Q&A with Lisa Brooks, a Charlotte native who’s helping shape the city’s food scene
For Lisa Brooks, providing an intimate dining experience has long been a part of her life.
Every Sunday, her grandmother would prepare a special meal for the family would gather for dinner at her house. Her mother would often host dinner parties for family and friends.
The Charlotte native enjoyed those specials moments. She would go from peaking into the kitchen to see what her grandmother and mother were cooking to eventually helping them prepare meals.
Today, the 51-year-old Brooks runs Heart & Soul, a personal chef business that has picked up traction on social media and landed her on the Food Network’s hit series “Chopped.”
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She also owns Mattie’s Front Porch, a restaurant located at the SkyLounge on Third (222 South Caldwell Street). In addition to Brooks, it features an all-female team chefs.
QCity Metro spoke with Brooks on her culinary journey and her new dining experience.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did your mom and grandmother impact your love and style of cooking?
Everything about what my mom did when she entertained was very personal and everything my grandmother did when she cooked for a family was very personal. I didn’t want some big catering company that was just really impersonal. I wanted a way that I could cook for people and connect with them at the same time.
The women in my life impacted my love of cooking by showing me love and acceptance through food and in the kitchen. And because there were times of scarcity, we had a reverence for food and tried not to waste any of it. We always took our time and enjoyed the process of cooking…I still do to this day!
What sparked your interest in becoming a personal chef?
I’ve been cooking my whole life, so I just didn’t know that it was something special or like it was a gift. I thought everybody could cook.I didn’t realize it was really a gift until I got older. I had always cooked for everybody even going back to college. I always put so much thought into taking a dish to a potluck or to some type of party. And I just loved it.
I had never worked in the culinary field before. By the time I was 40, I had been working in the corporate world for 16 years. The job had stressed me out so I decided that I wanted to find food jobs. I knew that I didn’t want to work for a restaurant so I found the concept of a being personal chef something that resonated with me.
What was your favorite meal to cook with your grandmother?
My grandmother had a garden, so we always have fresh okra, fresh tomatoes, and fresh corn. We would make cream corn, sliced tomatoes from the garden , fried or stewed okra, rice and cornbread. That was our ideal Sunday meal and that’s my favorite meal to this day. It reminds me of home.
Was it difficult to get clientele when you first created Heart and Soul?
It was all God because I hadn’t even officially started my business or gotten into culinary school when I saw my first client. It was March 2010. I was living in Chapel Hill at the time and planning to move back to Charlotte and in search of an apartment.
During my first tour, the guide told me that his wife was looking for a personal chef. I didn’t think anything of it especially considering that they hadn’t even tried any of my food. But that next week, his wife reached out. I started working for them and they started referring me to other people.
That August, I was enrolled full-time in culinary school at CPCC. I had just enough clients that I could do two or three clients a week and still be at school. After I graduated,my business just expanded. I was getting invited to parties and events so I began including some of my fellow culinary chefs that I was in school with to help me.
The phone has been off the hook for the past 12 years and hasn’t stopped ringing since.
What was it like to be on Food Network’s Chopped?
They contacted me and asked me if I wanted to be on the show. I went through the interview process. It was months later when I got accepted and they sent me a filming date to be in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 2021.
I was nervous because you have no idea what you’re gonna be doing or what your episode’s gonna be about. But when I found out the episode was about Black History, all my nerves went away. At the time, me and the other chefs didn’t know that this was an historical episode. This was the first time the show had all black judges and all black chefs.
The episode aired in February of this year. It was a very special experience. I was a finalist, coming in second. We all still keep in touch. It was a life changing experience for me.
What are some of the challenges you faced as a female in the chef industry? Were you often doubted or overlooked?
When one speaks of the chef industry, they are largely referring to restaurant chefs. Being a personal chef has come with its own set of challenges in general. There is no industry recognition for our niche. So male or female, we work primarily in the shadows of the restaurant chefs. I haven’t worked in the restaurant industry and have never experienced those disparities personally.
Why did you decide to use all female chefs for Mattie’s Front Porch, primarily women of color?
It must have been divine because it wasn’t my plan. It wasn’t my intention at all. People wanna work with someone who resonates with them. I’ve had interns of people work with me from all different races and genders. But the people who stuck just so happened to be women of color. It’s not that I wouldn’t hire anyone else but it just happened that my team is all women of color.
What qualified these chefs that work with you compared to other chefs?
Passion. I can teach skills. I cannot teach passion for food and passion for people. Both are equally important when you cook privately in clients’ homes. There’s no veil between the chef and the client. So personality is much more of a factor than in other traditional chef roles. It takes a special combination of both.
What does it mean for you to provide an opportunity to female chefs?
It is an honor that each of these women has placed their trust in me to help foster their careers and their own businesses. I’ve been able to teach them not only cooking and technical skills to hone their craft, but I’ve also been able to teach them leadership skills and business management skills and truly make them bosses of their own destiny. I encourage them all to pursue their own business ventures and highlight them whenever I can. Mentoring is the most important and rewarding aspect of my work.
Besides good food, how do you expect Mattie’s Front Porch to impact those who participate in the experience?
Each dinner is carefully curated to ensure guests not only leave full, but leave with insight into who I am as a person and the importance of each and every dish as it relates to my childhood, my family, my passion for cooking, and my desire to share our history in Southern cooking. I want my guests leaving with the feeling of inclusion, belonging, abundance, and joy.
What are your words of advice for young girls who are interested in a career in culinary arts?
Turn and walk in that direction. If it’s what you love to do, pursue it whole-heartedly & do not be swayed. Be fearless, bold, and creative. Live your dreams and pursue your passion no matter what it is.
Although culinary school is not required to be successful as a chef, you will need some mentorship or apprenticing or some type of training. Get under the wing of someone who’s doing exactly what you want to do and learn everything you can from them. If it’s important to you, you have to invest time in your craft. Be obsessed with food!
Mattie’s Front Porch will have its next dining experience on August 14. Tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite.