Executive Chef Gina Marie Kirkland
By: Mary Ickes
Have you ever had a discussion with Ms. Intuition that sounded something like this?
“How can I possibly attend the fund raising luncheon for My Place Gluten-Free Bakery at the Claddagh Inn [in Hendersonville] when I have so many projects that must be done now?”
“Have I ever steered you wrong?”
“Uh . . . well . . . No.”
In 2009, My Place, Inc. began as an emergency response to a critical situation of youth homelessness in Henderson County . . . giving them . . . the opportunity to become responsible employees or entrepreneurs and help sustain the programs that assist them. My Place Gluten-Free Bread Company and Apprenticeship Program, a profit-sharing program for at-risk and homeless youth ages 18-22, will make the agency self-supporting. With two seasoned bakers and a financial manager supervising, the students will learn the baking trade and business financial management while studying for their high school diplomas. The program is licensed by the North Carolina Department of Labor; the bakery will sell certified gluten-free products through major grocers and cooperatives and to celiac groups and restaurants. I’ll be the first in line to purchase the millet-quinoa bread, banana walnut bread, and cheesy-herb biscuits served at our luncheon. Yum! Future goodies include brownies, gourmet chocolate mud cake, and cupcakes. For more information, please visit myplacewnc.org/bakery.html.
Connecting with such a noble organization that day would have been enough reward for my efforts, but then I met Chef Gina Kirkland, who prepared our gluten-free lunch. I read on the Claddagh Inn’s website that Gina left her Engineering Designer career at age 35 to become a chef and asked her to share her story.
Gina yearned to pursue an art career after high school, but she knew that earning enough salary to live and to repay her educational loans on time would be difficult, if not impossible. Tests for career options revealed that combining her artistic skills with mathematics qualified her for Engineering Design. Training complete, Gina traveled the country as a contractor, an exciting and challenging career until the economy declined. Stuck behind a desk with a mundane job and greatly decreased salary, she decided to change careers. Gina is honest about her venture: “I was terrified! One minute I was determined to succeed; the next minute I was thinking, ‘Am I nuts?’”
From childhood, the culinary world beckoned. Every Sunday, her great-grandmother cooked for 150 cotton pickers and farm hands. Her beloved grandmother “. . . fixed lunch and dinner for me every day of my childhood. My favorite memories are her cooking lessons and the special bologna sandwich on which she spelled my name in mustard and added my favorite hot sauce.” Her mother, a cosmetologist for 30 years, closed her shop every day to have supper on the table at 6:00 p.m. Gina worked at the Back Porch Bakery in Prosperity, South Carolina, during high school and financed her engineering education by working in all aspects of the hospitality industry.
On her first visit to the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas at Greenville Technical College, she “. . . fell in love with the program and the chefs.” Gina’s fears and shyness gradually dissipated as she studied with students of all ages, and chefs encouraging her passion: “The program was a culinary boot camp, sometimes 13 hours a day, but I loved the pressure, the excitement, and the chaos.” Gina graduated on the President’s List and the Dean’s List.
New owners of the Mountain House Restaurant in Caesar’s Head, South Carolina, hired Gina as their Executive Chef, an unprecedented achievement for a new graduate. Gina welcomed the opportunity to begin at the top: “Most students are comfortable with beginning as a line chef and working under someone for many years before advancing. I had no intention of following the beaten path. I wanted the challenge of expanding my skills and hands-on experience as quickly as possible.” Their working relationship flourished as the owners and Gina taught each other their respective businesses.
As the Claddagh Inn’s Executive Chef, Gina radiates enthusiasm and cordiality. Built in the late 1880s as a boarding house and extensively renovated over the decades, the inn became Hendersonville’s first bed and breakfast in 1985. With sixteen rooms (twin, full, queen, king, and family suites), Gina’s list of breakfast guests often escalates from a few to a full house, but she is a “. . . hands-on people lover who likes socializing and making her guests happy.” She specializes in guests with individual dietary requirements.
Gina’s culinary skills expanded when “Jane” called the Culinary Institute seeking assistance for “Ben” (names changed), her eleven-year-old son battling Crohn’s disease. A complex disorder of the gastrointestinal tract, Crohn’s disease causes life-threatening symptoms that diet may alleviate. Jane’s incessant research convinced her that Ben required a chef’s nutritional background and food-combining experience. The boy was home-schooled, lethargic, depressed, often confined to bed with severe food reactions, and occasionally looked like a blowfish from the numerous medications and injections.
Gina credits Jane for teaching her the mechanics of Crohn’s Disease, the basis of her interest in special dietary needs. As Gina caught up on her homework by reading Jane’s books and studying her previous research, they attended seminars and monitored new information. Tracking Ben’s food reactions for two years, they gradually eliminated gluten, preservatives, all but one cheese, milk, most nuts, and vinegar from his diet. Gina formulated recipes of vegetables, meats, grains, and almond milk to vary Ben’s meals; for snacks, she froze and dehydrated fruits and vegetables and concocted tasty nutrition bars.
Today, Ben takes no medications and maintains the proper weight and appearance for his age. Energetic and chipper, Ben attends school, and participates in sports. Gina learned much from Jane’s tutoring and Ben’s success: “I became convinced that diet truly affects all aspects of the mind and body. I wish more people in the United States and other countries understood this issue.”
She continues to diligently research specialized dietary needs and to experiment with recipes. Along with Crohn’s Disease, her expertise includes lactose-free, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Guests dread asking for a special diet, because they “don’t want to bother her.” Yet, Gina’s happiest chef moments are their relief and gratitude when assured that fulfilling their needs is not a bother, but a crucial part of her guest service.
Gina’s advice to aspiring chefs? Don’t be fooled by the celebrity
chef programs; here’s the reality: the chef is ultimately responsible for an efficient kitchen, so be prepared to wash dishes, sweep and mop floors, clean bathrooms, wipe down ovens and hoods, take out the trash, change menus on a moment’s notice, purchase last-minute supplies to avert a disaster, and contend with other strong-willed chefs and nonchalant employees. Despite the reality, does Gina regret her career change? Not at all! She’s more excited everyday about her plans for the Claddagh Inn and Gina Marie’s Catering.
She has a long list of subjects for Weekend Cooking Schools, the first to be offered in January for mothers and children. At a discounted rate, they will stay at the Claddagh Inn learning about pasta and how to form raviolis, half-moons, and tortellinis. Early in 2012, Gina will offer wine and beer tastings, each paired with appropriate foods. She is collaborating on social hours before plays and symphonies that include discount tickets. Gina invites business, social, and civic groups to the Claddagh Inn for weekly or monthly meetings. And these are just the beginning of her ideas.
For the perfect introduction to Claddagh Inn and Gina, attend her brunch offered every Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. To whet your appetite, log onto the websites below and browse the photos.
And yes, Gina created the ice sculptures. You’ll see her working in the website pictures.
755 North Main Street
Hendersonville, NC 28792
Claddagh Inn: 828-693-6737
Cell Phone: 803-447-5135