Chef Kat finds purpose in bringing unique culinary experiences to Calgary families

Chef2It was one of the colder nights in November when a handful of home-cooks faced black-ice and freezing wind to arrive at The Compleat Cook store — all to see a woman known as Chef Kat.

When I got there and hung my coat at the door, I also hung up my worries and stress.

Chef Kat, whose real name is Kathrina McKinney but prefers to be known by her professional name, took over the kitchen as if it was a stage — she glided across the small space stirring this and tasting as she prepared a French-inspired feast. She laughed with the ladies who regularly come to her lessons and who she knows all by name. McKinney was instructing a lesson called "Oui, Oui, Paris!" — French cooking made easy.

We felt at home and Chef Kat, owner of Chef Kat: Calgary's Personal Chef, made us feel that way effortlessly. It was warm, calm and the food smelled amazing. Once we got the main course of creamy Poulet Dijonnaise (chicken done with a creamy Dijon mustard and white wine sauce) the friendly chatter stopped — one of the women remarked, "That's a compliment to the chef, you know, when no one is talking anymore!"

I suspect few knew Chef Kat's mission to create home comfort through her work as cooking instructor and her personal chef business was rooted in ingredients that might have led instead to rough future. She had her share of hard times beginning at home in Terrace, B.C.

With her mother's untimely death Chef Kat, then seven-years-old, was send to live with her grandmother where, she says, she was mistreated. 

"She used to make me kneel in the corner and with a rock on my head; kneeling and sitting straight up. She would poke me in the back with a broomstick if I ever just slouched a bit."

This lasted, she says, for five years. But one day her favourite teacher, "Mr. Peacock," saw a welt across her arm. He took her to the principal, and that day, she says, she was taken from her grandmother's care. She was moved from foster home to foster home.

Chef1Personal chef and cooking instructor Kathrina McKinney, who goes by Chef Kat, says it’s important for her to stay true to her happy and laid-back personality, which includes singing while she cooks.

Photo by Kaity Brown

"I pretty much have been on my own since I was 15 years of age." Becoming a young mom, she says, made her grow up even quicker.

"It makes me feel good that I can bring happiness to a table that maybe has had some sadness, like someone in the family being diagnosed with cancer and they are doing a celebratory thing on their birthday.

"It reassures that I'm doing the right thing. When I go into someone's home, very rarely is it about me being a servant in their home," she says, now 47.

I met the chef in Analog Coffee in Calgary where we talked over coffee. The dark-haired and dark-eyed woman had a way of intently looking at you, but more than that, she made you feel comfortable. The scene was like meeting up with an old friend.

Her eyes lit up when she talked about food but it goes further then just that — she honestly cares about helping others through their hardships.

The chef says she has always been passionate about food. She grew up in Terrace in northern British Columbia near fishing vessels and from there learned a lot about seafood.

Remarkably, it was her grandmother who sparked an interest in mastering the art of cooking.

"My grandmother was a terrible cook. It's funny to say because she has a French background but she can't cook at all. I think that that was one of the reasons that I was inspired to learn how to cook — I didn't want to eat crap."

She began travelling and delving into foreign cultures, which she says inspired her true love of cuisine.

Along the way she married a Portuguese man with whom she had two children, Vanessa and Sergio. They came to Canada as toddlers but returned to their birth country of Portugal after their father abruptly passed away of colon cancer in 2003. They are now 28 and 29 years old.

But what led her to become a personal chef as opposed to a restaurant chef? A number of reasons, she says, but it all started with a restaurant she owned in Mexico from 1989 to 1993.

"When I bought the restaurant I wanted to be front of the house. I wanted to kind of be the showy person, but it didn't work out that way. In terms of the chef, there was no consistency with the timing and with the food so I ended up firing him and I found myself being in the kitchen."

The chef quickly realized that being behind the scenes wasn't enough but although she didn't want to be in the kitchen originally, she found herself loving it.Chef3Kathrina McKinney says her grandmother was a terrible cook and this inspired her to learn the art of food as she didn’t want to eat badly.

Photo by Kaity Brown

"Since [returning] to Canada, I have done a lot of things in between here and there. But as a woman in this industry, it's not easy, it's a real struggle. Even, chefs at these big restaurants, they're kind of behind the scenes they don't really get the notoriety. I've worked at quite a few restaurants in Calgary back and forth. It's aggressive in the kitchen."

One day she told her fiancé, Andreas Huttenrauch, that she wanted to entertain for a living to which he replied "Why not?" In the spirit of that, they created a website just to see what might happen. He is the chief digital strategist for Globi Web Solutions and an influential part in Kathrina McKinney's transition to "Chef Kat."

"There were many, many late night conversations," says Huttenrauch. "Because I have been an entrepreneur for decades it's in my blood so I think I was nudging her along very gently and then one night she said that would be a great thing to do. So the next day while she was at work I built her the website. That was me pushing her off the deep end."

Two weeks after launching her personal chef business, "Chef Kat," she had her first client and she says she realized she had tapped into a thriving market.

"There are a lot of people out there who love to entertain but they don't want to be wrapped up in the kitchen the entire time. So that's where I come in."

The chef also teaches at The Compleat Cook, a retail store in Calgary that provides cooking supplies but also on-site cooking lessons from various chefs.

She has a loyal following of home-cooks who regularly attend her classes. Chef Kat teaches on average three classes a season, with the seasons being from January to June and September to December.

She says it's important that that her food reflects her honesty and joie de vivre.

"I'm very laid back and I'm very happy. I'm a singing chef. Those things to me are really important — keeping it really true and being true to yourself. If you start getting that attitude of pretension it shines through your food and it comes through you."

"I hope that people know who I am. I do give back to the community — that's really important to me. And so I hope that I get the chance to be known. So people will say 'Oh yeah, that's Chef Kat, she did a dinner for us one time' or... 'She made a very special moment for us in a very sad time in our lives.'"

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