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posted: 2/6/2013 6:00 AM

Culinary creativity started young

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  • Leslie Abbey's culinary curiosity started early and hasn't waned. Today she revels in creating elaborate menus for family and friends.

      Leslie Abbey's culinary curiosity started early and hasn't waned. Today she revels in creating elaborate menus for family and friends.
    photos by JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Cook of the Week Leslie Abbey

By Abby Scalf

As a teenager, Leslie Abbey dreamed of opening her own restaurant.

Over the summer while her mother worked, she would plan a restaurant menu, invite friends over, become waitress and cook and serve them meals she prepared.

While Leslie was proud of her creativity, her mom was not as thrilled.

"She would come home from work and exclaim, 'You kids are eating us out of house and home! Where is all the food going?'" she said.

The Arlington Heights mom never opened her restaurant but still loves to demonstrate creativity, planning meals for family and friends or simply figuring out what to do with ingredients to avoid throwing them away.

"Now Mom and Dad don't have to foot the bill," Leslie added.

Several times a year, Leslie plans an elaborate menu for friends.

"To dream up a menu for my group of friends who are so appreciative is really inspiring," she said. "My inspiration is really to please my family and friends and to discover."

Last Christmas, her menu included shrimp de Jonghe, roasted tomato soup with fresh basil, roasted beet and citrus salad with fennel, parmesan-crusted beef tenderloin, green beans with red peppers, twice baked potatoes and for dessert pumpkin pie with whipped cream and cookies made from her great-great grandmother's recipe.

"I am trying to play restaurant without the responsibility of having one," she said.

Valentine's Day also is a special day among her family as her parents had their first date at a Valentine's Day Dance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Meals, she said, often have a red theme such as shrimp Creole, and desserts include chocolate, cherries or strawberries.

As Valentine's Day approaches, she shares three recipes for a romantic meal. Among them is a spinach salad with a raspberry balsamic vinaigrette, shrimp de Jonghe with steamed broccoli and individual chocolate lava cakes.

Leslie credits her mom as her earliest influence in learning to cook, but she adds it was out of necessity. As her mom went to nursing school, she left 10-year-old Leslie the ingredients and recipes to make dinner.

"My mom says, 'I felt so bad that I made you work so hard.'" Leslie told her mom, "If you didn't do that, I would not have learned how to cook and love it so much."

Today she cooks for her husband, Robert, and daughter, Terrica, 27. At one time pursuing a degree in international studies but now she studies how cultures are influenced by how they cook their food and eat. She also dreams of one day starting her own cooking show to help others explore the country.

"One day I would take our RV, go to every nook and cranny and find cuisine unique to the part of country and find a historian who could teach how to make this dish," she said. "We could have this great conversation with this person, who could give us history about this part of the country and we could see this part of the country in terms of food. I think food is reflective of the people."

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