CAMEO - What's Cooking, Felicia Benavides?



Felicia presents one of her specialties: Pan-Seared Mahi Mahi in ghee (Indian liquefied butter) served over quinoa (a protein grain) with parsley and mint. It’s topped with a warm kumquat salsa with lime, and red bell pepper, basil, caramelized brussel sprouts in a red bell pepper sauce.

JON EDWARDS

Busy people -— and those who don’t enjoy cooking — wish they had a private chef. Greg and Stacey Renker and their three sons are fortunate to have discovered Indio native Felicia Benavides, a chef passionate about creating imaginative meals using only fresh ingredients. But, then, Benavides thinks she’s the lucky one, having found her niche with a health-conscious family. “They let me play, and I love them for that,” she says. “They enjoy the diversity, and dinner guests have commented, ‘This is the best restaurant in town.’” Palm Springs Life found Benavides in her element: the kitchen.

How did you arrive where you are?
My family loved to cook; and as a child, I always helped in the kitchen. Later, I thought about a culinary profession. My goal was The Culinary Institute [of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.], but the tuition was impossible for my family. I embarked on a self-taught path with a lot of help from chefs who shared their passion. I began in a catering kitchen, and then learned Italian cuisine at Macaroni Grill. Then I went to Guaymas [restaurant], exploring regional Mexican cuisine, which is now my specialty. I knew I should continue schooling, but I saw an ad for a private chef. Providence! The ad was for the Renkers, and it was kismet! They knew I wasn’t schooled, but they loved the food at Guaymas and figured I knew all the recipes. I’ve been with them for almost nine years.

What are your duties?
Shopping, meal planning, and parties. I patronize Jensen’s, because they deal with local farmers and I like to know my butcher and sommelier.

You have a garden. What do you grow?
We grow heirloom tomatoes, grapes, jalapeños, basil, and mint. The Renkers have citrus trees — including kumquats — that I utilize.

Do you follow the trend of using healthful spices?
I refer to a medicinal cookbook, using ginger, flax oil, and other herbs for taste and digestion. My cooking style is with authentic ingredients, creating authentic flavor.

Why did you join Les Dames d’Escoffier, which educates and mentors women in the culinary field?
I joined to help women get scholarships — an opportunity I did not have. I volunteered for Food + Wine Festival Palm Desert because I knew that Palm Springs Life, as a sponsor, would contribute to our scholarship fund and that I would be able to assist master chefs like Daniel Joly and learn some of his techniques.

What do you do for pleasure?
I spend time with my husband and dogs. My husband, Michael Knighten, is a civil litigation attorney. We stay home and enjoy baseball, hockey, and dining together.

Do you want to own a restaurant?
No. My employers give me free creative reign. I join them on their summer getaway in northern Michigan and spend free time at the local farmers market selling my salsas. Visit my website — http://simplymadefood.com/products.html — for recipes that awaken your taste buds: Salsa Verde, Salsa Roja, and Salsa Felize.

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