Skip to main content

Vestanna McGuigan

My husband calls me a master chef, but the truth of the matter is that I am not a chef at all. To my mind a chef is a person who has studied in a culinary school and then tested their mettle in the bowels of a scullery led by an angry chef who growled orders about perfection and plating and classic French technique.

I am none of those things. I’m a simple Kansas woman. I was born in Kansas, become an army brat, and then came back to Kansas. I grew up poor and started cooking meals at the age of eleven, not out of any culinary desire but out of the necessity created by having a single mother who worked and younger siblings who needed care that she could not always provide. I made a lot of mistakes and through that early trial and error, which my family and I find amusing began a learning journey that continues.

Poverty teaches you to cook with what you have. Every meal is like an episode of chopped. How many different ways are there to cook tomato soup from a can or old russet potatoes? The possibilities are endless. Through that trial and error you find flavors that work together and learn which ones do not.

After a failed first attempt at college, I ran away to the deserts of New Mexico to try the life of a starving artist and there I learned even more about being poor and trying to eat with almost no budget. I learned from neighbors and bought day old bread and the path of flavor continued.

I came running back to Kansas, got a job, got married, and got laid off. I lived almost entirely off the land for two years. It was during that time that I really began to get an understanding of the variety of food you can find in Kansas. We ate almost solely what we caught, shot, grew, and canned. This diet was supplemented by the generosity of friends and family. A few sticks of butter from the small paycheck at the hardware store, a pound of bacon gleaned from my mom’s freezer added the necessary fat to a diet that consisted almost entirely of lean game meats like rabbit and deer and fish caught from the nearby creek or the Vermillion River. There was an apple tree on the farm, there was an abundance of native plants to pick like lamb’s quarter and cattails, and there was the garden.

How much less expensive to buy a pack of seeds that would yield so much more than the purchase of a single tomato. I learned as I went, and had to companion plant as much as possible because herbicides and pesticides were not only costly from a budgetary perspective, but also to the earth. How can one live off the land in such a way and not come to love it and desire to protect it?

With the arrival of my first child, I knew that I could not raise him in such a way, and after a divorce and many difficult years of single parenthood I returned to school. While working three jobs, attending school full time, and raising my son our food sources changed from the garden and field and stream to the vision card and commodities. This is how I learned to be extremely selective in my purchases of ingredients, and to respect each ingredient in its own right and in how it paired with other ingredients.

With the completion of my degree, I moved to Topeka to seek a better income for myself and my son and to join my then boyfriend. He opened the door of fine dining for me, and with him my journey has continued as I travel and taste and experience the finer quality ingredients. Through my food journey which in many ways is also my life journey, I have never lost sight of the concept that each ingredient should have value in its own right.

As a result, I am, understandably, critical of the culinary skills of others and highly aware of their respect (or lack of respect) for the food that they cook and the people they serve it to. When I was struggling on how to update my profile, my husband said write about yourself or your family like you write about food. As you can see though, my life has been about food for a very long time. Not just the recipes and the restaurants, but about my family and friends because when I cook, I am giving to them all my love for them and all my experiences on a plate. To me, food should be more than merely a means to survival, it is a fundamental aspect of humanity that brings people together.