Are You Ready to Cook? Lisa Collins is

Foodie Profile - A Culinary Q&A

cheflcollinsMy friend Lisa Collins, a food lover with chef training from her grandparents, has made her passion for flavor a priority. Now, she makes no bones about her dream, "I would love to be America's next Master Chef." Lisa is auditioning in December for the MasterChef TV program at LeCordon Bleu  in Chicago. Her career has taken her from the Midwest to the bright lights of Hollywood. Now, with her love of food at an all time high, she has returned to the Chicago area to put her culinary skills to the test.

This test involves cooking for three celebrity chef's including one of the most intimidating figures on TV Chef Gordon Ramsay. All in hopes of landing a spot on  the show as well as becoming the next MasterChef. Lisa took a few moments to answer some questions about her life on the culinary road.

Q: Lisa, I know your Italian blood is filled with passion ranging from baseball, movies, food and of course your kids to food. Most people that love to cook can place a finger on a moment when they realized they loved the art of cooking. Do you have one?
A: Let's see, I was born in the 60's in Peru, Illinois and I can remember having a love relationship with food from the time I was about four years old. It's funny, but I think I fell in love with the taste of a sandwich I learned to make. It was only potato chips on fresh white bread with real butter. The butter, crunch of the potato chips and the salty flavor was pretty amazing for a four year old.

Q: What made that your first real culinary moment?
A: HA! This sounds funny - but I knew that I needed the right ingredients even at four! Sometimes all my mother would buy was Chiffon margarine. You know, in those little white tubs. I liked my sandwich with “real butter!”

Q: So you had a pallet looking for the right flavors at an early age. Did your family dine out much where you try other flavors as a child?
A: It was a rare occasion we would have dinner out. We all looked forward to it, even my dad. He would say, "Your mother can turn any cut of meat into shoe leather!" And that was the truth (laughing.) Oh, and back to the butter. I was always fascinated by how much better butter tasted when we were at a restaurant that used real butter.  Not the fake stuff in the white tub at home.

Q: Did you ever work in a restaurant when you were growing up, a part time job?
A: Oh yes, But it was all of the time. Since I was about six!

Q: Six? How did you start at the age of six?
A: My maternal grandparents owned a tavern business. The menu was often fresh fish and steaks with all of the sides every Friday. On Saturday's they would serve chicken instead of fish, steaks and ravioli. It was very popular and usually they hosted large banquets around the holidays. Local businesses loved them and would book the place up.


Q: So you started at six years old?
A: Oh yes. Everybody had to help out. I was about six years old when I was thrown into the kitchen to do dishes with my cousins on mother's side. I remember very long, hot hours working in that kitchen, drying dishes with the flour sack dish towels. There was no automatic dish washer, it was me. I would get mad because the "Partridge Family" was on at seven and I always had to miss it.

Q: Was it a good experience or a bad experience for you, starting that young.
A: I guess a little bit of both, I resented some things as a kid. But as I got older, I started making salads, homemade French dressing from my other grandmother's recipe, breading chicken and fish and cooking steaks. This is still young though, ten and eleven. My grandfather seemed to complain about us and how we worked. I would be threatend with being fired as to hire some “real help.” We were almost free labor.

Q: Wow, sounds a bit tense? Any good things come from working there?
A: Oh yes, I saw what it took to run a restaurant. And I started cooking. And yes, there was always tension between my grandpa, who everyone called "Mooney" and my grandmother. She would always make sure we were well fed with dinner when we were working. I heard him complain several times about her giving us kids too much of his profits!  That always stuck with me. I thought it was horrible for a grandfather to complain about feeding grandkids while working! When I was twelve, I was old enough to work detasseling corn. The money was much better than the tavern so I moved on.

Q: So the tavern had high and low points, what about other early food influences?
A: I guess that the real reason for falling for cooking came under the influence of my dad's parents, my grandma and grandpa who were Mary and Frank Visione. My grandpa came to America as a stowaway on a ship from Italy when he was twelve years old leaving behind a family who was well to do with an olive plantation. He had nothing and he never saw or heard from them again. I was around five or six when I got fascinated with the way those two would cook. They cooked wonderful things every day.

Every family needs a good wine joke! I imagine family meals were fun.Q: They enjoyed cooking together.
A: It really was like watching a conductor in front of an orchestra but there were two of them. One seemed to always know what the other was doing, or needed, and they always cooked together. They made meatball stew, polenta, gnocchi, soups, breads and salads. Oh, and they made a homemade wine that could put hair on your chest. My cousins and I always joked that we are sure that’s why we all started puberty before our friends! I’m sorry, that’s a family wine joke!

A: Yes, yes! My grandparents would cook every Sunday for my family, there were five of us. And then there was my uncle Dominick's family and there were four of them. Sometimes there were grandma's sisters and husbands, about five or so more. And on occasion their doctor and his brother Dr. A.J. Sellett, and  Dr. L.V. Sellett. It was a big crowd but not a chore! Sometimes we would get a visit from their priest, Fr. Bernardi. Here's a story we've told hundreds of times over the years. During a Friday meal Fr. Bernardi picked up the bowl of sauce and spooned several servings of it onto his pasta. Since it was Friday my grandma politely informed him about the sauce. "Father, you do know there is meat in that sauce? He replied, "Mary, it's a good Friday when you have meat to eat."

Q: Sounds like a lot of life in the house as well as the kitchen. How does that influence you today?
A: It's part of my life. I couldn't believe that these people, who I loved so dearly, could craft dishes that were better than anything I had ever tasted at a restaurant. They cooked until they died, and the whole time it was fresh. Nothing was pre-made.  I remember on fettuccini days, we would walk into the pretty small kitchen to find broomsticks and plain old wooden dowels everywhere between chairs holding beautiful strands of drying pasta. Then there were the ravioli days!

Q: That sounds like a great memory.
A: Yes, it's a wonderful memory! My God, if I only really understood how very lucky I was to have eaten food that was made with such love and care. I'm quite sure that I would have weighed ten times what I was as a child. I was always about fifteen pounds over what I probably should have been while growing up. But it was worth it!

Q: What about their recipes and passing along the ingredients, cookbooks and passion to you?
A: Oh, there were no cookbooks! I asked  my grandparents where the cookbooks were, they never owned one. They remembered everything without any written reference. I learned to cook from 2 people who had no measuring cups, spoons and the highest tech gadget they owned was a cheese grater. I still cook that way today.

Q: Amazing, I have drawers of kitchen gadgets! Were you able to pick things up.
A: I think so, I tried to learn as much as possible. At the time my family was thrilled! Mainly because my mother was a REALLY bad cook and didn't have the attention span that it needed to dice an onion. She would say, "I don't know how you can stand there and do that. It takes so much patience and is time consuming." I loved it despite what I considered my mom’s weird attitude towards dicing an onion! Even the tavern grandparents were getting impressed which was a seemingly impossible feat. They started asking if I was interested in making appetizers for banquets.

Follow Lisa on Twitter! @lisacollins9

Party cooking! Was it fun getting to do something besides dishes?
A: Yep, it was great! There was a huge party thrown by Lin Ripple, who was my dad's boss at the car dealership where he was parts manager. It was at Christmas and there were about one hundred and fifty people. I made these little Tea-like sandwiches with chicken, mayo, cream cheese, pimento cheese spread, and green olives. My dad's boss loved them. He even came by the house to try some more. It was an awesome feeling knowing others enjoyed what I was turning out. It was around this time that I started baking as well. My grandparents were not really bakers. I wanted to fill a little taste gap so I started baking sweet breads, zucchini, pumpkin, apple walnut, you name it, I made it. I was never happy if I made too much and someone said, That's enough Leese! How could you have too many sweets, brownies, cupcakes, pastries, candy, pies, strudel, Italian cookies of every size shape and color?

Q: The baking was something different for you. How old were you, did you branch out towards any other dishes?
A: I was about fourteen when I started experimenting with ethnic cuisine. The only thing remotely close to ethnic was Chinese food  at the one and only Chinese restaurant in Lasalle-Peru. It was called Ho's. It was brilliant, in my little world. There were foods and flavors that I had never tasted! I wanted to know all about it. So the cookbook obsession started. First, I would spend whatever money I made, and then I would hound relatives to buy books as Christmas or birthday gifts. I would go to the library, which was a wonderful escape, and spend hours looking over old cookbooks. I was looking for something new and challenging. Simply put, I had a passion.

Q: Did you start making things outside of your comfort food zone?
A: Yes, and not to the delight of my family! I started collecting recipes from different parts of the world, to experiment with. French was fun but nobody really wanted to eat it. I made several different Mexican recipes but again, there was a severe lack of interest from my family. So it was back to comfort foods, Italian dishes, some Polish, some German and some Irish and just kept trying to perfect them. The baking progressed as well, I took a liking, and seemed to have a knack for decorating cakes.

lcollinsdessertQ: You are a few recipes removed from the tavern and your grandmother's pasta filled kitchen, what do you  think makes all of this come together as you prepare to cook in front of Gordon Ramsay?
A: I love it all, the heritage, hands on learning and passion for good food runs deep in my family. And I feel very comfortable in knowing what kind of seasonings and flavors complement each other with my style of cooking. Italian food is the big favorite in my family, and I've grown very comfortable making all kinds of dishes with that as a base.

Q: Any hints you can give, the auditions are near?
A: Wow, it is getting close. I have everything lined up for my audition. But, (Laughing) I'd rather not disclose my recipe before the audition.

Q: Just a pinch of a hint? Come on!!
A: No, no, I'm not telling!! Let's just say that it's getting worked on every day. It's a recipe that I could probably make in my sleep but I want it to be perfect. It's one that I think my grandma and dad would really feel proud of me for doing. People will know what it is soon enough.

Q: Lisa, last question. What do you hope to gain from auditioning for MasterChef?
A: I'm hoping to get the acknowledgment of the MasterChef  piers  just telling me that,  I'm good enough. I would very much like to hold that title. I would love to be America's next Masterchef and I will live that title to the fullest! Can you imagine having the kitchen of your dreams and cooking for people in need, as well as at your own restaurant? I could get a lot of things done!

Be sure to follow lisa on Twitter for her updates about MasterChef and more!

Kent Whitaker is a celebrated cook, author, award-winning culinary writer, husband, father, and harmonica player.