03/31/2023 03:40 AM By Lisa Anderson
The Chews Letter
Joel Upton
Joel Upton
Story by Cynthia McFarland • Photos by Joshua Jacobs


Chef Finds His Place & Family

Given his family history, it’s not surprising that Joel Upton ended up choosing a culinary career. The kitchen manager at Mutiny in Ocala finds his job a satisfying daily reminder that he’s where he’s meant to be.

“When I was a kid, my grandfather, who still lives in Washington, owned restaurants, so I grew up in and around restaurant kitchens,” says Joel.

“My mom was a server when I was young,” he adds. “For the first five or six years of my life, I was hanging around back of house, and it influenced me as to who I am now—making food a career.”

He also credits his stepmother as a strong influence. “She was the one who really got me into food. I’d come home from school, and she’d be in the kitchen smoking a cigarette and watching Food Network,” recalls Joel. “She’d write down recipes and try them all the time. She was a phenomenal cook.”

Growing up as a military kid, Joel was born on Fort Lewis Army Base, just outside Tacoma, Washington. Because of his father’s military service, the family moved a good deal during Joel’s childhood.

After his parents’ divorce, his mother settled in Belleview. Joel’s first visit to Florida came during his early elementary school years. He continued to return for spring break and summer vacation.

After his father retired from the military, the family settled in Racine, Wisconsin, which is where Joel graduated high school.

The Sunshine State

Immediately after turning 18 in 2006, Joel moved to Ocala to live with his mother and stepdad, who worked on the St. Johns River Restoration project and at E-One.

“I was young and kind of naïve. Ocala was known for its hardcore music scene, and that consumed my life at the time. I was fortunate to have met some talented musicians who became friends before they became radio famous,” says Joel.

In his early twenties, Joel lived in Gainesville where he worked as assistant manager at Charley’s Steak House.

“In 2015, I decided to move back to Washington, where I still have a lot of connections,” he says. “It was probably one of the most influential times in my culinary career, getting to work with very talented chefs and cooks.”

After three years in Washington, Joel took a job in upstate New York and spent three years cooking in a restaurant in a small Adirondacks town.

Joel returned to Ocala in the fall of 2022; he’d been gone for eight years. “When I came back to Ocala, I thought, this is going to be the place that makes me,” says Joel, who quickly found work in the downtown restaurant scene, spending about a month at Harry’s before being hired at the newly opened Cantina.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity I had working with Chef Eric; he’s extremely talented,” says Joel, who also worked at The Lodge. It was there he met Sam Betty, general manager of Mutiny, and owners Chris Weiss and Buck Martin.

“Mutiny was my hang-out spot before I ever thought of working there,” says Joel, who is now the establishment’s kitchen manager.

Mutiny is right next door to The Tipsy Skipper, which is under the same ownership. Joel appreciates the fact that he has endless options for creativity with Mutiny’s menu, as well as the plates served at The Tipsy Skipper.

“We’re starting to do more on the off-site catering menu and have done some great in-house events,” he adds.

When he’s off work and craving comfort, Joel turns to soul food: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, collard greens, and cornbread. He admits, “You can never go wrong with a good bowl of curry!”

At some point in the future, Joel hopes to own a food truck. “That’s been a goal since I was 21 years old,” he grins. “I’m not a trend follower by any means, but I’ve always thought it was a cool concept.”

Part of the Family

“The culinary world is very intertwined,” says Joel, who values the connections he’s made in the industry, such as Microcala, a local provider of organic microgreens that Joel utilizes for his plate designs, and JMarie Brands, a local dessert shop that makes “out of this world specialty cheesecakes.”

Joel believes that working in the service industry is an essential part of becoming a well-rounded human being. “It’s taught me patience, time management, and humility,” he says simply.

There’s a feeling of “family” being part of a restaurant team, and Joel has always loved that unique camaraderie.

 “It’s an ever-changing environment with different personalities. I don’t know who I’d be if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now,” he says.

He also relishes the fact that his food makes a difference in people’s lives. “You never know who you’re going to meet or who you’re going to cook for, and how your food is going to affect them as a person,” says Joel. “Let’s be honest: Food is the way to someone’s heart.”
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