Cooking with Art and Soul
Some chefs find daily specials are not enough to satisfy their culinary muse, so they hop from kitchen to kitchen to quench their need for creativity. Kathy Collins, executive chef at NOLA MOCA in Jacksonville’s Museum of Contemporary Art, however, demonstrates that even if you stay in one place you can keep your creative gears in motion, especially when you are surrounded by art.
A native of Chicago, Collins started work in restaurants at 16, when her mom, a server/bartender, found her a job. Even though she began as a server, Collins always knew she wanted to get to the back of the house and cook. What she heard early on, though, was not encouraging.
“Everybody told me it was a boys’ show, the kitchen was too hot, I was going to cry,” she said, the disbelief still in her voice. Undeterred, Collins went to Le Cordon Bleu in her hometown and began to work in restaurants, country clubs and as a private chef to gain experience and win over the naysayers.
After arriving in Jacksonville in 1999, Collins spent some time at Pastiche in Avondale before landing at the museum’s dining facility in 2005. When MOCA first moved downtown, onsite dining was limited and the space was rented out to a sandwich shop. Within a couple of years the museum took over the restaurant. Chef Collins has experienced many changes since then and her role has evolved over time.
“I started as a line cook, then moved up to sous-chef and eventually became executive chef. Even though I have been here 10 years, there’s never a dull moment working at NOLA. I have tried to leave and do other things, work in a bank, a call center, but they didn’t work out,” said Collins. “I can’t sit still.”
Daily specials on the lunch menu allow the chef the opportunity to think outside the plate. Additionally the restaurant handles all catering needs at MOCA, giving Collins even more room to sample from other cuisines and create customized menus for special occasions. She is an advocate for sustainable seafood and local agriculture, though (like many) she is concerned about getting a consistent supply of produce.
“I would love to work more with the farmers in the area, but I can’t always get enough of what I need,” said Collins.
One way the chef is addressing the desire for local produce is by growing some things at her home in Murray Hill. “I put my garden in my front yard so I would see it whenever I come in or out of the house, to remind me to water or weed. This past year we had a ton of pumpkins and sweet potatoes,” she said, “plus my 4½-year-old daughter likes working in the garden with me. It’s important that she sees where food is coming from.”
How does the chef feel about talk that downtown Jacksonville is on the cusp of a culinary renaissance? “I’ve had a front-row seat on the action. It’s great to see all the restaurants in build-out, and more people coming downtown as a destination,” she said. “There are a lot of good things to come and we plan to be a part of it.”