Cathy Jenkins first expressed her creativity in ties.
Twenty-five years ago, Cathy Jenkins, who is now the chef and owner of Cathy's Kitchen (250 S. Florissant Road, Ferguson; 314-524-9200), was hard at work using her hands to create items that brought joy to people's lives — but her job had nothing to do with cooking.
"My husband and I had a necktie company in the old St. Louis Center," Jenkins explains. "We had a wall of fabric that customers could choose from, and I would make custom-made ties while they waited. People loved the concept. The only problem was, we started just as corporate American went casual."
Jenkins' road from necktie-maker to chef and restaurateur was a circuitous one, paved with everything from NASA to George Clooney to the Food Network.
As their custom tie business faltered, Jenkins' husband, Jerome Jenkins, had what she describes as a vision for a chemical that would allow for inkjet printing on fabric.
Jerome Jenkins developed the printing chemical, and his company became an unlikely success. ("He had no chemical background, or even scientific background," Jenkins explains. "His degree is in public relations.") He garnered praise from NASA, which uses his technique in its space suits, and Hollywood, where it was employed on costumes for High School Musical
and a shirt worn by George Clooney in Oceans 12
That success afforded the Jenkinses the opportunity to take a large trip every year, almost always to Disney World. One year, inspired by the cooking programs they watched on the Food Network, the family decided to do something different and set out on a culinary adventure that, unbeknownst to them at the time, would serve as the basis for a restaurant.
"We made our way around the entire U.S. — everywhere from Florida to California to New Mexico and back," Jenkins explains. "It was like a 'Walley World'-style trip, but all of our stops were based on the restaurants we saw on the Food Network."
Jenkins, who saw cooking as a way to express herself creatively, returned to St. Louis inspired to begin a home-based takeout service based on what she'd learned. As word of her creations spread, she became so busy she could barely keep up with demand and opened her restaurant, Cathy's Kitchen, in 2013.
Jenkins wanted the restaurant to mirror her culinary tour of the U.S., so she created a menu of greatest hits, grouped by geography. Instead of "appetizers," "sandwiches" and "entrees," guests choose a regional style of cooking, such as "New Orleans," "New Mexico" or "California."
"My food distributor thought it was a horrible idea," Jenkins laughs. "He said that people aren't used to things that are new and that it was confusing. I listened to him at first and developed a traditional menu, but it just didn't feel right. Once I set it up the way I wanted, it really took off."
These days, Jenkins is having the last laugh with a packed house of loyal customers and a host of celebrity visitors who make her restaurant a must-visit when they come through town — not a bad outcome for a first-time restaurant owner who didn't even know how to cook when she got married.
"I've always been an entrepreneur, so I didn't see the lack of experience as a bad thing," Jenkins explains. "I just looked at it as a big challenge and just did it. Seeing our customers makes me know that I'm onto something."
Jenkins took a break from the kitchen to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, how she never misses a chance to dance with her husband, and why her last meal on earth would be fit for a king.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That I was in the military.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Talking to my husband every morning at 6:30 a.m.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Speed like the Flash.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
That more young people are getting involved in restaurant business.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
More African American restaurants.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Cathy’s Kitchen is my only food crush.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
That’s tough because I can’t name just one.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Continuing to be a housewife and mom.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
None I can think of.
What is your after-work hangout?
Dancing with my husband.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Wine and chocolate.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Oh man! Probably an array of foods like a king back in medieval times.
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