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King of Cakes

By Melanie Moffett
In Bayou Icon
Jul 24th, 2014

THURMAN DICKEY The king of cakes is known for creating masterpieces of epic proportions.

Thurman Dickey – the king of cakes in North Louisiana – is known for his monumental creations and contributions to our community.

by Ann Bloxom Smith
photographs by Brad Arender

Layer upon layer of luscious white cake with cream cheese filling—Thurman Dickey’s favorite—brings to mind the delicate beauty of literally thousands of wedding cakes made (maybe “built” is the better word) by this month’s Bayou Icon. Thurman’s Food Factory—practically a monument to quality food preparation in Monroe for the last 24 years—is the foundational layer of this chef’s public life, even though he won’t claim the title “chef” for himself. But there are many other layers that make up this icon too.

Thurman Dickey is a man for whom quality is the essential ingredient in every creation. Many years ago he heard a quotation that still guides his catering and baking business: “When you fail to consider quality, you buy disappointment.” Folks in the Monroe area, though, and increasingly all over Louisiana and neighboring states, have come to expect nothing but quality from this hard-working man. Disappointment? Not from Thurman’s. Quality is a basic layer here—just ask anyone who’s cut into one of those beautiful cakes.

I’d never really talked with Thurman other than just a few words exchanged at the shop on Stubbs Avenue as I joined the many Monroe citizens that drop by to get baked goods for a party, a casserole for a sick friend, a food gift for a co-worker or frozen gumbo for unexpected guests. But I knew we had dear friends in common, so I was sure our conversation would be both easy and fun. And I was right.

I could imagine young brides-to-be with their fiancés or maybe their mothers sitting there, looking through pictures of wedding cakes and chatting with Thurman about reception plans. Cushioned white wicker settees and chairs were surrounded by photographs of some of Thurman’s creations, ranging from pure white, traditional and ornate, to modern, colorful and creative.  If I were the mother of a bride, I’d be confident that “all would be well” with my daughter’s wedding reception.

But, in fact, I have two sons. (I’ve always thought that was a good thing.) However, my daughter-in-law (to-be, then) and her parents came to town several years ago to plan for the wedding that would unite my older son and sweet Sarah—here! None of her family lived here, so my job was to line up options in order to save time during their visit. There were lots of options—venues, decorations, music and so on—but only one stop was needed for the cakes. I wasn’t there for the visit and tasting at Thurman’s, but the report I heard was “delicious!” And in fact both the bride’s and groom’s cakes were huge hits with the wedding guests. My recommendation turned out to be spot on. Thanks, Thurman.

So, as I relaxed in the shop’s sitting area, I imagined the impressions my daughter-in-law must have had as she sat in the same place, and I knew that countless others had trusted their events—parties, wakes, receptions, open houses—to the expertise apparent there. As Thurman said, “The food has to look good, but most importantly, it has to taste good.”

Quality and pride. If I’d had any doubts about either of those, they would have been erased when, early in our conversation,  Thurman was in the midst of telling me about the 64 tomato pies he’d baked that day–with the tomatoes all bought at the local farmer’s market–when suddenly he jumped up from his chair. With a quick “Excuse me!” he dashed to the kitchen, where he’d remembered the last few pies needed to be taken from the oven. As he came back, smiling, he said, “The pies are fine. Someone rescued them. You know you have a great staff when they take care of things without even being asked.” I agreed, adding that his pride in a high-quality product was probably contagious.

At that point, I decided that I’d better start at the beginning to find out more about what other layers made up this interesting and respected member of the community. So, first, I asked about Winnsboro, where Thurman grew up (he was born in Memphis but moved to Winnsboro with his family at a young age). I found out that he went to school there all the way through high school graduation.  Cooking was a natural part of life as his dad, Thurman Dickey, Sr., enjoyed barbequing and frying fish outdoors for large groups of people, and his mom, Emaline George Dickey, loved to prepare huge amounts of spaghetti and meatballs for family and friends. She also cooked 30-40 dozen hot tamales at a time, just to give away. His brother Richard, who still lives in Winnsboro, has also developed a similar love of cooking as an adult.

After high school, Thurman went to Northeast Louisiana University (now ULM), where he graduated in mathematics while working and helping to raise the first three of four boys. He held two part-time jobs during that seven years, working for Saul Mintz at F. Strauss & Son and also for Sears. Mr. Mintz was proud of the association, claiming that he’d taught Thurman to cook.

In 1972 the growing family moved back to Winnsboro, where Thurman went to work for the McLemore family in their Jitney Jungle stores. He was a store supervisor when grocery stores began adding delis and bakeries, so he “had to learn to cook!” According to Thurman, he “couldn’t decorate a cupcake” at that point. During the years 1978-82, he leased the deli/bakery part of a Jitney Jungle store in Winnsboro, running it as a semi-independent business.
After his divorce in 1982, Thurman made the move back to Monroe, where he worked at The Upper Crust and then C’est Si Bon, managing that store for owner Ann Johnson for three years. When the building on Stubbs became available, Thurman bought it, opening the business known then and now as Thurman’s Food Factory. That was 24 years ago.

Thurman taught himself to cook, to design and decorate cakes and to manage large receptions and parties. He’s quick to state that he never went to cooking school—that he’s “not a chef,” though he’s been called one of the top chefs in the area for many years. Catering has become a large part of his business, skyrocketing during the last fourteen years or so and expanding geographically all over Louisiana as well as Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi. According to his long-time friend Burg Ransom, “From a dozen cookies to a million-dollar wedding, Thurman and his staff have you covered. His creations are delicious and beautiful. My wife, Carol, calls him ‘the Michelangelo of cooking.’”

The key to success in catering, according to Thurman, is to leave the home at least as clean after an event as it was before. That’s besides the gorgeous and scrumptious food, of course. But I was interested in more than that—I wanted to dig down into layers of experience to find out about memorable occasions. So I asked—and Thurman had stories.

The biggest disaster—and even it had a happy ending—was a wedding reception at a big, beautiful home in Mer Rouge. Thurman and his staff were getting ready for the festivities while the wedding was happening in town. They were putting up tents, arranging tables and linens, setting out food and punch and flowers, when suddenly 65-mile-per-hour winds and rain descended in full force. Everything blew away, even with staff holding on to tents and everything they could get their hands on. But it was all to no avail—some items, like chafing dishes and punch bowls, were never found. Thurman simply yelled for his drenched crew to move indoors, where they covered some tables with the now-wet tablecloths and others with sheets. The team set out food and drink, along with salvaged flowers and other decorations, just in time to see the line of cars moving up the driveway, reminiscent of the final scene in Field of Dreams. Thurman explained that guests were sitting in the church when the storm hit, and he thinks that all 800 people came to the reception just to see how things would turn out in the aftermath of the storm. In the end it turned out to be a great party. Once again, Thurman proved you can’t keep a good caterer down.

Thurman’s Food Factory has catered wedding receptions and other events in all sorts of places including barns, hayfields, pecan orchards and more. Sadly, on several occasions he and his team have arrived at reception halls ready to get their food set up, only to find out that the weddings had been canceled.  As Thurman said, “I guess nobody thought to call the caterer.”

But even with all the catering, all the tomato pies and casseroles, the one iconic item in Thurman’s repertoire is the wedding cake. Everyone I asked had memories of particular cakes he’d designed. His favorite, though, was baked just a few weeks ago. It was an almost-exact replica of Prince William and Kate’s cake—a thing of beauty. And that’s another layer of this remarkable man’s character—his love of beauty, his appreciation of artistry—and his joy in sharing good food with friends and neighbors.

That joy has its roots in a childhood and many adult years in a small town—the kind of small town where people care about one another.  Winnsboro, Louisiana, is proud of its native son. According to Winnsboro’s Main Street Manager Kay LaFrance Knight, “We’re so proud to call Thurman our own, even though he found his success in Monroe! We call on him often to cater events here and never cease to be amazed at his talents.”

And that family life continues today, with Thurman’s four sons and their wives, along with eight grandchildren. The oldest of the boys is Thurman III, “Thad,” who is a coach at Beau Chene High School in Lafayette. He’s married to Tonya, a pharmacist. Then there’s David, who owns David’s Lawn Care and also works with his dad at the Factory. The third son, Kenneth, Ken, is the store’s manager–married to Veronica, an employee of Ouachita Independent Bank–while youngest son, Doug, works offshore.

The eight grandchildren are perfectly balanced with four girls and four boys ranging in age from 24 years to 1 1/2 years. Of course, Thurman is quick to say they’re the joy of his life. I asked if he’d like to see any of his grandchildren go into the family business. After a moment of thought, he smiled, saying that he’d like to see that, but only if they loved it. “You can never tell, at this age. My sons’ favorite foods were ‘beanie weanies’ and Kraft macaroni and cheese, so their tastes have changed a lot over the years. Who knows?”

Other layers of joy are concentrated in giving to the community, helping to improve life for those who need help. The March of Dimes has been his “pet” project ever since he was a child collecting dimes, and now he’s proud to be involved in the organization’s gala every year. The St. Vincent de Paul Free Pharmacy is another of Thurman’s favorites, but many other non-profits throughout the community depend upon Thurman for their fundraisers as well. Giving back is a big part of his life.

Layer upon layer, layer upon layer—this month’s Bayou Icon is an original creation. From choosing math as his major in college, to being a family man, to managing stores and making a living, to teaching himself to cook, to designing and decorating beautiful cakes, to directing events of all sizes and for all kinds of occasions—the variety of his talents and the depth of his commitment to quality in all aspects of life combine to make Thurman Dickey the perfect concoction to be August’s Bayou Icon.