KALE TO THE CHIEF!
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Owner and Chef, The Green Kitchen
How this Richmond chef’s journey led to healthy priorities that move her business and wellbeing forward.
I wish I could say that realizing my dream to become a chef was a piece of cake. It was anything but. Like many entrepreneurs, the journey to my business, The Green Kitchen, was rife with speed bumps, roadblocks, and twists and turns that included going back to school, multiple part-time jobs, a relationship break up, and a diabetes diagnosis along the way. When I look back, I realize that any of these challenges could’ve stopped me from getting what I wanted. They could’ve left me miserably still in an office job that was safe, predictable, and required me to achieve someone else’s goals. Trust me, I almost gave in and quit several times when things got tough. I’m glad I didn’t. Because today, my fresh, colorful, body-and-soul-healing dream to cook for others and help them eat well is in motion. My journey started with a walk. On a “dreadmill.” And today, walking is one of the healthy things I do to keep me and my business running.
The treadmill, the tingles, and early training
Let’s be honest. No one has ever gotten super excited about walking in place on a moving machine for 30 minutes or longer, right? But, it was an article that I read while on the treadmill over a decade ago that got me through a monotonous workout and made me think about my own happiness. The article was about finding your dream job and getting paid to do what you love. I thought, “What would that look like for me?” I had a full-time office job that I was unhappy doing. I was in my 40s and divorced. I was an involved parent of two teenagers. I had bills to pay. I knew that I wanted to do something that would allow me to manage my own schedule. I also knew that I wanted to work with food. FOOD, FOOD, FOOD! But where would I start?
Part of that answer came in 2004 during a shopping trip with my daughter to Stony Point Fashion Park. We went to Sur La Table, a beautiful kitchen retail store with all these gleaming copper pots hanging from the ceiling. And I got goosebumps. In the back of the store was a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen where they held cooking classes. That year, for Christmas, I got a gift certificate to the store. And instead of buying pots and dishes, I took cooking classes. The first night, I learned that they hire volunteers to be kitchen assistants, helping the chef prep for the classes. An assistant organizes things on trays, gets ready for the participants, and cleans up afterwards. So, guess who got herself a part-time job doing just that, y’all? Moi,that’s who. I was a kitchen assistant at night who loved her job so much that it put me in a better mood when I left my ho-hum full-time job at five o’clock every week day.
The dream, disappointment, and a new direction
I wanted more. And I did more. I started culinary school at J. Sargeant Reynolds in 2006. I was still serving as a part-time kitchen assistant, and volunteering for every class that Sur La Table would let me work. I took on more responsibilities there, becoming the chef’s assistant, which meant no more setting up for classes, no more washing dishes. I was running reports, communicating with the corporate office, arranging class schedules, managing the kitchen assistants, doing most of the grocery shopping. Everything. I even stepped in to teach a culinary class when the chef got sick once. Man, I was in heaven! I was hooked. I wanted to teach more people how to cook. I knew I wanted to be a chef. My vision for The Green Kitchen and sustainable cooking started to take shape, too. So, I quit my office job and worked 40 to 60 hours per week for an hourly rate at Sur La Table. And I just knew that, any day now, they were going to say, “Welcome aboard! You’re program manager.”It didn’t happen like that. Because I didn’t have my culinary degree yet, they wouldn’t give me the management job. It went to someone else. And I became her assistant. A tough Brussels sprout to swallow, indeed.
I kept working and going to school. In 2008, I learned about being a restaurant chef during my internship at Portico (formerly Edible Garden). I eventually became a sous chef there. Through hard work and a heaping scoop of grace from the universe, I graduated with honors in 2009 from J. Sargeant Reynolds. I was officially a degreed chef! And, as fate would have it, my chance to manage the culinary program at Sur La Table came back around, too. From 2009 to 2012, I was the manager this time.
Still, my dream was bigger. So, I began catering in-home parties, weddings, and other events. I even organized cooking camps for kids in the summer. The father of one of my students asked me if I would think about becoming his personal chef. I said, “Nah.”Just kidding. Of course, I said, “Yes!”Next thing I know, I have his credit card and, at his request, I’m shopping for this family whose kitchen I found myself in once a week preparing a full week’s worth of meals. Word of mouth quickly landed me three additional clients and four kitchens to clean, not counting mine. I also needed a place of my own to spread out, but wasn’t ready to search for a shop just yet. So, I rented the kitchen at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church in 2011 to handle my growing catering orders, private cooking classes, and personal chef work. I did well enough that I left the Sur La Table program. And my vision to make The Green Kitchen a sustainable cooking school where people could learn how to garden, cook, and eat fresh was now in focus.
Then, my rainbow got hijacked
In 2013, my second marriage began failing. My weight started ballooning. Stress was taking its toll on me and I developed diabetes. I’d known that it was a possibility because I had gestational diabetes when I was expecting my daughter. The doctor said diabetes was likelier for me later in my life, especially if I became overweight. I started fighting it with medicine. Still am. All I could think was, here I am, my business dream is coming true but my personal life is a nightmare. On top of that, because my blood sugar was being managed by medicine and I didn’t have to check it, I didn’t really give it the attention I should have. My weight kept going up. I wasn’t getting better.
When my relationship ended in October 2015, my stress eased up some. Emotionally I was doing better. The next June, I saw a diabetes specialist who tested my A1c. It was above an 8. Not good. She ripped a page out of a book with about 50 things on it and said, “You can’t eat these things.”I told her, “But I’m a chef,” and she replied, “Well, then this should be easy for you.”Was she kidding me? Unbelievable!
I went home flabbergasted. I got really hard on myself. “Get your lazy ass out and start walking!”I said out loud. I’ve always hated exercise. HATED. I didn’t want to do it. But, I started walking. I didn’t join a gym. I didn’t buy new exercise clothes or new sneakers. I just started walking. 10 minutes out, 10 minutes back. 20 minutes out, 20 minutes back. I got a Fitbit as a gift and started tracking my activity. I average about 12,000 steps a day now. Between June 2016 and August 2017, I lost 40 pounds. Let me repeat: 40 POUNDS, Y’ALL! The busy chef and mom. Who hated exercise. Lost weight just from walking. Cue the confetti!
Okay, now hold the confetti for a minute. While on vacation in August 2017, everything went to hell. I stopped exercising. I drank a little more than usual. And I put 10 pounds back on. Since May 2018, I’ve lost those 10 pounds. And now, I’m back to my healthy routine. I’m doing far better. I have a wonderful new love in my life. I have my location that just opened in Church Hill. And now, I’m preparing food for people who are managing diseases like cancer and diabetes. People with autoimmune disorders, food allergies, and Down Syndrome. I’m helping people meet special dietary needs and follow specific eating styles to help them lose weight or just stay well. I essentially get to deliver healing to them. In fact, the medical field is beginning to say instead of taking a pill, change your diet. The green and local movement naturally supports that, too.
Turning the tables for better wellbeing
I’m fortunate to be able to customize meals that help people live their best lives. It’s a daily reminder to practice my own self-care. I walk at least 25 miles a week in my neighborhood, and I drink a lot of water. Beginning with a morning walk clears my mind and helps me focus on the day ahead. I take vitamins and try to eat as healthy as possible. I also nurture my spirit by expressing gratitude. As my day starts, I say “thanks” out loud for the opportunities I’ve been given and the people around me who love and support me. It’s these practices, without a doubt, that help me stay productive and accomplish my daily to-do list.
Are there times when I’m tempted to skip my routine? Lord, yes. When that happens, I think about how good I always feel afterwards. Sometimes, I’ll take short walks with my dogs in the evenings if time is limited. I also believe that “down time” is just as important as exercising and I’ll sleep in when I feel my body needs it. That’s my recipe for better personal health and wellbeing. It’s a simple, yet, powerful way to ensure that my business and I are here for the long haul. My journey is nowhere near complete. I’m not talking about retirement. I just got here. And I’m not going anywhere. My career and dream has come along late in life. I’m happy. I laugh and smile more. I’m exactly where I want to be and I continue to grow.
I provide personal chef services and prepare meals for clients who have dietary challenges, specific illnesses, or, don’t have time (or like) to cook. I cater events for up to 200 and offer private cooking instruction for individuals and corporate team-building events.