Mary Ann Conroy loves to cook, but the restaurant business wasn’t for her.
After working in the banking industry for 30 years and experiencing the economic downturn, she decided to use the opportunity to explore her passions and reinvent herself as a personal chef, founding the local culinary experience known as Gourmet Chef Now.
“I wanted to do something that I was passionate about,” said Conroy, who quickly acquired her catering license to get the ball rolling.
After attending several cooking classes in the Panama City area, she thought that something similar might work in Port St. Joe. Not interested in opening a restaurant and devoting all her time to running it, she saw herself doing something more intimate and decided to host classes for a small group of audience members.
Her mission was to prepare gourmet food simply through an interactive experience that would end in a restaurant-quality meal.
“I love good food with bold flavors, lots of courses and rich sauces,” she said.
In October of last year, Gourmet Chef Now launched in the Appliance Showroom kitchen in Port St. Joe.
Classes started small with friends and family in attendance but news of the class quickly spread through word of mouth. Soon enough, the weekly, $35 classes began to fill up and Conroy was able to tweak the experience to be as interactive as the guests wanted.
Some help cook, taste or plate, while others simply come to watch, take notes and get tips, techniques and new recipes for their kitchens. At the end of the class, the audience enjoys a gourmet meal and a glass of wine.
Conroy has hosted many classes centered on seafood keeping in mind the amount of delicious food located just offshore in Gulf County’s waters.
“I try to make something you can easily recreate at home with things you can buy locally,” she said.
Classes vary in size and her guests have ranged in age from 20 all the way to 91 years old. She also offers occasional classes for kids during which they create their own pizzas and also hosts special “date nights” for couples.
Before long, Conroy had hosted enough classes that she’d used up her favorite recipes from her collection of 50 cookbooks.
She took suggestions from her audience on food they’d like to see made, which led to classes featuring Thai food and sushi. It pushed Conroy to try new and exciting dishes at home before bringing them to the classroom.
She admits that her husband, Steve, is the guinea pig for the gourmet meals.
Steve smiled and added sarcastically, “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.”
As the classes continued and regulars began coming each week, Conroy realized that she’d accomplished exactly what she set out to do, earning a living off of something she’s passionate about.
In addition, Conroy cooks the meals each Wednesday for the First United Methodist Church and has fed over 100 people each week for the last four years.
Her pastor, knowing her passion for the culinary arts invited her to replace the previous cook who had retired.
Conroy is inspired by many cooks but said that “you can’t go wrong” with Julia Child. She credits a rising interest in televised cooking shows for bringing awareness to creating great food at home.
“It’s all about earing good food, and having fun,” she said.
For class schedules and registration info visit Gourmet Chef Now online at www.gourmetchefnow.com.