Donna Vickers Is the Cook Now

Donna Vickers is carrying on her mother's legacy with Simply Cooking with Donna. - ANDY PAULISSEN
Donna Vickers is carrying on her mother's legacy with Simply Cooking with Donna.

For as long as she can remember, Donna Vickers was her mother's sidekick in the kitchen. Having mastered the art of southern cooking from her husband, the elder Vickers was a culinary force and spent endless hours in the kitchen with her daughter, cooking side by side. The two developed a beautiful rhythm, which is why Vickers was lost when her mother got ill and informed her that she had to carry on the torch.

"My mom got sick and was getting ready to pass away, so I was asking her all of these questions about how to make things," Vickers recalls. "She looked at me one day and said, 'Donna, you are the cook now.' It broke my heart when she said it. It wasn't until years later that I really heard it."

Now getting ready to open a brick-and-mortar location of her business Simply Cooking with Donna (800 N. Tucker Boulevard), Vickers has fully embraced her role as the torch-bearer of her mom's legacy. Since 2012, she's been cooking professionally full-time, beginning as the head of culinary ministry at her church, then transitioning into a catering business, spice blend entrepreneur and cookbook author.

However, Vickers did not always intend to make a career out of cooking. A longtime nurse, Vickers worked in the medical field for years and may have continued had she not experienced a health crisis of her own. In 2012, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that forced her to choose between her budding cooking side project and her nursing career.

"I was at a crossroads where I had one foot on each side, straddling a fence," Vickers says. "All bets were off, and I knew I had to nurse myself, because doing both jobs was too much. I didn't know which road to take, but I went with the role of chef because it was what I really loved. It just brings something out in me seeing people partake and enjoy — not that nursing doesn't bring me joy, but cooking just felt like me."

Vickers went all-in on her cooking career, garnering a reputation for her fried chicken diners that were the basis of her catering company. Though she didn't set out to open a brick and mortar, the opportunity presented itself when she was searching for a larger commissary space last year. Unsure as to whether her business would even survive the COVID-19 pandemic due to the lack of catering orders, Vickers considered folding — at least temporarily. However, something inside of her told her to keep looking for a larger kitchen, and she stumbled upon the massive commercial kitchen at St. Patrick's Center. The space was too large to financially sustain as a commissary alone, so she took a leap and decided to open a carryout business to increase her revenue. She admits it's a risk, but it's one she is excited to take because it will allow her to fully embrace what she loves about cooking.

"A lot of people say that love has to be the main ingredient for what you are doing — that you have to love what you're doing so it shows in what you are producing," Vickers says. "I like to provide an experience rather than just food. I want people to enjoy it and remember how they were treated and how they felt. I never want people to feel less-than,  so I use food to boost how people feel and bring excitement to life. Without that, it’s just food on a plate. You eat and go home."

Vickers is looking forward to the grand opening of Simply Cooking with Donna's on February 11 and believes that, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she is providing something that will be well received. From pork chops with rice and gravy to mac and cheese and her famous fried chicken, she wants her food to evoke the comfort and love you get from home cooking — just like she always did from her mom's food.

"I believe she'd be proud of me. I hope and I pray for that because everything I do is built around what she taught me and what she showed me how to do," Vickers says. "My family and friends say that I cook like her, but I still wish my mom was here to fry me a chicken. Nothing will ever compare to hers."

Vickers took a break from getting her kitchen ready for the big opening day to share her thoughts on the joy of discovering St. Louis' culinary hidden gems, how much she relishes the customer interaction that comes from being in the hospitality industry, and why having the courage to choose to live life, even in the face of adversity, is the ultimate act of bravery.

What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
Many people do not know that I have a serious medical disability. This disability could have grounded me, however, I did some serious soul searching, traveled around the world, thinking I would enjoy my life doing what I wanted to do and decided this is what I wanted to do. I was determined to follow the plan God intended for my life and not allow life circumstances to plan my life for me. Sometimes we can choose to fold, and sometimes we are forced into folding by our fears. Whenever possible we must have the courage to let it be our choice.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Prayer and speaking to my three daughters.

Who is your St. Louis food crush?
My St. Louis food crush is undetermined. I patronize a diverse group of restaurants, and I am always looking for small, new establishments to visit. I believe that is where the best cuisines are hidden.

Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Rosemary. Heavily scented, soft and thorny.

If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Prior to working to working in the restaurant business, I worked as a nurse. I now have a masters in political science. I believe there would be a merging of the two to serve the underserved population of the community.

As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I’m actually having the time of my life. This has been an awesome ride, and it can only get better. It is what I love to do, and it comes natural to me. It can be hectic and hard work with early mornings, long days and nights, and you must always be on your toes, ready to deliver and switch gears instantly, but the rewards of doing what you love and watching your customers enjoy your products are immeasurable.

What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
The customer interaction — the hugs and conversations, the ability to see them partake of your creations and watch their expressions. Serving others.

What do you miss least?
The customer that holds you up in a corner talking and seems to forget that you are running a business and that you are at work.

What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Fried chicken, french fries and Ho Hos.

What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people can return to normal activity levels?
I think people will begin to recognize the importance of sanitation. I have always been a stickler when I enter an establishment that the tables are clean. It seemed to have become a lost art. Waitresses and hosts appeared bothered when you'd ask them to wipe the tables, get the food and trash from under your table — and let us not mention the restrooms. I think customers will demand these services, as they are part of the mitigation to decrease the spread of bacterial and viral diseases that can be deadly. It is also important that menus and condiments holders are sanitized as well and that your server is not coughing, sneezing, touching their nose and mouth. This will all be part of the “New Normal."

What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
During this crisis, my faith in God gives me hope that things will get better; they always do. My faith in humanity provides me with hope that we will make it through this if we faint not.

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