Tired of being away from her family as a result of a demanding career as a television journalist, Christina fully committed to her passion for food and cooking, starting with culinary school.
Tell us about your background…
When I was a young girl growing up in West Texas, I would lay on my stomach in front of the television watching the evening news… specifically, coverage of the Vietnam War. I knew then that I wanted to live all over the world and cover important events.
I started my career as a print journalist in Miami and then moved to other locations as new opportunities arose: Washington, D.C. to work for CNN, Central America with NBC News, South Africa with NBC Radio, Europe with PBS, and finally a return to the U.S. with CBS News in Chicago. I covered some pretty amazing stories… wars, the end of apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall.
When did you start to think about making a change?
My job with the CBS Evening News kept me on the road constantly and I wasn’t happy being away from my husband and five children. My desire for a change had definitely been brewing for a while. I knew I wanted to do something else, but wasn’t quite sure what it was.
I’ve always loved to cook and there was a cooking school close to my home (Kendall College), so I checked into it. I don’t do anything in life halfway, so instead of just taking a few courses, at the age of 40, I enrolled in the 2 year Associates Degree course. CBS was downsizing and I didn’t want to move to New York because of my family, so the timing was right.
What is your next act?
My next act is being a culinary consultant and having a culinary website, Mama’s High Strung.
A culinary consultant is someone who works in a variety of capacities in the industry. In my case, I work with major food corporations to bring the Hispanic market to their company. This involves recipe and product development for their Spanish-language websites and other social media outlets.
My favorite assignments, naturally, have been when I traveled to other cities to promote products. We set up booths at big Hispanic cultural events, and I do cooking demonstrations. It’s been a great way to meet people and find out first hand what they are cooking in their kitchens, what products they like, and how they use them. It’s a great way to gather information in the field…So, in a sense, I’m still a reporter!
To come up with new recipes, I usually see what is trending and make it with a Hispanic “twist.” For example, a client wanted a holiday rice pudding recipe, but wanted something different. I know dried fruit is very popular in the Hispanic market, so I wrote a recipe that called for layering tropical dried fruits between the rice pudding.
I share recipes and information on my website, Mama’s High Strung. This website combines my love for storytelling and cooking. I am able to share what is going on in the food world, and my family, with recipes and stories. One of the most popular recipes on my website was How to Make the Best Granola Ever. I think this recipe resonated with readers because it is so easy to do and very achievable. It also speaks to our changing views about food: how we want to move away from processed food and move toward healthy and organic food if possible. I also promoted it like crazy on social media so it reached a lot of people.
As a side note… I do volunteer work for Top Box Foods, a non-profit based in Chicago that offers delicious, healthy and high-quality foods at affordable prices to people living in areas with limited access to nutritious eating options. I love this work because it gives me a chance to talk to people about what food they are buying, eating and feeding their families. What I have found most interesting is the great amount of knowledge the average consumer has about organic and locally grown food. They want it… but they can’t afford it or can’t find it.
Why did you choose this next act? Where does your love of cooking come from?
I grew up in a large Hispanic household in west Texas. We were very fortunate that we had someone to help my mother with cooking because she didn’t like to cook at all. She could make a mean batch of Red Chile Sauce for Enchiladas and Chile Rellenos, so I’ll give her props for those two dishes, but that was the extent of her repertoire. My father, an ex-Marine, would cook on weekends… mostly grilling and smoking (in Texas beef is king!), but he had other specialties, too.
On weekend mornings when he wasn’t playing golf, my father would make us doughnuts. He also made the best Chicken Fried Steak you’ve ever eaten… I think it was the gravy, or maybe it is just a beautiful food memory I have of him (he died in 2005). He also made amazing salsas. He’d roast different peppers and char the onions and then blend them into magical, mouth-blistering concoctions that were still full of flavor.
I also remember being on a family camping trip and he found the ingredients to make root beer. Real root beer. From roots. He cooked it on top of the stove, cooled it and then mixed it with club soda for the carbonation! Now that I think about it, I probably got my love of cooking from my father!
No one taught me how to cook. I think I learned by observation. I remember as a child making recipes off the sides of cereal boxes, like Rice Krispies squares, and off cookie packages, like Vanilla Wafers. Who knew that, years later, I’d be writing recipes for the company that owns Nilla Wafers (Nabisco/Kraft/Mondelēz)!
Cooking really relaxes me. Even if I’m slammed and have to make a fast dinner, I love the creative energy that it takes to make something delicious and beautiful. I also love to eat… so there is that.
Living all over the world also exposed me to many cuisines. I loved trying everything, no matter how weird: grub worms with the Bushmen in Namibia, live baby eels quickly seared in oil in Panama, stuffed pig bladder in Romania. I was drawn to farmers markets in tiny villages and in huge cities… I think my soul was pulling me toward the culinary world.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It wasn’t hard. I was fortunate to have enough money to go to school. As a television journalist, I was used to working long hours and hard work, so I knew I could do it. Plus, I knew the food would (mostly) be good.
I went to class. I studied. I cooked. I scrubbed a lot of pots and made some amazing dishes… and friends. My family and friends were incredibly supportive. Everyone was eager to help me with my homework! My family loved it because at the end of everyday I was at home, sleeping in my bed.
Tell me more about the degree you received and avenues open to you and your classmates…
I graduated with an Associate of Applied Arts in Culinary Science. I was also named Outstanding Student!
This degree gives you a solid base in the art and science of cooking and an introduction to culinary business management practices. While you don’t need a culinary degree to work in a restaurant kitchen, this degree gives you knowledge and skills that it would take years to master as a journeyman. In my case, it enabled me to springboard into the corporate food world.
I had a small class and my core classmates have all stayed in touch and are still close, but they went in a variety of directions. Beverly Kim owns her own award-winning restaurant called Parachute in Chicago. Christian Eckmann is an executive with Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants. David Nalezny is the Corporate Chef at Evanston Golf Club. Joe Farber became a Nutritionist and Personal Trainer. Another classmate is a corporate chef for Sunset Foods and another works in pastry at the Ritz Hotel in Chicago.
What challenges did you encounter?
Being older was definitely a challenge in culinary school because I was surrounded by twenty year olds with tons of energy and no real responsibilities (and no kids at home!).
I also had a few older, male chef instructors who made my life difficult. One even told me that I was “too old to work in a (restaurant) kitchen” and that “no one will hire an old lady.” I had the last laugh because at a graduation job fair, I had the most job offers from major companies like Kraft, Sara Lee and Nestle because I had another degree, I had other work experience and… I was older.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I never, ever thought about giving up. Not once. I always finish what I start. Plus, I really love learning. I was exposing myself to a whole new world and new people and I knew that only good things would happen.
Living all over the world has showed me that the US is a great place to start over and reinvent yourself. Whenever I’ve really wanted something, I’ve gone after it and given every ounce of determination to make it happen. If it didn’t work out, at least I would have no regrets.
Going to culinary school was the same way. I knew the hours would be long and hard, but I had a burning interest so I knew I wouldn’t fail.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife or might be interested in culinary school?
Do it. Whatever it is that you think you want to do, find a way to do it. If money is an issue, try to find a way to make it happen through loans, grants, or a crowdsourcing campaign (I’m not kidding). Hit the Internet and find a mentor. Reach out. There are a lot of people out there who were just like you at one point and would love to help!
As far as going to culinary school: GO! But be prepared for the hardest work you’ve ever done. To enjoy and survive a program like Kendall, you must have the passion and willingness to work hard and work as a team. Besides the intense desire to become a proficient chef, all of my classmates were in love with food. They loved learning where it came from, who grew or raised it, and how they could turn it into something creatively delicious. We were also very competitive, so that helped us push each other!
As far as starting a website: Remember, it’s easy to start… but keeping the momentum going to gain an audience is difficult. Make sure you are well versed in social media and that you have a basic knowledge of code. Starting a good blog (one that you’ll make money with like I do) is expensive… and unless you hit right away, it may take you a year or two before you see any income. You have to have great images (that means a good camera), a good-looking web design (that means a web developer) and enough time to write thoughtful posts that you will then post EVERYWHERE and ALL THE TIME on social media (in order to keep making money). It can get expensive… and time consuming.
What resources do you recommend?
As far as culinary school, I think you should research a program that is close to you. You may also want to read this article on Grub Street for the down and dirty truth.
If you want to start a blog, these articles on The SITS Girls and BlogHer websites are invaluable.
There are bloggers that focus on MidLife issues, like Fifty Is the New Fifty and communities like Women of Midlife on Google+.
And there are LinkedIn groups as well, such as What’s Next.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Yes… I’m working on my next act as I write. Stay tuned!
Contact Christina Chavez at firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out her website: Mama’s High Strung