SHRIMP AND GRITS, gumbo, and jambalaya were always on the menu at family gatherings and Mardi Gras parties when Theresa Borel was growing up. Her father’s side of the family had brought the recipes with them from New Orleans. But the North Central High School grad pursued her passion for hair and makeup instead of food and opened her own salon on the northwest side in 1995. The wear and tear on her hands and a fire in 2014 changed all that and put Borel on a path toward culinary school, a family restaurant, and now Chef Borel’s Kitchen, a popular Cajun and Creole takeout at the same address where she once did makeovers and perms.
Food was an important part of your family life growing up. What took you so long to consider the culinary industry as a career?
My father’s from Orleans Parish in New Orleans, so we would have huge parties for Mardi Gras and other holidays. There was always a big spread. But I was into hair and makeup as well. I had a mannequin doll, and I was always doing her hair. My mother worked for a hair product company, too. So I enrolled in a program at the J Everett Light Career Center at North Central High School, and pretty soon I was doing makeup at Black Expo and working in marketing for a cosmetics company and doing demonstrations at shows. I finished beauty college in Carmel and opened Nu Alternative Total Salon on Michigan Road in 1995, specializing in hair coloring, damaged hair, and hair growth.
After nearly 20 years, what made you shift to working in the culinary world?
All that time on my feet and working with my hands was starting to take its toll with arthritis symptoms, and I had been doing some cooking and occasional catering for my clients on the side. So it was in the back of my mind. Then in 2014, an electrical fire did some major damage to the salon, and I had to shut it down. That made me consider some new directions in my career. I knew that cooking would give me more time for breaks, and it wasn’t so much of the same motion. It was something I loved, too.
What was your first restaurant experience?
My family had a restaurant, Borel’s Cajun and Creole Cookery, on 86th Street from 2016 to 2018. It was a great experience, and we earned a lot of loyal customers with our family recipes. We were on Fox 59 for Mardi Gras, and people were lined up out the door. So our landlord figured we were making lots of profits and raised the rent. He didn’t see that those lines were just a few days out of the year. That forced us to close. But we were able to refine most of the dishes that we still serve now.
With all of the time-tested family recipes, why did you feel you need to go to culinary school?
I just wanted to make sure I was doing everything correctly. People would ask me what my background was, and I figured that if I got the education, people wouldn’t question my authority. So I enrolled in the online program from the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder, Colorado, first starting with videos but then doing cooking tests for local culinary instructors here in Indy. I had to do the classic things for them like French techniques, knife skills, and flipping omelets. But I also had to cook Filipino and African cuisine, as well as cooking the cuisine of my heritage.
That led you to an externship at Jiallo’s African Caribbean Cuisine. What kinds of things did you learn there?
Well, I learned that in both of our cultures, African and Cajun/Creole, we pretty much cook the same. Everything has a roux base and starts with the trinity (onions, green peppers, and celery), and I just realized that the way they cook is the way I cook, too. The cooks there would really take their time in sautéing things. I understood just how much African and Caribbean food had influenced the food of New Orleans that I was cooking. After that, I worked the expo kitchen at St. Vincent’s, where I was at the sauté station making meals for the doctors and nurses. I even did some Creole dishes there.
Now you’re back in your salon space with Chef Borel’s Kitchen. What do you like about having a delivery and takeout ghost kitchen?
There’s virtually no overhead, and everything is streamlined to the food preparation, which makes things really quick and smooth. Some people don’t have a way to order online, so we let them call or order from outside. And we can do more catering orders for things like baby showers and office parties. But we pretty much kept everything the same from the restaurant so people wouldn’t get upset that something they wanted wasn’t available. And our old customers are finding us, which is great. I do miss getting to chat more with some of my regulars, but we’re thinking of doing some outdoor dining on the property with a gazebo, as well as a drive-through.
Is cooking harder than working in a salon?
With hair, I was constantly moving and constantly moving my hands. There’s still some of it, and I’m still on my feet, but I was used to that. At the end of the day, they’re both in the service industry, and that’s great for me since I’m a people person and love meeting people from all walks of life. The greatest part about both jobs is the compliments from customers. Now, it’s people reaching out to me personally, sending me emails to tell me that their lunch was fantastic and that they can’t wait to order it again. That makes it all worthwhile.