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Student's love of food launches a career

Charlotte boy has started two business to date centered on cooking

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Feeding a crowd of hundreds alongside an executive chef doesn’t unnerve Kenny Seals-Nutt – he thrives in the kitchen.

He’s in his element when dicing tomatoes, deveining shrimp, tossing salad and forming crab cakes.

By the time Kenny, 16, reached his junior year of high school at Hickory Grove Christian, he’d worked alongside Chef Frederick Mookie Hicks, a Maryland-based caterer who has been featured on Food Network’s “24 Hour Restaurant Battle”; became vice president of his school’s culinary club; and opened his own full-service catering company, called Modern Fusion.

He said he developed his love of cooking by watching his mother, Valencia Seals-Reynolds, and recalls watching his grandmother, who owned a catering business herself.

“She cooked soul food,” said Kenny, smiling. “She would have these huge fish frys.”

Kenny shadowed her early to memorize her tips – how long to cook chicken so it stays moist; how to cook al dente pasta; and the right amount of sundried tomatoes to add to her spaghetti recipe.

Kenny was 5 when he whipped up his first dish of shrimp and broccoli. His shrimp were frozen, and he also used butter, salt and pepper. Taking it for school lunch – amid all the other kids’ peanut butter and jelly – he cooked it in the school’s microwave.

Then he started to study.

“I love to eat, and it started to become more fun to cook (than to use a microwave),” he said.

He started his own baking business, called Kenny’s Goodies, when he was 7. He sold cookies and brownies, made from scratch – “he didn’t want premade cookie dough,” said his mother – to Valencia’s co-workers and friends.

Cooking came easy to Kenny, and he enjoyed incorporating new ingredients into recognizable dishes. “It started with a passion and I wanted to know more,” he said. He began to watch the Food Network, often pausing the television to take notes. He bought books about kitchen skills and started to read chef blogs.

Last summer, Kenny put his skills to the test by working with his grandmother to cater his uncle’s wedding. While she envisioned traditional dishes, Kenny wanted to add new twists to the expected flavors.

Instead of the familiar baked macaroni and cheese, he suggested lobster macaroni and cheese. Rather than mashed potatoes, he proposed purple and gold rice as a starch instead.

Now Kenny spends his weekends catering his own events: weddings, birthday parties, baby showers, private parties.

His biggest job to date was for Dr. Bonnie Chen, in Concord. Kenny cooked on-site for about 120 guests at Dr. Chen’s home for Chinese New Year.

Asian food is Kenny’s favorite to eat, and so is his favorite to cook, he said.

Kenny spent hours preparing: chopping vegetables, cutting more than 30 pounds of meat, and concocting five dipping sauces for a Mongolian barbecue – a style of stir-fry meal in which guests choose ingredients to be cooked on the spot.

For about four hours straight, Kenny used propane grills and multiple pans. “It was elbow-room-only at the party,” said his mother, who helped him at the event.

“I was nervous they would give me their honest opinions, good and bad,” he said. “But I felt so blessed to be there.”

Kenny’s dishes were a hit at the party, said Dr. Chen. She’s hoping the young chef will come back in February to cater the party again.

“He did a wonderful job in planning the menu,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do a Mongolian barbeque ... It was nothing that (my guests) had ever had before.”

Chef Hicks, executive chef and owner of a catering business, said Kenny’s success stems from the range of his palate and his ability to multi-task in the kitchen.

Hicks has asked Kenny to cook with him on jobs three times now, he said, and he uses Kenny as a positive example of a passionate chef to the students in his cooking classes.

“He’s so vigorous about cooking that he doesn’t let anything stop him,” Hicks said. “I knew the first five minutes of working with the kid that he is something special.”

Hicks said Kenny helped him cook for a wedding several summers ago, assigning him to salad assembly. “I needed hundreds of salads and the kid hit the ground running. He became the leader,” Hicks said.

“He’s still young, so sometimes his menus are all over the place. But that comes with wanting to cook everything,” Hicks said.

Valencia Seals-Reynolds said her son is known for constructing new, sometimes unconventional dishes at home. She was doubtful, for example, about his jicama salad with strawberries and shrimp. But one bite proved her wrong. “He has introduced so many new foods to our family,” she said. While cooking is Kenny’s passion, he said he is still a student by day. (Call for catering services “after 2:30 p.m.” on school days, his website specifies). He hopes to attend the Culinary Institute of America – and to cook on “Good Morning America.”

“I’ll be the first one on my mom’s side of the family to go to college,” Kenny said. “And I want to be able to repay my mom.”

Penland: 704-358-6043; Twitter @BrittanyPenland
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