Essay: Kitchen Is Where the Heart Is

Through cancer, career changes, and the challenges of parenthood, still, I cooked

Through Cancer, Career Changes, and Parenthood Challenges, Still, I Cooked

When I think of my happiest childhood memories, they all start in the kitchen. Helping Grandma June stuff manicotti on Thanksgiving morning. My mom swatting my hand away as I not-so-stealthily sneaked the pizza toppings she was prepping. Eating more frosting than made it onto the cookies each Christmas. I’m now fully enmeshed in middle age, and one thing is certain — somehow, I always end up back in the kitchen. 

As passionate as I’ve always been about food, it never occurred to me to cook for a living. Despite jumping in to cook when my single mom worked late. Despite my first job serving at a diner in my west Michigan hometown. Despite getting a thrill out of checking cookbooks out from the library and hosting friends for dinner parties — that was my idea of a good time as a student at Michigan State. Instead, I embarked on a career in journalism. (Naturally though, I was sure to bring in a buffet of home-cooked goodness for my co-workers on election night at the newspaper where I worked in Wisconsin, and I started a cooking blog called I Eat Veg as I worked in news radio in Chicago.) 

As fate would have it, my older sister and I both married Detroiters, and not long after I moved here, she coaxed me away from journalism to care for my nephews and cook for her family while she was on bed rest for baby No. 3. Through my time as their caretaker, I got a taste of what life looked like feeding people for a living. I loved sifting through her cookbooks to find dishes her family might enjoy.

When it was time to move on, I had a do-what-you-love moment and decided to launch my in-home personal chef business, Fresh Chef Detroit, in 2011. As someone who had become interested in a healthier way of living in the previous few years, I conceived of Fresh Chef Detroit as a source of healthy, balanced meals for busy families. Today, many of my clients are doctors at local health systems and other busy professionals looking for nutritious, home-cooked meals to eat amid crammed schedules. 

I didn’t see the oncoming Mack truck that would derail everything. In 2016, I was diagnosed with stage 3b breast cancer, and life as I knew it came to a halt. When I asked if I was going to be able to keep working, my oncologist’s short answer was, “Cancer is your job now.” 

Soon, I lost my appetite and the will and energy to prepare food. Cooking, which had always been a highlight of my day, became a chore. I was determined to make Christmas dinner that year despite being four weeks out from a double mastectomy. I cried as I cut vegetables, my husband trying to convince me to order pizza instead. I’m no hero, just stubborn. For me, cooking meant normalcy. It meant I had value. It meant I was alive. 

While I survived cancer, my marriage didn’t make it. Within months of finishing treatment, I found myself a single mom with a mountain of bills but a hopeful heart. I’d also found myself right back in the kitchen. I slowly built Fresh Chef Detroit back up and fell in love with cooking all over again.

I also had another do-what-you-love moment. After an incredible birthing experience at the Ascension Providence Hospital’s Alternative Birthing Center supported by a midwife and doula back in 2014, I felt pulled to birth work. For years, I ignored the interest and kept cooking. I told myself that I couldn’t change my career yet again, but cancer has a way of telling you to do whatever the hell you want. I began training to become a birth and postpartum doula and tried to balance being on call with cooking (and being a single mom) to no avail. In 2019, my doula classmate Alex Idziak and I partnered to launch Detroit Doulas and I found a way to do it all.

I was busier than ever with cooking and Alex and I were scheduling our first births as a duo when COVID-19 hit. I took those early days of lockdown off to spend the quality time with my daughter that I felt I’d missed in previous years. My 7-year-old sous chef constantly underfoot created a new appreciation for my own mother, a single parent who also raised a precocious daughter who insisted on helping in the kitchen. 

I relished having the time for introspection, and when it came time to get back to work, I was ready to charge full speed ahead with both Fresh Chef Detroit and Detroit Doulas. After all, people are always going to have babies and will always need food. It seems I’m right where I should be.

This story is featured in the October 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.