Jana McMahon | Beautiful Ingredients can Sing on Their Own.

An Interview with Kat Mische Elle

Jana, can you tell us how your story began?

First glimpses into my childhood hold memories of my grandparents. I have always had a realistic worldview about food and its origins.  My father grew up on a farm in Iowa.

My childhood summers were filled with farm life. I was gathering eggs at three years old with my grandmother and picking food from the garden for the big afternoon meal when the men would come in from the fields to eat. Sunday suppers always started with killing a chicken, gutting it, plucking it, and then learning to roast the bird in the oven.

I would also knead tiny pieces of pie dough to roll out and create a tiny, sugared cinnamon pastry to devour warm out of the oven.  The farm had pigs, sheep, chickens, a large garden, a root cellar filled with preserved sausage from the animals and food from the garden, large barns filled with tractors and combines, grain silos, and as a child, my siblings and I had free rein. My mother’s side of the family was Southern. Their home was always filled with lots of family, music, food, laughter, and gentle ease about all things human and natural. 

Both of my grandmothers were phenomenal cooks, and food was the centerpiece of every gathering, regardless of the size. I cherish my Southern heritage and all the stories, tall tales, superstitions, family recipes, and the knowledge that you are always welcome.  I had moved nine times by the time I was seventeen. Those experiences weren’t easy as a child, but they helped me develop a great empathy for others. 

As a child, I was shy yet observant. I got excellent grades and thought boys were idiots [laughs]. I came out of my shell in high school and was quite social yet studious. In college, I realized that every life experience builds on the next. I didn’t know what life would hand me around the corner, but I knew that I was always drawn to pick the road less traveled. The things I knew for sure in my life were that I loved adventure and new experiences.

I was very connected to nature and my roots. I loved feeding people and learning all I could about food and nutrition.

Moving forward into my new adult years, I threw that into the wind and was excited to see where it would take me.

How did your adventures unfold from there? 
Taking a chance on myself has made all the difference in my career path. Jumping into the unknown as a business owner after my gig as an Executive Chef on The Yacht Kakela, in Hawaii was something I decided to do.  I had always maintained that Maui needed private chefs, whether for vacationing families or second homeowners.

Only two private chefs were on the island at the time when I decided to create my business.  While creating and building my private chef business, I discovered things about myself I never recognized nor owned before—my people skills and ability to read a room and respond appropriately. I negotiated well and had an inner strength when challenged.

I was able to recognize the importance of emotional intelligence & empathy. I could mentor and guide others with my organizational & timing skills and focus. I thrived in my ongoing curiosity about all things about food. I had grace under extreme pressure and my ability to take ownership for my mistakes while remaining fluid and flexible as situations quickly change.

These skills have enhanced and grown my business. 

What took you to your next and best level of success in the story in your career(s)?
I started my private chef business in 2004. My business is centered around custom experiences for each client. This includes custom menus, dietary restrictions, and preferences, and hiring great staff for each situation. My market is predominately vacationing families and second homeowners.

I have been fortunate to meet so many fascinating, kind, smart, interesting, successful people during this journey. During this time, I was introduced to the TERI, Inc.’s (TERI is the acronym for Training, Education, Research Institute) CEO, Cheryl Kilmer, when her husband hired me as a private chef. I had a great connection with the CEO, her husband, the COO, Bill Mara, his wife, and kids.

As usual, a couple of dinners turned into several. Every evening began in the kitchen while I made dinner. Cheryl and Bill told me about the nonprofit. TERI, Inc. is a nonprofit which houses and educates individuals with special needs and autism. Their mission is to change the way the world sees, helps, and empowers individuals with special needs.

Over the course of the week of dinners, I was using the organic produce I had grown in my upcountry garden. I had also made fresh mozzarella and ricotta that week. The conversation morphed into the CEO asking me, “Would you come to San Diego to help us? We have these beautiful group homes as part of our agency, but the menus need some help. Could you create some healthy menus for our group homes?”

I immediately recognized that I had manifested the next chapter as I envisioned what the following years would hold for me. I wanted a job that would allow me to spend time in and out of Hawaii (Maui) a few times a year. I wanted to be paid a decent wage, airfare, car, and gas. I wanted to utilize my talents and passions to give back to my community and society.

And now, the opportunity presented itself. Meeting the TERI, Inc. CEO, Cheryl Kilmer, and the COO, Bill Mara, while cooking for them and their family was a pivotal turning point for me and my career. 

Describe what real food is for us.
Real food is food in its purest state. Fruit, vegetables, meats, fish, grains, and fats. Including fresh real ingredients into any menu, is, in my opinion, a better way to eat. TERI, Inc.’s group home menus are predominately created with real food ingredients and the health of the clients shows the benefits of eating this way.

Let me put it this way; it’s not SpaghettiOs, peaches out of a can, or diet Jell-O, which are foods regularly found on group home menus. These are usually known as “Convenient“ foods. Cheap food, cheap ingredients. This is due to tight food budgets in most of these facilities, but TERI was greatly inspired to make the change when they met me and brought me on their team. After implementing the new menus I formulated, obesity rates went from 80 to 18% in a year and a half. I had to adhere to California State Licensing standards.

So, I wasn’t putting anybody on a diet. I was just simply feeding people real food.  Clients liked and enjoyed the new foods on the new menus. Clients at TERI also make their own lunches and help with dinner in individual ways depending on their ability.

We simply had healthier and happier residents. Next, after revamping the menus and being motivated to be mindful of costs, I circled back to my degree in Agriculture. One group home was sitting on a quarter-acre open lawn which wasn’t being used. I approached upper management about the possibility of removing the lawn and growing food. San Diego is basically a desert.

The best way to use water would be to grow food. If you water it, you should eat it. They approved my vision and transformed two of our residences into organic urban farms. Interestingly, the water bills at those homes are 60% lower with the farms on them as opposed to the lawn. The funding for one of the farms came from one of the client’s parents, which also includes a native low-water landscape plan. Those two farms now produced thousands of pounds of certified organic produce that feeds our residents, and the excess goes into staff meals.

And TERI became organically certified! I adhered to organic practice from day one, never dreaming one day we would be organically certified. We eventually would like to sell extra produce for revenue generation. Health and wellness sit at the core of the mission of TERI Inc. I am an idea-driven person and enjoy “making things happen.“ I do not shy away from complex challenges, my brain swims in possibility. 

What keeps you going so strong? What advice do you have for others to do so?
Take care of your beautiful, loving self. Find balance. Learn to communicate your needs effectively and remember no one has ever laid on their death bed saying they should have worked more…it’s usually about expressing how they didn’t spend more time with loved ones or just having fun.

What do you see coming up in your life for 2023? 
I intend to enjoy feeding my regular clients on Maui while creating beautiful memories for them and their families. I intend to create more time for my YouTube channel, Jana Eats, GFDF cooking videos, and perhaps some shorter TikTok content. 

I am creating a Value-Added Product line for TERI, Inc., which will include a dressing line and condiments designed to utilize organic farm produce from TERI’s urban farms to cut back on food waste and create a revenue stream for the agency. I look forward to more collaboration time with the farm team when deciding what to grow each season. And I will be filming packaged culinary classes for sale for TERI, Inc. this year and next.

Do you have a mantra or saying for your inspiration and motivation?
“Everything works out for me.” Why? Because it does. Always. The universe loves me. 

Who inspires you the most in your life?
Alice Waters – the queen of “Farm to Table California Cuisine.” She is the chef/founder of Chez Panisse. Alice is actively involved in her nonprofit Edible Schoolyard which teaches children about cooking and growing food, which is pretty much the answer, in my opinion. Alice’s food is so simply elegant, she reminds me to really think about the food I am creating, find the freshest quality ingredients and understand less is more while maintaining the integrity of the dish. Let those beautiful ingredients sing on their own. That’s all.

What is the best way for people to learn more about what you are up currently creating?
Janaeats.com | Instagram: @janaeats | YouTube.com/janaeats

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