How does New York inspire you?
I knew I wanted to live in the city when I visited with a family I was working for at 23. Two years later, I was going through a rough patch in LA and decided to make the move. The energy of the city, there's nothing else like it in the entire world. Here, the people are inspirational and it’s kind of like iron sharpens iron. When you're around all these people doing amazing things, you always want to be better.
What was your path to discovery of food as your passion then career?
Since I was a little kid, I’ve loved to cook and I always say you can't be angry when you're eating. I wanted to go to culinary school right out of high school but my mom, who is a teacher, was like 'um no.' So I went to UC Berkeley, which in hindsight I'm very thankful for it because it has opened so many doors. I graduated in the recession with a degree in mass communications because I thought I wanted to be a newscaster - but I hate the news. I was just sitting at home, so I went to culinary school for a fast track program. For seven months, I was in the kitchen five days a week. Right out of school, I got a job with Will and Jada Smith, which was a sign. I felt like it was totally meant to be and it all took off from there.
What is it like being a private chef?
I love being a private a chef. Working in a restaurant is more manual labor and you don't always get the human food connection, which for me, is really important when it comes to cooking. I like to see people enjoying my food. Even as a private chef, all clients aren’t good fits for me if they don’t provide feedback. I also enjoy not being restricted to cooking the same dishes over and over. The hours aren’t too bad, either. I’m usually off by 8 or 9 and depending on the family, get holidays off. Since I've been in New York, I've been more of a freelance private chef. It works well for my schedule segueing into my ultimate goal.
What is your ultimate goal?
I don't want to be working for people forever. My real passion for food is teaching people how to cook. I’m building this brand of 'Chefleen' and it's centered around instructional cooking - food that makes sense for your life and teaching people our age and people that are getting away from cooking that it's easy and actually kind of fun. The ultimate goal is to be on a media platform. I was probably the only 10-year-old that watched the Food Network back when there were real chefs and it wasn’t even that entertaining. But I noticed there was no one that looked like me on it. There is so much diversity amid Blackness, but most of the Black culinary world centers on southern food. Growing up in California and being of mixed race, I cook completely different than the stereotype. I want to begin to fill in the spaces that have been missing from media.
Tell us about Real Cooking with Chefleen, your IG Live show.
A while ago, I started a show called Let’s Cook In, but I was putting too much thought into it, which made it a challenge to be consistent. The idea for Real Cooking actually came from an old Food Network show Cooking Live with Sara Moulton. It was the same concept where you make a meal from start to finish in an hour from an ingredient list you could get online. It was a good idea but not for the time with the internet being relatively new. Now we have phones and social media, and it makes more sense. There is not a lot of production that goes into Real Cooking, and I think that’s the charm. Food TV tends to be centered around entertainment but I want people to feel like they can actually cook, so no gimmicks. This approach also eliminates any excuses I could create for myself because I have a phone. There's no finding a videographer or waiting for editing. It's going pretty well. Looking at insights, people are watching for longer periods of time. I kind of feel like I have fans, maybe 10.
How do you plan to keep the show fresh?
My main goal is to be consistent. I've started so many projects and never finished them. I’ve had circumstances that could have been reason to not shoot, but I kept the commitment. Aside from that, I’m always practicing my on-camera presence. I watch myself every week after the show and sometimes I'm like "oh my God, I said 'umm' so many times." And other instances it’s "wow, I was actually kind of hungover and I did great!" To keep it fresh, I really listen to suggestions from others for types of food as well as techniques to teach. I am also looking to partner with other Instagram chefs and have guests on. It’s important to support others with this. I also prioritize research before each episode to share interesting, maybe random, facts about food.
What are some of your sources of inspiration for cooking?
The Internet is the best thing that happened in cooking. Very, very rarely do I see a recipe and I follow it exactly, but they provide a starting point. I also get a ton of inspiration from traveling and going out to eat. It’s funny because I don't even realize that I love food more than most people. When my sister was here, I was like “oh let's go to this food place and this food place and there is a Magnum ice cream store.” Her response was "Kathleen I just don't like food as much as you." And I'm just like "Oh, this isn't normal?"
What is a food philosophy of yours?
You can make something out of anything. You shouldn’t let a lack of access to Whole Foods make you feel like you can’t cook. That’s why the recipes on the show are made with ingredients you can find anywhere. When I was working for The Smiths, one of the head chefs asked me to get a fancy vinegar and I couldn't find it in the store. She was so upset, but in my mind, I’m like one ingredient shouldn’t make or break your dish. Food is fluid and at the end of the day, just needs to taste good. You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money to achieve that.
A perfect segue into Chopped. What was the most memorable parts of that experience?
When I opened the dessert basket and there were apples inside. At that moment I knew I'd won. I've been making apple desserts since I was a kid. It was funny because the episode was themed around Irish foods and my Irish grandfather passed three years ago. He used to rave about my apple desserts. It felt like divine intervention, like he was there. Before that, it was an emotional rollercoaster. As soon as you don’t get cut you’re like “oh my God. I have to do that again.” Another very memorable moment that day was when Chris, my boyfriend, and I were at the meet up point, which was a sketchy McDonald’s on the east side, looking at the competition. I thought and said aloud “They look like real chefs and I don’t.”of He told me I was and this was going to be me as we danced to Rake It Up. It calmed my nerves. I’ve been paying my all my bills for eight years being a chef and it’s funny I still doubt myself because I don’t look a certain way.
What is something you learned in the kitchen that is transferable to real life?
Having a plan is always best. For instance, if you're going to cook something, you can't just start making it. You should check for all of your ingredients because if you get halfway through and you don't have chicken when you're making fried chicken, you're kind of screwed. Being flexible is important too because on the other hand, if you started a recipe for fried chicken and you don't have the oregano that's less of a huge deal. Cooking has also taught me a lot about staying calm under pressure and dealing with people. Being a private chef, you can't get frustrated and flustered. You have to be so easy going. Sometimes families will say they want to eat at 5:45, you'll literally have everything hot and ready to go then the time keeps getting pushed back. I just have to make it work the best way possible.
What's the best compliment that someone could give you?
That I'm thoughtful. Because I do spend a lot of time thinking of other people. It’s often in small little ways that may not always be apparent. I can come across very honest and brash, so I appreciate when people know where my heart is.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m going to continue doing Real Life Cooking. Hopefully, it gets better and better and the following grows. I want to do a few events in the city. I did one last February called Lovers and Friends. I want to do two of those a year with the same theme - a really nice dinner with R&B music. I have to figure out how to make it profitable, too. That’s the thing, I love cooking and entertaining so much that I could do this for free.
How do you stay motivated as you strive to achieve your goals?
I have an inner drive that pushes me and I honestly have no idea where it comes from. I've always been a very determined, independent person and willing to take risks. For instance, I worked on a cruise ship for five months last year. Coming off of that, I didn't have a job for a while. And I was kind of down on myself, sleeping a lot and having some health issues. It took me looking at myself and making sure I knew I was in control. Even if you just do one little thing per day, it's better than nothing. The flip side is not being too hard on myself. Sometimes when we don’t do what we said we were going to, we spend two days beating ourselves up when we could have just done the thing. I honestly don't have anything grandiose to say. I really feel I was put on this earth to teach people how to cook, so that's what keeps me going.