Jes Thomas of Soul Food: A Personal Chef Service is my interviewee and I was very excited to talk to Jes because I think what she does is marvelous. I learned about Jes’s business from a mutual friend who posted a link to Jes’s recent TV interview.
Jes lives just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Soul Food: A Personal Chef Service is aimed at busy professionals who can call upon Jes to come to their homes and prepare delicious meals using fresh ingredients they like and can eat. A weekly visit from Jes can mean dinner is handled for the entire week, with food in the fridge and freezer.
Jes can prepare special menus, too. For instance, she can customize a menu plan for someone who is diabetic or who has gluten allergies.
She also teaches cooking classes.
She explains. “In June I did a bridal shower and cooking class. The point was we would all cook together and I would give the bride (a non-cook) a lesson. So I did the class, got all the food ready for them, and everyone had fun learning.” After the cooking lesson they had gifts and a more traditional shower, but I thought it sounded like a marvelous idea.
Jes has many talents and she is flexible. “I do regular cooking lessons but I also do interactive cooking classes. I can also come to your house (for instance, for a party) ahead of time and have all the food [like crepes] and fillings ready to go, and then I will disappear so the host can enjoy the food with their guests. After everyone has eaten, then I will come back and clean up. Or I can do an interactive class and really show people how to cook.”
Jes didn’t start out to be a personal chef, but she has had a fascinating life journey.
Jes was born in Queens and grew up in Long Island New York. Her neighborhood when she was growing up was Irish/Italian/Catholic, and she wasn’t around other Indians a lot, but she went to college in Boston at Boston University, alongside 20,000 students from every race and background. In college she met Indians from all over India – which is itself a diverse country. Her three children have been raised similarly, in a primarily white area. Jes’s husband (also Indian) is a physician, but they didn’t encounter many other Indians after moving to Jellico, Tennessee about 15 years ago.
Soul Food: A Personal Chef Service was not started on a whim. Jes had been researching the business for 5 years. She has more time for it now that her oldest child is in college, her middle one in 11th grade, and her youngest is in 7th grade. [Her youngest son was adopted from India. It’s always fun to talk to a fellow adoptive mom.]
Professionally, she started on a different path. Her background is advertising and public relations. She worked in New York handling accounts for big clients like Hershey’s and Ore-Ida, and did some recipe compilation for them.
After moving to Jellico, Tennessee, for her husband’s job, she was dismayed to learn there were almost no restaurants in Jellico -- just fast food places near the highway. Jes had to learn to cook things she would normally order in a restaurant, like pizza.
Jellico has 2,000 people now. Originally it was a coal-mining town, but when the coal mining stopped the town started dying. Because there is so little demand for coal, there’s little need for coal mining. The town became impoverished because there are few jobs there. Now it has a McDonald’s, Arby’s Wendy’s Hardee’s, Subway, and there is even a vegetarian restaurant in our town, as well as two pizza places.
Jes is passionate about food, but she doesn’t throw things together casually. “I feel like cooking is a science and I need to follow the directions carefully. As I’m doing it, though, I will taste. I like to put my own spin on recipes.”
Last spring she helped her daughter with a bake sale and made chicken pot pies with a cajun spin “I tweaked that recipe so it was my own thing.” The pot pies became very popular and were the hit at a bake sale at her daughter’s school. One lady bought a cajun pot pie for her mom, who had been ill and refusing to eat, saying nothing tasted good. The mom loved the pot pies, though. Her daughter bought 20 pies over a period of weeks for her mom. She called it “the miracle pie” because her mother enjoyed it so much, and resumed eating. It brought her mom’s health back. Needless to say, that made Jes feel great.
Jes doesn’t merely cook for money. To her, it’s more of a sacred mission, a way to truly help people. Jes can be hired to cook for people who are infirm or who have special dietary needs and don’t have time to cook properly for themselves. As she explains, “The beauty of having a personal chef is it’s personalized to whatever you need.”
Technically, one doesn’t usually hire a personal chef to save money but one customer -- who liked to eat out a lot -- wound up saving substantially. Jes reports “When she told me how much she spent eating out I told her whoa, you can save money if you hire me.” Eating out for every meal is definitely more pricey.
I asked if being a mom had helped her hone her cooking skills. She said her kids “eat everything” and even as little kids they ate grownup food, not kids’ options.
Although ethnically Indian, Jes enjoys cooking and eating food from all over the world. She studied in England in college, but wasn’t fond of the cuisine, choosing more often to try different ethnic foods while there. She did learn to make shepherd’s pie, but hers is more flavorful than the typical English pie.
It was delightful talking to Jes, and I urge anyone in the Knoxville area in need of a personal chef to take a look at her website and give her a call.
What is your full name? Jessie Mary Thomas. My family in India joined the church a long time ago, and we changed from ethnic Indian names to biblical names. If you meet any Indian people with biblical names today their ancestors were raised in church. St. Thomas did his evangelism and church-planting in India, so before any European missionaries reached there, an ancient Christian church existed and has persisted. [I did not know that and it’s fascinating; you can read more here.]
Where would you live, if you could live anywhere in the world? I’m basing it on food: the French countryside where I can eat fresh food.
What is your favorite movie and why? Last Holiday with Queen Latifah. It’s a great feel good movie.
What was your least-favorite subject in school when you were a kid? Math.
What was your nickname when you were a kid? Cool-J, when LL Cool J was popular and because I was Jessie Joseph.
Do you believe in God? Yes.
What sound or noise do you love? I love wind rustling through the leaves.
If you could do anything other than what you do, as a profession, what would it be? Airline stewardess. I don’t have that ability in Knoxville, though, as it’s not a hub.
If heaven exists, what do you think it is like? I would say a joyful place, no sadness.
Do you have siblings? Yes, one brother.
What is your favorite memory of childhood [something specific]? Eating New York style pizza at Mama Theresa's. Every time I go back home I still go and get a slice. When I was growing up it was a mom and pop place. Now it’s a chain.
If you had to choose between one week traveling around the USA by car, or one week traveling around Europe on a train, which would you choose and why? Europe on a train – one I just love train travel and the amount of time it takes to go from one country to another is shorter than to go from one state to another. I would like to experience diverse cultures in a short time.
What inspires you? My faith in Jesus, the weather – for example I am not inspired now because it’s miserable outside. If it’s beautiful out I am inspired. Food also inspires me.
Which holiday do you prefer, Christmas or July 4th? Christmas. Christmas Eve morning we do homemade bagels and then that night we do a special dinner. Christmas morning we like biscuits and then we go to our landlord’s house -- our Jellico mamaw and papaw – dear friends who are like family. Our parents live in New York and Chicago so we avoid going north for the holidays.
What project or idea are you most passionate about, right now? Getting my business going – seeking out people who are desperate for time solutions for their lives so I can help them. My focus is more on helping people, more than simply growing my business.
What chefs do you like to watch on TV or read their books? The reason I know how to cook is because when we moved to Jellico there was only one restaurant here so I had to learn how to cook. When I worked in PR I worked in the food sector so I got into the habit of reading recipes. So I would try recipes at home and bake desserts for my youth group at church. I am self-taught through cookbooks and magazines and food network online. Rachel Ray's palate matches mine, but I use Ina Garten's piecrust recipe for my chicken pot pie.
What is your favorite thing to cook/eat? Pizza. I would eat it every single day of my life. Jim Lahey – who owns Co in New Work and is famous for Sullivan Street Bakery – was once married to my husband’s cousin. He sent me a cookbook and in it is a recipe for pizza. When he lived in Rome he learned how to make it. The pizza in Rome is nothing like in America.
If you could go on vacation anywhere in the world, for 2-4 weeks, all expenses paid, where would you go and why? European cruise because I don’t have to keep packing and re-packing and I can go to different countries.
Who do you love the most in the world? I would say my husband.
What question has nobody ever asked you, but you wanted to answer? What keeps me going? My optimism and hope and trust in God that even when things are going badly or not as planned that things will work out – optimism fueled by faith.
In your business of cooking, what is the most requested food you cook? The Cajun chicken pot pie. People love that.