By Charnae Sanders
For 21-year-old Shanel Dewalt cooking goes beyond cutting vegetables and mixing ingredients. The kitchen is where her mind finds peace and she is reminded of her purpose.
As the oldest of five siblings being raised in a single-parent household, the Detroit native realized she had to grow up at a very young age. When her mother was out working, Dewalt was in charge of cooking for her two younger brothers and two younger sisters.
“It was difficult for me to not have a childhood and look at all the other kids and stay to myself,” Dewalt says. “I was very unhappy and depressed, so cooking was the only thing that made me feel at peace within myself, and it still is.”
Dewalt’s mother did not cook and often left her children frozen dinners to pop in the microwave when Dewalt or her aunt watched her siblings.
Those dinners led Dewalt to imagine there had to be more to life, so she began experimenting with the ingredients found in her pantry.
“We were on a very, very strict income so when we received food boxes from churches, there were always certain things that were in there, like a bag of potatoes or a turkey, or canned goods,” Dewalt says. “So I took those ingredients and I started making something out of nothing and basically stretching it so it fed a family of six.”
As a kid, she would watch hours of Food Network. The kitchen became her playground where she made meals such as spaghetti and Shepherd’s Pie.
What she enjoyed most was bringing a dining experience to her family, which is what inspired her to want to be a personal chef and led her to start her own catering business, Divine Indulgence Personal Chef Services, LLC.
“I don’t want to be a big caterer,” Dewalt says. “I want to be in someone’s house cooking their meal for them and giving them what I gave my mother and sisters all these years, but on a higher-caliber level because of what I’m trying to do.”
Dewalt enjoys taking the client’s budget and cuisine choices to tailor a menu to the theme of the event. She caters a variety of events from romantic dinners for two to her very own ladies’ night out cooking soiree series.
As a graduate of Schoolcraft College’s culinary arts program, she works with other entrepreneurs, such as brand consultant Ci’era Blankenship, to help Divine Indulgence thrive.
Blankenship can still recall the time Dewalt was crying after her proposal to become lunch caterer for the Unlocked Summit Detroit was approved.
“I don’t think she expected it, but I was happy that she got to see the positive results of hard work,” Blankenship says. “Even the planning to put things together after the acceptance was an awesome sight to see. I saw an African American business woman doing her thing.”
Since starting her business, Dewalt has catered more than 25 events for a range of 12 to 100 guests. One of those events by the organization Strut in Her Shoes is where she met friend and business partner Ashantae Marion, owner of Regal Events.
Marion calls Dewalt’s food “absolutely delicious,” and is encouraged to keep pursuing her own dreams after seeing all Dewalt has accomplished.
“A lot of times people have a gift and make no attempts to build on it and learn more,” Marion says. “Shanel is always perfecting her craft, gaining more knowledge and sharing it with others. Being able to witness that type of passion is amazing.”
Dewalt hopes to do more than serve cuisine to her community, but also to better educate parents on the importance of making healthy food choices.
She remembers how her mother would go to the supermarket and immediately check the price of a package of food instead of checking out the ingredients.
“I feel like if people knew what was in those meals, they would probably think twice about putting it in their kids’ bodies,” Dewalt says. “Just take a second and don’t even think about the convenience of it or the price. Just look at the back and look up those ingredients and tell me what those ingredients look like, because they’re not going to look like a plant on a farm.”
Instead of stretching $20 on frozen meals, Dewalt wants to show families how to stretch $20 for ingredients to make home-cooked meals. She is currently working on starting a nonprofit, Cooking with Purpose, where she will be able to cater to single-income families by offering free cooking classes in addition to coming out with her own seasoning line.
Dewalt is flattered by the reactions to her cuisine such as comments like, “This tastes like something my mom used to make,” What she enjoys most is cooking and helping provide for her family.
“I feel very grateful and I’m very humble to be able to come this far with everything I have achieved,” she says. “It’s all from the grace of God. This is God’s doing. I’m not reaching for the stars. I’m reaching for my purpose on this earth and I just want to be able to fulfill my purpose before I leave it.”
– Photos by Paul Engstrom