Mother’s love infuses prize-winning recipes

For the past five years, accomplished cook Lisa Keys hasn’t had to follow her heart. Rather, it’s the heart that follows her.

Lisa Keys traces her recipe-contest wins back to the Pillsbury Bake-Off in 1990.

Lisa Keys of Kennett Township traces her recipe-contest wins back to the Pillsbury Bake-Off in 1990.

It has guided her to a “Chopped” championship, given her courage to grieve through words and pictures on her food blog, and so much more.

Ever since her son, William, a U.S. Navy corpsman, died at the age of 22 in an April 2011 car accident, he has come to his mother in the form of a heart.

The best example of that occurred when the Kennett Township resident submitted an application to the Food Network’s popular show, “Chopped.”

Keys was doing an interview via Skype with two people who were casting the show – a Mother’s Day edition that aired in May 2014.

Keys, a retired physician’s assistant, was explaining to the interviewers that the first time she made chocolate chip cookies inspired by William – they were laced with his favorite Jack Daniels – she took the baking sheet out of the oven and saw a cookie in the shape of a heart. She told them of other accounts.

Their jaws dropped, she said.

They then explained the way they saw her through the computer: A heart-shaped reflection from the window appeared over her head.

“I knew I was going to get on the show,” Keys recalled last week in her living room.

Not only did she get on, she won. Each round was dedicated to her immediate family, with William-inspired cookies to seal the deal. Keys said she felt a bear hug (“He gave the best hugs”) when she looked down at her dessert in the final round.

Then, after they announced she had won, a woman working on the set brought her into the sequester room to be interviewed and lifted her shirt sleeve to scratch her arm, revealing a gigantic heart tattoo on her shoulder.

“It made me believe that physically he’s not here, but he’s here,” Keys said. “That gave me more of the courage to then start the blog.”

Like many others, Keys said cooking has proven therapeutic and has helped her grieve. The blog, titled Good Grief Cook, was started in the year between the filming and airing of the “Chopped” episode.

But why a blog? Why then? Keys had been entering and winning recipe contests since 1990. Her life, up until that point, had always been pretty private.

“I was afraid that he would be forgotten,” Keys said. “As his mom, that was my challenge, to prevent that from happening.”

Prior to the blog, she made photo books of William, highlighting his high school years through his experiences in the Navy, and gave them to family and friends.

“I decided that I had to have courage, like he had, and I wanted to follow in his light,” Keys said. “Because he had so many good qualities, and I wanted to try and sort of, not be him, but follow in that light of all the things he represented and loved.

“He loved his family. He loved his country. He loved his friends,” Key continued. “And, more than anything, he was so definite about his dreams and his plans and what he wanted out of life. So I just wanted that courage to follow in his light.”

Keys said she wasn’t prepared for the response. “It’s taken me by surprise how many people actually read it, how many people I’ve come to know because of it,” she said. “Other moms who have lost their children. People asking me [for] advice on how I handle a situation with someone who’s lost a child. ‘What do I say? What do I do?’”

As Keys’ eloquently written blog reveals, her recipes come from experiences she’s had, places she’s traveled, such as Paris, and inspiration from loved ones. Coming from a large Italian family, she learned a lot from her father. She still loves making pasta and meatballs and sausage and peppers.

Keys and her husband, Bill, who was also a physician’s assistant, left Connecticut in 2012 to be closer to their daughter, Caitlin, who lives in Wynnewood. They’re now grandparents, with Caitlin’s daughter, Annabelle, born earlier this year.

Annabelle will soon learn of her culinary champion grandmother.

Keys, a self-taught cook, said she’s entered and/or won “somewhere between 100 to 1,000,” recipe contests. She used to keep a scrapbook. Her first contest in 1990 was the Pillsbury Bake-Off. As a finalist, the family won an expense-paid trip to Phoenix.

“Whenever one of my recipes is recognized in any way, I’m really just proud of it,” she said. “For me it’s not always about the win, it’s just the challenge of it (that’s the science background talking). Every win is a good win, whether it’s a little cookbook, or an apron, or $25,000.”

That’s quite the range of prizes. And her cooking and baking display a wide range of talent.

Her recipes include gluten-free cinnabon pancakes (“my favorite pancake mix”), crispy coconut chicken dippers with Wowee Maui mustard (William and his girlfriend loved them, and so, too, did Southern Living Magazine), chocolate espresso baklava, berry mascarpone push-pops, Milky Way midnight mousse (inspired by 5-year-old William’s confusion of mousse and moose), and, well, you get the picture.

Keys has even made her version of the popular avocado ice cream created by La Michoacana, a homemade ice cream shop in Kennett Square. The recipe is on the blog.

“It’s not the same as theirs, but it’s an easy reproduction if you don’t have an ice cream maker,” she said. “I just love [La Michoacana]. I’ve probably been there three times in the last two weeks.”

Her other Kennett favorites include Nomadic Pies, Philter and La Verona, for “the best pizza in town.”

Keys will soon be sharing her skills with the Mushroom Festival. For the first time, the winner of this year’s Amateur Mushroom Cook-Off will win a Golden Ticket to compete in the World Food Championships in the breakfast category, including $1,000 in travel expenses.

When Keys isn’t helping the Mushroom Festival organize its cook-off, she will be spending time in her own test kitchen since she will also be attending the World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Ala. She’ll compete in the sandwich category and is coming off of a third-place finish a year ago.

Keys will face off against both amateurs and professional chefs from all over the world. Her task is to make a variation of a Cuban sandwich and also develop a signature sandwich.

“I’m working on the roast pork,” Keys said of the Cuban. “Today I’ll be putting roast pork in the oven and just trying to figure out if I have a good mojo marinade and that kind of thing.

“We’ll be eating a lot of Cubans… And I have to come up with a signature sandwich.”

In search of inspiration, all she has to do is find the heart – or more likely, let it find her.

About Jeff Neiburg

Jeff Neiburg is a freelance writer who's been reunited with Chester County after spending a few years living in Philadelphia. A 2009 graduate of Unionville High School, Jeff was formerly the Philadelphia Flyers beat writer at the Philadelphia Daily News. His work has been featured at the Inquirer/Daily News, the Associated Press, CSNPhilly.com and elsewhere. Jeff is a 2014 graduate of Temple University with a degree in journalism.

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