Chris Donaldson is a born athlete. He grew up playing football and basketball, and at age 31, he continues to play in recreational basketball leagues. He’s the kind of guy who speaks in sports analogies. He compares his Detroit grit to the “Mamba mentality” — the competitive, at times obsessive, drive attributed to the late Kobe Bryant — and likens his first foray into the culinary world to a young basketball player learning the ins and outs of the game. It makes sense, then, that the Detroit chef would eventually land himself in the kitchens of some of the city’s top athletes.
“My career as a chef intertwines both of my passions,” he says. “Cooking in our culture is kind of like our love language — and anybody that knows me, knows that I have a competitive energy.”
Donaldson was prepared to compete for a spot as an executive chef in the Detroit area. He’d worked his way up in restaurants from age 15, earned a certificate in culinary arts at The Art Institute of Michigan in Novi, and went beyond the call of duty as a line cook for years. “My food was killing it; I picked up shifts for people, I came in early, I washed dishes,” he says. But the feedback Donaldson consistently received as he applied for job opportunities was that he was too green.
Soon, he’d take a new approach. In 2014, Donaldson launched Fresh2Fit, naming himself sole proprietor and executive chef of the private catering company. “I started the business because I was going to make sure I was calling myself an executive chef — even if nobody else did,” he says.
Donaldson’s experience on the football field and basketball court may have given him a competitive edge, but it’s strategic planning, a skill he gleaned from the game of chess, that plays a large role in his career trajectory. “I’m always four moves ahead.”
Donaldson’s initial strategy to build traction for his company was to win over his community. “Once my community was behind me, I knew I could work for any athlete in Detroit because my city would speak for me,” he says. Donaldson began selling healthy meal-prep kits to friends via social media and saw himself as his own muse. He started hitting the gym and following his meal plan to show followers that the kits could help them get into shape, too. He scrubbed his Instagram of silly memes and strictly focused on food content. He even says he deleted mentions of his favorite players to convey to future clients: “I am a private chef and I cook food — it doesn’t matter who you play for.”
Donaldson did secure that executive chef title. For some time, he worked at a Northville pizza spot, but eventually walked away to pursue his dreams of becoming a private chef. “I quit and the pressure was on,” he says. “Being from Detroit, I had that hustle, that competitive energy — I thrived in that environment. The comfortable stuff was not fun for me — this is what I was used to.” And eventually, the city lived up to his expectations.
When a local chef called for Detroit-area cooks for a gig as a private chef to former Pistons point guard Langston Galloway, Detroiters looked to Donaldson — dozens of people had shared the posting. “Back to my chess analogy, I made sure I was four moves ahead,” he says. Already prepared for the day the opportunity would come, Donaldson had a logo, a website, an updated resume, and a list of references at the ready. When he got the job, he says it was a draft-day moment. “For everybody who said I was too green — that’s what that moment was for.”
From there, the clients started rolling in. Soon, Donaldson was traveling with former Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond, and cooking for Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay. And eventually, he connected with former Lions star quarterback (and Best of Detroit winner) Matthew Stafford, who he’d go on to impress with what he calls healthy-comfort cuisine. Dishes such as salmon teriyaki served with sticky rice impressed Stafford enough for him to bring Donaldson on as his personal chef.
Just last month, Donaldson jetted to L.A. to join Stafford as his private chef for his new journey as the quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. But he’ll be back. In addition to maintaining ongoing commitments with his existing Detroit-based clients and collaborations, Donaldson says he eventually intends to open a restaurant in the Detroit area. Like the good chess player he is, he doesn’t reveal his next move, but promises to bring a new culinary experience and job opportunities back to the city that catapulted his career.
“When I get to that level of expanding who I am as a chef, Detroit, I’m coming right back to you.”