Grandmother’s example inspires food bank chef

Kim Ortego works in the kitchen at the Lowcountrry Food Bank.

Begun in 1983, the Lowcountry Food Bank does a heap of good in fighting hunger by distributing food and meals to thousands of people all along the coast of South Carolina. And while we associate white jackets and sometimes tall hats with Charleston’s renowned dining scene, many may not realize that the food bank has a chef too, one that graduated magna cum laude from Johnson & Wales University.

Talk about “being slammed” in restaurant parlance. The food bank’s kitchen turns out nearly 600 meals a day. Now that’s the definition of busy.

Name: Kimberly Ortego

Age: 45

Residence: North Charleston

Occupation: Executive chef

Family: Just me and countless friends

Q: What does a chef at a food bank do? What does your job entail?

A: Our mission at the Food Bank is to feed, advocate and empower. We cover 10 coastal counties in South Carolina. With the help of volunteers, we cook meals for kids and seniors in our area that are food insecure, that means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. We use donated food and purchased food to prepare meals that include milk, a lean protein, vegetables, fruit and a whole grain in each meal for our kids. I design our senior client meals to meet MUSC’s recommendations for sodium and fat, while striving to make them colorful and appealing. The food is prepared on site, and then delivered to Meals on Wheels and after-school programs.

The majority of my job is organization, execution of the prep list, managing food safety and quality control. I also take time to make sure my volunteers are happy and having fun!

Q: How on earth do you turn out 4,000 meals a week?

A: 1. Patience and flexibility. 2. We have an amazing dedicated cadre of approximately 26 regular volunteers that work one or more days per week to make these meals. I am the only paid staff member in the Zucker Family Production Kitchen, so without the help of these volunteers, we would not be able to do what we do. We have been open five years, and I have some volunteers that have been coming in since the beginning.

Work in the kitchen can feel like making sausage: It may not be pretty to look at in the beginning stages but always yields a tasty result.

Q: Who or what influenced you growing up to pursue a culinary career?

A: My grandmother Ella Mae, hands down. I watched her make delicious simple meals growing up and I still yearn for her dishes (my favorite being her pork roast and purple hull peas). My earliest memories are licking the cornbread batter bowl (not cake batter) after she prepared the cornbread, which she did every day, and watching her make roux for her gumbo.

As any Cajun cook will tell you: “Never walk away from a roux.” She would take the phone off the hook and stand over the stove, stirring with her wooden spoon in her Magnalite pot until the roux was dark brown. Those sights, smells and tastes are all imprinted deep within me. When I smell my roux cooking, I’m as close to her as I’ll ever be. She was an amazing woman. She raised six kids, as a divorced Catholic woman ... in a small town, and countless grandkids (me as one of them). Any day I feel challenged by what lies ahead ... I just remember that.

Q: You’re from Texas. How did you get to Charleston? Why did you stay?

A: Growing up in a small town I was ready to leave sooner than later and a job opportunity took me to the Midwest. I spent my days off scouring the library for cookbooks, watching Julie Child, Jacques Pepin, and Martin Yan on PBS, and cooking tons of meals. My roommate asked me why on earth I made so much food for just the two of us. She said one day in passing, “I could see you cooking for a living.” Three months later, I had quit my job, enrolled in Johnson & Wales and was in Charleston. I didn’t know a thing about Charleston nor a soul living here. All I knew is that I wanted to be near water (having grown up on the Gulf Coast), and back in the South.

Charleston has become home for me. I “grew” up here. I’ve created a family through the wonderful friends I have and can’t imagine living anyplace else. The culinary scene is amazing, but more than that, so is the history, the people and the beauty of our Lowcountry.

Q: With your degree, you could’ve easily gone into restaurant work. How did you end up at the food bank, and why is that a fit for you?

A: Frankly, I was intimidated. When I graduated, there were very few females really dominating in the restaurant world. I didn’t have a mentor, someone who could say ... yes, you may be little and female, but you can cook with the best of them. I’ve never regretted it because I’ve had the chance to see up close what my clients/customers think of my food. I get to see the joy on their faces and I love that part of cooking for others.

When the Zucker Kitchen was under construction, one of my best friends told me about it and mentioned they were going to be looking for a chef to run it. Clueless as I was, it never occurred to me that she was hinting I should apply. I eventually got the hint, went through a rigorous interview process and landed the job. I may not get to see the faces of the children and seniors I cook for every day but I know how much joy a meal can bring into their lives. It is the most satisfying cooking I’ve ever done.

Q: You have been around long enough to see Charleston’s food and beverage scene blossom unbelievably. What’s your take on it?

A: Our city thoroughly lauds the talents and specialness of our culinary landscape and though it is recognized worldwide, I look forward to the day when each member of the kitchen crew is insured and earns a competitive wage. The people behind the scenes — the prep cook, the dishwasher, etc. — struggle with transportation and rely on CARTA, which rarely runs late at night after the last restaurant shift ends.

I’ve enjoyed seeing females make their mark in this city and now those female culinary students ... have plenty of inspiration in Michelle Weaver, Emily Cookson and Kelly Franz, among others.

Q: What are your family’s Thanksgiving traditions?

A: Back in Texas our traditions were always centered on our Cajun heritage. We usually smoked some kind of meat and always had gumbo on the table. All of our rituals centered on food. Ever-present were the cornbread dressing, cooked bean or peas from the garden (that had been put up during summer’s harvest), and pecan pie but more importantly buttermilk pie! That is my favorite.

Q: What are you most grateful for this year?

A: There is a quote I have on my office wall regarding gratitude: “Two kinds of gratitude: The sudden kind we feel for what we take; the larger kind we feel for what we give” by Edward Arlington Robinson.

Every day I am cognizant of the fact that I get to cook, teach and learn while hopefully creating a legacy in our community of which my grandmother would be proud. For that I’m immensely grateful.

Recipes to share:

Ingredients

1/2 cup butter, softened

11/2 cups granulated sugar

3 rounded tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 eggs, beaten

1 cup full-fat buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg

1 deep-dish pie crust, unbaked

Directions

Using electric mixer, cream butter and sugar well. Add flour and mix until incorporated. Add the eggs, buttermilk, vanilla and nutmeg. Mix batter well until thoroughly combined and slightly thickened. Pour into pie crust. Bake 45-50 minutes at 350 degrees.

Get a weekly recap of South Carolina opinion and analysis from The Post and Courier in your inbox on Monday evenings.


Ingredients

1/2 cup vegetable oil, or melted shortening

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

3 green onions, chopped (reserve some for garnish)

1 large onion, diced

1 green pepper, diced

2 to 3 ribs celery, diced

1/2 cup of fresh parsley, chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

6 cups of chicken or shrimp stock, warmed

1 teaspoon ground cayenne

1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 to 2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce

2 teaspoons fish sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 pound crab meat

Directions

In a large stockpot, mix oil and flour and brown, stirring continuously until the roux is chocolate brown in color. Stir often as to not burn the roux. Add onions, bell pepper, celery, parsley and garlic. Saute until vegetables are softened. Slowly add warm stock, stirring continuously until broth is incorporated with roux mixture. Add remaining seasonings and adjust salt and pepper. Add shrimp and crab meat to pot and simmer 20-30 minutes. Taste and season once more. Ladle gumbo over hot rice and garnish with reserved green onion.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.