working girl: janette “puttie” clark, chef

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Janette “Puttie” Clark transformed her life and body with food. After being laid off from her corporate job in 2012 she dedicated her newfound extra time to something she loved: cooking. Despite having no formal training, she was able to turn her passion into a business, all the while taking a healthy approach to her meals by creating healthy versions of tasty favorites.

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Age: 32

Location: Spanish Harlem by way of Brooklyn, New York

Profession: Professional Chef

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How did you get started?

I was laid off from my job in June 2012… I really wanted to take a vacation the entire summer… I decided that over the summer, while I was vacationing, I would also cook. Cooking is one of those things that I’ve always loved. I decided to [cook] to feel a sense of accomplishment, and then when Fall came I would look for a job again. When Fall came I did not find a job but I had a really good client and I was serving them throughout the summer. So I actually was making money doing what I love doing. In the midst of that I really did think I was going to go back to having a job because I never thought about being a chef or a business owner or anything of that nature. In that space I realized that this was the first time I ever truly loved what I was doing. I would do it for free. And I started to think maybe this is where I should be instead of going back to the corporate world.

What’s an average day like for you?

It can range from me waking up in the morning, putting together a grocery list, going to the Farmer’s Market, then the supermarket, shopping for clients, prepping… I typically use Mondays to get my paperwork in order, plan, think about the business as opposed to working within the business. I can have another day where I am maybe serving sixty people at The Royal Bank of Canada, so my morning starts at 5AM and I’m working until noon. It varies. It depends on the client, the job. Sometimes I find myself working overnight and, typically unless it’s the same client who wants the same type of thing, no two jobs look alike.

How would you describe your cooking and entertaining style?

My cooking style… I usually describe it as savory. Basically, I transform savory dishes into healthier dishes. Meaning, I don’t cut out all the “bad” stuff but I do practice eating well. One of the things that I was able to accomplish through my cooking was losing a lot of weight. I’ve learned the power of fresh ingredients and using whole foods, so I don’t use anything processed.

I like bringing people back to that comfort you used to have when your Grandmother was preparing food and the family was surrounding the table… you all get together [and] forget about everything else going on in the world and focus on the people in front of you and the food in front of you.

I like the Italian style of entertaining—turning every cooking occasion to a celebration where you’re celebrating each other. You’re taking a moment from the world, kicking back and enjoying things. I feel like as adults, as Americans, we rush through so many things—you’re walking down the block having your lunch, your dinner. Health-wise it affects you differently. Sitting down, enjoying a meal, it takes a different toll on you as opposed to you grabbing something while you’re still working and eating.

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Do you have any advice for women who may have a food addiction?

A fresh diet. If you want a cupcake get one that’s freshly baked. Your body receives real food a lot differently than it does processed food. Another thing I would suggest is juicing. The benefit is it allows your system to restart.

Do you have a signature dish that friends and family can’t get enough of?

Tomato Basil Meatballs made from ground chicken was my starting staple. I make a Chicken Parmesan that has cream and cheese, but the sauce is derived from herbs and vegetables. There’s no breading or frying and it is the best Chicken Parmesan I’ve ever tasted in life and I’m not saying that because it’s mine! My newest dish that has become a signature is Roasted Rosemary Chicken with goat cheese stuffing. NFL Hall-of-Famer, Curtis Martin said it was the best chicken he [has] tasted in his life.

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Where do you draw culinary inspiration from?

I read magazines; I search Instagram; I look at cooking shows. I take things that I actually like and just play around and combine them. I entertain people a lot on a personal basis at my home and if I’m doing something like that, I’ll decide to get a little creative. I do research food, as you would research something if you were in the marketing industry, to see what other people are doing/what’s out there. I also pay attention to superfoods [and] how I can incorporate a superfood and turn it into something that people (that aren’t health nuts) actually want to eat.

What is your favorite Superfood to incorporate in your meals/in general?

Quinoa was the newest addition to what I’ve been eating. I make a quinoa fried rice that is incredible! [Quinoa] has been the one that I’ve played around with the most and I’ve transformed the taste. I’m really heavy on plants—Butternut Squash is my favorite.

Is there such a thing as black cuisine? If so, how would you describe it?

I feel like saying “black” takes the culture out of it, but I guess there is a style of cooking known to African-Americans… culturally yes, heavy in seasoning salt and all that… but now I don’t cook with any of that so I don’t know what my food would be considered.

Do you have any simple cooking tips for the average Jane looking to take her meals to another level?

Yes, “better ingredients, better food.” Be conscious of where your produce is coming from.

Why do you do it?

Because that’s where I’m most comfortable. No matter what is going on in my life, when I am placed in a kitchen and when I am cooking it changes everything about me. I have nothing else on my mind. It brings joy to my heart and to see something that I created be enjoyed by another person, it’s really… it’s a feeling that I can’t quite explain… it makes me happy. It centers me. That is the thing I am sure of. Of all the other things I question in life, my ability to get in the kitchen and create is not a thing that I question.

What are some of the ups and downs you sometimes face on the job?

Right now I would say the fluctuation of business. One of the things that’s tough is I am a person that’s based a lot on stability… for me knowing that I’m able to take care of myself, knowing that I’m getting paid on this date and this date, performing these duties… that provides security for me and with cooking I don’t have that security. I had to surrender and say I know I’m putting my best effort forward, I’m doing all that I can to help the business grow and grow, so I can rest in my blessing a little bit. That’s probably the most difficult thing: not knowing this week I’m going to make x amount of dollars. It can make you a little anxious if you allow it because you don’t know what tomorrow looks like.

What has been your greatest achievement so far?

My weight loss. My weight loss not only serves me, it serves as a marketing tool. That is the reason I believe a lot of people buy into the business. That sold the story of the business, seeing my progression with myself and the food attracts people to it in a different way.

What might be next for you?

School and a food truck are the next two things on the radar.

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What are your top go-to hair tips?

Get rid of all the weave. I’m not anti-weave but I don’t agree with the ones [weaves] that are not showing who you are.

Fun-Fact: I love travelling. I love a life of leisure. I just want to be on a beach cooking.

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