Maven to Know: TWINKLE VANWINKLE, EXECUTIVE CHEF OF THE PATACHOU FOUNDATION
A conversation with Twinkle VanWinkle is one you likely won’t ever forget. Not because of her unique name (though that’s memorable also) and rock and roll vibe, but for her rich storytelling that plays out so beautifully with her southern drawl.
VanWinkle is the executive chef of The Patachou Foundation and Indiana Governor at Slow Food USA and cooking has been in her blood from the beginning. While food certainly plays a major role in all that she does, VanWinkle also has a deep understanding that feeding people is about so much more than what’s on their plate. The Mississippi native has seemingly lived 100 lives in her 47 years, with careers in food, music, and journalism—sometimes juggling all of them at once.
Today, she lives on the east side of Broad Ripple with her husband and kiddos— gardening, cooking, music-ing and finding ways to make their lives shine everyday.
Maven Superpower: Striving to just be an example of what it is to be human. We’ve all got struggles and stress and anxiety, and that is okay. It’s okay to be yourself, to be you, with all the ups and downs it takes to be completely self-realized. And Lord knows, I ain’t there yet. I still have work to do. But the thought that we need to change to be “something” is detrimental to our own paths. Wherever they may lead.
How did you get into cooking?
I’ve been a chef since 1993. There were not many women chefs in the 90s, especially in the south. I grew up in Mississippi cooking with my grandmothers —both were excellent cooks. They had different modes of cooking. My dad’s mom was very country, very “you eat what you got.” My other grandmother had been a cook for her whole life, and was the person who did all the food at the town country club and made everybody’s wedding cakes. They were insane, she was so good at it. She became the director of my elementary school food services, so she was the cafeteria lady the whole time I was a kid—back when they made everything from scratch.
In some ways, you’re following her footsteps as the executive chef of The Patachou Foundation where you make healthy meals for children impacted by poverty and hunger in our communities. What’s your job like?
It’s a hard job. I work six days a week. I’m not just cooking and stirring up big pots of things—it’s menu planning, looking at nutritional values, pushing boundaries on menus to make creative, delicious food. And we get feedback from kids about every single meal. We push vegetables and new foods and experiences where a kid might not have that opportunity somewhere else. One in five kids in our community, probably more now, go to bed hungry every night. That’s 20% of kids in our community.
We’re also sitting down and talking to them. The food is important but so is hearing what they have to say and caring about that. You have to do the whole circle—go, sit down, and create a relationship.
You also make food for Foundation Coffee Company where all proceeds benefit The Patachou Foundation. Where did you pick up your pastry skills?
Two women I knew in Oxford (Mississippi) owned Bottletree Bakery and the baker was going on safari for three months. So she spent like two weeks training me how to do French pastries—we’re talking the stuff I still do now. It was a deep dive. She went on vacation and the two bread bakers there helped me struggle through that. I worked there almost 10 years and became the head pastry chef.
“Creating love and community and bringing people together—that’s what food does, that’s what music does, that is what love does.”
You went to undergrad and grad school for journalism and worked many years in the media, as well as several years as executive director of Girls Rock! Indianapolis. How did those dots connect?
I moved to Indianapolis (from Mississippi) in 2008. I got a job at Angie’s List where I was a content producer for a couple of years then I got a job at LIN Media. I worked three years as their executive national lifestyle producer and created lifestyle content for their TV properties.
I mean, I love journalism, media and all that, but I had to find a way for it to work for me, and find the path that led me back to what I really love, and it’s not “just cooking,” but creating as a whole. Creating love and community and bringing people together—that’s what food does, that’s what music does, that is what love does.
What got you back into the kitchen?
I started writing a weekly recipe column for Indy Star which got me back into cooking again. I was doing that along with a role as creative editor of The House Life project. And then I did a big freelance project for The Food Network. It made me think, ‘What do you really want to do?’ I was like, ‘I just need to go back to working in the kitchen.’
Then an ad to work Wildwood popped up in my Facebook newsfeed and I was like, ‘I’m going to apply for that, I don’t care how much it pays.’ I loved working there. I got to be so creative and there was something about working in the restaurant industry that I missed —and didn’t even know that I missed it—and that was the camaraderie. That job set me into having people I could talk to outside of my house again. I was missing that.
I’m sure there were struggles along the way. How did you work through those?
It was such a struggle when I moved here as a single mom, I had a 10-year-old daughter at the time and it was really tough. I knew one person. It took me a while to meet people and get back into having a community. It was very hard. I had come from a place where I’d lived 20 years and it was small and you knew everybody.
When you move somewhere, people don’t know your past. It was a weird time in my life because I had only been out of a very violent and abusive marriage for about four or five years at the time. I had no support. I just realized, like last year, that my daughter is almost 21 and I never have to worry about her dad bothering me now. It’s such a weight off my shoulders. That helped me go after the things I wanted to do.
It puts more passion into what I’m doing now. When the job opening became available a year and a half ago at The Patachou Foundation, I couldn’t turn it down. It was like a dream job. It puts everything that I love into one job. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. But it puts the part of me that’s always wanted to help people and the thing that I love to do which is cook into one big pocket. All the things I’ve done over the years have funneled into this job. I can’t be more grateful for that.
How have things changed for TPF in light of COVID-19?
We’re working on ideas about how to support people in the community who are growing things. We would ideally like to have our own fresh produce, but that’s a year out. Kate Franzman at Public Greens is heading up that project.
We’re still doing about 1,200 meals a week—but they’re two and half times the regular portion size, so it’s more like a little under 3,000 meals. We’re sending out food three times a week, working with the same community partners that we work with during summer and spring break.
We’re feeding hungry kids. This is the time to do it. But we’re looking at how we can do it safely for ourselves and our own families and still put out as much food as we can with our team. We can’t have our regular volunteers due to safety measures. I’m still maintaining my personal requirements—the food has to be from scratch, healthy, and delicious. The other hard thing is not being able to sit down with them to share a meal.
What’s one thing people might be surprised to find out about you?
I quit school to follow the Grateful Dead. It was my second semester, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was fun. I came from a very small town, I had never done anything wrong, I was terrified of my dad and getting in trouble. I was a good kid and an honor student. I went to college not even that far away from home, literally like 20 miles. I have no regrets.
Editor’s Note: Though The Patachou Foundation is currently unable to accept in-person volunteers, you can brighten a kid’s day by sending them a “Lunchbox Letter” to let them know you’re thinking about them. More info here.
Leslie Bailey is co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of Indy Maven. She was once in a “Ladies with Balls” bowling league with Twinkle VanWinkle. Twinkle was the far superior bowler.