Marla Thurman grew up in Northeast Texas and is the first in her family to pursue a career in food service. Her parents were missionaries so they moved around a lot. Marla remembers being a kid and spending time in her Grandmother’s kitchen making drop biscuits and American-style casseroles. At age 10, her mom went back to work and very little cooking happened in the family after that. “By the time I was a young adult, I had learned to cook in self-defense and make sure I had something to eat!”
Her first job as a waitress didn’t last long and she soon she gravitated to the kitchen. “I remember working the omelette station and thinking, hey, I really like this!” It wasn’t much later that she decided to go to the International Culinary School at the Art Institute in Charlotte. She threw herself into the program and became a self-described “fan girl,” getting involved in extracurricular activities and cooking competitions, with a highlight being a student ambassador at the Slow Food Convivium in Turin, Italy known as Terra Madre. At the Art Institute, Marla had a chance to work with area farmers and develop her love for using local, seasonal ingredients.
After school, Marla cooked in kitchens in Charlotte and also taught classes, honing her presentation skills and getting comfortable telling stories and preparing food under the spotlight. While she speaks highly of the culinary scene in Charlotte, she realized it wasn’t a good fit for her as a woman in the field. “I looked at the accomplished female chefs in my industry, like Andrea Reusing and Ashley Christensen, and they were all in the Triangle. I figured I might find more opportunity in Durham. Turns out I was right!”
After a few years teaching at the Arts Institute, Marla met Gray Brooks, owner of Pizzeria Toro, Littler and Jack Tar and the Colonel’s Daughter in downtown Durham. They hit it off right away and Gray hired her to work at Toro where she is now the Chef de Cuisine. “It was the first time in my career that I felt really seen. Gray recognized my talents and attention to detail and gave me a lot of responsibility right away. We have a really strong working relationship.”
Pizzeria Toro is dedicated to extensive sourcing from local farmers and has been using Firsthand Foods’ pork since the beginning. “I work with 20 different vendors each week so I appreciate knowing I can trust Firsthand Foods to hold high standards and do all the vetting for me. Plus I like the quality of the product and knowing we can flexibly work on issues like pricing and volume orders. It’s a win-win all the way around.”