When we talk about our roots, we’re referring to our personal histories. We talk about people, places, memories, relationships, and food. How many of us can’t recall that singular meal, that thing Mom used to make? We have memories of gatherings; our elders handing us warm bowls full of aromatic wonders we were to leave at the center of a large table. Maybe we remember a cultural item we hand-rolled with a grandparent or waited underfoot for, to grab the moment it was ready – too hot to eat. Some of us are lucky enough to remember pulling food from vine, toiling in the family garden, and eating ripe and raw things still warm from the sun. Food is life. It gives us life, defines moments with sensory memories as rich as the sauces themselves, and outlines our cultures – both ethnic and familial.
For Chef Kelly Unger, roots are about more than her grandmother’s backyard garden, more than family meals that were cooked with everyone in the kitchen, more than the story of food that has underlined her life. Her roots are also about the people in her community and the lives of those hundreds of miles away. They’re about nourishment as well as nutrition, about wellness and healing.
Raised in Bethlehem, food was a way of life for Kelly. Her grandmother sourced everything but meat and dairy from her own backyard. Everyone is her family cooked and cooked well.
“It was not a unique talent,” she says sitting in the glowing beauty of the country French style kitchen from which she shares her love and knowledge of food.
As a girl, Kelly wanted to be a nurse but instead followed the advice of a beloved aunt and attended Johnson & Wales for culinary arts. After completing the two-year program, she went on to Moravian College to get a bachelor degree in business, a cornerstone in the foundation of her career which now resides on the grounds of her historic home in Carversville.
When speaking to Kelly, a few things are obvious. She knows herself. Her likes and dislikes, her motives and drivers, are clearly defined. She is a nurturer, and her love of food is an extension of that desire to help and heal others. She enjoys a challenge. She learns and grows from them, finds silver linings, and uses her victories to move her forward. And, she has a great sense of humor. The high ceilings of her cooking studio seem to frame her genuine and rollicking laughter. The best chuckles come when she reflects on the thinking that brought her innocently and unknowingly to some of her greatest challenges and through to her greatest lessons. Lessons as varied as her cookbook collection.
During her tenure at J&W, Kelly was introduced to professional kitchens in The Happiest Place on Earth, Disney World. A summer internship placed her in three settings, each with its own character. One was Institutional Food, or as Kelly puts it, “How fast can you cook?” She mimicked her own exacerbation in the chaos of churning out of scrambled eggs and sausage for character breakfasts. “Brunch,” she laughs, “is purgatory for chefs.”
A seafood restaurant developed her love for the intellectual challenges of the sautée station but taught her to hate “garde manger.” The literal translation is “keeper of food,” but to Kelly it meant shucking oysters all night. Her fine dining experience in The Empress Room on the Empress Lily Riverboat introduced her to French cuisine. The discernible refinement of both food and setting puts a joyful tone in her voice as she nods and shines, “I liked that!”
Upon completing her degrees and exploring kitchen life, Kelly spent some years applying her business degree to a job outside of the culinary field. She met her husband, got married, had children, and spent some time on the school board in Central Bucks School District. Then, in 2013, an accident in her kitchen at home left Kelly severely burned. With half her body affected, her recovery was difficult and painful. She speaks briefly about the incident, focusing more on what came after – a year that would shape the rest of her life.
In 2014, just one year after the accident, Kelly was approached by a friend who ran a market in Doylestown. The proposal was for her to teach a cooking class right there. She’d never considered this before but saw a unique opportunity and accepted the challenge.
“The idea of being able to sit with people and talk about food really appealed to me,” she says. She appreciated the small class size and discovered a new way to live through her passion for culinary arts. When the market closed some time after, she realized that in order to continue teaching she would need her own space. That dream would eventually be realized. In the meantime, she continued to press forward in her recovery and in her life.
Later that year, Kelly embarked for the first time on what would become an annual mission trip to Haiti. With members of her church, she went as “hands to help” on a medical mission. She worked in the pharmacy, filling prescriptions, and laughs about having learned “pharmacy creole.” Despite the language barrier and the medical setting, she found satisfaction in the healing she supported.
One afternoon, she was approached by a doctor and a young Haitian girl who had also been badly burned. Meetings others, Kelly explained, is a critical part of healing for those who have suffered such traumatizing burns. The experience touched her deeply, and it was enough to inspire her return.
In her second trip – the following year, Kelly would take her involvement deeper. This time with food. By then a board member for the Buck County Foodshed Alliance which had just taken responsibility for the Doylestown Farmer’s Market, she had developed a true passion for and understanding of local food. Wanting desperately to help relieve some of the undernourishment suffered by so many Haitians, Kelly kept a close eye on local food resources. Mango and bananas grow in great abundance but lack many of the nutrients required for a balanced diet. Breadfruit, however, is another bountiful, native fruit that is packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals. The trouble is that the trees ripen all at once, and the fruit rots in days.
On a trip to the mountains, Kelly met a small group of Haitians who were drying breadfruit and grinding it into flour. This was the answer she was looking for. She immediately delved into a project to hasten the drying process so to maximize the harvest. A solar powered device was designed and recipes for porridge and breads were developed. Her annual mission is now centered on training the Haitians to build and use these machines, and to prepare foods from the flour.
More than 1,400 miles away, a prototype of the dryer sits just outside the door to the converted building that now houses Kelly’s school. The building sits quietly on the picturesque hill of a place she’d driven past countless times, one of her favorite homes in the area: The Parsonage.
Kelly had fallen in the love with the property decades before and jumped at the chance to own it. The moment she entered the home with her husband and their agent, she knew it was the one. Not only was the house a perfect home for her family, the outbuilding was the perfect home for her business. Purchasing the Parsonage was the realization of two dreams at once: ownership of this stunning property and a backyard business that kept her close to family and work. She laughs, “And, the commute is fantastic!”
The house, she explains, was built in 1854 and comes with its own book, passed from owner to owner and penned by a local historian who once lived here. She can tell you everything about it: the who built it and why, how it came to have its name, what buildings are gone from the property, and what used to grow on the grounds.
“There was an orchard back in that direction,” she says as she gestures out the large French doors on the converted stables. The property encompasses eight acres now but was once hundreds. The agriculture on the land fed much of the community. Seems fitting for a woman who has built her entire culinary philosophy on the concept of locally sourced food.
“You have to find the best ingredients. For me, the best ingredient is what is in my backyard, not what is flown in from France. While that ingredient is excellent, I don’t feel the need to do that. I’ve got the best meat right down the street because the animals are treated with respect,” she says, explaining why the food students prepare in her class is routinely hailed as superior. “I didn’t do anything exceptional to this food. There is no magic. You watched me do it!”
Food from your own backyard, Kelly believes, is the centerpiece to flavor and nutrition. With her involvement in the Doylestown Farmers Market and the Foodshed Alliance, Kelly has grown her local food network and now sources almost everything in her kitchen from within Bucks and Hunterdon Counties. Where to source these foods is a big part of the education student receive in her class. “I think it is really important to talk about local farms, have people buy their food from local farms. This [class] is an opportunity for them to taste all of these great local ingredients.”
More than that, her classes are a chance to experience food in new and exciting ways. They encompass a wide range of recipes and techniques. “I love talking the ins and outs of the recipe and showing [students] how easy it is.”
Easy for you, but for Kelly these classes are dynamic and require excellent planning and execution. Fortunately for us, Kelly has yet to encounter an obstacle she couldn’t overtake. “The challenge, which is awesome…,” she says, “is finding something that will interest to people, trying to dial in to what they want. Meeting their needs as far as something that will stretch them skill wise without being too daunting. There are also some people who have really good skills and want another level. I have to meet their needs, and the needs of the mom who works 9-5 but loves food and wants to put really good things on the table.”
With 12 students per class, Kelly moves around the space and works closely with participants. She provides class notes and recipes for students to take home. She has had experiences in which students were deeply engaged, and others in which students mostly just enjoyed their company and the food. She accepts private bookings but also prepares and provides a menu of classes each season – the winter season will publish on her website in early January.
For Kelly, it isn’t so important how students choose to engage but that they take something wonderful away from the experience. She aims for that to be the exquisite taste and noticeable difference in locally sourced food.
“I want to introduce people to local food and why it is so important. The freshness, the quality… I think that’s the mission,” she says pensively, then she smiles brightly again. “I mean, if you’re going to eat, eat what heals you.”
Good advice from a woman who knows a lot about food… and a lot about healing.
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