Episode 70: Cooking Authentically with Jennifer Cole

Episode 70
14m | Mar 15, 2023

About this Episode:

In this podcast episode, I interview Jennifer Cole, a successful chef who has won the competition show “Chopped” and has been cooking professionally for over 25 years. We discuss her career path, including working in Atlanta, New Orleans, Paris, and Spain before returning to her family farm in Haywood County. Cole emphasizes her interest in working with local farmers and using locally sourced ingredients in her cooking. The conversation also touches on topics such as the importance of creativity and understanding recipe rules as a chef, favorite ingredients like olive oil and heirloom beans, and the growing trend of farm weddings.

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00:00: 27–00:01: 01 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Hello. This is Joseph Franklyn McElroy here with the Gateway to the Smokies podcast. I have with me today my guest Jennifer Cole, who is a native of western North Carolina. And her family has actually been in Haywood County for generations. And she’s had a successful career as a chef for over 20 years, including winning chopped on in season 8. Hello, Jennifer, how are you doing? 

00:01:01–00:01: 02 Jennifer Cole:  Good, how are you? 

00:01:02–00:01: 03 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Yeah, cool. 

00:01:04–00:01: 05 Jennifer Cole: Good to be here. 

00:01:05–00:01: 11 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: How was that how was that? Was that exciting to win the season? Was it a difficult challenge? 

00:01:11–00:01: 20 Jennifer Cole: Well, you know, it was a lot of fun. I think a lot of people didn’t really expect an old gal to be able to win it. 

00:01:20–00:01: 21 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Yeah. 

00:01:21–00:01: 23 Jennifer Cole: Yeah, So it was a lot of fun. 

00:01:24–00:01: 25 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: And what did you cook?

00:01:25–00:01: 28 Jennifer Cole: Oh, God, it was a lot of stuff. Three different courses.

00:01:29–00:01: 31 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:   Really? They give you the ingredients, say, make it.

00:01:31–00:01: 40 Jennifer Cole: In a basket. It’s actually one of the few TV shows. It’s real. They actually give you a basket, and you don’t know until you open it. 

 00:01:41–00:01: 44 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Really? Wow. And then you have to figure out so can create and be able to fly. So creativity is very big.

00:01:44–00:01: 45 Jennifer Cole: Very important.

00:01:47–00:02: 13 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Well, when you reach out to us after moving here, I sort of gave you the challenge in a spot to come up with a guest chef menu here at the Homecraft at the Meadowlark Motel. And you did a really fantastic job. We had a lot of people show up. What were the three dishes were a moose. 

00:02:13–00:02: 40 Jennifer Cole: I did a Mexican chocolate mousse is the dessert. For the appetizer, I did roasted beefs with field greens that I picked on my farm. That was with local trap that I cured overnight. And then for the entree, I did a red one braised local beef cheeks with goat cheese Ballinta. I mean, goat cheese risotto. 

00:02:41–00:02: 53 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Wow. Yeah. That was really fantastic. That was good. Well, you said you’ve been cooking as a professional for 30 years. For 20. What was your first cooking job? 

00:02:53–00:03: 18 Jennifer Cole:  Well, I put myself through college waiting tables and cooking. I was waiting tables, and they were short of line cooks, and they’re like they asked for a volunteer among the wait staff. And so I was like, I’ll go home. So started doing that. Also worked for a catering company in Chapel Hill. The Chapel Hill Catering Company, which still exists. And that’s how I got started. 

00:03:18–00:03: 27 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Yeah. And then did you experiment with other careers for a little while or anything, or did you just go straight into cooking as a career?

00:03:28–00:03: 45 Jennifer Cole:  Well, studying political science at Chapel Hill to go into law, and then decided the decided, there’s a lot of lawyers out there. I want to do this. I like the instant gratification of seeing people’s face light up when you let them try something new. 

00:03:45–00:03: 46 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Right. Yeah. 

00:03:46–00:03: 57 Jennifer Cole:  So went to Atlanta and did an 18 month apprenticeship with a very well known at the time chef in Atlanta and started there. 

00:03:57–00:04: 12 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:   Cool. And what do you think is more important in being a chef? Is it understanding the science and the rules of recipes or creativity?

00:04:12–00:04: 20 Jennifer Cole:  Well, science and rules usually go more toward pastry or baking. You have to understand the rules so you can bend them. 

00:04:20–00:04:21 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:   Right. 

00:04:21–00:04: 26 Jennifer Cole:  And you have to be able to be creative to bend them. So a little bit of both. 

00:04:26–00:04:45 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Cool. All right. I took one class, I think, in New York City. Was it Culinary Institute? And I think there was a question at one point said, what’s your favorite ingredient? What’s the best ingredient? Baking or butter? 

00:04:47–00:04: 48 Jennifer Cole:  Well, I think olive oil. 

00:04:48–00:04:52 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Olive oil, okay. There you go. Good. Olive oil.

00:04:52–00:05:02 Jennifer Cole: I mean, I was in Spain for twelve years and that was beaten into my head. Butter is France, olive oil is Spain and southern Italy. 

00:05:02- -00:05:05 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Okay. And it’s better for you. 

00:05:05–00:05:07 Jennifer Cole: Yeah, I mean, butter’s a lot of fun. 

00:05:07- -00:05:17 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Yeah, butters is a lot of fun. Yeah. Especially on biscuits. So you’ve lived in, you were here, you were in Atlanta, right? 

00:05:18–00:05:40 Jennifer Cole:  I cooked in Atlanta for five years, and then I moved to New Orleans for a couple of years, and then I moved to Spain for twelve. I was in Paris for two, and then moved to New York when the economy tanked in 2008. 

And then moved back to New Orleans in 2015 and have just moved home to my family farm. 

00:05:40- -00:05:44 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: That’s fabulous. Of all those places, where did you have the most fun cooking? 

00:05:44–00:05:49 Jennifer Cole:  I have fun cooking wherever I go. I mean, you got to have fun. 

00:05:50 -00:05:56 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Yeah. Well, it sounds like Madrid was the biggest experience, so that must have been very formative. 

00:05:57–00:06:07 Jennifer Cole: Spain was very formative, and Spanish cuisine is amazing and diverse and regional. And you can find something new every day. But you can do that up here too. 

00:06:08 -00:06:15 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Of course. Both New Orleans and New York City are food towns. Right. 

00:06:15–00:06:19 Jennifer Cole:  Frankly, in my opinion, new Orleans beats New York. 

00:06:19 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Really? 

00:06:19–00:06:27 Jennifer Cole: Yeah. You got four full growing seasons. You got fresh produce all the time. 

00:06:28 -00:06:30 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: That’s good. You got great seafood, 

00:06:30 -00:06:41 Jennifer Cole:  you got great seafood, you got great charcutory, you’ve got great local farms, which is very near and dear to my heart. So, all that.

00:06:42 -00:06:49 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Well, we’re filming here at the Meadowlark so we’ll get a little bit of background noise. I hope everybody doesn’t mind. Hope you don’t mind. 

00:06:50 Jennifer Cole: I don’t mind. 

00:06:50 -00:06:54 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  So what inspires you to move back to Haywood County? 

00:06:55 -00:07:16 Jennifer Cole:  Well, my family is from here. I own a farm with my two brothers, and we’re not doing anything with it, so I wanted to move home. And while I am working as a chef, I also want to do some stuff on my farm. We got a lot of lands to play with. 

00:07:17 -00:07:18 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Yeah. How many acres you got there?

00:07:18 Jennifer Cole: 90,

00:07:18 -00:07:24 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:   90 acres. Wow, that’s a nice big farm. Was it farmed in the past? 

00:07:25 -00:08:00 Jennifer Cole: When I was a kid, it was a tobacco farm. My grandfather always had cattle on it. We had pigs when I was a very small kid. And then when my dad took it over, turned it in more into a gentleman’s farm and grew gardens and had goats and had a couple of Sicilian donkeys and turkeys and guineafall. And right now we are just playing with it, renting it out to a couple of different local farmers. 

00:08:00 -00:08:34 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:    All right, so that’s great, right? Yeah. There’s a number of farms, I guess you would call them becoming gentleman farms at Haywood County. There’s actually one that’s out over in Crab Tree that is a bison farm. But they’ve also put in train cars as like, cabins that you can rent and they have a whole train thing. Is that something you’d be looking to do? Is that make yours into the destination as well? 

00:08:35 -00:08:36 Jennifer Cole:  No, definitely not. 

00:08:36 -00:08:38 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Purely just a farm. Farm, farm. That’s cool. 

00:08:39 -00:08:55 Jennifer Cole: Although we do have somebody that’s coming tomorrow to take pictures with, I think, like a bridal party on the farm. She has an agreement with my brother that as long as she gives us a heads up, she’s welcome to do that also.

00:08:58 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:Farm weddings? 

00:08:59 Jennifer Cole: Yeah. 

00:09:00 -00:09:01 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  You got some pictures? I guess. 

00:09:01 -00:09:10 Jennifer Cole: I just want to know if they’re on the property so I don’t call the police. 

00:09:10 -00:09:15 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  You mentioned pig farms. I don’t remember a lot of those around here growing up. 

00:09:15 -00:09:28 Jennifer Cole: It’s usually for self-use. I mean, we would have pigs for us a year. Okay, I’m not talking a huge pig farm. 

00:09:30 -00:09:46 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Well, it was strange. I was walking around with my kids in Asheville, in North Asheville, not too far from downtown. All of a sudden we passed around the corner and they were in the backyard. There was somebody that had a huge hog right in the backyard in Ashville. I was like, how are they doing that? They smell pretty bad, don’t they? 

00:09:46 -00:09:49 Jennifer Cole:  Actually, they don’t. They don’t smell as bad as chickens do. 

00:09:49 -00:10:03 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Really? Chickens are pretty tasty smelling. I mean, how tasty is it? Like only when they don’t smell too good. When they’re not cooked organic odor. Cool. 

00:10:03 -00:10:10 Jennifer Cole:  But in New Orleans, you have feral chickens running around all over. Yeah, it’s very interesting. 

00:10:10 -00:10:15 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  So you mentioned how you really want to work with local farmers. What’s your vision there? 

00:10:15 -00:10:45 Jennifer Cole:  Well, I’m as a chef, and I love working with local produce. I’m an avid forager and still a beginner, but still very interested in that. I can’t wait until the farmers market in Waynesville opens in April. Looking forward to doing business with them personally and hopefully as a chef. 

00:10:45 -00:11:03 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Cool. There’s a couple of people that have been on this podcast before. I’ll introduce you to Ila Hatter, who’s a well-renowned forager right? And you might find some interesting. And then there’s Will Ritter, who is up in Madison County is doing heritage seeds. 

00:11:03 -Jennifer Cole:  Oh, interesting.

00:11:04 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Right? 

00:11:06 -00:11:12 Jennifer Cole:  We have a couple of heirloom seeds that have been we had some beans that have been in my family for at least four or five generations. 

00:11:12 -00:11:25 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Right. Wow, cool. He’d probably lived to collect those and having the opportunity to share with you. Yeah, I love bold beans. The big long ones like that. Yeah. All right.

00:11:26-00:11:27 Jennifer Cole: You grow them in your cornfield? 

00:11:27 -00:11:48 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Yeah, that’s what I’m planning to have a little bit of corn and beans this year. Maybe you’ll give me some of your beans. We’ll see you here. Now, you’re looking for besides building your farm, you’re also looking to work with various restaurants or whatever that might want. 

00:11:50- 00:11:58 Jennifer Cole: Some good for a good fit. Not only teach a good staff, and build a good staff, but learn from people. 

00:11: -00:11:48 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  That’s interesting. I mean, the reason we exist is to focus a little bit on the heritage of mountain culture foods. Mostly smokeys, but also other mountain cultures. And that seems to be your interest now. 

00:11:50- 00:12:38 Jennifer Cole: Absolutely. I mean, I’ve been very lucky dealing with I mean, outside of Madrid, right behind Madrid, you have a huge mountain range, and there’s a lot of classic dishes that are from up there that I had the pleasure learning from people not only as a chef but through friends and their mothers and their grandmothers. 

00:12:38 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  And you were in Mexico, too? 

00:12:38- 00:12:46 Jennifer Cole: I’ve been to Mexico, but oahuka, I haven’t been to Wahaka yet. I’m supposed to go to Wahaka this summer. 

00:12:46 -00:12:48 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  All right, cool. Because those are mountain cultures. 

00:12:48- 00:12:49 Jennifer Cole: Yeah, for sure. 

00:12:49 -00:12:59 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  We were talking about the Mexican foods that you were doing. 

Cool. Well, how can people find out more about you? 

00:12:59- 00:13:03 Jennifer Cole : They can go on my Facebook or they can go on my Instagram. 

00:13:03 -00:13:04 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  And what’s your Facebook? 

00:13:04- 00:13:17 Jennifer Cole : My Facebook is Jennifer Louise Cole. 

And my Instagram is what is my Instagram? I think it’s Chef Jennifer Cole. 

00:13:18– 00:13:23 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Okay, cool. Was there anything else you would like to mention about shout out about things. 

00:13:23- 00:13:30 Jennifer Cole: Meadowlark. You all should come in and go out and good music. I’m definitely coming tomorrow night. 

00:13:30– 00:13:52 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Oh, yeah. We got some Ananna Kay who’s going to be doing some up-and-coming big-time artist in Nashville. And then we got your menu again tomorrow night with the beef cheeks and the mousse and the salad, and that’s going to be great. It’s been a good week, and people love the food. A lot of got great reviews. Good shoutouts from that. 

00:13:52- 00:13:58 Jennifer Cole: We had a bunch of people in from Waynesville on Tuesday night and all loved everything, which is a lot of fun. 

00:13:58– 00:14:08 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  It’s a big table. Well, thank you for being on the podcast. All right. And we look forward to working with you some more. 

00:14:08- 00:14:09 Jennifer Cole: Thank you. 

00:14:10– 00:14:11 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  All right, bye, everybody. Bye. 

00:14:11 00:14:12 Jennifer Cole: Bye y'all

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