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VIProfile: Hannah Coffey

By Sadie Fowler

There’s an old saying that goes, “never trust a skinny chef,” but Hannah Coffey would beg to differ. Coffey, a 30-year-old woman who’s been known in Bowling Green for a variety of chef roles, has defied the odds in many ways. Yes, she may be skinny, but her food will satisfy and fill up the masses.

Whether it’s the famous hot jam (where sweet meets savory as flavors including a spicy fruit jam and a sauce comprised of goat and cream cheeses team up between an English muffin for a burger like no other) or a rocking yet more traditional meal like gumbo — Hannah Coffey is a pioneer of sorts in Bowling Green’s restaurant industry.

She is most known for her roles at restaurants including the White Squirrel, 440 and the Home Café, but at the present time, Coffey is taking a deliberate hiatus from her passion behind the line in the kitchen as she figures out what’s next with her culinary destiny. While she does that, Coffey continues to demonstrate her strong work ethic, and necessity to pay the bills, by working two jobs. Now, her “day job” is at a hospital that serves children who are struggling with emotional and mental issues — she is good at bringing calm to sometimes chaotic situations, which is something she attributes to working long and stressful nights over the years as a line cook.

Coffey’s second job is at Bowling Green’s newest hotspot, Hickory and Oak (the restaurant just opened its doors late June), where Coffey will be serving tables in an effort to “learn the front of the house.”

A native of Oklahoma who basically grew up in the small town of Princeton, Kentucky, where her father held a post at the University of Kentucky, Coffey eventually landed in Bowling Green about 10 years ago.

“I moved here when I was 20, right after I finished culinary school,” she said. “As soon as I got here I walked into 440, looked over the menu and soaked it all in. It was during the day, so there was no one in the restaurant. I liked the look and feel of the place so I asked if I could speak to the chef.”

As the say, the rest is history…Coffey’s initial interest in cooking began at a pretty early age. She recalls being in high school and watching countless episodes of the television show Iron Chef.

“I’m talking about the Japanese version; the real, original show,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep at night and this was what was on. It intrigued me.”

Upon graduating from high school, Coffey enrolled in school at UK, where she had a free ride due to her father’s employment there. In between classes and studying, Coffey also worked as a means to earn extra spending money.

“I worked for a family as their private chef/nanny,” she said. “This family was successful, and allowed me creative freedom to cook whatever I wanted for them. I had no budget constraints and their kids ate everything. They were well-traveled and not picky eaters so I really got to experiment in the kitchen … I had already been interested in food and cooking, but this experience is really what sparked the flame.”

After her freshman year at UK, Coffey changed gears. She gave up her free-ride, left UK and enrolled at Sullivan University, a leading culinary school located in the Bluegrass state. “I was young and restless back then,” she said with a smile. “My parents were like, ‘but you still have three more years left of school that’s paid for.’ But I knew what I wanted.”

Between the training she received at Sullivan and her freedom to explore in the kitchen while working as private chef for the family whom she describes as being “patient and gracious,” Coffey’s skills quickly developed through a lot of trial and error.

“There’s no food I don’t appreciate,” she said. “Today, give me a really good steak and I’ll call that my favorite food. Tomorrow, put sushi in front of me and that might be my favorite. I like variety and just enjoy whatever I’m in the mood for that day.”

One of Coffey’s favorite things regarding her culinary career was when she had the opportunity to help develop a full menu, including the menu of another Bowling Green staple, the White Squirrel, which is where she went after leaving her post at 440. Owned by the same person as 440, when the time came for White Squirrel to open its doors, Coffey was offered a chance to lead its kitchen crew. With that role came the responsibility of helping to create its menu, which has been referred to by many as one of the best and most eclectic menus in the city.

“I can’t tell you how many hours I spent right her in Spencer’s coffee shop writing down ideas,” she said, explaining the story behind White Squirrel’s famous menu item, the hot jam. “Tom and Daniel (owners) gave me a lot of valuable feedback as we developed that menu … The idea behind the hot jam is that it incorporates the sweet and salty. I don’t eat sweets, but I love it when sweet elements are incorporated into a meal. The hot jam has a great balance of this.”

Testing, sampling, brainstorming and creating a menu is fun and rewarding, but also incredibly challenging. “It’s one thing to create dishes that taste good, but developing a menu that is efficient and can function in a kitchen and being one that people will also take to was an invigorating task, but also a tremendous learning opportunity,” she said.

As cool and confident as Hannah Coffey appears to be in any kitchen, she admits she’s a shy person with insecurities like everyone else.

“I am completely divulged and in the zone when I’m cooking,” she said. “I’m like a mad scientist. But I have had as many failures as I have had successes … If I could cook for anyone … Wow, that’s a good question. I guess I’d say my friends and family. I like the intimacy of cooking for people I care about.”

Kind, compassionate and with an eagerness to please, Coffey indeed as a spirit as beautiful as the dishes she creates. Working in an industry that’s often dominated by demographics that are often anything other than a young woman, Coffey’s career has been filled with experiences and challenges that have made her who she is today.

And today, Coffey is taking the necessary steps that will define her longterm future. She’s taking her time to figure out what’s next. “This bit of a hiatus (from the kitchen) I’ve had since January has given me plenty of opportunity to think about what I want going forward,” she said. “I wish I had more of a solid and definitive answer about what that is but I don’t right now … but what I do know is that I’d like to one day be the owner of my own kitchen. I’m just a little fish in a big sea, and I realize doing so will require lots of help and planning, but I would like to step back one day and have it be my own.”

In the meantime, she’s enjoying this time away to simply focus, think and prepare for her future … perhaps better described as “soul-food searching.”

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