Do you ever long for the days when Sunday suppers, weekday dinners and family celebrations gave us a sense of comfort, satisfaction and joy? One respected personal chef in North Carolina makes it her business to take people back to those special moments in their lives.
“Cooking for people, being able to take ingredients and transform them so that people moan and groan and hold their heads up. That’s a great feeling for me,” says Lisa Brooks, CEO of Heart & Soul Personal Chef Service. “I’m addicted to it. I love that feeling. That’s how I care for people and show them I love them.”
Mattie’s Front Porch
In June, the Charlotte chef launched a new dinner series inspired by the love of southern foods and hospitality she learned from her grandmother and other family matriarchs. “Mattie’s Front Porch is symbolic of my grandmother’s house, specifically that place where you welcome people. I would stand on the front porch to see my uncles and cousins pulling up with that anticipation of welcoming them,” Brooks recalls.
Chef Brooks welcomes 24 diners into her Charlotte home for the monthly pop-up experiences. Tickets are sold for each themed dinner highlighting Southern coastal and Low-Country cuisine. Brooks shares elevated versions of her grandmother Mattie Cunningham’s recipes. “I want Mattie’s Front Porch to be a remembering of what the joy of feasting together feels like. I want people to not only enjoy amazing food but get the stories that come along with that food,” she says.
The chef also features some favorite dishes she developed during her life-long culinary journey. Brooks works with a team of ten chefs, all women of color. They give the Heart & Soul CEO time to talk to guests at Mattie’s Front Porch. Brooks’ stories about her passion for cooking and bringing people together enhance the food’s smell, presentation and taste. “Our dinners are super diverse. People from all backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, social-economic classes and political belief systems attend. You come together in this common moment, and you’re able to lean in because you are breaking bread together,” explains Chef Brooks.
Upcoming plans for Mattie’s Front Porch include offering ticketholders sweet and savory brunches and Bayou and Gulf Coast seafood specialties. Brooks emphasizes that the pop-up dinners provide much more than excellent food and drink. “One of our goals is to make sure no one feels out of place, even if you come to one of the events as a single person. We want everyone to feel that sense of community, belonging, acceptance, joy and love.”
Heart & Soul
“I love the way people are able to relax, enjoy themselves and lean into each other because we’ve taken care of the food and atmosphere while serving them with honor.” Brooks founded Heart & Soul Personal Chef Service in 2010, wanting people to feel the welcome and warmth of sharing a well-prepared meal. Her company curates intimate celebrations at people’s homes for as few as two or as many as 16.
The company’s CEO left a 16-year career in healthcare technology to pursue her desire for a less stressful and more fulfilling profession. “It is the best decision I ever made. It was scary, of course, at the time,” admits Brooks. “That’s generally how leaps of faith work. But I’m so glad I did that. I can’t imagine still being in that world. I found some freedom.”
Heart & Soul continued to thrive during the COVID pandemic with requests for meal prep kits and in-home dinners. Brooks recognizes how vital it is for people to celebrate and appreciate the joy of feasting together. “It’s such an honor to be a part of the most special moments in people’s lives. That’s only helped to fuel my passion even more,” she says.
Standing on Steadfast Shoulders
The personal chef’s passion for cooking began when she was a little girl in the kitchen with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She counts the huge Sunday dinners they prepared among her happiest childhood memories. Brooks reflects on her grandmother’s life and how what she learned from her completes a circle. “We called Mattie mother. She was a maid and worked for two super-rich families in Charlotte her whole life. She cooked, cleaned and raised their kids. It’s an incredibly reflective full circle moment to now go back to similar neighborhoods as a CEO and respected chef.”
As the youngest of seven girls, Brooks marvels at what her mother accomplished while working full-time and getting dinner on the table every night. “I’ve been surrounded by really strong, smart and resilient women. Women, in general, are strong, but there’s just something about a Black woman’s abilities to recover from pain and live through things that translate into our being.”
Heart & Soul’s CEO believes using generational knowledge to build one of the country’s largest and most successful Black-owned personal chef companies has made the women in her family proud. “I feel so honored and blessed to be able to do what I do,” says Brooks. “I think about everything my mom sacrificed to raise all of us girls and everything my grandmother sacrificed six days a week away from her family. These women were amazing, relentless and stronger than you can imagine.”
The steadfast shoulders Brooks stands on fuels her desire to mentor others who want to soar as personal chefs. She’s chosen many young Black women from Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College, where she earned her culinary degree and taught them about cooking and operating a business. “I learned a ton about global cuisine at culinary school. I learned the techniques, language and vocabulary of cooking.”
“It was almost a badge of honor to not have to measure anything or follow recipes in my family,” Brooks continues. “But I learned the value of making your food completely replicable by being able to write, scale and cost out recipes.”
Recipe: Chef Lisa Brooks’ Blackberry Cobbler
The Heart & Soul founder offers online courses. The Personal Chef Academy teaches people how to kickstart a business. A second course is for personal chefs who want to grow a team and expand their business. However, her most avid students are the mentees learning “The Joy of the Feast” by working alongside the cookbook author.
The Joy of the Feast
“The Joy of the Feast” gives readers and home cooks the experience of learning the things they would have learned had they grown up in my grandmother’s kitchen. It’s a preservation of those staple things,” Brooks notes about her cookbook released last year.
Every chapter in “The Joy of the Feast” begins with a story that relates to the recipes that follow, from Sunday dinners to church cookbooks. “It was a huge labor of love to prepare 100 recipes and 100 photographs with beautiful photography and to actually cook and make all those things, but it was worth it,” adds Brooks.
The personal chef had a dual purpose for writing the cookbook. One is to teach the basics of preparing simple but delicious dishes with a few ingredients. The other is to preserve family recipes and culinary traditions for future generations. “We have a very strong Southern cultural heritage, especially with food. A lot of the recipes I learned growing up, I feel like If I don’t keep them alive, they’ll die out.”
A staff of 31 people, including ten female chefs, helped Brooks immortalize the culinary legacies of her grandmother Mattie and mother, Mable Meachem. They joined the Joy of the Feast Tour to Atlanta, Durham, Raleigh and Charlotte. The sold-out pop-up dinners presented last summer featured some of the most talented chefs Brooks has mentored, Joya Courtney and Keisha Brynn. The pandemic limited the number of cities for the tour. “It was so much fun. I did have high hopes of taking them to New York and LA. Some of these girls have never been outside of the South,” Brooks says.
Cooking Up the Next Chapter
Plans to take Mattie’s Front Porch on the road could give Heart & Soul’s young chefs another chance to travel to Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Considering some of the reactions to the pop-up dinners in Charlotte, it is a definite possibility. “We’ve had people actually cry. I believe the food takes them back to a place where they remember their childhood feasts or their precious times with their own grandmothers,” says Brooks. “I’ve gotten comments that it is an ethereal, spiritual experience. Diners knew they were coming for dinner but couldn’t have expected what they would leave with.”
The personal chef just celebrated her 52nd birthday. As she thinks about her next chapter, more television appearances are on her mind. Brooks was the runner-up on an episode of Food Network’s “Chopped” in February. The show had an all-Black cast of chefs and judges in the first-ever tribute to Black History Month. “Everybody there was super talented, and it just made me proud of all of us. I just realized how talented we are.”
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Heart & Soul’s founder would like to combine her love of travel with a TV show highlighting the culinary traditions grandmothers taught people in other cultures. Still, Brooks wants to first ensure the hospitality business she runs with a nephew, three nieces and her mentees will continue after she retires. “Hospitality is creating an environment as close to heaven on earth as possible. It is how people are cared for, nurtured, protected, loved, made to feel strong and like they can accomplish anything.”
Find out more about Mattie’s Front Porch pop-up dinners on the website for Heart & Soul Personal Chef Service (Home | Heart and Soul Personal Chef Service (wpengine.com)). You can also follow Brooks on Eventbrite (Chef Lisa Brooks Events | Eventbrite) or on Instagram.
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