Chef Neena adds another layer to her accomplishments
Updated 4:45 pm, Wednesday, July 10, 2013
It took Vennette "Neena" Perez more than 15 years to realize her goal of going to college.
Unable to attend college upon graduating from high school, Perez, of Norwalk, was a divorced single mother of two sons for several years, and supporting her children was her primary objective.
"I was grateful for a job I had in the health-care profession, but it offered no opportunity for growth," she said. "At 34 years old, I decided to quit my job, go back to school full time and pursue my dreams of becoming a chef."
Perez' husband, Rudy, his 14-year-old daughter and her 19- and 25-year-old sons were all in attendance to witness the 40-year-old, newly-minted graduate as she accepted her degree in hospitality management at Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y., in May.
"Once I received my associate's degree, I felt unstoppable and realized this college thing was possible. I proved everyone wrong; I am smart, strong and articulate. I hunted down a college that would help me grow more in my quest to become a better chef and entrepreneur and obtain my bachelor's degree in hospitality management. Monroe College welcomed me with such warmth and opportunity, I couldn't wait to become a student there, " she said.
"Neena is a great success story. She has been an entrepreneur for several years and is an inspiration to her classmates," said Shenique Rojas, assistant director of Monroe's Office of Career Advancement.
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With her college studies at least temporarily behind her, Perez has three new goals: Inspire her two adult sons to continue their education, and grow her various business enterprises.
In 2007, she started the Kiddie Kitchen. Based in New Canaan, it focuses not just on teaching young children and teens how to cook, it puts an equally heavy emphasis on good nutrition, organizational skills, communications and teamwork. As of July 1, Neena is offering one- to four-week-long summer cooking classes for children.
Most recently, she offered her talents through classes at the Outback Teen Center in New Canaan. This effort followed years of successful involvement at Norwalk Community College, in both the College for Kids and summer camp programs.
Last summer, she started at the Outback with cooking and baking for students in grade four through high school. Students learned how to prepare a wide variety of dishes over four different weeklong sessions in July. During the breakfast and brunch week, participants mastered six different food items each day. During the other weeks, the teens learned numerous Italian, Greek, Asian and Mexican dishes.
In the nearly 10 years that she has been in business, Perez discovered that young people can tackle almost anything in the kitchen.
Her other enterprise, the Kitchen After Hours, caters parties and other special events and bakes and decorates elaborate cakes for all special occasions. In her "spare" time, she teaches as an adjunct instructor in various programs, including one at Norwalk Community College, where she earned an associate's degree in restaurant and food service management.
Additionally, Perez recently was recognized for her accomplishments at the Fairfield County Community Foundation's Fund for Women and Girls Luncheon, "Welcome to the Table." One of Perez' creations, white chocolate cranberry cookies, was the favor of the day for the women attending the luncheon.