CEDAR RAPIDS — Ketrena Jones has always loved to cook. She grew up learning recipes from her grandmother.
“When I visited Grandma, that’s all I did, stayed in the kitchen with her and watched her cook,” she said. “She taught me the deep soul food.”
But then, about eight years ago, Jones had kidney failure due to high blood pressure. She waited almost five years for a transplant before finally getting one three years ago.
In the meantime, as she struggled with dialysis and accompanying health issues, she worked hard to change her diet to improve her blood pressure. Now, she’s determined to share the things she learned during that time with others, in the form of her cooking. That’s the goal with her new cooking and catering business, Mama’s Kitchen.
“With the change in my diet, I tried to incorporate healthier food and still eat the same kind of food I liked before,” she said.
That meant cutting down on salt, red meat and using less fat and sugar. She uses ground turkey instead of beef in recipes, and her macaroni and cheese is made with lower-fat milk. For frying chicken or other foods, she switched from vegetable to peanut oil, and she makes all her sauces, seasonings, desserts and dinner rolls from scratch, giving her more control over the ingredients. The motto for her business is “Eat to live and not live to eat.”
“I wanted to share a healthier way to eat soul food,” she said.
Mama’s Kitchen doesn’t have a permanent home yet — Jones is searching for the right location. In the meantime, she’s been operating a pop up restaurant over the lunch hour every Friday at Matthew 25. Diners can order lunch for delivery, dine-in or carryout, with a menu that changes weekly. Last Friday it featured fried chicken with different sauces to chose from — honey barbecue, Parmesan, buffalo or smothered with gravy, plus sides of baked mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and French fries, along with caramel, chocolate and Louisiana crunch cake for dessert.
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Jones will be at Matthew 25 at least through the end of August; fans should follow her Facebook page for updates after that.
“Cooking calms me. It gives me the opportunity to try new things, to play in the kitchen. I like to try new recipes, doctor them up, try my own things,” she said.
The years she spent on dialysis were hard. She had worked in banking for 20 years, but lost her job and moved from Chicago to Cedar Rapids to be near her sister. Jones’ grandmother, who started her cooking all those years ago, also went through kidney failure at the same time she did. She died last year.
“She was an inspiration,” Jones said. “And my family, my kids, they were my motivation. And cooking, at times, when I had the motivation, kept me going.”
Her children are invested in the restaurant dream. Last Friday, her daughter Kayla Sykes, 12, helped ring up orders at the pop up restaurant, and her son David Sykes, 27, helped in the kitchen.
“I’m learning how to cook everything,” he said. “The goal is to work for my family.”
When she’s not cooking, Jones can often be found at Redemption Ministries. She recently became a licensed minister, and helps the church with finances, as well as with the praise dance team and other things.
She’s translated many of the skills she learned in her banking career into running her restaurant. She also completed the Cedar Rapids Entrepreneur Program last year to help her get started.
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“That program was a beautiful thing. That helped motivate me to step out there,” she said.
The program connected her with Matthew 25, so she could start cooking and getting her name out while looking for a permanent home for her restaurant.
Wherever she ends up being based, Jones said she wants customers to feel welcome.
“I want everyone to know my food is from the heart,” she said. “It’s like bringing someone into the home when you cook for them.”
l Comments: (319) 398-8339; firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
l Where: Matthew 25, 201 Third Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids
l Hours: Noon to 3 p.m. Fridays through end of August
l Details: (319) 449-0830, facebook.com/Mamas-Kitchen-485068338562863