by Grant Moser
Latesha Couch, 32, of Wyndmoor, listened to her mother’s advice: if you find something you enjoy doing, do that for a living. That thought helped lead her to her current position as executive chef at Keystone Hospice in Chestnut Hill — and to her April 6 1st place finish in the “Exotic” category at the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club’s Chili Cookoff.
Couch was born and raised in “The Bottom” in West Philadelphia, which she left at age 18 to join the Army. She started working in aviation but switched to culinary services and served in Iraq. After her four years were done, she came home to work in biopharmaceuticals, but the kitchen kept calling her. She quit her job and went to Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh.
“Cooking was always something I enjoyed doing,” Couch explained. “Everything else felt like work. I still cook for my family when I get home at night. I still enjoy it, and I hope I never lose it. To do something you enjoy and get paid for it is a blessing.”
Whatever the popular notion of culinary school might be, it is not easy. Couch studied there two years to earn her associate’s degree. She was forced to relearn everything she knew about cooking. She remembers the people with the most experience coming in had the hardest time because they had to stop using techniques they had employed for years. Thankfully, she was a natural.
“I like to try anything because growing up everything was the same. That gave me an advantage going into culinary school because I wanted to try different things apart from the basics,” she said.
A stereotype about the culinary profession that Couch did find true was the lopsided male-female ratio. She was one of the only women to be consistently picked for teams, she remembers. Because she could “hold her weight,” she never felt affected by her gender. But she does know how some men in the profession view women.
“Men don’t think we can handle the stress, the long hours. I believe a woman can do anything a man can do, it’s just a matter of do they want it bad enough. In the kitchen it can get crazy quickly and, like it or not, women are more sensitive by nature, and those things play against us sometimes.”
Couch attributes her time in the military to her ability to handle the pressure of the kitchen so well. “I’m used to structure. You have a chain of command, you follow orders, and you get what needs to be done.”
Le Cordon Bleu had on-the-job learning opportunities as well, and Couch was the first student sent to work at the new Harrah’s Casino in Chester. She got to work with chefs from other Harrahs who were brought in to get the place up and running. It was the perfect opportunity, she said, because she got to help plan the menus and bounce ideas off other chefs.
She began working at Keystone Hospice last May as the sous chef and was promoted to executive chef in November. Her day starts about 8 a.m. putting together hot and cold meals for 50 Meals on Wheels recipients. The she cooks breakfast for the 16 hospice residents, puts together the lunch menu for the 30 employees and starts on lunch for the residents. After lunch they begin prepping the next day’s meals and then start cooking dinner. She usually leaves the hospice around 6:30 every night.
But this isn’t the sort of kitchen where she makes a big batch of spaghetti for everyone and calls it a day. “Because it’s a hospice, it’s their last days,” Couch explained, “so we give them whatever they like. Some don’t want what’s on the menu, so we go out and get what they want.
“Today one gentleman wanted a hot roast beef sandwich. What do you say? I went out and got the ingredients and cooked him a hot roast beef sandwich. I go check on the residents several times a week to make sure they’re happy with their food. I feel blessed I can bless people with my food.”
The amount of planning, preparation, cooking and shopping that goes into her job is mind-boggling. She gets it done with help from one sous chef, one dishwasher and two kitchen assistants. Couch also credits the support she receives from the president of Keystone, Gail Inderwies. “She makes sure I have everything I need. She offered me the head chef position; she knows I can handle my business.”
So when one of the doctors at the hospice mentioned the Rotary Club’s Chili Cookoff, Couch took up the challenge. This was three days before the event, and with all the time spent doing her regular duties at the hospice, she didn’t get to make the chili until the morning of the event, which was her only day off that week.
Her associate chef brought in some spices from Morocco, and she used six different varieties of beans. When they tasted it that morning, she thought it tasted good enough to win and joked about it. She dropped off the chili and some cornbread at the event with a volunteer and spent the day with her family. It wasn’t until she came back that evening to help clean up that she found out she and her team had won.
“It was a proud moment, especially knowing that everyone got to taste it and liked it,” she said. Though she has since made it for the hospice residents to rave reviews, her “modest kitchen” hasn’t renamed it Keystone’s Blue Ribbon Award-Winning Exotic Chili.
Keystone Hospice is located at 8765 Stenton Ave. in Wyndmoor. More information at 215-836-9001 or www.keystonecare.com.