Chef Cathy: Ready for the Moment

This article appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Texoma Living!.

Think of a pinball machine, the kind with the little steel sphere that rockets off the end of the plunger, a bundle of kinetic energy that bounces and careens and ricochets off the bumpers and over the triggers, making lights flash and bells ring and things go whirr until it runs out of momentum and slips through the return slot. Then another ball flies out and the pandemonium repeats itself. “I get bored easily,” said Chef Cathy Zeis.

Lately, she has not had the time to be bored; she has too much to do. She has a company called Creative Cuisine that makes and markets “Chef Cathy’s Salsa,” make that “salsas,” plural. “I have Awesome Salsa, which has a kick, Green Blast Salsa, which is zucchini and cucumber, very fresh, very different. I have a Chunky Corn Salsa, which is black-olives-and-corn based and Mango Salsa, it’s a dessert salsa, very sweet—good over ice cream. Everything is natural; I won’t put anything in my products that I can’t pronounce.”

“Chef Cathy” products are poised to take off. They soon will be available in 811 stores in 12 states, with more to come. “I follow my food. I go where it’s sold and do personal appearances and demonstrations,” she said. “Everything I do takes 10 minutes or less and I do it right there so people can see it and taste it. My face is on that label, so I’m going to be there.”

When a person or a product suddenly appears all over the place, the term “overnight success” often wiggles its way into the press and publicity. It is rarely true, of course, but the back-story does not always come to the fore. For Cathy Zeis, the pinball machine image is a good one—a lot of flash and bells, with more than an occasional slip into the return chute before coming out like gangbusters again.

She is from San Angelo. Her father worked for the telephone company, and when his job took him to Connecticut while she was in high school, she went along. “I loved it up there. It was the first time I had ever seen snow.” After two years, it was on to Fort Wayne, Indiana, about which, the less said the better. Well, maybe not. There was at least one memorable event during her Hoosier sojourn.

“I was playing high school basketball—I was a point guard—and our game was over and the guys were on the court, when Bobby Knight walked in,” Cathy said. (Knight was a legend as the basketball coach at the University of Indiana and now coaches at Texas Tech.)

“It got real quiet, and I told my buddies that I would go talk to him. They gave me a look, so I got up, walked over, sat down, and said, ‘Hi, Coach Knight.’ He said hi right back and asked my name. I told him, ‘Cathy Adkins.’ We talked basketball for a few minutes, and I gave him some of my popcorn. After about 10 minutes, I said good-bye and went back to my friends. That’s kind of “me.” I don’t meet strangers.”

After a year in Indiana, Cathy went back to San Angelo to stay with her mother and finish high school. She went to Angelo State for a semester. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, but going to school just then wasn’t it. Her dad was in Dallas by that time, so she moved to the big city and took a job as a waitress at Bennigan’s.

“I went to work for them when the restaurant was still a trailer; they were still building it,” Cathy said. After a year waiting tables, she became a trainer and then a supervisor in charge of the front of the restaurant. “I got bored; so I went to the general manager and told him I wanted to learn more about the restaurant business.”

He started her in the kitchen. “I told him, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t cook.’ But that’s where it all starts, so that’s where I stayed.” It was the square one approach, and Cathy started with the basics. “I burned the roux three times before I got one right, but that was when I realized that I had a talent, a gift for cooking. This is cool; this is what I’m supposed to be.”

Bennigan’s was a big, national chain, and when they introduced a new dish, they would bring in a top chef in the field to make sure the restaurants got it right. Cathy got the chance to learn from the best—great chefs from New Orleans for Cajun, from New England for seafood. “I was in the right place at the right time, and I really learned from some great chefs,” she said.

“My training at Bennigan’s was exciting, and I’ll never regret it, but one Friday, after a full house with customers waiting two hours for tables, I had had enough. After my shift, I turned my keys in and quit. I was just burned out, and once that happens, it’s no fun, and I don’t want to do anything that’s not enjoyable.”

Cathy ricocheted off the restaurant business and back into school—the Art Institute of Dallas. She graduated with a degree in music and video and spent the next two years promoting and booking country and western bands in Dallas and Fort Worth and eventually Nashville. “I met a lot of good friends and worked with some people who became pretty well known. I enjoyed that too, for a while.” The “for a while,” is the key phrase here, so she went back to San Angelo.

The bounce off the music business put Cathy back in the restaurant trade in her hometown. “There was a local restaurant called Crystals that wanted me to be the general manager, so I took them up on it,” she said. “It was a very creative place; they introduced a lot of new cuisine.” It was a management job, not cooking, not what she wanted to do, so the after six months, it was back to the nightclub whirl for a while, but …. You can guess the rest.

At this point, Cathy was a résumé writer’s nightmare—experience galore, too much for many positions, and a checkered work record that scared the wits out of personnel managers. She was out of work, and prospects were anything but promising.

Enter Rush Limbaugh. That’s right, Rush Limbaugh, Mr. Conservative Talk Radio. “I started listening to him on the radio and working at odd jobs, such as painting my grandmother’s garage, to pick up a little money. After six weeks, I called Rush and got on the air as the last caller of the day. I poured out my troubles, and he told me this, ‘Cathy, the only limitations that you face are self imposed. Most of the obstacles you face have been placed there by you. As soon as you understand that, you can overcome them. Try something different.’”

So she did. She went to a local TV station and got a job as a producer for $5.25 an hour. In six months, she was the executive producer of the 6:00 and 10:00 news casts. That is where she met her husband, Randy, the station’s assistant news director. When he took a job at KTEN in Denison, the couple moved to Pottsboro.

If this were a play, it would only be the end of the first act. There’s more to come.

The second act curtain went up in Pottsboro with Cathy in the role of homemaker. That was all right for a while …. “I got bored so I went down to a local nursery and got a job landscaping. I was spending so much money there for flowers that I figured I might as well work for flowers.”

Cue the jelly. Cathy met Juanita Hebert, who taught her to make jelly. “I got really creative and started putting up green pepper jellies and pomegranate jellies. It’s amazing how God puts people in your life for a certain reason and then takes them away. We became good friends, and then she moved away, and I haven’t seen her since.”

Talk Show Host Rush Limbaugh.

Randy Zeis left KTEN-TV for a job at a station in Dallas. The couple had only one car, so while Randy made the daily commute, Cathy stayed home and made jams and jellies. She was pregnant with son Charlie at the time, so the landscaping at the nursery was out, but the homemade preserves she was selling at the nursery were beginning to draw customers back for a second helping.

This was in 2000, and one day Mary Knox of the Pottsboro Press came in and asked if Cathy would write a cooking column for the weekly paper. “I jumped on that,” she said. “It got my name out there and helped sell the jams and jellies.” Eight years later, she is still writing the column.

When Charlie joined the family, Cathy left the job at the nursery for a job in the nursery and became a stay-at-home mom. That was all right for a while. “When you’re home all day with a baby and no car, you’ve got to be creative,” she said. “When he took a nap, I would get in the kitchen and play with my salsas and put them in jars. I’m from West Texas, and I like them hot.” When Charlie woke up, she would put him in the stroller, pile on all the jars of sauce the buggy would hold, and set off on foot selling salsa to the businesses of Pottsboro.

It was not long before Channel 12 came calling, asking Cathy to do a television cooking show. She did not consider herself a performer, but the station persisted, and in a short time it was “lights, camera, action,” in Texoma.

With the jams and jellies and salsas selling and the TV show keeping her name before the public, Cathy took a suggestion from her doctor and started a restaurant. Well, it was not really a restaurant, at least at first. “He said he was tired of eating out and ordering pizza and what he really wanted was a chef to come into his kitchen and cook.” The pinball hit the bumper, the lights flashed, and the result was the “Walk-in-Chef.”

“I went into people’s homes, created a menu, prepared the food, labeled it and stuck it in the refrigerator with instructions on how to serve it. When Charlie became a toddler, I couldn’t take him into people’s homes. I had to find a stationary place to cook, so I started looking for a restaurant.” On August 25, 2003, the Walk-in-Chef opened in a former doughnut shop on Main Street.

“It was pretty much a culture shock for the people of Pottsboro,” Cathy said. “This was small-town America; they want chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, hamburgers, chili dogs; they got quiche, spinach quesadillas, and crab cakes with a spicy plum sauce.”

It was not long before the business reached its limits. “We outgrew it,” said Cathy. “Catering became our main business. We were doing dinners for 750 people. We were stepping over each other. It just became too small, but that was a good thing.”

When a buyer for the business—the location not the idea—approached Cathy, the Walk-in Chef walked out. This time it was not a matter of “it was all right for a while …” This time is was for a bigger dream.

As the reputation of the Walk-in Chef had spread, Cathy had discovered that the lake crowd was buying her salsas, sending them to friends all around the country, and coming back for more. Why not distribute the products on a national basis?

This is not the place for a primer on the food business. Suffice it to say, it is a hugely difficult undertaking, but by now, it should be evident that difficulties do not daunt this woman. Besides, she didn’t know any better. “If I had known back then what I know today, I’m not sure I would have done it, but I’m so glad that I did.”

“There’s no way I should be where I am, but I am,” said Cathy. “I think it’s the journey that’s most fun. Everything seems to have unfolded at the perfect time, but I tell kids, ‘God gives you a gift and He gives you a moment. It’s your responsibility to be ready for that moment.’”

Cathy Zeis, pardon, Chef Cathy Zeis, was ready for the moment, and now, when the pinball shoots down the board, all the lights start flashing.

Chey Cathy Zeis
chefcathyzeis.com