Chef Mike Kenyon of Shasta Estates
By Claudia Mosby
Portrait of a ChefMay 2015
By Claudia Mosby
Photos: Eric Leslie
Growing up with a single mom who worked two jobs and an older sister who could not cook, Mike Kenyon’s hunger led him to the kitchen.
“I used to have a little stool and would stand on it to reach the stove,” he says. “I would take whatever we had and make something out of it. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it wasn’t.”
Th e executive chef at Shasta Estates Retirement Community, Kenyon recently surpassed a dozen chefs in his region—an area spanning Northern California, Nevada and Southern Oregon—to win the Culinary Arts Award, conferred by parent company Holiday Retirement. This month marks Kenyon’s second anniversary with the organization.
“The award goes to the chef with the highest scores in cleanliness, food quality, resident satisfaction—basically, your whole food program,” says Kenyon. “When I got hired, I told the regional chef, ‘I’m going to win it.’” He did, and that win represents a first for Shasta Estates.
“As managers, you hope you make the best hiring decisions,” say Stan Fielding and Dale Jakubowski, co-community managers of the residential senior community. “We could not have been more right on with our choice of Chef Mike.”
Just two years ago, a resigned Kenyon was contemplating taking a $10-an-hour job as a cook when he opened his phone and discovered the Shasta Estates opening on Craigslist. Within 30 minutes, he was in the office, resume in hand.
“I knew this was the right job,” he says, “even though I did not know what exactly was expected of their executive chef.” (His fear over having to puree food proved false.) The path to his dream job, however, has not been an easy one.
Born with Blount’s disease, a progressive growth disorder of the tibia that causes the leg to angle inward resembling a bowleg, Kenyon endured multiple surgeries between seventh and 12th grades as well as heart surgery at age 14 for supraventricular tachycardia (rapid heart rate).
“It started happening when I was 6 years old,” he says. “My heart would go from its resting rate to 190 beats a minute. They thought I was having panic attacks and I lived with that for a long time until a doctor finally diagnosed it. The next week, I had surgery.”
During his senior year of high school, he spent several months at Shriner’s Hospital in Sacramento, recuperating from his final surgery. From his hospital bed, he applied to the Western Culinary Institute in Portland and says as soon as he could walk, he left for Oregon.
After graduation, he worked with some of the top chefs in the country, traveling to Las Vegas and Mexico to help open restaurants, eventually landing an executive chef job in Arizona at the age of 21. “I was all about work and career, on the fast track,” says Kenyon.
As fast and brightly as his star rose, it began to fade. He admits he began hanging around with the “wrong people” and left Arizona for a fresh start in Delaware, but circumstances did not improve.
Pushed into a spiritual crisis at 25, he had a moment of clarity and says, “I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I had worked my way up as chef so quickly. To get to where I was feeling so lost and broken just blew my mind.” He made one more move—home to family in Cottonwood, and he has not looked back.
The subtle challenge of pleasing his residents is not lost on Kenyon. “I am cooking meals for 100-plus people every day,” he says. “Most of them are women who have cooked most of their lives in a certain way. It is like cooking for your family. They tell you when it is bad and they tell you when it is good.”
Using a from-scratch menu, entrees range from meatloaf and mashed potatoes to five-course, five-star meals that include the likes of filet mignon, shrimp, grits and crab beignet, and basil pana cotta.
Kenyon is getting ready to start an herb garden on site that will double as his “teaching lab” for residents who want to learn to prepare items using fresh herbs.
Residents applaud, cheering him on when he makes the dining room rounds aft er a special dinner. “Th at is the best reward,” he says. “When I leave work on those days, I almost tear up on the way home. It means I have accomplished what I tried to accomplish: to make everybody happy.”