Browsing The Kitchen Think

Becoming a Culinary Consultant


My fabulous friend, Hélène, who works tirelessly at her website, Next Act for Women, wrote a profile about my path to becoming a culinary consultant. Here is a repost from her blog:  

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…

Becoming a Culinary Consultant: Christina’s Story

Christina at four

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.

Becoming a Culinary Consultant in Midlife: Christina’s Story

At the fall of the Berlin wall with my oldest son, 1989

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?

HB mhs_banner_300My next act was becoming 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.How to Make The Best Granola Ever

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.

Becoming a Culinary Consultant Top Box Foods

Volunteering with Top Box Foods


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.

Fettuccine with Poblano AlfredoI 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.

Emeril and Chris 1

With Emeril while in cooking school (1999)


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.

Beverly Kim of Chicago's Parachute Restaurant

Beverly Kim of Chicago’s Parachute Restaurant

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?Roasted Rack of Lamb Mama's High Strung

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! And if you have thoughts about becoming a culinary consultant, email me! I’d be glad to speak with you about it!

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!


And now a little about Hélène and Next Act for Women:

Helene-headshotThis blog came out of many conversations with women who, like me, reached their middle years and felt a bit lost, rudderless. Some of these women have had successful careers but are ready for a change and seeking a more purposeful outlet for their abilities. Others have been focused on child rearing and, with their kids grown, wish to find new meaning outside of their roles as mothers. Still others have never really found their “thing.”

Women of a “certain age” are often self-aware: emboldened by their strengths, accepting of their limitations, and ready to take a realistic approach in the pursuit of new personal goals. Their motivation may come from regrets about paths not taken, an itch to put their energy into more creative outlets, a wish to give back to their community in a more substantive way, or any myriad of reasons.

Yet something may be holding them back. How do they move forward? Where do they get help? What should they expect? Uncertainty and fear can be powerful deterrents that cause us to stay stuck in the status quo.

Next Act For Women hopes to inspire these women to take the plunge toward fulfilling their passions. How? By creating a community where they can read about women who have made this leap, contribute their stories of successes and bumps in the road, share tips and other words of advice, thereby learning from each other as they strive to live out their Next Act.

You can find me here:




Don’t want to miss any amazing stories of reinvention? Subscribe (see the sidebar on the home page). You’ll get an email when a new post is published and I won’t ever SPAM you.

You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ (click on icons on home page sidebar).

The Tragedy of Little League’s Jackie Robinson West

Obama with the Jackie Robinson West Little League Team



Little League’s Jackie Robinson West was a true American feel-good story.

A story of good sportsmanship and perseverance… underdogs who pushed passed the doubters and detractors to become the first African American Little League baseball team to win the U.S. Championship.

They were fêted with a visit to the White House, made the rounds of various talk shows and had a parade through downtown Chicago in their honor.

And now it’s all gone.

Little League International stripped the team of its title when it discovered that there were players on the roster who lived outside of the approved geographic boundaries from which team members could be recruited.

Those exuberant-faced boys that we fell in love with last summer are now stained by the deliberate, calculated mistakes of a few adults.

Boundary-shifting in Little League, and other sports our children play, is not new. Sometimes there aren’t enough players in a certain area, so they expand the reach of the team. Most of the time, it’s ignored because they’re playing for the home crowd… not a televised international audience.

The manager and administrator of Jackie Robinson West wanted to build a “super-team.” Both of them knew that the home addresses of the players didn’t match the addresses Little League International had on file for the players. But it didn’t matter. They wanted to win.

We’ve all read, and probably seen, adults (coaches and parents) at kids’ sports games manically swept up in the need to win. They can be physically, mentally and verbally abusive to the children.

But, in this case, the young players on Jackie Robinson West were abused, too. They probably knew that some of the other players on their team didn’t live around them, but they were manipulated into thinking it was okay… because that’s what they were told by the adults.

What will become of these boys who had a brief shining moment in the summer sun? Do they have parents that will help them understand that what happened is not their fault, and that they are still talented and gifted athletes and should still pursue their dreams?



Get Your Kids in the Kitchen!


Need some help in the kitchen, but your volunteers are barely able to see over the counter top? Don’t despair… put them to work!

I’ve said it again and again, but some of my best memories are of being with my kids in the kitchen. It’s where they can learn about food, as well as some very basic life skills.Kids in the kitchen They’ll also learn about kitchen safety and cleanliness, something that they’ll use the rest of their lives.

But, most important: make sure YOU have the time to help them! You don’t want to be rushing to get dinner on the table. You’ll need a lot of patience because the first few times they assist you, they’re not going to know what to do!

Kids from about 3-years-old can start helping (if they want!). I’m not a slave driver, but getting kids in the kitchen is a great way for them to learn about team work and that cooking can be fun.

Kids like to eat what they’ve had a hand in preparing, so you might get them to try some foods they’ve vowed they’d never eat. Most important, you’ll get the chance to really be with them… to hear their stories and inner secrets. And, if you have more than one child helping you, learn how to stand back and just listen to the conversation between and among them.

That’s how Mama finds out what’s REALLY going on in their lives…

For a breakdown on age-appropriate tasks, and more ideas on how to get your kids in the kitchen, Click Here.

Los Americanos Stole The Day of the Dead



Los Americanos stole my holiday… but I’m not angry, I’m thrilled.

Los Americanos  Stole My Holiday - Mama's High Strung

I’m talking about the “Day of the Dead,” of course. Or what in Latin America, and particularly in Mexico, is known as Dia de los Muertos. Traditionally, this holiday is celebrated on two days, November 1 and 2. For Latinos, it’s a time of prayer and reflection focused on remembering friends and family who are no longer with us.

When I was growing up in west Texas, every year on the day after Halloween, my parents would load up my nine brothers and sisters (Catholic + Hispanic = NINE) and head to the cemetery for lunch and a visit with the relatives. Relatives, mind you, who were dead.

I learned not to mention this to my predominately white classmates because, well, they wouldn’t have understood. It was the late ‘60s and racism was fairly rampant where I grew up. I wasn’t about to let them know that I was going to a graveyard for a picnic.

And then… things began to change.

Slowly at first… then, in a tidal wave. The Latino population of this country grew increasingly larger, and became more politically, commercially, and socially powerful. And, suddenly it seemed as if Latinos were EVERYWHERE.

Hispanic writers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Oscar Hijuelos and Isabel Allende were falling off the bookshelves. Latino athletes, such as David “Big Papí” Ortiz and Pedro Martinez, were the new stars of baseball, America’s pastime. Bill Richardson ran for President! (Heck, it was even cool to have a bootie, like Jennifer Lopez!)

Los Americanos  Stole My Holiday - Mama's High Strung

And the broader acceptance of Latinos and their culture has influenced everyone’s perception of Day of the Dead… which is both good and bad.

First, the bad. In this country, over the past 20 years or so, Day of the Dead has become a part of Halloween, and in the process, become a bit commercialized, too. I’ve seen Day of the Dead inspired costumes for children, Day of the Dead beer and even Day of the Dead rubber duckies (what?)! Occasionally it’s even incorrectly referred to as Mexican Halloween.

But don’t get me wrong… I’m more than happy to share the Day of the Dead, because it means that Americans are finally becoming more familiar with real Latino culture. (And that’s the “good.”)

Yes, I know the United States has been struggling with a huge Latino immigration issue. That’s not what I’m talking about right now.

I’m looking at what has happened with the Day of the Dead celebration as the gradual mainstreaming of Latino culture into the melting pot that is the United States. People now see sugar skulls and understand that it’s not creepy, but part of a Latino culture… even if they don’t quite get it.

So come on… glom on. That’s how we get past what divides us.


« Older EntriesNewer Entries »

I’m Christina Chavez

I was a TV journalist for many years, but with a house full of kids I decided to come off the road, go to culinary school and follow my passion for cooking. Mama’s High Strung is all about food… everything from creative recipe ideas to some really cool kitchen gadgets and cooking tips. I live in Chicago, but I love to travel and write about my food discoveries! You can reach me by email: