Chef Jennifer Booker's Authentic Southern Cuisine with a French Twist
Chef Jennifer Booker describes an abundance of love in her childhood, especially surrounding food. Her family is from the Mississippi Delta and they are farmers. “I just grew up around my grandparents, and great aunts and uncles, and they had gardens, and chickens, and hogs, and cows, and all of that went with it,” Booker says. “So, I watched them hunt and grow, and then harvest that food, and [then] slaughter the hog or make the butter, and [there was a lot of] love and family around all of that.” Although cooking was central in her family, it wasn’t thought to be a career choice. When Booker asked her parents about becoming a chef, they told her “no.” She said, “They were both the first of their families to ever go to college and 20 years ago being a chef, either you were a European white man or kind of like a dropout, a degenerate or a bum. It wasn’t a career, definitely not like the superstars the Food Network has made us to be. So, my dad was like, ‘Look, get your undergraduate degree and then I don’t care what you do.’ And so, I did. I got an undergrad university of Tulsa in the spring and I started culinary school that fall. I haven’t looked back since.”
Booker calls her cuisine style “modern Southern healthy cuisine with a French accent,” which was inspired by her year of training in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu. “So, I’ll take [a] southern dish and I’ll add some French ingredients or French aesthetics, and I’ll do the same with the French dish and make it more southern... It makes it more approachable.” Of her dessert specialties, she says while laughing, “My lemon pound cake is the bomb,” adding that she also mixes cocktails. “I make wine and brandies and infuse liquors and alcohol.” She says she loves to “cook everything,” so the best question for Booker is what can’t she do? “Most cuisines have a lot of flavors and a lot of techniques, and so I would say probably Asian because that label is over such a huge amount of food. You have people think, ‘Oh, well that’s Chinese, that’s Japanese, Tai and Indian.’ You know, so much under that label of Asian. So, I have learned to make some different dishes and I know my way around pretty well, but I would say that I could learn a lot more under that Asian cuisine umbrella.” After surpassing her family’s career expectations, she still has many other professional goals.
“I definitely am ready for a
brick and mortar restaurant,” she said, but she wants to ensure that the timing is right given that she is now divorced and raising her two daughters. One is in college and one is finishing high school. She also wants to host her own cooking show. “I think that would be a blast, and I love to teach, so that’s a way to get that information out there. I’ve done ‘Cutthroat Kitchen’ [and] I really wanna do another competitive cooking show. Just to kind of prove myself, I guess.” Besides timing, the other pervasive impediments to her career aims are sexism and racism. “It’s kind of ironic that we are expected to be in our home kitchen, for a lot of reasons. Then in a professional kitchen, you hear, ‘Oh, you’re a distraction’ or ‘you’re not strong enough’ or ‘you can’t handle the heat or the stress or the pace,’ so we have to really just push our way forward into the kitchen and show that we’re talented and skilled and capable because of the fact that we’re women or despite the fact, depending on how you’re looking at it. Then being a black woman, there’s the other barrier you have to push and knock down. The expectation is that ‘Oh, you’re a black female chef, so you must only cook soul food or only fry chicken or have never traveled or been trained.’ So all of that going on.” In everyday life, making home-cooked meals can provide bonding experiences in families and even in romantic relationships, according to Booker. “Men like a good meal but they also like to be taken care of and catered to. So, if you can cook like a slamming meal, and it’s his favorite and it tastes good and it looks good, [then] you’re more than halfway there. If you’re halfway cute, then you’re probably all the way there.”
Ambitious but grounded, she believes that women can have it all, but there’s a caveat. Women cannot have it all at once, but over time they can, according to Booker. She says that her mother complains, “‘You just do too much and you try to do it all,’ and I’m like, ‘Mom, I’m gonna blame your generation because ya’ll told us we could have it all.’” She advises, “[Women] have to get to that point to be okay with, ‘Oh, it will take some time.’” ~AJ
hers-magazine.com | HERS Magazine | December 2018 |