Meet Fernando Hicks, 40, of Winterville. Hicks has lived in Pitt County his entire life and has been cooking for almost all of that time.
Hicks learned to love cooking from his mother. The caterer also is the top food contributor for True Smoke, a Kinston-based food group. He believes that whether you are cooking for a mass gathering or more intimate occasions, food is all about love.
How did you get your start cooking? What made it something you enjoy doing and pursuing?
I got started cooking at a very young age, spending a lot of time in the kitchen with my mother. She was very instrumental in developing my culinary passion, getting me involved in everything from working in our own garden to harvesting fresh produce from the farmers and fields near our home.
We had a big family, nine members to be exact, so we always had to prepare a lot of food. It was nothing for my mom to cook chicken two ways — fried and baked — and still cook a roast or a ton of sides to feed our hungry appetites.
We didn’t have a lot sometimes, so my mom would pull from her full thought pantry and combine some of all we had to come up with some really great and tasty dishes. Unfortunately, she passed at a young age, but her passion, her drive (and) her love of food lives on strong within me. I hope she sees the wonderful dishes I now create.
What is your favorite type of dish to prepare? Why?
I would have to say it is a tie between my loaded macaroni dishes and my collard meatballs, which are an eastern North Carolina favorite.
I have provided hundreds of people with both and they can’t decide, either. One is creamy, cheesy and packed with plenty of flavor, while the other is bold, flavorful and a different twist on what you would expect from a meatball. I have had a lot of people requesting them again, so I feel I am doing something right.
How is cooking for large groups different from what some might see as “standard” cooking? What do you need to be more aware of when you want to satisfy a lot of people?
This is a very good question, one I often discuss with my friends, family and other chefs. The biggest thing I can say about cooking for a large group is that you have to keep the food sanitation and quality at a high level, do your prep work before you start cooking and, most of all, love what you do because it will show in your food.
Taste does matter to me, as well as presentation, so I try to stay at the top of my game when preparing meals of all sizes. If you make good great food with a smile, you will always have a friend.
What is something you wish someone had told you when you started cooking?
I wish someone had told me how people really feel about good food and its emotional connection. I have heard so many people say that they were having a bad day and a great meal made them feel so much better, or that they wish they could go to a certain place and get this or that dish and how it could soothe them.
I did not know that growing up but I see and hear about it so much now. It simply amazes me that great food can make people feel good all over. To me, that’s where the magic is.
Can you tell me a bit about the recipe you are providing today?
I would love to share my collard meatball recipe with you, but it’s a protected family recipe. Instead I will share my loaded smoked pork mac and cheese with you. It is truly delightful and enough for up to 10 servings
Fernando’s Smoked Pork Mac and Cheese
2 cups smoked or grilled pork. diced or shredded
64 ounces of macaroni noodles
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese or Velveeta cube
3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
4 ounce fresh cut scallions
3 tablespoons garlic pepper
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2 medium size aluminum pans or 1 large pan
Boil macaroni, strain and transfer to pans
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Slowly stir in eggs, butter and milk
Add two cups of each cheese to the mixture, folding it in until all the macaroni is thoroughly covered
Lightly stir in garlic pepper, smoked paprika, 2 ounces of scallions and pork, making sure it is spread evenly throughout the mixture.
Level mixture in pan(s) and spread half of crumbled bacon evenly over the surface
Cover the mixture in remaining cheese
Use remaining bacon and scallions to top
Cover with aluminum foil and bake 35 to 40 minutes,
Remove foil and cook an additional 10 minutes until cheese gets lightly golden and delicious
Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes
For other great food ideas, find Fernando on the Facebook group True Smoke where he posts tons of great food ideas and pictures.
Do you have a favorite foodie? Nominate your culinary hero to be featured by contacting Pat Gruner at [email protected].