HENDERSON In a little, white, clapboard house about 100 miles from Bowling Green and a stone’s throw from the Tradewater River, a small-statured, soft-spoken man is baking in his nondescript, suburban kitchen while his heavily pregnant wife sits and watches.
He’s not just baking a little treat for his wife; he’s baking hundreds of sugar cookies, brownies with a Dr Pepper Buttercream Frosting and Orange Cream Soda Cupcakes. This is Chef Willie O’Nan, and he’s preparing for a bake sale in Madisonville to raise money for his trip to compete in the World Food Championships in Alabama in November.
On a lark, O’Nan decided to compete last year in the preliminary screening rounds for the World Food Championships. He surprised everyone (including himself) when he placed second in his dessert category for Kentucky, which qualified him for the 2016 competition. He did not have to qualify again to compete in this year’s competition.
O’Nan grew up cooking and has been working in the food industry his whole adult life, but only graduated in 2015 with a degree in culinary arts from Ivy Tech Community College in Evansville, Ind., because his father-in-law kindly suggested he become a professional. O’Nan had doubts about being an adult student, but once immersed he liked it just fine.
This year, O’Nan is taking two professional chef friends with him as teammates for his bid to win at the World Food Championships: Nicki Elkins and Pat Heineman, who also are recent graduates of Ivy Tech. O’Nan said Nicki “can plate with the best of them if she has her head on straight,” and Pat, affectionately nicknamed “Starfish” in reference to the Sponge Bob Square Pants character, is the kitchen’s “Johnny-on-the-spot,” ready and able to do whatever is needed, carefully and conscientiously. O’Nan laughs and adds, “He’s my bodyguard, too.”
O’Nan is starting a catering business and setting up a website because “with the catering I can set my own days and hours.” With his wife expecting their long-awaited first child, he doesn’t want to be buttonholed by typical grueling restaurant hours. Because of Kentucky state law, he will have to rent a special location with commercial kitchen facilities to make that dream a reality.
He’s not at all concerned about being a caterer in Providence, which boasts one traffic light and an annual Coal Festival. “I already have a client base,” he said, adding he is willing to cater large groups. He already has another cook lined up to help when he gets busy.
Aside from being a chef, O’Nan also is an artist and looks forward to making wedding cakes. “I know how to draw, and I can sketch pretty good on a cake, and wedding cakes are no different than a three- or four-tier birthday cake.” He has already obtained and is practicing with air brush paraphernalia.
O’Nan said he loves what he does and credits his grandmother for his career in cooking. As a child, he spent a lot of time in her kitchen watching her. She tried hard to shoo him out and get him to play outside, but he’d have none of it. If she did succeed in booting him out, he would stack up some blocks under the window, climb up and watch her from the outside. Finally, she relented and started teaching him her recipes and techniques.
Food is not O’Nan’s only passion. He is devoted to his church and pastor, for what happens “outside” the church as well as within its walls. With only 50 or so regular members, his church, Warehouse of Worship, puts together thousands of food baskets for the needy and hundreds of toys for underprivileged children at Christmas. “Not just toys, but new toys,” he said. Although cooking and artistry may be Willie’s special gifts on earth, caring for others is what drives him.