By Sharon Mullen
If you are in the locks and keys business, then you are a locksmith. If you are great with words, people like to call you a wordsmith. What do you call someone whose gift is all things food? Foodsmith? Believe it or not it is not listed in the dictionary. I may have coined a new word. Call Wikipedia or Dictionary.com.
When I first met Cherisse Byers, I must say I was a little surprised. When we spoke on the phone to setup the interview, she could not contain the excitement and passion she feels for food and using it to make the community at large better. Over the phone her voice and confidence conjures up an image of her being a tall, strong-looking woman that seems like she is constantly moving even while standing still. Not at all. She walks in and I am met with this rather petite woman walking casually with a big bright smile that lit up the rather dim bistro where we met. But when this young lady with the gentle voice starts talking about the importance of good nutrition and how you can change your ideas about food she speaks as if she’s 10 feet tall. She recognizes that obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments on the rise in our society do not have to exist at its current rate. She aims to get the word out and on this mission she is relentless.
Information and education can save lives and improve the overall health status of families of any economic level. Cherisse Byers intends to spread this message all over the Triangle and beyond and help change the landscape of food and nutrition for future generations. Why is she so passionate about this? Well, let’s take a look at her story.
“Sure, I need money, but I do not get fulfillment from money. But even though I have money, it will not stop me from continuing to do more and more to help people. That’s where fulfillment and purpose comes in.”
EmergeNC: Who is Cherisse Byers?
Cherisse: I determine who I am by the things that are important to me. That leads me to identity and purpose. I am a wife and mother. I hold highly to the point it shapes how I teach and do my community work. I think about what I do for my kids and I think about how there are people who cannot give those things, those lessons to their kids. It motivates me toward my mission. It really is not about the paycheck or notoriety. It is about who I can help that is most important.
EmergeNC: You said that you hail from humble beginnings. Tell our readers a little about that.
Cherisse: Well, I grew up in Durham and lived in various locations on what is described as the “bad side of town.” Durham was notorious for having high crime and people outside of Durham always said no one wants to live there. Times were tough. I used education to change my circumstances. I graduated high school, went on to college at UNC-Greensboro, and then the Art Institute of Durham where I earned my degree in culinary arts. I got married, moved back to the Triangle, and now I am a chef. I’ve come a long way since those days of struggling.
“My dislike for where I came from created the drive in me to succeed. I want my kids to have that drive. So I am their example. That drives me.”
EmergeNC: You seem to have a lot on your plate. What all do you do?
Cherisse: I am a cooking instructor at Whisk in Cary and Wake Tech in Raleigh. I also provide cooking services for the Raleigh Convention Center and serve as culinary expert for Williams-Sonoma in Durham. Soon I will begin as pastry chef at Maggianos in Durham. In addition, I schedule private 8-week long cooking courses, facilitate weekly cooking courses and submit recipes every month for publishing in a magazine. I believe in being well-rounded so I also tutor young students helping them reach their developmental milestones.
EmergeNC: Describe a turning point in your career. What led you to do what you are doing now?
Cherisse: The turning point would be when I realized I did not have to take the usual track from culinary arts, like graduate, get a job as a chef and work my way up to executive chef, and so on. I decided I could use my knowledge to serve others and go in a different direction. That’s when I decided to reach out to families from the same place I was and help them change their mind about food, how to prepare it and ways to eat healthier.
EmergeNC: What has been the biggest influence on what you do and how you choose to do it?
Cherisse: The way I was raised and having kids are the biggest influences on me. What I want to give to my kids inspires me to work harder, not so they can have the best clothes and other “things,” but so they can be in position for better opportunities. For example, where we live it is understood that we are a family who appreciates diversity, who are involved, we speak a certain way, we carry ourselves a certain way. This is so my children are in a position to receive the best of what there is to offer. I cannot do this unless I deliver my best in all I do. This drive also is a result of how I grew up. There’s such a thing as “street cred.” Some of us don’t think we are credible because we didn’t come from that difficult life of struggle. My dislike for where I was, created the drive in me. I want my kids to have that drive. I’m still figuring out how my husband and I can instill that in our kids.
“I’m going to eat what I want. I just don’t eat it all the time.”
EmergeNC: Getting back to food, what is your ingredient obsession?
Cherisse: Lemon. It brightens up everything, is low in calories and sodium.
EmergeNC: What is your favorite kitchen tool?
Cherisse: It has to be the fish turner which is a very thin spatula. Its flexibility allows it to get up under any type of food for easy lifting and removing.
EmergeNC: What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
Cherisse: Pre-sweetened cereal. I love to eat Cap-N-Crunch or Fruit Loops in my favorite bowl that I keep in the freezer so when I pour the milk in it is nice and cold! I eat it about 2 to 3 times a week. No, it’s not good for you but I am going to eat what I want. I just don’t eat it all the time. That’s what I want people to see about food. You can eat anything. You do not have to really eliminate, but you cannot eat bad food all the time. Moderation is key.
EmergeNC: What are the biggest myths out there about food, especially in the African-American community?
Cherisse: African-Americans tend to misunderstand the role of soul food in our past so we misuse it in our present. During slavery, we ate whatever was left over and we made it into something good. We ate what we were told to eat. Soul food does not have to be unhealthy. There are different spices and ingredients we can use to flavor soul food that is healthier for us without losing the flavor we so enjoy. This is also the hardest lesson to teach our community. People are surprised when I tell them that most of the sodium comes from preservatives and that contributes to rampant hypertension in our community. I teach them you don’t need so much salt to get good flavor but it is a hard lesson for students to adapt.
EmergeNC: What would you say is the hardest habit for your students to break in the kitchen?
Cherisse: It is difficult to get people to change the way they think about cooking techniques. They tend to do things that either are not healthy or that loses the nutrients or flavor in the food rather than enhance it. I teach a different way to do the same things resulting in flavorful food that is still healthy eating. We eat what we know. I encourage my students and even kitchen personnel to step outside the box and look at food differently, understand what food is and why we eat it. That can be a challenge but I truly love what I do.
Cherisse Byers, born and raised in Durham, is a formally trained chef with a degree from the Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham. She is a professional culinary instructor for various organizations and gives back by providing cooking classes to Durham’s low-income communities. Cherisse currently resides in Raleigh with her husband and two children. She may be reached for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.