Clara Smith never went to traditional culinary school but remembers one chef describing how he learned to cook.
"He said 'I went to the University of Life for cooking,'" she said. "I love that because I didn't get schooling per se but I got life cooking. I got a heritage of cooking."
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The Lombard resident said she first learned to cook alongside her mother, making Italian dishes like spaghetti gravy, Italian meatballs and sausage. Her mother, Clara recalls, used to put the yards-long pasta strands over her arms and those of her siblings so they could lay the homemade noodles out to dry.
Her mother's influence and her own instincts work together when Clara's in the kitchen.
"You can have two people look in the same refrigerator; one will say 'I don't know what to do with it' and you can have another person say 'Oh wow. I can throw that into some pasta or I have some whipping cream and I can make an Alfredo sauce with that,'" she said. "It's an individual thing. Anyone can learn to cook if you love it."
Clara never expected cooking would turn into a career, but after working 20 years in accounting for McDonald's Corporation at the Oak Brook campus, the head chef saw her passion. He signed her on as a junior sous chef in the test kitchen.
"I'm around food all the time, creating. It's a true blessing," she said.
At first she worried the job might diminish her love of cooking, but that hasn't come to pass. She still loves to cook at home, whether it's her mother's meatballs or a pot of cheesy soup inspired by Food Network star Paula Deen, both of which she shares today.
Clara found a way to impart her love of cooking when her children, Frank, 29, and Megan, 26, recently got married. She gave them cookbooks she created featuring her own recipes, such as the family's favorite carrot cake, and others submitted by friends and family. The cookbook came in handy too when planning menus for the bridal showers.
"Instead of figuring out what to cook, I took recipes from the cookbook that people gave me and made the recipes for the shower," she said, adding that some guests didn't recognize their own recipes.
Consider the cookbook another text as her children continue through the University of Life.