By Scott Kirk
The Celebrity Spotlight Kitchen enters its fourth year at the 2015 West Texas Fair and Rodeo, and Rochelle Johnson, General Manager of the Taylor County Expo Center, never had a doubt about it.
“With Darlene’s personality, I knew it would be successful,” said Johnson.
Darlene is Darlene Walton, also known as Chef Darlene, Chef Mama or the Paula Deen of Texas. However, Walton is an original and probably doesn’t need to be compared to anyone.
Walton’s experience with celebrity chef competitions includes working closely with the Celebrity Chef at the State Fair of Texas for several years, and her motivation for establishing the event at the WTRF was somewhat personal.
“I loved the fair growing up,” said Walton, a native of Stamford who now lives on a ranch near Cisco. “I remember my daddy taking me to it. I wanted to give back to it.”
How Walton became Chef Mama is a story of almost legendary proportion. She had operated a catering business for years, but her husband died suddenly in 1996, leaving her with two daughters to raise in Paint Creek. Around 2003, she came to the conclusion that she needed to become a chef.
“It became a necessity,” she said. “Never say never. Never tell God you can’t take no more, because He’ll show you you can.”
In 2005, she entered the culinary school at the Art Institute of Dallas and not only became a student, but also an ambassador for the Art Institute. The message she often gives to students is less about cooking than it is about life.
“I always tell kids, ‘Get some type of degree in life,’” she said. “Today, you’re going to need something if you want to advance.”
Her other message is about eating healthy.
“My girls were lucky,” she said. “They grew up in the country. When you live out in the country, and Paint Creek is the nearest town, you don’t have fast food. I remember when my daughter went to college, she called me and told me, ‘Mama, guess what? There’s a Sonic right by the school!’”
It needs to be noted that Walton rolled her eyes when she told that story.
Her schedule at the fair will be ambitious, with four shows on Seniors Day, three on the Saturdays and two on the other days. She enlists the help of other well-known chefs in the area, such as Sharon Riley, Skeet Smith, Phil and Sandy King from the Beefmaster Steakhouse in Ballinger, as well as the Crocking Sisters of Brownwood who will share crock pot recipes.
“They’re hot right now,” said Walton.
Walton, who will be part of all 20 shows, plans to focus her attention on getting kids to eat healthy meals. She would also like to arrange for some of the musical performers to join her on the stage.
Another participant will be Flora Pace, an 82-year-old caterer from Haskell who represents the generation of cooks that are nearest to Walton’s heart.
“You look at the crafts and the cooking parts of the fair and there aren’t as many people entered as there used to be, and that saddens me,” said Walton. “That generation, the women stayed home, and the next generation the women had careers, and that’s great, but we lost something.”
In fact, Walton sometimes finds the women from The Greatest Generation, the group that is probably best represented at the Celebrity Kitchen Spotlight, to be somewhat intimidating.
“I tell them, ‘I may have the certificate that calls me chef, but y’all are the real celebrity chefs,’” she said.
It is difficult to imagine Walton being intimidated by anyone or anything. Her classes include grilling, and she often encounters male students who don’t feel as if Walton could impart any knowledge about grilling that they don’t already know.
“You know how men are about grilling,” she said. “I just talk to them about infusing flavor into their meat. Infusing is the word you use when you want to sound hip. You just don’t want to ruin a good piece of meat, especially with how much meat costs.”
Walton’s ability to deal with male egos and kitchen mishaps displays a political skill that family friend Rick Perry, the former governor and presidential candidate, would find impressive. Once at the Celebrity Chef event at the State Fair, Walton fixed corn bread and red beans and, because her attention was diverted because of having to take care of other details, she burnt the beans at tbe bottom of the pot.
“I kept praying, ‘Please don’t let anyone get to the bottom of the pot,’” she recalled.
However, the pot was emptied, and a man asked her how she got that wonderful smoky taste.
“Cumin,” was her instant response.
“I said, ‘God, forgive, me, ‘cause I’m about to tell a whopper,’” recalled Walton. “But, I made amends and told that story later at the State Fair.”
One would imagine that the good Lord found that story as amusing as everyone else does.
Don’t forget that pound cake recipe..
ANY TIME OF YEAR POUND CAKE
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
1 pound butter (4 sticks)
2 teaspoon vanilla
1 can condensed milk
Heat oven to 300 degrees.
Grease and flour 10 inch tube pan and set out eggs and butter to allow them to come to room temperature.
In a bowl, combine dry ingredients (flour, baking powder and salt) and whisk together to make sure all are incorporated.
Cream butter and add sugar; beating until light and fluffy. (I suggest about 5 minutes)
Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add combined dry ingredients to creamed mixture alternately with condensed milk, mixing well after each addition.
Stir in vanilla flavoring.
Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes.* Check by inserting a toothpick in the center until it comes out clean.
Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack at least 10 minutes.
* Oven times may vary
Chef Notes: In the summer and spring time, serve with fresh fruits sweetened with orange juice and orange zest. For the fall and winter months serve with warm chocolate sauce or vanilla custard. If you would like to a glaze, use 1 cup powdered sugar mixed with 1-2 tablespoons water, lemon/ orange juice or milk. Frost while still warm.
(Recipe courtesy of Darlene Walton.)