Food for the soul …
Chef Kimberly McLendon discovered the joy of cooking when she was just 7 years old, and caught the baking bug shortly thereafter when she learned how to make her mother’s famous chocolate cake with coffee and cream at the age of 9. So it’s no surprise that she chose a career in the culinary arts. As a culinary chef instructor for Viking Corporation, she takes her cooking skills on the road, traveling from her Shickshinny home to Florida regularly. She’s also a food writer for the Citizen’s Voice and has her own private business offering private culinary instruction. But cooking is just one of her many passions. She also loves children and animals, and enjoys spending time with her husband, Gary, and children, Madison and Gary, and their pets. She’s a national advocate for Blessings in a Backpack, an organization dedicated to providing nutritious food to hungry children, and in March she won the title of Mrs. Pennsylvania International 2012. When we caught up with her last week, we also learned this busy mom is a great storyteller and she’s always willing to share her favorite recipes. Meet Chef Kimberly McLendon …
What do you do as a chef instructor?
As a chef instructor for the Viking Corporation, I teach solely in the Viking Culinary Center in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., and I do an array of cooking classes. We just finished a children’s cooking camp where we taught children five days a week. We did everything from French Polynesian to everyday American food.
When did you become interested in cooking and baking?
I grew up in a family where, at the age of 7, I cooked. I always say this is my turning point when I was a kid: my mom was making this wonderful beef soup and it was on the stove and I kept looking in the pot and I thought, “Oh it needs something.” So I added some pepper and salt and then I added a lot of pepper — like the whole pepper shaker (laughs) — and I never told my mom. We sat down to dinner that night and my mom and dad and my sister were eating dinner, and it was the worst soup ever. My mom said, “Boy, this is the best pepper soup I’ve ever had.” At that point, she was just boosting my confidence. And from then on, they let me cook. I helped make the Thanksgiving turkey, I made mashed potatoes and I’ve always loved to do that. It’s always been my passion, but it did take me until I was 30 to figure out this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Did you go to culinary school?
I went to Luzerne County Community College and went through their culinary arts program, and Viking offers a lot of continuing education classes. We’re planning on going to Lucca, Italy, in October and we’re going to breathe, eat and cook everything Italian.
What’s your signature dish?
Mini cupcakes in a margarita glass — cupcakes are my passion. I’m booked solid for a (July) wine cupcake class I offer. I’ve been doing a vanilla cake with a moscato infused filling and moscato frosting and we top it with a vanilla wafer. It’s good. It’s refreshing and the aftertaste you get from that cupcake is great — you can taste the muscadine grapes and it just pops.
Your passion for good food is tied in to the reason you got involved in pageants. When did you become interested in competing?
I competed for Mrs. Pennsylvania International in 2011, but I know I was not prepared. I was a train wreck. I did not know how to walk or how to dress. I didn’t know anything. But some friends of mine who were in pageantry helped me and took me under their wings. They said, “You need a national dress, and you need to learn how to walk and learn how to present yourself.”
At this point in your life, what made you decide to enter the pageant?
Well, being a mom, I love children. It kills me to see children coming from an impoverished household without enough to eat. I was working in a local school district as a library aid a few years ago. One day I was reading, and a little boy came in and he told me he loved coming to school and he loved the food at school. I said, “That’s great — you think the cafeteria workers do a wonderful job and the food is great.” He said, “Yes the food is very good, but I don’t have any other food when I go home at night.” Then I found out that this little boy was not the only one. There were several children not getting food — they would go home at night and maybe have a bowl of cereal for dinner or on the weekends they might not have anything unless it’s food they can prepare themselves. So that really opened the door to me thinking “What can I do?” I started bringing food into school and I partnered with Grotto Pizza. Tony DeCosmo gave me cards for free junior-sized pizzas. And we started a program where if the children read five books they would get a free junior-sized pizza. He also gave me coupons for free children’s meals. Then a friend turned me on to the Blessings in a Backpack organization. We go in during recess, and we put oatmeal, granola bars, cherry fruit cups and juice boxes, popcorn — just things that children could make on their own — in their bags. It goes home on Friday afternoon. On Monday, they bring it back and the process repeats itself throughout the school year. For holidays, I try to pack extra things that I know families will be having. I do get carried away. I was spending most of my paycheck on the food. This is why I competed for the title of Mrs. Pennsylvania International. I’m asking organizations and businesses to donate money or food to the Blessings in a Backpack so we can feed children locally. And I’m also planning to do a lot more with the American Heart Association as well.
It must be challenging to stay in shape surrounded by such great food all the time. You mentioned gaining 100 pounds when you were pregnant with your son.
Well, there was the turning point. I was so happy when we had our son. I remember going to put my (pre-pregnancy) jeans on and they probably got to my knees and I thought, “Oh boy. I’m in big trouble.” From having my son, and having Maddy at home – they were 22 months apart – it was really hectic. So I would put them down for a nap and I would walk around our driveway with soup cans. That was how I initiated my weight loss plan. Then I went out and purchased P90X and that is really got me into shape. I am a fitness guru, and I just started NEPA Cross Fit.
You’ve said that everybody in life is entitled to one crazy dream. What’s yours?
Mine is to have my own national cooking show on the Food Network.
We’ll be watching for that! In the meantime, what’s next for you?
I’m almost done with a cookbook. Fifty percent of the proceeds from the cookbook will go to the Blessings in a Backpack organization.
— julie imel
If you’re interested in taking a cooking or baking class with Chef Kimberly McLendon, email her at email@example.com.