Photo by Amanda Richardson Photography
Story by: Sasha Manley
Chef Lisa Brooks, a Charlotte native, is an example of what it means to step out on faith and bet on yourself. Brooks decided to leave corporate life at the age of 40 and get back to doing what she ultimately loved. Now she is building a successful empire with personal chef services, a cookbook, mentorship, cooking classes and more.
The main ingredient
Growing up in the kitchen with her great grandmother played an instrumental part in Brook’s culinary career. It was her classroom. When she was 3 years old, Brooks recalls learning everything there was to know about making delicious meals. Along with cooking came family gatherings of 60 family members every Sunday. She thought cooking was something everyone did. Looking back, she realizes this was her foundation.
This future chef carried the love of cooking for others to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, making breakfast for her college friends. After she graduated and started her corporate career, this trend continued with one-of-a-kind dishes for social gatherings, “I always was cooking for people. That’s just my way of showing love. I love that feeling of just being together with people and feeding them,” she said.
People often asked one common question: “Why don’t you do this professionally?” Although she said it never really crossed her mind to cook for a living, “God speaks to us through other people. It was a recurring theme. So, I had to listen.”
A new plate
After four years of insomnia and panic attacks, Brooks realized the stress from her 17-year corporate job was taking a toll on her, and at 39 she got the itch. Reflecting on those times, she said, “I asked God, I said, ‘Look, you gotta get me out of here. So, I begged him, you gotta show me. I heard him tell me to cook, and I was like, wait, what? How am I going to leave a six-figure salary and go cook?”
Even with uncertainty and being a single mom, Brooks pressed on and began researching food jobs and found the perfect match — a personal chef. It sounded like what she has been doing all her life — creating intimate moments cooking for family and friends.
When she left her corporate job, Brooks enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College, earning an Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts. Before moving back to Charlotte, she had her first client, and shortly after graduating, made her first six-figure year in 2013.
During her time in school, Brooks connected with other students that would eventually be a part of her team. “I resonated a lot with Black women. All of my interns were Black women,” she said. Growing a team from scratch, she took new chefs under her wing. This came full circle and reminded her of being in the kitchen with her grandmother. Now she was wearing her shoes and teaching others how to cook from the heart.
Brooks company, Heart and Soul Personal Chef Services, comprises 10 Black women chefs who provide upscale food experiences. The services the company provides include date nights, dinner parties and meal prep.
As a personal chef, Brooks takes pride in her ability to make an array of global cuisines, but her specialty is southern coastal cuisine, low country meals. She said, “I am southern through and through. I can do all this stuff with my eyes closed.”
In the public eye
Over the years, the opportunities have been rolling in. Chef Lisa’s consistency has taken her to the big screen. She’s been a guest on The Tamron Hall Show, and in February 2022, Brooks starred on the first-ever Black History Month Edition of the Food Network’s Chopped (Season 51, Episode 8). The All-Black cast featured four competing chefs and a judging panel. The goal was to honor Black traditions in the kitchen.
Overall, Brooks explained the bigger picture behind the show. “We all felt a responsibility once we knew it was historical. There was no real competition between us. We all felt like we already won when we got there,” she said. “It was an awesome experience. I felt like I was moving further into my purpose.”
The Next Serving
The matriarchs in her family — her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. serve as inspiration for Brooks. Her grandmother was a maid, and now Brooks is honoring her legacy with her own business by stepping back into the neighborhoods her family once served. “I’m doing it for my family because they didn’t get to see the fruit. They did the planting; they didn’t get to harvest,” she said.
Brooks continues to keep her focus and purpose strong. “I’m going out here to empower every Black woman I can before I leave this earth to do the same thing.”
Brooks offers a virtual cookbook, online zoom classes, chef services and more at cheflisabrooks.com and heartandsoulchef.com. Other future projects include a chef coat line for curvy women, a restaurant and a summer edition of “An Evening with Lisa” pop-up dinners. Follow Brooks on social media @ChefLisaBrooks on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook