“When I was a kid,” she said, “I wanted to be a doctor.”
Two apple pies changed all that.
She was 7 when her grandmother showed her how to make a pie crust. She made two apple pies for a church social. The congregation gobbled them up.
That little girl knew then that she wanted to cook.
Today, Betty Reed – known to hotel staff as “Miss Betty” – reigns as hands-on executive chef at the Embassy Suites, commuting each day from Oak Hill to fulfill her childhood dream.
A certified culinarian, she graduated from Carver Career and Technical Center where she trained often under the best chefs in town.
She cut her food industry teeth as an entry-level hire at Kentucky Fried Chicken, rising through the ranks as she has at Embassy Suites.
Turning 50 in April, she’s happy where she landed. A massive hotel renovation that includes a menu makeover gives her added reason to stay.
Deep dimples and a jovial disposition reflect Miss Betty’s utter contentment.
“I grew up in a little town outside Oak Hill called Page, a coal mining camp. My father was a miner.
“When I was 4 or 5, the mine collapsed and he was injured. They thought he would be paralyzed, but he recovered. My mom is a registered nurse. My stepdad is a crane operator in Alloy.
“I cooked my first thing for the public when I was 7. They were having an anniversary dinner at our church. I wanted to make something, so I asked my grandmother how to make a pie crust.
“My grandmother was the cook in the family. People ask me all the time who taught me to cook. Nobody did. I don’t recall watching my grandmother cook because I was always ripping and running. Some things you just know, and I’ve always just known how to cook.
“There were all kinds of apple trees in the neighborhood. I gathered up apples and made two apple pies. The people at church loved them. From that point on, I wanted to be a cook. When people enjoy my food, it gives me a kind of rush.
“I graduated from Oak Hill High School in 1987. I went to Marshall for two years. But I partied hard and my parents said they weren’t going to spend all that money for me to party. So I came home and got a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“I started as cashier. I learned every position there and eventually became assistant manager. While working there, I graduated from Tech with an associate degree in drafting and a bachelor’s in industrial technology. It had nothing to do with cooking.
“When I was younger, cooking wasn’t as popular. You didn’t think of it as being able to make the money you could make.
“Since my parents were paying, they wanted me to do something I could support myself with, so I took the engineering route. I worked for a coal company in Sylvester as a draftsperson.
“Being in an office all day sitting down was not my thing. So I left there and looked into going to Carver. You had to have a job in a restaurant because it was an apprenticeship. I worked at Tamarack until 2004 then came here and graduated from Carver in 2005 as a certified culinarian.
“I’ve worked my way up. I started as breakfast cook then moved to buffet cook. We did a lunch buffet daily. I moved to line cook to banquets to lead cook and sous chef and now executive chef.
“I was making my own money so my parents couldn’t say anything about it, but they could tell I was happier. Now they are actually quite proud of me.
“Mrs. Canady was my teacher at Carver and she knew Ron Fazio, the chef here. She didn’t think that with Tamarack’s limited menu I was doing as much as she thought I was capable of doing. She thought I could get the training I needed here at Embassy Suites.
“At Carver, you have to get so many hours in each thing, pantry, breakfast, stewardship. So I would be able to learn a lot more.
“When I started my apprenticeship, Chef [Jeremy] Still was at Edgewood and Bob Milam was at the Civic Center. If they had a special event, our teacher parceled us out to them and that was a great learning experience. Chef Still was amazing, and Bob Milam, Dan Ferguson, Bill Dodson, all those guys who were around here at that time, our teacher had us sit in with them.
“We have set menus right now that a previous chef did. We’ve started a renovation here and once that is over in June, we plan on putting out the new banquet and restaurant menus. I’m excited to be working on that.
“My plan is to take comfort foods and bump them up a notch. I’m going to reconstruct chicken and dumplings. When they say deconstructed, they mean taken apart. I’m going to reconstruct them. We will do a biscuit-type bread with chicken and sauce and vegetables inside. When you cut it open, it spills out.
“I will take retro stuff and make it new again. Everybody is doing the nouveau cuisine and not everybody likes that. Some people like their comfort foods. If you bump it up, the menu will say chicken pot pie, but cut into it and you get that wow factor.
“I have a sous chef, but we don’t have a night line supervisor so I’m hands-on. Whatever is going on in that kitchen, I probably had something to do with it.
“I’m on the hot side. I cook the food for the banquets. The pantry side, the cold side, they do the salads and fruit trays and stuff. When I come in in the morning, I make a list of what needs to be done on the cold and hot sides. It takes about an hour and a half to do paperwork, but from that point on, I’m in the kitchen.
“December is our busiest time. It’s Christmas party-palooza in December. We are also official caterers for the Clay Center, so if there’s not an event here, it’s likely there is one at the Clay Center. We stay pretty busy.
“I oversee 18 people. If there is any resentment with me being a woman, I haven’t seen it. That’s because they see that I am going to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them. It’s not a man thing or a woman thing. It’s a she-works-her-butt-off thing.
“I’m comfortable where I am, but I like to learn, and if you are always learning, you don’t have time to get bored or unhappy.
“But I would like to travel more. We are a sister hotel with a bunch of other hotels and I’d like to go work with those other chefs and learn different things.
“I like baking, but it’s time-consuming. Cooking is an art; baking is a science. If you want to make a stew, you can just chuck a bunch of stuff in a pot and add some seasoning and it will turn out fine. But if you do that when you are baking, you will end up with a 15-pound cake that’s not done in the middle and you don’t know why.
“Me, I like anything that somebody else has cooked. Really, when I go home in the evening, I generally cook. If my sister is home, she will cook. My mom and dad are getting older and I don’t want them eating out and eating all that processed stuff. I’m trying to preserve them as long as I can.
“If I let my dad eat out, he would eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken every day, so I have to especially watch him.
“There’s one thing I regret about this field. You’re always at work and don’t have a social life to go out and meet people, so I never got married and had kids. Now that I’m at the point where I can settle down and work a more normal schedule, I’m too old to have kids. But I have my dog, and she’s getting spoiled.
“I’m happy here, but I thought it was taking a long time to move up. As I look back, it was the right timing because I got to learn so much more. Especially what I learned was what not to do. You can pick up what to do at any time, but you have to watch and watch. Unfortunately, people make mistakes, so you can learn what not to do, which is sometimes more important.
“I don’t have dreams about opening a restaurant. I’m doing the best job I can do where I am. If I was 35 and was where I am now, that would be an option for me, but it takes a lot of energy to be able to do that. Youth really is wasted on the young.”