THE HOMESHED KITCHENS PHILOSOPHY KEEPS THINGS REAL.
STORY BY Julekha Dash PHOTOGRAPHY BY Meredith Tankersley
Jeanette Warne is in the process of dumping rice, smoked turkey, corn, carrots, tomatoes and onions into an aluminum roasting pan when I show up at the commercial kitchen she uses at the Calvary Lutheran Church in Mt. Airy.
The dish, jollof rice stew, is one of seven courses she and Robin Grasso, Homeshed’s general manager and pastry assistant, are preparing for 24 people at an Out of Africa supper planned for Fox Haven Farms, a venue in Jefferson, MD that regularly hosts meetings, writers’ workshops, weddings and other events. A tamale made with black-eyed beans known as Olehleh, peanut soup and chocolate cardamom ice cream are some of the other highlights of this meal that cost $65 per person.
Warne and I have to raise our voices to hear each other over the high speed vent cranked up in the hot kitchen. When Warne turns her attention to dessert, she needs to concentrate fully. Exact measurements are key.
She begins melting couverture chocolate (high quality chocolate with extra cocoa butter) with milk and cream in a stainless steel pot. She asks me to smell a bag of cardamom that will go into the mix. The scent brings back memories of the black specks with intense peppery and citrus flavor that balance the sweetness of milky Indian desserts like rasmalai.
But for Warne, this spice – and the dishes she is making for the dinner – were part of her childhood in Sierra Leone.
“My mom and her mom were excellent cooks so I developed a palate for really good food and ingredients,” the 48-year-old Ellicott City resident
says. “Everything we cooked we grew. My mom had a garden out back. We knew where our ingredients came from.”
Warne has infused this philosophy into her catering and events company, Homeshed Kitchens. Everything — from bread and pasta to the butter and flour that go into it — is made from scratch, and produce comes from Homeshed Kitchens’ own garden, local farmers markets and Fox Haven, a farm that sits on more than 600 acres along the Catoctin Creek.
While Warne credits her mother and grandmother for instilling a passion for food, she started cooking for her parents and younger sister at the age of 15, taking instructions from her working mother over the phone.
“She would say ‘I have two onions. Do you want to chop those for me? Oh, do you want to put them in the pot and sauté them?’ That’s how it started. It was one ingredient after another and before you know it, I was cooking dinner. She was trying to keep me engaged,” and the strategy clearly worked. “I ended up liking it,” says Warne.
When Warne was 16, she and her family moved from Sierra Leone to New York. Her mother worked as an attaché with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and her father worked for the United Nations. After more than a decade in New York, Warne, who had attended college and married in the interim, moved with her husband to Maryland. She and her husband, Sydney Warne, raised two daughters here while Warne worked as a paralegal for the former Rouse Co. and in the affordable housing unit of Columbia’s Enterprise Community Partners.
It wasn’t until the Great Recession in 2008 that Warne transformed her love of cooking into a business. Her first catering gig was making pasta for 20 of her husband’s fellow Freemasons after their caterer quit. That quickly led to other catering assignments.
So when Warne was laid off later that year, she took it as a blessing, not a curse. “It was the happiest day of my life.”
She could now devote her full attention to catering and events, formerly a side business. She attended L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg and trained at Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia and Timonium’s Chef’s Expressions Inc., where she assisted the executive pastry chef.
Not long after, the student became the teacher as she began leading cooking classes at Hebron House in Ellicott City. After instructing more than 200 students in everything from pastries to pasta, Warne is now devoting most her time to catering and dinners.
The group classes were time consuming, she says, so she scaled back, and currently she hosts private cooking classes along with intensive, three-day pastry courses that include the art of French baguettes and croissants.
Warne plans to host more dinners at Fox Haven Farms and is scouring Howard County for other unique venues to stage dinners.
She describes her business model as quality over quantity. “We don’t want to be this mega-catering company. We’re not interested in chasing the big events,” she says. “We like unique things.” Warne says she likes to work with local artisanal products and purveyors of sustainable goods.
One goal is to invite local food vendors and artisans to speak to her cooking students about their trades. For instance, she’s extended an invitation to a local beekeeper to discuss beekeeping and cooking with honey.
“We want to be engaged with what’s happening with food in Maryland. That’s basically the vision I have for this company,” she says.
Warne would also like to open a shop to sell her home-milled flours and artisanal breads. She planned a Kickstarter campaign in the fall to raise money for a roughly 3,000-square-foot shop in western Howard County.
While Warne declined to disclose revenue, she says her business has been growing by 10 percent a year and she expects to grow 15 to 17 percent in 2014. She credits her growth to income from events rather than cooking classes. And she says she pumps her income right back into the business. At the time we spoke, she was looking for a catering sales and marketing rep to help expand.
Warne’s advice to other entrepreneurs is twofold: have a nurturing support system and stay strong. “Every day I say I’m going to power through.” *