It’s often been said that we first eat with our eyes. How many dishes have you photographed because they are so beautiful that you want to go back and see them time and again? (Hello, Instagram.)
We like to think of food as the ultimate storyteller and every meal a work of art. Here, meet three Chattanooga artists who turn their creative pursuits to palate-pleasing pleasures when they trade their studios for their kitchens.
Photo contributed by Kelly Spell / Local fabric artist Kelly Spell
Kelly Spell, fabric artist
Kelly Spell has been cooking for as long as she can remember.
Looking back, she recalls her love of baking cookies in her Easy-Bake Oven. Fast-forward a few years, Spell found herself in college hosting dinner parties for her friends and roommates.
“They weren’t fancy affairs — pasta with spicy arrabiata sauce was regularly on the menu,” she says. “But I relished those gatherings.”
She met her husband in 2005. “He also loved to cook,” she says. “After we met, we both started honing our skills and became more proficient and adventurous in the kitchen.”
An interest in art was born in her childhood, as well. Spell still has a still life hanging proudly on her dining room wall that she made in second grade by melting crayons on paper over a hot plate.
“It’s probably the first piece I made that was exhibited publicly,” she says. “It hung at the Chippewa Valley Arts Festival in Michigan (her home state) in the late ’80s.”
She dabbled in different forms of art in college but didn’t take it seriously until, in 2014, she discovered the modern quilt movement. “That’s when I really hit my stride and came to think of myself as an artist,” says Spell.
Now, on occasion, she weaves her love of the culinary arts into some of her pieces, such as an abstract wall hanging inspired by Vietnamese pho, one of her favorite foods to make. The piece became the first artwork she exhibited as an adult and was hung in an international exhibition in 2017.
Pho is just one of the “foreign” dishes she enjoys making. It’s not uncommon to see East Asian and Latin-inspired meals on the Spell table. Panang curry was a recent addition to her menu.
“I enjoy cooking because there’s always something new to learn,” she says. “Being creative in the kitchen has helped me explore and travel the world, so to speak, from the comfort and safety of my own home during the pandemic. Sharing food is a way for humans to connect to one another, even during times of isolation and separation.”
Spell says cooking and quilting have much in common.
“Food and quilts are two things that people generally associate with comfort,” she says. “There’s a deep sense of satisfaction to be gained through the preparation of both a hearty meal and a quilt.”
Here, Spell shares another of her favorite meals.
Contributed photo by Kelly Spell / Kelly Spell’s creamy poblano chicken with cilantro rice pilaf
Creamy Poblano Chicken with Cilantro Rice Pilaf
Makes 4 servings
What you need:
2 large poblano peppers
3 tablespoons olive oil or butter, divided
4 chicken breasts
1/2 large onion, sliced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup packed cilantro leaves
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 cup low-sodium chicken stock, plus a little bit more if needed, divided
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon honey
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the rice:
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1/2 small onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup jasmine rice
1/4 cup orzo (regular or whole-wheat)
1 1/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons lime juice
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
What you do:
1. Slice one poblano into thin strips.
2. Roast the other pepper. If you have a gas stove, turn the burner on and keep the pepper over the flame until it chars — you want it black on all sides. If you don’t have a gas stove, turn your broiler on and roast the pepper on the top rack until it is blackened on all sides. Once the pepper is roasted, transfer to a large plastic baggie or a bowl covered with plastic wrap and let it steam while you sear the chicken. Once pepper has sat for about 10 minutes, pull it out and peel off the skin. Take out the membranes and seeds as well.
3. While the pepper steams, add 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter to a large skillet over medium heat. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Once skillet is hot, add the chicken and sear until golden brown. Flip and do the same on the other side. Remove chicken and set it aside. (Don’t worry if it is not cooked through; it will simmer in the sauce later to finish cooking.)
4. Once chicken is removed from the pan, add remaining tablespoon olive oil or butter, then add raw pepper strips and onion. Saute for about 5 minutes, until softened. Season lightly with salt. Add garlic and cook for another minute.
5. While veggies cook, transfer roasted poblano pepper to a blender along with cilantro, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 cup chicken stock. Blend until smooth. Pour into the pot with sliced pepper, onion and garlic, then stir in cream, lime juice, honey and remaining 1/2 cup chicken stock and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.
6. Add chicken breasts back to the skillet with the sauce. Cover and simmer until chicken is cooked through; it should read 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. If needed, add a little bit more chicken stock to loosen the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over rice pilaf, pasta or mashed potatoes.
7. To make rice pilaf, heat a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add butter or oil, then onion and garlic. Saute 1-2 minutes, until softened. Add rice and orzo. Toast until slightly brown, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in chicken stock and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let rice steam for about 10-15 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Add lime juice and cilantro. Stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
Contributed photo by John Petrey / Peggy Petrey
Peggy Petrey, mixed-media artist
Cooking for others is a joyful experience for artist Peggy Petrey. So is creating jewelry and other art pieces from a range of mixed mediums.
“I believe the act of creating is necessary for our souls to thrive and carry out our purpose,” she says. “And I believe that food equals love, which is why I thrive designing and preparing glorious, satisfying meals for my partner and friends.
“Whether it’s cooking or baking, both of which I equally love, or creating art, I am able to express myself fully and bring joy into my personal space. I also use both as a way to nurture and share love for others. I’ve never delivered a hot, scrumptious meal or a bespoken piece of art that was not received with utter unexpected delight. Hopefully, [the recipient] felt loved.”
Petrey comes from a large family — seven kids, plus mom and dad. Always looking for ways to entertain them, her parents signed her up for an art class near their home in Boca Raton, Florida.
“I would say that’s when I really began to love creating art,” Petrey says. “I didn’t latch on to a particular medium. Instead, I was all over the place — clay, painting, fiber, found objects and leather crafting. It was all interesting. To this day I find myself not committed to one particular medium.”
With so many mouths to feed, Petrey’s mom enlisted the help of her children. Petrey’s love of cooking was fostered at her mother’s side, and in her senior year of high school, she began attending Chinese cooking classes with people 20 years her senior. In college, she commanded her dorm’s kitchen and would cook for the entire floor of women.
“Throughout those years, I learned the science of cooking and baking: which herbs and spices married well with meat, poultry or fish, and the amazing ways one could substitute to gain the same texture, more color or another layer to take the dish to an entire new level,” she says.
Textures, color and layers. Kind of like her art.
Petrey’s jewelry has been sold in more than 85 galleries in the United States, as well as online and at art festivals. She upcycles license plates by deconstructing them and applying layers of paint, then sanding into the paint layers until a beautiful design emerges.
“That’s also a similar process I use when creating my mixed-media paintings — a technique that’s similar to creating a meal. The same processes are used when thinking about the message of the final piece, the steps I will take and how can I add my special touch to it,” she says. “There is a fluidity and no-rules-apply atmosphere when creating both art and food, which allows me total freedom to explore and create.”
A diagnosis of an allergy to dairy, eggs and gluten has been challenging for Petrey, but it’s also been fun putting her skills to the test making her favorite recipes to suit her new lifestyle, she says. Her dairy-free cheesecake is one example.
Contributed photo by John Petrey / Peggy Petrey’s vegan raspberry-chocolate cheesecake
Vegan Raspberry-Chocolate Cheesecake
* This is a no-bake recipe, but it does require cashews to be soaked overnight and freezing for a minimum of 2 hours between layers, so be sure to plan 24 hours in advance.
What you need:
For the date nut crust base:
1 cup nuts (hazelnuts, cashews, pecans, almonds, walnuts or combo)
1 cup pitted dates (If hard, soften for 2 minutes in warm water, then drain.)
2 tablespoons melted coconut oil
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of sea salt
For the cheesecake batter:
4 cups raw cashews that have been soaked overnight (This will give the creamiest texture.)
1/2 cup melted coconut oil
1 can coconut milk (shaken)
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
For the raspberry layer:
3/4 cup freeze-dried raspberries
1 teaspoon maple syrup
For the chocolate layer:
1 tablespoon dark cocoa powder
What you do:
1. Prepare the base: Line 6-inch springform pan with parchment paper on bottom. Grease side with unmelted coconut oil. Place all ingredients into a food processor and process until it comes together. (Be sure to not overprocess. It should have a slight nutty texture to it.) Press the sticky mixture evenly into the bottom of the pan using a glass, measuring cup or very clean hands.
2. Prepare the cheesecake batter: In a powerful blender, combine all ingredients and blend until completely smooth. Batter will be divided into three parts — equal amounts or any ratio you prefer.
3. Assemble the layers:
Layer 1 (plain cheesecake layer): Pour 1/3 of cheesecake batter into your pan. Cover pan and place in the freezer for 2 hours, or until hard. (If it’s not completely hard, the next layer will sink into the first.)
Layer 2 (raspberry layer): Blend raspberries and maple syrup into 1/3 of cheesecake batter. Pour batter into pan on top of frozen cheesecake layer and return to freezer for 2 hours, or until hard.
Layer 3 (chocolate layer): Stir cocoa into remaining cheesecake batter. Pour batter into pan and return to freezer for 3 hours, or until hard. To help release cheesecake from the pan, let cake stand for 30 minutes, and wrap hot, wet dish towels around it for 3 minutes. The cake will easily release when ready.
4. Serve cold, but not frozen, with fresh raspberries on the side or crushed freeze-dried raspberries sprinkled over the plate. For the cleanest cut, run a very sharp knife under hot water, and fully dry between each slice.
* Cook’s note: You can make this recipe ahead of time and store it in your freezer for up to a week. Just be sure you wrap it well and remove it an hour in advance to thaw it some. Store remaining portions in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer for up to a week.
Layer with love
Optional ganache layer (as shown in photo): To make this beauty even more special, add a fourth layer of chocolate ganache using your favorite ganache recipe. For a dairy-/gluten-free ganache, warm 1 cup coconut cream — using thick cream layer on top — in microwave for 1 minute. Place 8 ounces vegan chocolate chips in a bowl and pour warmed coconut cream over top, stirring until chips are melted. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla and a pinch of salt, stirring to combine. Pour ganache on top of frozen cheesecake and refrigerate for another hour before cutting.
Contributed photo by Alison DeMoss / Carylon Killebrew
Carylon Killebrew, mixed-media artist
It was as early as the fourth grade that one of Carylon Killebrew’s teacher told her she should be an artist. And she listened.
“I’ve always been a people-pleaser,” Killebrew says.
Now, she makes a living out of using a variety of media and surfaces to display her talents, painting on canvas, tarpaper, cardboard — “most anything I find interesting,” she says.
Killebrew’s love of art transfers over to the culinary arts, too, stemming from her childhood experiences growing up in Hickman County, a rural Tennessee county southwest of Nashville.
“Being a young child and witnessing the corn harvest gave me an appreciation for food,” she says. “The preparation from field to table was a community event. Men hauling in the corn from fields went to ready workers husking the corn, and on to the kitchen where willing hands cut the corn off the cob. The juicy corn was then sent to the stovetop to parboil. After this process, the corn was divided into containers to freeze. The next time it was seen would be at a family gathering for a feast!”
Both art and food, says Killebrew, have the same goal in mind: pleasing those who partake in it.
“Cooking and art are cousins. The only substantial difference is whether I’m in the studio or kitchen,” Killebrew says. “With cooking, I use as many different seasonal fruits and vegetables as I have growing. This also includes herbs and mushrooms.
“Sharing a meal with others has been and always will be a means to engage in deeper relations. I very much relate food to love. My intention in making art is to show love. Both cooking and art are intended to bless.”
Here, she shares a recipe gifted to her by Atlanta’s now-closed Georgia Grille.
“Years ago, I had the privilege of having this chowder. It’s been our family favorite ever since,” she says. “My husband Buddy smokes the chicken while I chop away in the kitchen. If you don’t have a smoker, you can get smoked chicken at almost all barbecue restaurants.”
Contributed photo by Alison DeMoss / Georgia Grille’s smoked chicken-corn chowder, courtesy of Carylon Killebrew
Georgia Grille’s Smoked Chicken-Corn Chowder
Makes about 8 servings
What you need:
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 medium onions, chopped (about 2 1/2 cups)
1 large russet potato, peeled and 1/4-inch diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 fresh jalapeno, seeded and minced fine
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken broth, divided
2 cups heavy cream
3 plum tomatoes, seeded and 1/4-inch diced (about 1 cup)
2 cups fresh or frozen corn
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese (about 4 ounces)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/2 of a canned chipotle chili in adobo sauce, minced fine (about 1 teaspoon)
1 1/2 whole boneless smoked chicken breasts (about 1 pound), skin and fat removed and meat 1/2-inch diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
What you do:
1. In a heavy 6-quart kettle, cook onions in oil over moderate heat, stirring, until softened. Add potato, garlic and jalapeno and cook, stirring, 1 minute.
2. Stir in flour and cook over moderately low heat, stirring for 2 minutes. Whisk in 2 cups broth and heavy cream and bring to a boil while stirring.
3. Add tomatoes, corn, cheese, parsley, chipotle pepper and chicken. Stirring occasionally and adding enough of remaining cup of broth to thin soup to desired consistency, simmer 20 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Season soup with salt and pepper.