By: Jessica Llanes
Jenna Kinard: Executive chef at MAX’s Wine Dive
| by Samantha Calimbahin | photography by Alex Lepe |
MAX’s Wine Dive executive chef Jenna Kinard walked around her empty restaurant one Monday afternoon, dressed casually in a t-shirt and sneakers, wrapped in a fluffy red blanket. With the thermostat kept low to preserve the wine, MAX’s Wine Dive keeps blankets for customers in case the room gets a little chilly. The restaurant didn’t open until 4 p.m. that day, so Kinard figured it was the perfect time to grab a blanket for herself.
The other workers didn’t seem to mind. Everyone’s used to the restaurant’s casual environment, even when there aren’t any customers yet.
“We are all comfortable,” Kinard said.
And yet, for someone who seems so comfortable where she is, there was once a time when Kinard was very uncomfortable – not just with her environment, but with herself.
An aspiring model and former Miss Teen Texas-World, Kinard wanted to be perfect, but she didn’t see herself as so.
“You go to the grocery store and look at the tabloids, and you see these beautiful models,” she said. “You’ve got like, ‘Sexy,’ ‘Beautiful,’ ‘Perfect,’ ‘Gorgeous’ – all these bold words in these magazines basically stating, that’s what that is, and if you don’t fit that criteria, then that means you’re worthless. You’re not up to par. You’re not what a woman should be.”
A desire for the perfect body led to Kinard developing an eating disorder. She battled anorexia nervosa to the point that it landed her in the hospital at age 18. After therapy and counseling (and a lot of hours watching Paula Deen on TV), Kinard realized she needed to make a change – one that wasn’t just physical, but also spiritual.
“I had a ‘come to Jesus’ one day,” she said. “I feel like He spoke to me. I was deep in prayer, and I’ll never forget, I felt His embrace. It broke me completely, and I decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to choose life.’ He saved me.”
So she decided to leave the world of pageantry and pursue a career in, ironically, food. She sought a job at a popular hole-in-the-wall in Houston. When she asked the manager if there were any spots available in the kitchen, the manager responded by asking Kinard if she had any experience. The answer was “no,” other than cooking at home and learning the basics from her parents. Without professional experience, the manager wouldn’t let Kinard cook, but the kitchen did need a dishwasher, so Kinard took the job.
Then one day, the restaurant’s pastry chef walked out on the day of a wedding. Kinard stepped up and took over – a move that led to her promotion to that position.
The rest of her culinary education would take place in the restaurant, learning under chefs like Corey Smith at what used to be Monty’s Corner in Montgomery Plaza. She became executive chef at MAX’s Wine Dive last year and now runs the restaurant at age 25.
Outside of food, Kinard also runs the Instagram account @starvingforlove_, where she posts inspirational messages for those struggling with eating disorders. The account has more than a thousand followers.
“It was just really incredible seeing the amount of people reach out through email, telling me their stories and being able to share that with them and help encourage them,” Kinard said. “Not counsel them or give them therapy by any means, because I’m not a therapist, but help guide them and direct them to therapy programs and just encourage them to know their self-worth and know that they’re beautiful.”
She also has a passion for acting, having worked as an extra in a few projects and appearing in episodes of Reelz crime show “Murder Made Me Famous.” Kinard also appeared on a cooking show for the first time, “Positively Paula,” where she cooked alongside the woman she used to watch on TV, Paula Deen.
Kinard says she aspires to have her own cooking show someday as well.
But for now, she runs her restaurant, and anything can happen on any given day, she says. A staffer may call in sick. A piece of equipment may stop working. Or the restaurant may just get a little chilly before customers start trickling in.
Life isn’t perfect, she says. But looking back at where she was and where she is today, it’s certainly better.
“Food and guests, people – they help hold me accountable,” she said. “I have a job that’s not just a job. I come in here to serve. That’s a beautiful thing.”
By: Jessica Llanes