By Kate Hagans on May 10, 2018
Chef Renee Kelly takes the farm-to-table concept to the television screen
Known to her followers on social media as the “Sassy Chef,” Chef Renée Kelly is a smart, young entrepreneur who centers each of her creations around the farm-to-table approach. Her dishes are prepared according to the seasonal twists and turns of the Kansas climate and she takes pride in her creations as examples of diversity in agriculture.
“When the concept of a meal comes from a true heart, has pride, passion and love beginning from the seed and soil, it just tastes better,” Kelly says. “The earth provides us with anything we need at any given point in time for optimum health, nutrition and flavor.”
With a passion for cooking and an outgoing, vibrant personality, this chef ’s journey has taken its own twists and turns, from cooking in a castle (yes, a castle) to time in front of the camera.
Farm to Castle
Kelly didn’t set out to become a professional chef right away. She attended Texas A&M University to pursue a bio-medical science degree in hopes of becoming a doctor, but the desire to follow her passion for cooking grew throughout her college career.
“After I returned from college, I made a list of what I didn’t like and what I missed,” Kelly says. “I didn’t enjoy all of the books and reading, but I did miss being able to cook.”
She switched gears and enrolled in the Art Institute of Houston. Upon completing the program, and with a business idea cooking in her head, she returned home to Kansas City. In 2004, she opened Renée Kelly’s Harvest at Caenen Castle in Shawnee.
“It was an event space, more of a catering and social club,” Kelly says.
In 2007, she was challenged with food allergies, a large obstacle in running her restaurant. Kelly turned to naturopathic medicine to improve her health.
“They gave me simple guidelines such as eating with the seasons, eating what is around and knowing where your food comes from. That is how I cook for myself,” Kelly says.
Then, the economy collapsed.
“We started to do just catering because that’s what paid the bills,” Kelly says. “People wanted inexpensive food.”
Kelly worked vigorously from 2010 to 2014 catering many events, including weddings. She soon hit her breaking point when she realized she and her customers had different ideas of food.
“To me, the purpose of food is to nourish. It felt like to my customers, it was merely to fulfill an obligation of making sure people weren’t hungry during events,” Kelly says.
In her heart, she knew there were people who wanted to eat with the seasons just like she was doing. In 2014, she turned her castle into the Harvest Restaurant, serving food the way she believes in — seasonally.
Since Kelly was able to cook the way she wanted at her restaurant, she started working closely with local farmers and ranchers. They provided Kelly with seasonal ingredients to use in her recipes. The relationships Kelly made played a crucial role in her success and she urges other chefs to make lasting relationships with farmers and ranchers.
A New Approach
After five years of successfully running Harvest and 18 total years of cooking, the physical demands took a toll on the chef. Kelly decided it was time to focus on other adventures and on Oct. 15, 2017, she closed her restaurant.
Before the closing of Harvest, Kelly shared her gift nationally by appearing on “Top Chef,” “The Today Show,” “Better Kansas City” and “Fox 4 and Friends, Kansas City Live.” Her time in the limelight prepared her for her next journey — her own television show, “Harvest with Renée Kelly.” Featuring the chef ’s delicious food and infectious personality, Kelly also uses the show to share agricultural knowledge with urban viewers based on her experiences working with local farmers and ranchers.
“No matter if they are big farms, small farms, conventional, organic, it doesn’t make a difference,” Kelly says. “Somehow the consumer has completely cut themselves out of realizing that.”
Communication between farmers and consumers no matter what farming method a certain farmer employs is important. She also stresses the importance of food and how fortunate America is to have a safe and constant food supply. Kelly’s commitment to eating seasonally, acquiring knowledge and talking one- on-one with farmers are themes on her show.
“Have we ever, in the history of civilization, had this many choices when it comes to food?” Kelly asks. “With choices, there’s accurate knowledge and inaccurate knowledge. It’s up to each of us to make food choices based on accurate knowledge.”
With so many choices and information, Chef Kelly hopes her show can answer some questions consumers have about their food and where it comes from. She encourages consumers to talk with farmers and learn more about how food is grown.
“It’s the consumer’s job to be informed about the facts. Be informed, grow something yourself, talk to a farmer and listen to your body — it’s really smart.”
“Harvest with Renée Kelly” airs Sunday mornings on KCWE, a Kansas City CW-affiliate.