Officially, there’s no “perfect” menu for a Carolina Panthers game-day tailgate party.
But on this first Sunday in November — with warm sunshine taking the edge off of the cool fall air and The Steve Miller Band providing the soundtrack for the dozens of people gathered in Lot L on the north side of Bank of America Stadium — it feels like the event’s lead chef, Desiree Kinker, has once again come awfully close.
The 34-year-old recent graduate of Central Piedmont Community College’s culinary arts program is grilling beef sliders, and after they’re placed on buns, she’ll top each one with a spoonful of bacon jam and a fat slice of cheddar. Some scratch-made spinach artichoke hummus is here, some scratch-made buffalo chicken dip is there, plus the fixings for a mean quinoa salad are on standby if she needs to pull something else off the bench.
Today, though, Kinker’s life story is creating as much conversation as her cooking skills, thanks largely to the presence of a videographer, and a reporter toting a voice recorder, and a lot of tailgaters buzzing about what those two are doing here.
“She’s got a great story...” someone murmurs. “What she’s done these past few years is just amazing...” another points out. “Really inspirational...” a third person says.
These are all things Kinker is still adjusting to hearing people say about her.
Because it wasn’t so long ago that she was homeless, forced to surf couches some nights, to sleep in the woods or in cars on others. It wasn’t so long ago that the root of all of her problems was a severe cocaine and alcohol dependency, which left her so strung out and irresponsible that the state of North Carolina took away her children (two of them for good).
And it wasn’t so long ago — just a little over three years now — that she got serious about kicking her nasty habits, finding a stable place to live, going back to school, and working toward being reunited with her now-teenage son.
“I kind of do see it, if I look at it not being me,” Kinker says, when she hears of people talking about her so positively. “It’s like, here’s someone who literally went from feeling like the scum of the earth to being in a place where they’re making people happy through food, and through just being their genuine self, and telling their story, and not being afraid who knows that they used to have a past. I mean, everyone has a past. ...”
‘Right into the hard stuff’
Desiree Kinker thought she wanted to be in the Marines when she grew up.
She was born in Tucson, Ariz., into an Air Force family stationed at Davis-Monthan base, and they were relocated to Langley in Hampton, Va., when she was a young girl. But in high school her scores on the aptitude test the military uses to determine qualifications for enlistment seemed to suggest that she wasn’t a good fit for the Air Force herself.
After her parents divorced, she says, she lived for a time with her grandparents in Parris Island, S.C., where her grandmother worked as a relocation manager on the Marine base; there, Kinker became fixated on eventually joining the branch of the military she viewed as both “cool” and “pretty badass.”
But she also — without much warning — became fixated on drinking and doing drugs as a 10th-grader, started skipping school, and soon was close to failing all of her classes. “I totally skipped the pot-smoking, hanging-out and having-fun phase,” she recalls, “and kind of went right into the hard stuff.”
Her father intervened, her mom brought her back to Virginia, and Kinker was able to keep it in the road for her final two years at Denbigh High School in Newport News.
After graduation, all she had to do was get to the recruiting office and sign up for duty. Instead, she took a detour to North Carolina to help a friend’s mom move. Though she originally had every intention of going back home, she met a boy in Shelby, fell in love, and never left.
Soon, she says, her demons returned.
“Honestly, I went through some pretty traumatic things in my childhood,” she says, mentioning but avoiding specifics about being abused by extended family members. “I don’t remember a whole lot of it. And I didn’t want to remember — so drugs were a way to shut everything off. To not think about it. ... (By focusing on) getting high and drinking, I didn’t have to think about anything else. It seemed like an easier way. But it really wasn’t at all. Not one bit.”
Within a year, she was hooked on cocaine and liquor, again — and pregnant with her first child.
Her parents intervened, again, and got her into the first of she-doesn’t-even-know-how-many stints in rehab. It didn’t stick. About two months after her son Xavier was born, she and his father were married; over the next three years, as the couple added two girls to their family, Desiree Kinker was more often than not high, or drunk, or both.
She would sometimes resort to stealing in order to score her next fix. She would frequently get fired from the dead-end jobs she’d be lucky enough to land. She would disappear without telling anyone, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days.
The next three interventions involved employees with the Department of Social Services, she says, as one by one, her children were taken away.
A failed attempt to clean up
Her daughters were then adopted — one of the adoptions was open, the other was closed. Her son Xavier briefly entered the foster system, but Desiree’s mother eventually was able to obtain custody of him.
It was a glimmer of hope. Motivation to try to put her life in order so she could be a mother to at least one of her children again.
So in late 2008, Kinker checked herself into the Black Mountain Substance Abuse Center for Women and managed to get herself clean for the first time in years; in early 2009, she enrolled in an associate’s degree program at CPCC with an eye toward being a substance abuse counselor, and completed a basic 12-week certificate program at the Community Culinary School of Charlotte.
As for why she was drawn toward working in the kitchen?
“Even when my husband and I didn’t have any money, we would try to cook, and when I would cook, it was like having family with me,” she says. Her heart was broken — perhaps irreparably, she felt at the time — over the demise of her own family, but part of her felt like maybe she could bring other families together over meals she prepared.
She’d been a divider, or had felt like one, for much of her life. Maybe she could be a uniter.
Turns out it wasn’t yet to be. Though she and her husband had been estranged since before her attempt at sobriety, she was hit by a fresh tidal wave of guilt and grief upon learning of his sudden death in 2009, a result of an untreated heart murmur. She relapsed three months later.
And for the next seven years, Kinker drifted.
In and out of abusive relationships. In and out of low-paying jobs. In and out of hospitals for a range of avoidable ailments (she’d walk into the ER and say things like, “Yeah, I think I’m high right now”), racking up medical bills that she couldn’t pay; and in and out of jails for a range of avoidable misdemeanors, racking up court fees she couldn’t afford.
Drifting, from one high to the next, from hotels to friends’ couches to abandoned houses. Over the course of those seven years, she had a legitimate, legal address for less than two.
She didn’t want to do drugs anymore, but couldn’t stop. She knew that life could be better, she just didn’t think it could be better for her. She didn’t want to die, but she didn’t want to live. Finally, on a very dark day in the summer of 2016, she found herself standing in front of a mirror without a clue who was staring back at her.
“I saw ... it was just blackness. And looking into my own eyes and seeing nothing, it just —” she pauses. “I felt pity for myself, and I felt anger, and I felt fear, and I felt sadness.”
After years of feeling nothing, she finally felt it all, at once. “That was the point where I really do feel deep down where things started to change.”
‘You know what to do’
On July 29, 2016, she took a hit off a joint, downed a shot of scotch, and drove over to Rita’s Italian Ice on Central Avenue to meet a friend.
She doesn’t remember who reached out to whom, or why they were meeting. She doesn’t really remember much of the conversation, except for the part when this friend — who was in recovery and sober, who had lost her kids because of her addictions but had recently gotten them back — looked her in the eye and said, “You know what to do, Desiree. Why don’t you do it?”
That hit and that drink would wind up being Kinker’s last.
Soon after, she moved into a local Oxford House, a transitional housing option for recovering addicts that requires its residents to pay rent and commit to community service. In 2017, though she was on incredibly unstable financial ground, she gritted her teeth and re-enrolled at CPCC, this time in the school’s culinary arts program.
She still thought that, someday, she could bring families together over food. She also still dreamed that, someday, she could bring her own back together.
And an interesting thing was happening: She started asking for help.
When she found herself struggling financially and considering dropping out of school, she felt safe talking with her instructors and classmates about the issues she was having. Almost every time, she says, they were able to offer solutions.
Classmates took an active role in helping her find jobs, and when she didn’t have enough money to eat, they fed her. Instructors connected her with Single Stop (a nonprofit partner of CPCC’s that connects students with financial barriers to support systems and community resources) and encouraged her to apply for the Ruth G. Shaw Scholars Program (named for the former president and CEO of Duke Energy) and the Federal Work-Study program. She was accepted to both.
Eventually — after cycling through a handful of food-service jobs and working her newfound connections — she was able to settle into a job as a line cook at Foxcroft Wine Co. in Dilworth, and was able to maintain enough income to pay for her food and housing. If she wound up with extra cash after covering her bills, she didn’t save it; instead, she would send the money north, for her son Xavier, who by this point was a teenager.
Anyone who heard her story had a hard time forgetting it, and someone at CPCC felt a wider audience could benefit from hearing it. So last spring, that someone nominated her to be the speaker at the college’s commencement ceremony.
This past May 16, before 800-plus students were handed their degrees on a stage inside Bojangles’ Coliseum, Kinker — just the second student ever to deliver the keynote speech at a CPCC graduation — stood at the lectern and fought back tears.
“Don’t give up,” she told the crowd. “Show up. I encourage you to find your passion, like I did in food, and show up. Show up and ask for help. Show up and offer help to others. Show up, because it is only when you show up that you can make a difference.”
Settling into her new normal
“Did you not get a rib, Weston?”
Kinker yells this to a silver-haired man wearing a black Panthers pullover and a matching ball cap and sunglasses who is peeking into a chafing dish. She can’t tell from here if there are any left in it, and she sighs, shaking her head.
“The one person who I wanted to make sure got to get some,” she says, in a hushed voice, having explained to a visitor earlier in the day how she had braised them in a foil packet with apple cider vinegar, garlic and maple syrup for 2-1/2 hours.
When the man spins around, though, he’s grinning and holding a thin piece of meat. “Actually, I’ve had five or six of them!” shouts back Weston Andress, known formally in town as regional president of Western Carolina for PNC Bank and informally in Lot L as co-founder of this sizable, sprawling party that keeps a crowd of 50 to 100 folks well-fed and well-hydrated.
It was maybe three years ago that Andress (who is on the board of the CPCC Foundation) and another longtime member of this group, Ed Dalrymple (who is chairman of the board at CPCC), had the bright idea to spread the word around the culinary school that they were looking for someone to plan and execute the menu.
Kinker assisted the lead chef last year as the tailgate party’s bartender, then got the gig for this season after her former classmate moved from Charlotte to take a job at a restaurant in Chicago.
Now, before each one of the Panthers’ eight regular-season home games — and, if the team continues playing well, before a postseason home game or two — she finds herself bringing friends and families together over her food.
On this day, something’s wearing on her a little. It’s that, after all the guests have headed into the stadium, she has a long afternoon and evening ahead of her: She was recently hired to oversee the food program at Not Just Coffee, which has six locations in Charlotte, and the new menu she created and developed comes out this week. It’s crunch time.
So she’s a little worn out. She’s a little stressed out. But she’s got more than a little perspective.
“My struggles today — pshh — they pale in comparison to the past.” Overall, she says, she has “peace and serenity. ... And I have people who are in my life who want to help me. Not give me things, but support me in my decisions, and tell me when things might not be a good idea. I mean, I have a really good life right now. It’s just so astounding how my life is.”
There’s just one thing missing. Perhaps not for long, though.
‘It’s not too late’
There is a reasonable chance that in the next year, she will move from transitional housing into a traditional apartment. Once she has a real place of her own, Xavier, now 15, might be permitted to come live with her in Charlotte.
When she talks about this possibility, a lump forms in her throat and her brown eyes start to glisten.
“I’ve just always had this yearning — even when I was out there in the streets — I’ve yearned and I’ve wanted my children so, so, so, so, so, so much. It always hurt so bad not being able to be with them. Even though I understood why. Like, I always understood why.”
She takes a moment to compose herself.
“But it’s not too late. Like I said in my speech: The only time you’re too late is if you just don’t bother to show up.”
She doesn’t enjoy looking back on the darker parts of her life very much, for obvious reasons. But her face brightens when she talks about her graduation day, in large part because Xavier was sitting in the crowd while she was giving that speech.
He teared up as she shared her story, he cheered when she received her diploma, and after the ceremony was over — when they came together on the floor of the coliseum, amid hundreds of caps and gowns — he did something that just a few years ago, Kinker could only see happening in her dreams.
He gave her a hug, and said: “I’m proud of you, Mom.”