Who is Aaron Bottley?

Imagine you’re a future contestant on the game show Jeopardy and Alex Trebek reads this answer to the question you must pose: “Previous five-star restaurant chef who calls his hospital culinary team’s second-place finish in the 2015 South Carolina Cooking Well Invitational his proudest achievement.”

As a South Carolinian, you will of course quickly scribble “Who is Aaron Bottley?”

In anyone’s book, Aaron Bottley is a top chef and an extraordinary person. His resume is impressive, not only for the positions he has held but also for how he worked his way through the ranks to advance from a fry cook to executive chef. After serving four years in the U.S. Army, Bottley returned to Las Vegas to be near his family. With little idea of what he would do with his life, he took a job as a cook, surprised that he was making more money in his new job than he made as a soldier.

Although he had no formal culinary training, Bottley set his sights on becoming one of the elite executive chefs in Las Vegas. Starting in 1990, he learned the basics and began to move up the ranks. In 1995 he earned the position he sought. He was Chef Aaron.

Life was good in Las Vegas, where he lived with his wife and worked at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. He enjoyed being near family and even convinced his brother to come work with him. The two brothers shared a dream of opening their own restaurant one day.

All of those dreams came to a halt in 2007—the year Bottley calls the most challenging of his life. That January he received a call that his father had died from kidney failure. Bottley rushed to the hospital to find him alive on life support, but the prognosis was dire. If he lived, he would most likely remain in a vegetative state. Today Bottley chuckles as he shares that his father miraculously recovered to the point that he even drove himself to dialysis treatments.

Two months later, tragedy struck again, but this time the result was devastating. Bottley’s brother was killed in a crash on his way home from work one night, the victim of a teen drag race. The grief of living in the city where his brother was killed was too much for Bottley to bear, so he retired and moved to Columbia, SC, with his wife to help care for his aging mother-in-law.

He didn’t stay retired long, though. His former manager from Ruth’s Chris in Las Vegas called the manager of Ruth’s Chris in Columbia, and they persuaded him to return to work. He was later recruited as chef for a sorority at the University of South Carolina and is credited with a rapid growth of members during his four-year tenure.

Bottley started work at Providence Hospital in January 2015 as an executive chef with Metz Culinary Management. Given the hospital’s strong commitment to health and delicious food, Chef Aaron was enthusiastically anticipating their participation in the annual Cooking Well Invitational, where an award had so far eluded the hospital team.

But in May 2015, a freak accident threatened not only his team’s participation in the competition but Bottley’s entire career. One evening while taking out the trash, he missed a step and fell into the screen door. The door latch tore his left tear duct in half and his eyelid down the middle. His fragile cheek bones also shattered.

Following two surgeries, Bottley went home to Las Vegas to recuperate with his family. He recalls that his eye was the size of a grapefruit and he couldn’t see anything out of it. To make matters worse, what he saw with his good eye was upside down. After about three weeks, he began to gain limited sight. When he returned to Columbia for a follow up appointment, he learned he would need another procedure before he could return to work.

Bottley relies on a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to help him through his times of trouble like these: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Looking at him today, you would never know what he has been through.

Returning to his job after being sidelined for three months gave Chef Aaron and his team very little time to prepare for the competition in September. Undaunted, they jumped in with amazing strength and dedication. Chef Aaron has nothing but admiration for his staff, whom he credits with pulling him through the hard times and making the trip to the Cooking Well Invitational possible.

When the awards were presented at the 2015 Cooking Well Invitational, Providence was awarded second place, and executive Chef Bottley took center stage. He was so overcome with joy that he had to share his story and thank those responsible for helping him participate in the competition: his family, his staff, Providence Hospitals, and Metz Culinary.

“I had come too close to losing all I had done for 28 years, but God didn’t take that away from me. I don’t know anything else. It didn’t matter to me whether we placed or not. I was thrilled to have my life back,” he reflects.