Leena Klaker: pursuing dreams and heightening local restaurant standards
By: Jessica Dusek
Photos by: Paul Marshall
DREAMS DO COME TRUE
Leena Klaker, co-owner of Culinary Advisors, forges her path and lifelong dream to become a research and development chef – and Corpus Christi’s Aka Sushi gets a food-facelift. Her consulting business was a bi-product of her final project in menu and food consulting with business partner, Sean Kim. The two “accidentally” teamed up, and created their consulting business, breaking ground with Aka Sushi.
Focusing on “authentic Japanese flavors,” Aka is a great first client for Klaker and Kim to evaluate, from graphic design to menu selection. “We do all restaurant consulting, improving overall standards,” Klaker says. “We look at current dishes and what is performing and what is profitable.” Yet, Klaker’s passion for food comes with a healthy spin.
AN A-HA MOMENT
Klaker’s restaurant management background has caused her to identify what drives the business and why. In evaluating Aka’s menu and sales, she could review which items sold most and how that impacted the customer and business. “It’s really looking at what the flavor profiles are, and which ones benefit the bottom line, that will be crucial to any business.” She looks at the quality of the food, or as she describes, the “science aspect.” She continues, “Having the commitment to fresh food coming in daily – less packaged food improves the flavor and quality – it’s night and day.”
With national laws in place for food regulation, Klaker’s standard of nutrition will reflect on her clients’ final product. She walks the staff through the food preparation process. “I think we are going to see in the very near future that restaurants are going to have to put nutritional value on the menu. Understanding the science and flavor background makes the food taste better and more nutritionally sound. In the last five years, the city started doing a push to get out and get healthy. We are battling childhood obesity and food quality and availability issues. I think that is the great issue of our time.”
Klaker’s goal is to improve that. Moving her way up management in the restaurant industry, she reflects on her various lenses. “Most of my experience was in service and bar,” explains Klaker of her years leading up to her attendance at the Culinary Institute of America.
Klaker’s introduction to the restaurant industry started with a hostess position at Kiko’s Mexican Restaurant in Corpus Christi while in high school; six years later, in 2000, she returned to Corpus to pursue a career as a bar manager with Water Street Oyster Bar. In 2007, she transitioned to Olive Garden and oversaw culinary operations as their culinary manager, and then overall restaurant operations as she worked up to general manager.
Balancing a demanding schedule on the operational side of the restaurant industry, her interests peaked in food science, specifically the creation of textures and flavors. Her interest in improving accessibility to quality ingredients helps heighten those standards.
In September, she earned the Presidential Scholarship and she spoke as valedictorian at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. She will continue her education in Hyde Park, N.Y.
It was a heartfelt conversation with her mother that helped open her to the possibility of pursuing her long-time dream that began in her teens. Yet at 35, with her husband and family in place, Klaker’s decision to go back to school was no easy feat. “I have a very supportive husband,” Klaker says endearingly. The schedule changes would lead her to move from Corpus Christi to San Antonio to pursue her education, with her husband and kids visiting on the weekends. Her tenacity kept her working fulltime while acquiring her education.
In December 2015, the business partners will continue their education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Both Corpus natives combined their skills and talents to create their market niche. Klaker’s passion for food science and nutrition complimented Kim’s business and hospitality focus. Klaker’s next steps entail a focus on menu, recipe and flavor development. The science-based curriculum will add to her chef training, beyond tantalizing flavors and textures. Working with specialized equipment in a culinary laboratory setting will add to the art form. She will finish a Bachelor of Applied Science and Culinary Sciences, with a projected graduation date in December 2016.
BRINGING IT HOME
Klaker, who later plans to get her Master’s in Nutrition, would like to ultimately work for major restaurant brands nationwide. Upon finishing her education, it comes down to children’s nutrition. “I would like to make an impact in that field – how to improve nutrition through greater accessibility and affordability of fresh, organic and sustainably raised food and less processed foods.”
On raising the food vibration in Corpus, she recommends getting out and discovering your local food sources. “I would encourage everyone getting out at our local farmers’ markets, both the Saturday market on Everhart and the Downtown Farmers’ Market on Wednesday. The food is fresh, local and available to you – same time, same place.”
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