Tami Cecil’s first dinner party was hardly an elaborate affair. She served Cheerios in child-sized pots and pans — and thus, at age 5, set the stage for a future of home entertaining.
Today, Cecil lives a peaceful life on 10-acre Woodhaven Farm in Johnstown with her husband, Mark, three dogs and two cats. The gates to the farm — adorned with her intertwined fork and spoon logo — are often open for cooking classes and corporate teambuilding exercises, or to film her Ohio News Network show, “Chef Tami.”
“I think cooking was in my DNA, I just didn’t know it,” says Cecil.
She’s referring to her childhood in Fremont as the youngest of six children, where she gardened with her dad and cooked with her mom. Thanks to her parents, she evolved beyond cold cereal and milk, although it was a long time before Cecil put her knife skills to good use.
“I was 35 when I changed careers. I was no young kid. [But] I’ve always had a pretty entrepreneurial spirit,” she says.
Cecil’s first career as a stockbroker in Columbus was less than fulfilling.
“I was so dissatisfied with my work. It wasn’t where I was supposed to be, but sometimes, you don’t always know where you’re supposed to be,” she says.
Six months after she and her husband purchased Woodhaven Farm, she quit her stockbroker job and started making and selling fresh salsa. Later, she opened a restaurant and bar — The Bigelow Café in Johnstown — with another stockbroker. While she owned the restaurant, she started teaching cooking classes at the farm, but before she turned her passion into a full-time career, Cecil sold the café and worked in the kitchens at four Cameron Mitchell restaurants. When possible, she also took classes at the Culinary Institute of America at both the New York and California campuses.
Despite her experience in some of Columbus’ most elaborate kitchens, Cecil keeps her home cooking space streamlined, with a stove, convection oven, microwave and warming drawer. Classes and other events are held in a larger kitchen, housed in an adjacent barn.
Between her two kitchens, Cecil has an eclectic collection of cookware and utensils, ranging from German-made Henckel and Wusthof knives to every size and shape of Le Creuset pan. Her favorite tool, however, is a set of copper cookware that her husband purchased from France nearly 25 years ago. Although she uses them daily to simmer stews and sauces or melt chocolate, the pots and pans have never dented or tarnished.
“Whenever I want to cook, that’s what I grab,” she says. “They’re the warriors of our kitchen.”
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Arriving at Woodhaven Farm for a cooking class, my fellow students and I are greeted by Cecil with “Make yourselves at home,” and we realize she means not just her barn kitchen, but also her property as a whole. She puts everyone — even the novice cooks — at ease as she breaks us into groups to prepare herbed chicken, salad and a lemon and blueberry parfait. Later, she pours us wine and tells us to tour the property, which we do, strolling around her gardens and feeding the catfish in her pond while sipping Chardonnay. It’s easy to see why people return.
Months later, when a photographer and I meet her in her home kitchen, she greets us the same way, and I’m tempted to kick off my shoes and root through her refrigerator for leftovers of some of her signature Mexican food. As she prepares that day’s meal of chipotle meatballs with saffron rice and scallions, she talks easily about her dissatisfaction with the stockbroker world (“I majored in stupidity” she says to me after I ask how she got into that career in the first place), her childhood and her parents.
According to Cecil, her mom was an outstanding wild-game cook. Growing up, her family ate rabbit, squirrel, duck and goose, as well as fish from Lake Erie. She still lives off the land whenever possible. In fact, all of the herbs that Cecil uses — from flat-leaf parsley to thyme — are grown on the farm, along with radishes, cabbages, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. Each year, she winterizes some of the herbs in a room off her barn. For this meal, she darts outside to grab some cilantro to garnish her meatballs.
“Instead of just saying, ‘here’s a recipe,’ let’s get back to the beginning. Let’s grow the food and then we’ll cook with it,” she says.
As a result, she produces vegetarian-themed and grilling shows for ONN, along with workshops about using and preserving herbs.
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Although her house was built eight years ago to look like an old farmhouse, Cecil’s personal kitchen is an intimate, modern space. On a gray winter day, her high ceilings and large windows make the kitchen bright, even with the dark granite countertops, cherrywood cabinets and metallic backsplash.
“I love shiny,” she says, pointing to the backsplash and a new stainless-steel pot that she bought in honor of Woodhaven Farm’s 10th anniversary last October.
Here and there, jewel-toned vases and her favorite copper pots and pans also brighten up the space. There’s an adjacent breakfast nook that’s almost as large as the kitchen itself, with a wall of windows and a table big enough for a conference room. It’s a smaller version of what you’ll find in her barn kitchen — making it clear that entertaining is always on her mind.
“When people are cooking and eating together,” she says, “there’s no better thing in the world.”
Baked Chile Rellenos with Red-Skinned Potatoes and Chorizo
8 poblano peppers
5 medium red-skinned potatoes,
cubed into one-inch pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
12 ounces chorizo sausage,
8 ounces shredded Monterey
cilantro for garnish
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Lightly oil the peppers and place on a direct flame or under a broiler until the skins blacken on all sides. Place charred peppers in a bowl and cover with a dish towel. Let the peppers sweat for about 15–20 minutes. Using paper towels, peel the skin off the peppers. Cut a slit down the side of each pepper and remove the seeds and membranes.
Meanwhile, place the cubed potatoes on a large cookie sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Roast in the oven until nicely browned, about 30–35 minutes. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and let cool.
Heat the olive oil to medium in a heavy sauté pan and add the diced
onion. Cook for about 5 minutes and then add the minced garlic. Cook for another 2–3 minutes and add the chorizo. Cook thoroughly for about 5–7 minutes and drain away excess fat.
Lightly oil the bottom of a large oven-safe dish. In a separate bowl, combine the chorizo mixture together with the
potatoes and adjust the seasoning. Neatly stuff each pepper.
Place the peppers in the dish and top with the cheese. Bake for about 17–22 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and nicely browned.
Garnish with sprigs of fresh cilantro.
For more of Chef Tami Cecil’s favorite recipes, order her self-published cookbook,
Playing in the Kitchen, Anecdotes and Recipes from Woodhaven Farm, at woodhavenfarm.com.