The culinary world is one of cutthroat competition, particular if one is a black chef and a woman. Kimberly Van Kline never thought she’d be creating delectable meals for celebrities and royalty as a young girl learning to cook with her grandmother, a woman who worked as a personal assistant and cook to legendary Hollywood actress Margot Grahame. A focal point of her best childhood memories was helping her grandmother prepare meals for the family, and became the primary cook in her household upon her grandmother’s passing.
As an adult, she worked as a professional at Verizon for more than a decade, but always knew her passion was cooking. On her 40th birthday, she decided to pursue her dream full time, and founded Passion for the Palate, a catering services firm, in 2008. Her client list now includes artist and actor Common, hip-hop artist Fabolous, haircare giant Bronner Bros., and royalty in Antiqua and Barbuda.
Black Enterprise spoke with Van Kline on how she got her start, what excites her about creating the perfect dining experience and how she plans to give back to her community via culinary education.
What inspired you to become a chef and how did you get started?
As a little girl, I knew my grandmother as a great cook. She would cook every Sunday, and I grew up helping her prep meals. She always made me feel like I was part of every meal.
As I got older and my grandmother passed away, my grandfather couldn’t cook, so I had to get in the kitchen and start cooking. At age 12, I was the chef of the house, and it became my passion.
How did you make the transition from a full-time, white-collar worker into becoming a professional chef?
I had a 9-to-5, working in different industries, but wasn’t fulfilled with a desk job. I always had a cookbook on my desk. Upon reaching my 40th birthday, I asked myself, ‘What makes you happy?’ and it was cooking. So I decided to study it. I’d work during the day and do an externship at night. Initially, I had to find my niche. I found that the restaurant business wasn’t for me. I wanted to be more creative, and I found that private cooking was more suitable— I had control to create a menu, put thought into it and give it my own flair.
How important is training and education in becoming a personal chef?
For me, I was always confident in my cooking, but there’s always that desire to better myself. I need every tool and every aspect to make me better and help me grow professionally. There are a lot of great chefs who didn’t go to school, and there can be long hours for many, which means learning on the job. But going to school gave me the background and the technical training for food preparation.
I think you have to educate yourself if you’re going to be the best at any craft. If anybody is serious about going into the chef business, it’s a good idea to gain the knowledge on different types of food, food safety, cooking styles, and what fits them. Even now, every day that goes by, I’m online, researching what’s new, what’s out and whats on trend.
The whole thing about the culinary industry is that there’s always something new, so the more knowledge the better.
Your company provides a full event experience, not just food. How do you go about tailoring each experience for your clients—even beyond the food?
One thing I love about cooking is that I can be creative. It all becomes part of the production. I often research a menu that will include a client’s favorite foods, the colors that would accompany it, the flowers—just the whole ambiance surrounding the food. I sit down with clients to talk about various aspects they’d like to incorporate. Depending on the type of food and the ingredients’ cultural and geographic origins, I create drinks infused with indigenous fruits. You want the client to have the best overall experience, so it’s not just about the food. You want them to be able to say, ‘Wow, she created a great, unforgettable experience down to every detail.’
Speaking of the ‘Wow’ factor, how important is quality of work and references to your industry?
The quality of work is very important; Cooking is the least of your problems. You have to cover every detail. For example, for one 50th birthday event, I created a drink especially for the guest of honor infused with vodkas that I knew the client liked. I also worked with the client to provide food reflective of her guests, who were African American and Caribbean-American. The client was very happy and many of her guests never forgot the signature drink or the types of foods chosen for the menu because it was tailored and made of their favorites as well.
I often like to let the client experience my work ahead of time, so I schedule tastings and previews of the experience. I also use the freshest meats, fruits, vegetables and spices. Clients want their hard-earned money to be spent on the best. And I like to cook from scratch because that’s when you cook from love.
You’ve had several large/high profile clients. How were you able to attain them?
Working with Common came from an ad placed on Craigslist. Yes, Craigslist! When you want to get your business out there, you have to talk about it. No one will know unless you tell someone. Put ads out there, whether it’s the newspapers, online or on social media.
Common’s assistant reached out to me from that ad. He was shooting Just Right, and he wanted a great chef to prepare health-conscious meals for him.
From there it was word of mouth. Fabolous had an event and heard about me and we ended up working together for that. I later worked with artist Danny Simmons, which was also by referral.
I worked with Bronner Bros. after being told about an opportunity from a woman I used to work with. I was attending a party for a hair salon, and that led to the opportunity to have them as clients.
You also have a passion for passing down the legacy your grandmother gave to you. Talk a bit about that.
A lot of young girls and young women don’t cook. For me, I feel as you’re getting older, just the mere fact that you have to feed yourself … it is vital to know how to cook and prepare your own food. If kids learn how to cook, they’ll feed themselves and find pride and quality in what they eat, which translates into other aspects of their lives, including health. Fast foods are just so unhealthy.
I’m creating a program to teach girls how to cook. Many girls today even have moms who don’t cook—because of busy schedules and having to work—so they have no point of reference to go by to know how to make a decent meal. And that’s important.
I think if mothers put their kids in a program to learn how to cook, it would make things much better and easier for them in the household. It’ll also teach the value of a dollar and promote buying groceries instead of fast food, so you can budget in the household and make meals that last and are healthy.
What are the top three things you’ve learned as a professional in the culinary industry?
Listen to your client. You always want to know about their needs, experiences and their desires. You want to be able to go over and beyond what they would like, and that comes with listening.
Sound contracts are important. Things could go wrong, so once you have a solid contract, you can reference it when there’s any dispute or issue between you and a client. It helps you manage all obligations or expectations professionally.
Have a business plan. You’ll always see the direction you’re going if you have a plan. My plan keeps me in check.
Editor’s Note: This article originally published in December 2011