimidated,” she admits. “so I ask questions and really get to know them. I work with clients not just on food, but on creating a whole vibe for the night. Everything’s an experience, not just a meal.”
In fact, for Chef Billen, creating experiences through The Fusion Table is more than a job. “Some clients I get really close with,” she explains. “After planning events three, four, sometimes even six months in advance, there’s a lot of back and forth. Together, we create something special. Friendships grow out of this.”
As of this writing, Chef Billen and her growing team at The Fusion Table can barely keep up with their exponential growth. This made me wonder; does she still cook at home? “Absolutely,” she replied. “I cook seven days a week for my family. My kids cook, too. It’s such a pleasure.”
And while she’s created well over 1500 recipes through her career, don’t expect Chef Courtney Billen to publish a cookbook any time soon. “None of my recipes are written down,” she admits. “And I don’t measure or keep track. It’s all in the moment. To write a book, I’d need someone to follow me around and take notes.”