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Chef Lisa Brooks Builds Heart & Soul Personal Chef Service from Scratch

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Lisa Brooks leans against a brick wall donning her company branded Heart & Soul kitchen frock.
Lisa Brooks launched Heart & Soul Personal Chef Service in 2010. (Photo by James Ward)

Leaving corporate America is a dream shared by many. Chef Lisa Brooks of Charlotte not only saw her vision come to life but reached heights even she probably couldn’t have imagined when she initially made the decision to pursue cooking full-time. 

Brooks would go on to launch Heart and Soul Personal Chef Service after enrolling in a culinary arts program, and now leads a team of seven Black women chefs. In February, she starred in an episode of Food Network’s Chopped competition show featuring an all-Black cast.

According to her, this journey all began before she had even entered kindergarten, when her grandmother acted as her day care, as she told it. 

“She had a garden. I learned about growing the food, picking the food, and how to shuck it and clean it and break it down,” she told Queen City Nerve. “She would get chickens delivered. She would pick them from an old pickup truck with chickens on the back. She would pick a couple of chickens and she taught me how to ring their necks and defeather them.

“All of that organic knowledge is from being there and being around them and it’s just part of our lifestyle,” she continued. “It was ingrained in me early on. It was such a labor of love. It was such an art form and allowed you to show how you cared for a person if you were able to cook for them.” 

We sat down with Brooks for an in-depth chat to get the rest of the story about what happened after that. 

Queen City Nerve: When you decided the corporate world was no longer for you, what made you decide to become a chef? 

Lisa Brooks: Actually, I prayed about it. “God, what would I do after this? What could I do?” And I just heard, “Cook.” I always cooked my whole life but never considered it was something I could do for a career. Once I heard that and started researching and looking into it, I found the idea of a personal chef online. I love to entertain. I love to be personable and I knew I didn’t want to work in a restaurant, so when I found the idea of a personal chef, it just clicked. “Yes, this is exactly what I want to do.” I enrolled into culinary school and started taking clients immediately and the rest is history. It’s been 12 years of business now. 

Why didn’t you want to work in a restaurant? 

Lisa Brooks: For me, the joy of cooking is to experience it with the people you are cooking for, not just send it out. You never see them, you don’t talk to them, you don’t get personable and interact. That would be just another job to me. As a personal chef, being able to connect with people — I’m cooking, I’m doing what I love and I’m good at, but I’m connecting with people also. It’s the perfect sweet spot for me. 

Once you decided you wanted to do this, what was the first thing you did to start your business? 

Lisa Brooks: I researched a lot. Being a personal chef in 2010, it was an industry in its infancy. I had heard of a private chef, a person who worked full-time for a family or a person and that was their full-time job. I had never heard of the concept of a personal chef who maybe cooked for several families. There was a professional organization called the United States Personal Chef Association (USPCA). I did a membership with them and they had some online courses telling how to run a business and how to price yourself. I took their course and that was the first step and then it was purely divine how I got my first client. 

Chef Lisa Brooks wears a shirt that reads "I'm just here for the food" while holding a basket of vegetables in a grocery market
Chef Lisa Brooks appeared on Food Network’s ‘Chopped’ in February. (Photo by Amanda Richardson)

I moved to Charlotte from Chapel Hill to go to culinary school, and the guy who showed me my apartment, I told him during small talk that I was moving here to go to culinary school and I was going to be a personal chef and he said, “My wife and I are looking for a personal chef.” I said, “Yea, okay, whatever.” I’m thinking he’s making small talk. He goes, “Yea, I’m going to have her call you,” and I was like, “Yeah, sure.” I’m thinking, “You don’t know me, you haven’t tasted my food,” and sure enough, his wife called me and said, “We would like to hire you as a personal chef … We got a personal trainer and a personal chef would be perfect.” 

I said, “I’m not even moving until May,” so it was maybe two months before I was moving to Charlotte and she said, “It’s okay, we’ll wait for you.” In my mind, it was a divine intervention. That was not a coincidence for me. God told me to do this and he lined up that person right when I needed them to be there. So before I even moved here, I had my first client. There was word-of-mouth referrals from them, and then building a presence with my website, and I started to get reviews from people online and the business just started to grow. 

How did you build your business to the level it is at today? 

Lisa Brooks: It’s just a matter of demand, honestly. Most personal chefs are one-woman shows or one-man shows. That’s typical, if you’re a personal chef, you work alone and that’s what I intended doing when I started. I had never seen a model where there were multiple chefs in a personal chef service, but the demand for my services were so great that I would either have to turn people away and say no or put them on a waiting list, which a lot of personal chefs do. 

I’m an entrepreneur at heart. So I looked to the culinary school and my fellow students, to fellow graduates, to current students I could take on as an intern. I started bringing people on because I needed a couple pairs of extra hands. Then we were a team of two, then three, then four. I got interns from CPCC (Central Piedmont Community College). I’ve got a very sticky work environment. Once people work for us, they don’t leave. We do something we love and we make a real nice living doing it. We have a great culture, have a lot of fun and we’re truly like a family. It’s grown almost organically. I never planned or had a vision of one day I’m going to have 10 female chefs. The demand was always there. 

What kind of services do you provide for your clients?

Lisa Brooks: Private dinner parties and private entertaining. For example, if you were going to have a wedding anniversary and you were going to have six couples over, you would call Heart & Soul for a five-course meal in the comfort of your own home. We would do everything. The table settings, welcome cocktails, we’ll pour your drinks and wine for you. It’s a super interactive experience. We introduce our courses and tell you where this dish comes from and why it’s important to us or some story that is relevant to it. It’s not just dinner, it’s a whole experience. We are honored to be part of people’s special moments. They are trusting those moments to us. It’s a true hospitable experience where everyone is taken care of and treated like royalty. 

Do you do events and gatherings of any size? 

Lisa Brooks: Fifty people or below, that’s our limit, but our sweet spot is really 24 or fewer and it’s where we land most times. We stick to small events. That’s our niche and what we do well and it’s what we enjoy doing. We don’t consider ourselves caterers at all. 

What’s the most unique request you received? 

Lisa Brooks: I get requests at times for themed events and that’s when I get to be really creative. I did a citizenship party for an older gentleman who had been an American citizen for I think 50 years. He was from Denmark and his family was throwing this party. The whole party was this Danish theme, the whole dinner. I had never been to Denmark. I had to become very familiar with the cuisine and challenge myself to learn about the cuisine and to execute it on the nose. This man, he was literally in tears at the end of the event because of all the memories our food was bringing back to him from Denmark. That was really special. When I get requests like that, I see it as a challenge. 

What’s your one specialty that’s going to make people want to lick the plate? 

Lisa Brooks: Honestly everything is that way. We don’t have any throwaways on our menu, but I always say shrimp and grits is my specialty dish. But for our dinner parties, I have been told repeatedly, dozens and dozens of times by people who have traveled the world and eaten at the best restaurants that our steak is the best they ever had in their life. We do a southern marinated filet mignon and it’s perfect. It melts in your mouth. You don’t need a knife at all and you don’t need a steak knife for sure.

We have a secret kind of marinade that we do and the way we care for it and prepare it, people rave about it. It’s our most requested dish. It’s a three-ingredient marinade that’s Southern inspired and we marinate it for 36 hours and after they taste that first bite, they’ll spend the rest of the night trying to guess and if they guess, I’ll tell them, yes, that’s one of them. 

How did you promote yourself in a way that lands you on a show like Chopped

Lisa Brooks: I don’t do much marketing at all. On social media channels I do short cooking videos teaching people how to cook. I started that during the quarantine in 2020 and it got a ton of followers. I kept doing a lot of content. I had opportunities where people would reach out to me because of my videos. On TikTok, I have almost 300,000 followers. The Chopped casting folks reached out to me. I never really marketed myself and none of the shows I have been on have I applied to. They came to me. 

A piece of fish sitting atop rice and noodles
A fish plate from Heart & Soul. (Photo by Amanda Richardson)

What other cooking shows have you been on? 

Lisa Brooks: In 2017, I was on Food Network on Guy’s Grocery Games with Guy Fieri. And then Chopped this year. Those are the two competition shows I have been on. 

How did you do? 

Lisa Brooks: On Guy’s Grocery Games, I didn’t go home first but I went out second out of four contestants. I was nervous. It was awesome, but it was super scary. I was a finalist on Chopped. I got down to the dessert round — me head-to-head with chef Brian Jupiter of Chicago. He edged me out. 

What was it like competing on Chopped? 

Lisa Brooks: You didn’t know who the other contestants were. We were separated. You checked in and you waited on instructions. There’s a van that comes and picks you up. We shot it in 2021, so we had to do COVID testing one day and then you wait and then the next day you go back and you do your intro. The videos that they show when the show is coming on and the introduction of who you are and what you do, you do the actual cooking they show in the intro. It’s called your Bio Pact Day where they get all of that material. 

Then the next day is the competition day. They take your phone as soon as you get there. You’re just kind of waiting. You don’t know who the judges are going to be. You have no idea what your ingredients will be. The first time you meet your fellow contestants is when the van picks you up that morning. “Oh, this is my competition.” You’re sequestered all day long. They’re checking sound and doing takes. They only explain what’s going on in the moment. You don’t know from moment to moment how it’s going to go. 

Chef Lisa Brooks donning her company branded Heart & Soul kitchen frock.
Chef Lisa Brooks (Photo by James Ward)

It was fun. We had a lot of chances to talk to each other while we were waiting. Once you get in that kitchen and you’re on the floor ready to cook, everything about the competition is real. The amount of time you have is real. It’s not just done for TV. We really have 30 minutes to cook a dish. You really don’t know what the ingredients are until you open the basket. There’s no TV magic there. That’s really how it happens. 

How much time did it take for you to record that hour-long episode? 

Lisa Brooks: It’s an entire day of shooting the actual show. Probably 16 hours. Obviously the person who went home first, they had a shorter day. The last two competitors, you’re there all day, from 6 in the morning to probably around 10 at night. It’s not just the cooking and the competition. You have to do all of the interviews. You basically have to walk back through the entire episode to do your commentary on it.

What were your feelings about being included in the Black history episode? 

Lisa Brooks: By the grace of God, I was so happy when I found out that was the theme. All of my nerves went away, because there was nothing you could give me that was ingredients that is typical to the Black American contribution to the American culinary landscape that I wouldn’t know. I immediately felt very comfortable that whatever was going to be in that box, I’d be able to cook it. When we were there, we saw each other, four Black chefs from all over the country, one from California, one from New York, one from Chicago and one from the South — that’s me. Then we see that all of the judges are Black, too. 

We didn’t realize how historic it was until we were actually in it. We didn’t know they had never done this before. I thought maybe they did a Black History Month episode every February, but no, this was the first time ever there’s been all three Black judges and all four Black chefs, so it was an historic episode. We kind of just felt the weight of that when we were there. We felt, in a good way, the weight of the fact that we’re kind of making history. We were making history by being there, so we were super honored. 

How do you normally get your clients? Is it mainly repeat business and word of mouth? 

Lisa Brooks: Our website and Google search. When somebody searches personal chef in Charlotte, our personal chef service comes up first. You will see all of the dozens and dozens of five-star reviews. That’s what speaks for us. Our website does our marketing for us basically because it’s ranked first in the Google search and then we’ve got the reviews to back it up. 

If you go to our website, you are able to see our photographs, you can see the chefs, you can see the photographs of food, you can visualize your experience, you can see the menu, you see the pricing, there’s everything there to make a person able to make a decision. We put a lot of thought into everything about it and it’s a great marketing tool. Most of the time when people call us, they say they found us on Google search and that our website was the best website. They looked at a few and by far they knew they had to have our experience. I put a very concerted effort into building a website that would convert so I don’t have to do any other outside marketing. 

Have you done any parties for famous people that you can reveal? 

Lisa Brooks: Yes, quite a few actually. A lot of the athletes here, the Panthers and the Hornets and numerous athletes, too many to name. Actors and actresses when they are shooting movies here. I’ve prepared food for Kathy Bates and Michael K. Williams. I rarely mention names in my interviews but there have been A-list celebrities, plenty of NFL folks and NBA players. 

How did the pandemic affect your business and did you have to make any changes? 

Lisa Brooks: The pandemic increased our business. We doubled our business during 2020 and 2021. It was our biggest year ever. I think a combination of factors. Obviously, restaurants were closed. People were not wanting to go out very much, even to the grocery store. We instituted protocols, masks and sanitizing protocols for going into people’s homes. We were as busy as ever.

Someone pours caramel from a spoon over a brownie in a ramekin.
A dessert dish from Heart & Soul. (Photo by Amanda Richardson)

People still wanted to celebrate their moments. They still wanted to celebrate their anniversary, their birthday. They were smaller. Six to eight people at the max I would say for six to seven months before we even did up to 16. I think we did our first 16 headcount about nine months after the start of the pandemic … We were working our tails off because people still wanted to celebrate and wanted our field prep. Part of our business before when we prepped people’s meals for the week, that went through the roof. People were going like, “If I don’t cook, and I can’t go to restaurants, I can’t do that every single day.” 

You also launched Mattie’s Front Porch dinner series. What is that about? 

Lisa Brooks: We do a monthly dinner party series called Mattie’s Front Porch. Mattie is my grandmother. It’s a monthly dining series where I welcome people into my home once a month and we prepare a five- to seven-course meal depending on the theme for that month. It’s a pop-up dinner experience with 24 guests. I create a menu you wouldn’t receive at our normal dinner parties. It’s been super popular and it’s where we all can get together because my whole team rarely gets to work together all at once because we’re usually spread out doing various events. It’s great because it’s not a family or a group that knows each other. These are strangers that come in and have a meal together at my table. It’s like an open chef’s table experience. 

How long have you been doing that for? 

Lisa Brooks: We started Mattie’s Front Porch series in June [2022]. We had done pop-ups prior to that, but this is a specific series we started in Charlotte. 

How does one get invited to Mattie’s Front Porch? 

Lisa Brooks: We do have tickets on Eventbrite.com. Anyone who has ever been on our mailing list receives invitations. We have 3,000 customers in our database and they receive the invitations first and I do post on my social media if anybody is following me, they have an opportunity. Otherwise, someone can search on Eventbrite.com. There are only 24 slots and it’s a tough reservation to get. 

Chef Lisa Brooks donning her company branded Heart & Soul kitchen frock.
Chef Lisa Brooks. (Photo by James Ward)

You did a Joy of the Feast Tour with seven other Black female chefs. Can you tell me how that idea came about and what that was like traveling to different cities? 

Lisa Brooks: We did that in 2021. The pandemic did affect it. We thought summer 2021, the pandemic would be over. We planned the tour in January 2021 not realizing that things were going to surge again. We canceled some of our dates in California and New York because they went back on shutdown. We did our East Coast [stops in] Durham, Raleigh, Charlotte and Atlanta. We got a taste of what it would be like to travel and do pop-ups on the road. It was amazing to take our food to other cities. Those were 12 guests who got to experience our Lowcountry cuisine. 

That was awesome and it kind of sparked the series of Mattie’s Front Porch. We wanted to be able to continue to do on a consistent basis those pop-up type dinners where strangers come together. Strangers come together and break bread together and eat together and have conversations; that’s a powerful thing. It’s an amazing atmosphere for those three hours and they come as strangers and leave as friends every time. 

On your site you mention you can teach people how to become a private chef and earn a six-figure income. Are there any secrets you can reveal here? 

Lisa Brooks: I teach an entire six-week course. It’s really about, for people who are interested in doing what we do, is perfecting your niche. Everything centers around the menu. What I advise when I’m teaching or mentoring or coaching people who are aspiring to be personal chefs or those who already are personal chefs and want to increase their business is to focus on your menu and get it down to the few things you are amazing at. That’s number one because you can’t do everything. You have to niche it down to, “What are my specialties?” 

Two, you have to have an amazing website. You have to have a website that covers what I call “The Five P’s.” People’s brains respond to clarity. Avoid confusion. If I go to your website and I’m confused what you do, what the process is, who you are, I’m just going to go to another website. That includes the person. They need to see a nice smiling picture of you so they know who it is coming into their home and a bio so they can know who you are and they can trust you. They need to see your product. What is it you offer? What is your specialty? Is it dinner for two? Do you do brunches? What is your process? How do I book you? What is your pricing? And they need to see photos of food. Those are the five P’s I teach people. 

There’s kind of a false assumption that social media is going to get you all of the business you need and that’s just not true. When someone’s looking for a service, they don’t search social media, they search Google search, so I teach people how to do an amazing website. They have to perfect their process. You have to have a replicable system in place from recording your recipes so you can make the same thing the same way every time. People think if they know how to cook they can just kind of freestyle, but the next time you prepare that exact same thing, somebody calls you back because it’s not the same. We get called back a lot. We have one group of people that might do five or six events with us a year, so if they want that filet mignon like they had it last time, it’s gotta be exactly the same. Those are three of the most important things I highlight in my courses. 

Potential clients can book a dinner or event at the Heart & Soul Personal Chef Service website, or visit Chef Lisa Brooks’ personal website for consulting services. The next Mattie’s Front Porch event, titled Toasts for Tatas – A Queen’s Brunch, is scheduled for Oct. 15. 


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