Fine dining for many people is reserved for special occasions - birthdays, anniversaries, promotions, holidays. But two and a half years ago, Chris Heesch made a decision that would make an exceptional plate of food more commonplace on his home table. He learned to cook.

And not just honing and collecting recipes. Heesch decided: he loved to cook, he appreciated fine food, he should learn how it all worked. The effects of heat, acid, fat and spice. He wanted to look at the raw ingredients and know how to build a perfect plate of food, freestyle.

"Everything I've ever done, I'm more of an abstract thinker," Heesch said. "I have to understand the concept of it more than the technical skill of it."

Creative doldrums

In 2014, Heesch and his wife, Nicole, were new to Red Wing, immersed in their nursing careers and building a family. Heesch had taken recently a break from nursing to direct music at a large church and discovered a passion for leadership.

Unfortunately, a vocal issue sidelined his music career. When he went back to nursing at Mayo Clinic Health Service in Red Wing, it was as a clinical nurse manager. Through health care leadership, he felt like his professional life was back on track. His creative life? Not so much.

"By end of 2015 my soul was shriveling because I wasn't doing anything creative anymore," Heesch said. "My job is very serious and it can be stressful at times and there's not a lot of room for creativity and I was just dying."

January 2016, he took a day off from work, and while sitting at Mandy's Coffee & Cafe, Heesch began to think about the year ahead. More than that, he came up with a strategic plan to help reinvigorate his whole life. As a result of that day, Heesch would apply to grad school, choose a major (administration focusing on organizational leadership) and begin his cooking journey as Chef on the Side.

"Cooking is creative. I don't know that i can explain how I got there. I just made this decision 'I'm going to get into cooking and I'm going to start an Instagram and just do it.' I just did," Heesch said. "Probably that week I started my Instagram."


Five months later, Heesch received a private message from a recruiter for the Food Network. They encouraged him to apply for a show called "Cooks vs. Cons" in which three amateurs and one professional try to convince a panel of judges that they are a trained chef.

The message came as a shock and he didn't think much of it. They must have cast a wide net, he reasoned.

Still, Heesch advanced through a few phone interviews and was in the final stages before being cut. The experience pushed him to start photographing more of his dishes, taking more risks and groom his online presence.

During those first two years, Heesh worked to make food that fed his curiosity. Today, he's focusing on cuisine. Right now he's working to master Italian.

To learn all he can on his own, Heesch reads books, listens to chef interview podcasts, watches cooking shows and visits inspiring restaurants such as Chef Shack in Bay City.

He'd like to write an e-book or develop a Chef on the Side blog that showcases more of the techniques he's learned (not a typical story-and-recipe blog). And like with anything Heesch pursues, he's going at it with his whole heart.

"I think it was more exhausting when I was new and I didn't know how to do it," Heesch said. "I feel like once you know techniques of how to cook food, it becomes easier and it gets faster."