Chef Melissa Hinton believes she was put on this earth to cook. And, when she dies, she wants to go to heaven from the kitchen.
“I’m going to do this the rest of my life,” she said. “I love the kitchen. It’s my sanctuary.”
Since 2015, Hinton, 34, said her outlook on life brightened once she became executive sous chef at Ursuline Academy.
“When I came to Ursuline, I was dealing with a separation. Being in the kitchen helped me get away from life. My best self is in the kitchen, being able to create.”
Hinton cooks for approximately 700 girls daily and caters events for the Ursuline nuns. The students enjoy everything, she said, but love soups – her own go-to food – salad, the panini and waffle stations and black-bean stuffed bell peppers.
“I make all the soup here at Ursuline,” she said. Her favorite is chicken tortilla, but she is known for chicken noodle, broccoli and cheese, mushroom barley, tomato basil, French onion, spinach and orzo and seafood gumbo at Ursuline.
Hinton began her kitchen odyssey at age 18 at the original Whole Foods on Esplanade Avenue. She also helped open the Arabella Station Whole Foods on Magazine Street.
From there, the Windsor Court became her canvas, starting in the banquet kitchen and evolving to morning kitchen supervisor for the Grill Room. It is here that she became classically trained in French sauces such as beurre blanc and mignonette (resembling a vinaigrette), learning every cooking station at the hotel.
“I was forced to learn pastry on a whole other level, but didn’t consider myself a baker,” she said.
In 2012, she bundled her food experience into a catering business, Chef Melissa’s Catering LLC, and now cooks for parties of 50-1,000 people. Well-seasoned New Orleans cooking is what is most requested, especially her barbecued shrimp and sweet potatoes topped with barbecued shrimp, she said.
Hinton maintains that venture while working with Sage Dining Service in the Ursuline Academy’s kitchen.
At Ursuline, the menus are finalized in advance, but she and Ursuline executive chef Sirk Burras, with whom she splits the cooking, are flexible enough to adjust – if a produce distributor can’t supply the necessary ingredients or if it’s a special season such as Lent. They also take suggestions from students through a comment board.
“She solid in the kitchen and knows what she is doing” Burras said about Hinton. “She takes control of the kitchen, and I can step back. … We try to do local foods and do everything from scratch.” They cull fresh herbs from Ursuline’s homegrown herb garden.
By grandma’s side
Hinton’s face lit up when she talked about her first training in the kitchen at the heels of her grandmother, Delores Jones-Hinton, from Woodville, Mississippi, a place she spent many summers as a child. She said her grandmother cooked on the SS Natchez in the 1970s and for nursing homes.
“A lot of my cooking comes from her,” Hinton said. “I would stand on my stool and watch her.”
Hinton has gained a following and was recently invited to demonstrate food preparation at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. In 2106, she conducted a 45-minute demonstration on how to make crawfish etouffee as the featured chef at the Essence Festival’s Eats stage. She said she was invited to return to Essence in 2017.
She believes that those who receive much must also give back, and last year founded “Operation Freely Give,” whereby every fourth Saturday of the month she serves soup and water to the homeless under the interstate near the New Orleans Mission.
Even with all that she is involved in, Hinton said she get her daily dose of solace from Ursuline Academy.
“Walking through the school and hearing the girls pray helped me to get to a place where I was encouraged,” she said. “I often hear on the intercom, ‘Stop, let’s pray,’ and it gives me an inner smile and makes me feel like I’ll be okay. My marriage separation felt like a death and this gives me new hope, a new outlook on life.
I felt like I was just existing, not living until I came to Ursuline. The girls encourage me. It’s just amazing here.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.