By Deborah Pankey
Daily Herald Food Editor
Growing up, Kelly Sears learned early on the power of food.
The youngest of 35 grandchildren, she remembers a flurry of activity during a family feast (she was 3 or 4 at the time) with people grabbing bowls and forks clinking in the rush to get food onto their plates.
"My grandmother was a woman of very few words and a giver of even fewer 'warm fuzzies.'" Sears recalls. "As I sat there, watching the food disappear my grandmother put a bowl of homemade warm buttered spaetzle noodles in front of me. My own bowl! It was at that moment I knew that sometimes food can say things that some people just can't."
Her route to the kitchen was detoured by a 15-year career in the finance industry but she has found her way back and today shares the connective power of a home-cooked food with students at Marcel's Culinary Experience in Glen Ellyn.
Sears, 47, lives in DeKalb with her husband, Dan, and Pete and Emma, the couple's yellow lab and beagle.
When did you realize you wanted to be a chef? I was always in the kitchen with my mom. We entertained a lot and, although our family was small, we always had a full dining table. Life gets in the way sometimes of the original path you choose for yourself. I dabbled briefly in the culinary world right after college. My mom and I opened a catering business and retail store. We discovered we had a lot to learn and our efforts weren't successful. I ended up following the other fork in the road and ended up in the financial industry for 15 years. About eight years ago, I was given the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and get back in the kitchen. I couldn't have been happier.
Does your finance background help you today? In the general sense, my stint in the financial world gave me a solid understanding of both sides of profit and loss, how to run a business, how to manage and be managed, learning to be a team player. Nothing is ever done successfully by just one person.
As importantly, in the business sense, I spent 15 years interacting with people in one of the most personal areas of their lives; their money. I learned a ton about people, how they react, how to read them, what they respond to and why, and that each person is so very different and responds so differently in similar situations.
The kitchen is no different from the office. You can never underestimate the power of collaboration. One of the most valuable lessons I learned is that you don't get respect from a title; you earn respect one day at a time, one action at a time. Gaining the respect of your peers, co-workers, and customers for the job that you do is the ultimate compliment and one that I strive for everyday, regardless of the area of work I do.
What advice do you have for adults who might be considering switching careers and becoming chefs? When I first started at College of DuPage, I felt old enough to be my co-students' mother (and in some cases I was!). As my time in the program continued, more students in my age group were enrolling. The economy and life changes have pushed people in new directions and forced some altered paths.
The only bit of advice I would offer is this: although as adults we have life experience on our side, the kids have youth! The days are long and the nights are longer.
Don't be fooled by the Food Network, and superstar chefs. Everyone starts out chopping and dicing and doing the dishes. There isn't a lot of glamour in the everyday kitchen. You had better love it.
What's the most rewarding part of your job at Marcel's Culinary Experience? Officially, my title is culinary coordinator and executive chef. I feel like I was given a title and every day I need to earn it. Along with the owner, Jill Foucre, I create the cooking class program, obtain outside chefs and guest chefs, manage a staff of culinary assistants and teach classes.
My typical days usually start out with a flurry of emails and correspondence over my first cup of coffee, I attempt to make sure the kitchen is properly stocked with equipment and food supplies, the chefs and culinary assistants know their assignments and class loads for the week, the students are notified of their upcoming classes, and I'm preparing for my own classes.
The rest of my time is filled with new class ideas, new program ideas and new directions to take the program. None of this happens by me alone. I have a huge support system at Marcel's. We all contribute to the culinary program and are responsible to and for the level of success we achieve.
What is your favorite piece of cooking equipment? Can I have two? One is my Le Creuset Dutch oven, the other is my Swiss Diamond Saute Pan. When I'm not using one, I'm using the other. Both pieces are workhorses. They can start on the stovetop, move to the oven, even the refrigerator, and the Dutch oven can go into the freezer if need be.
They can sear, saute, slow cook, braise, poach, deep fry; I like that kind of versatility in a piece of cookware. I'm constantly changing recipes as I go and I need my cookware to be adaptable. These two pieces fit the bill.
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? One of my favorite dishes to make is stew. Meats, potatoes, vegetables, spices, all coming together in one dish to make a complete meal that's hearty, flavorful and satisfying. My favorite ingredient is the spice garam masala. I use it in a lot of my stews and cooking in general. Garam masala is a blend of dry-roasted, ground spices from the colder climates of northern India. Garam is Indian for "warm" or "hot", however, not in the sense of spicy; warm as in a sense of warmth to both palate and spirit, warm from the inside out. Soul satisfying. Ultimately, that's what I hope my cooking is for those enjoying it.
What was the last meal you cooked at home? Last night was spicy pork burgers on the grill with roasted sweet potato "fries" and fresh pea and pea shoot salad. I would choose a pork burger over a traditional burger any day of the week.
What three ingredients should every home cook have? Sriracha, half and half, Dijon mustard. I don't know about every cook, but these are my three staples.
Sriracha adds a bit of heat and depth to anything it's mixed with, half and half brings an element of body to a dish that needs a bit of depth, and Dijon does it all. It can used in a marinade, a vinaigrette, a spicy element, an emulsifier, another layer of flavor.
Do you have a favorite cookbook or cookbook author? I'm a big fan of Donna Hay. She's kind of Australia's Martha Stewart but more approachable, more down to earth. Her dishes are simple but bold and with only a few ingredients, she can create great balance to a dish. There's usually one surprise element that always makes me think, "Why didn't I think of that?"
Any favorite food shows? The Food Network has really taken a shift over the past few years to contest based shows and creating the next "star." It seems so far from reality and misleading yet I know anything that builds awareness and interest in the culinary world is good for the industry.
I do like the shows that focus on chefs and restaurants that haven't "hit it big; " the independents that bang out great food every day and love what they do. I'm a fan of (Iron Chef) Michael Symon and Jeff Mauro, the Sandwich King. Jeff's sense of humor is addictive and Michael's cooking is so approachable.
What do you do in your free-time? I'm an avid runner and I balance that out with Pilates. I love sports, watching it, participating in it ... I like the competition. Football and hockey are my favorites.
My husband and I are attempting to hit every professional and college football stadium. It's a fun goal, even if we don't ever achieve it.
I'm most relaxed on the water. We have a home in Wisconsin that we do our best to escape to as much as possible. We fish, swim, just try and be outdoors. It's my lab, Pete's most favorite place on earth.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? I absolutely love to take classes. I try and learn something from anyone I surround myself with, even if they are a guest in one of my classes. Everyone has something to share. As opportunities present themselves, I will continue to take classes and continue learning new techniques and skills. I don't foresee that ever changing.
I do have a goal of selecting one culinary avenue and attempting to master it. I'm not sure what that strain is yet, maybe bread baking, maybe pastry, I haven't quite decided. It would be an accomplishment to be "one of the best" at something culinary. Right now I try to be "one of the best" teachers and culinary coordinators in the industry. Surrounding myself by really, really good people helps me get a little closer every day.
Tell us about this recipe: Corn Saute with Pancetta, Potatoes and Peppers. This recipe is super versatile. It's one of my go-tos and a recipe I share because it's so easy to make it your own or alter it with what's in season, or better yet, what's in your refrigerator. Don't have pancetta, you can use bacon, don't have peppers, how about asparagus or zucchini. No fresh thyme, rosemary is fine, too. It's all up to you and what you have on hand.
Take a class with Sears or the other chef instructors at Marcel's Culinary Experience, 490 N. Main St., Glen Ellyn. (630) 760-8500 or marcelsculinaryexperience.com.
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