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Living Proof Chef serves cooking skills, story

HOW’S THAT TASTE? — Steubenville native Janese Boston of Living Proof Chef Service in Columbus combined a Mexican-style cooking class on chicken empanadas with taste-testing experiences of not-so-ordinary things during a well-received free session held Feb. 5 at the Sycamore Youth Center. Boston shared a testimony as well on how wrong choices and bad influences can combine for not-the-best results, but second chances are possible. -- Janice Kiaski

STEUBENVILLE — Private chef Janese Boston combined a Mexican-style cooking class on chicken empanadas with taste-testing experiences of uncommon fruits and international treats to make one of the Sycamore Youth Center’s free after-school programming sessions something extra special for the 40 children participating.

But the 37-year-old Steubenville native brought more to the table than palate-pleasing food and goodies that included a red apron, a chef’s hat and a set of red measuring cups.

She shared a testimony that touched on how wrong choices and bad influences can have a negative impact on a young person’s life, though it’s never too late, she said, to make a turnaround and start anew.

Boston said she’s “proof” of that, between her private chef business, Living Proof Chef Service, and her nonprofit organization, Be Living Proof.

Introduced at the Feb. 5 class by Bobbyjon Bauman, Sycamore Youth Center director, Boston explained that she grew up in Steubenville’s South End, attending the former Lincoln Elementary School, then Harding.

Living Proof Chef Janese Boston with her children, daughter Paris, 12, and son Jahquez, 17 -- Janice Kiaski

“Unfortunately my life wasn’t completely a white picket fence,” she told the youth. “I kind of grew up in a bad environment, bad influences, so I didn’t always make the correct decisions. I stopped going to school after the ninth grade. I got into some trouble and ended up in prison. I did four years at Marysville for some bad decisions, being young, not really knowing the things I was going to do versus the consequences that followed behind them,” she said.

“After prison I came home, and I got two college degrees,” she continued.

“And I just want to stop there and say, first and foremost, I don’t tell you this because I want to glorify it or because it’s cool. I just tell you this because at the end of the day, even if you’re going through some stuff, or you’ve got an older sibling who’s going through stuff, it’s not too late.

“You can always shakeback and make it work out for a better circumstance,” Boston said.

“I am here under the circumstances of I’m a chef, but at the end of the day, I had some bad experiences and turned them around,” she added, extending an offer to the youthful audience to be a listening ear, to provide guidance if they so desired.

Bobbyjon Bauman, director of the Sycamore Youth Center, with Living Proof Chef Janese Boston -- Janice Kiaski

Boston lives in Columbus and came home to Steubenville the day before the class, accompanied by her son, Jahquez, 17, and daughter, Paris, 12.

In an interview at the newspaper office, she elaborated on her life, past and present.

“We had some problems with drug use in the ’80s and ’90s,” she said of her growing-up situation.

She was 9, she said, when she witnessed her mother being stabbed in a domestic altercation.

“I was a witness to the crime and that’s when my grandma assumed custody of me and my two little brothers,” she said.

Her grandmother worked, and her grandfather was ill and needed care, which Boston said she helped provide. She didn’t like school.

“I kind of was really rebellious. I really didn’t have any grounding,” she said in describing her youth. “I really didn’t have direction, I really didn’t have nothing so as a teenager I definitely was wild. I just didn’t have direction so school really wasn’t a priority to me, because I felt like at a young age, that I was older than the people who were in the grade with me because of my lifestyle. I was kind of forced to be grown, so we didn’t really relate. They were still playing, and I was like living a different, harder life,” she said, compared to her school peers.

High school didn’t get it.

“I went to the ninth grade. I tried the beginning of the 10th, but by that time, I was already kind of lost, so unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way and I went through the motions and a lot of situations. I had family here, but I was running away to be homeless somewhere else. For some reason I felt the need to run away from Steubenville, but I felt the need to come back always too, hence the reason I’m here right now,” she said of her presence in the community to lead the cooking class.

In continuing with her story, Boston said, “I got myself in some trouble. I got shot. There was an incident here where somebody knocked at the door at the house where I was at. They knocked on the door and opened up the door and shot me in my temple. That’s when I found out I was pregnant with my son,” she said.

“At the time I got shot, I lived a kind of not-legal type of life so I did have a firearm that wasn’t legal,” she said. About three months later, there was an altercation with a girl, she said. “She hit me, and I shot her.”

Boston ended up in prison in Marysville, sentenced to five years on charges of felonious assault with a weapons specification.

Thirty days after the sentencing, she gave birth to her son. “I was able to spend 30 days with my son before I went away.

“I did four years and a few months,” she said.

Asked about what her imprisonment experience was like, Boston said, “It was definitely one of those times when I felt like I tapped into a lot of things, because I was running, running, running the streets and being influenced by whatever survival I was living off. Once I went to jail, it kind of sat me down. I got to kind of learn who I was. I was put in situations that tested my character so I got into touch with my spirituality a little bit more. It was definitely one of those things that for me personally it was well needed. However, I know people who it doesn’t always work out like that. They don’t go and get the same experience that I had.

“I was a good person, just not nurtured correctly to meet my potential. Being there was just like survival — you got to do what you got to do. People ask me how did you do it? Well, what was I going to do — escape? I was trying to get home to my son,” she said.

Boston, who earned her GED while in prison, did get out and back home to her son. Before too long, she was pregnant with her daughter.

“I think that my situation is a little unique because I can’t really tie my transition with one thing, because so many things happened in a short period of time — I got shot. I shot somebody, I found out I was pregnant, I went to prison, and as soon as I came home from prison, I had another baby,” Boston said.

Re-entry into life wasn’t easy, she admits, feeling there were limited resources and even less hope. “They don’t have a lot of resources here for people who get out of the jail system,” she said.

She wanted to get her life together, she said.

Boston started dancing in Pittsburgh. “I was able to facilitate a financial income for my kids,” she said. She balanced work and parenting and said she was able to take care of her family but knew she needed to do something different.

“I was doing something that I knew had an expiration date and I knew I needed to start investing my time to establish something long term for me and my kids,” explained Boston, who had earned a communications degree at the community college.

Being a foodie and having a passion for the kitchen combined to present what seemed like a natural way to proceed. Her grandmother had been a chef for decades, working at the university, she said.

Boston studied at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, then West Virginia Northern Community College, earning a culinary degree.

“It felt like the best thing I ever could do,” she said. “That gave me something, it gave me a purpose. It gave me one thing to focus on. It gave me confidence, because I was good at it. I was learning.”

Boston said she knew early on she didn’t want to work in a restaurant much less own one. Her interest was in being a private chef.

“I do private chef work — that’s my calling,” she said, noting that for the last five years she has refined her craft in a food journey that included working in an array of restaurants, working with a celebrity chef and cooking for one of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Before moving to Columbus, Boston, who also lived in Weirton, said she started off with catering and wanting to do private chef services but couldn’t figure it out at the time.

“Now since I’ve been living in Columbus, it’s full functioning, hassle-free luxury, private dining services,” she said, explaining she goes to homes, boats, cabins, wherever.

“We provide a dining experience, the table settings, the menus, fresh flower arrangements, complimentary wine and champagne, three or four-course dinners, the whole thing so basically you do nothing.”

There is a market for such a service, she said, one that has been surprisingly sustaining even in the wake of a pandemic.

“It’s been interesting,” Boston said. “With a business you find your market. There’s people out here for everybody. It’s about you finding the people who resonate with what you’re doing and willing to value what you do.”

And apparently they do.

“I did a tree house at Hocking Hills,” she said when asked to cite an example. “I cooked at a cabin in Hocking Hills. Oh my gosh, it was so beautiful.”

“I cook for people in high-rise hotels, downtown Columbus condos, and I’ve cooked for regular people celebrating their first rental property,” she said.

She doesn’t have a preset menu but creates one based on a client’s request.

“If you say you want octopus, and it’s a month ahead of time then we’re getting you octopus. I try my best to cater to the client,” she said.

Even during the pandemic, the business has been doing OK, she said, with precautions taken on her end and clients’. “The first few months were slow, the last end of it crazy. December was actually slow for me, but August, September and October were amazing.”

“People are getting warm to the idea of a private chef coming into your home,” she said. “That was prominent with people with a lot of money and in bigger cities it was more common, but I think the pandemic has rearranged people’s frame of mind when it comes to a personal chef.”

The menu for the Sycamore class had to be something doable in light of COVID-19 precautions and restrictions, Boston said in explaining how she decided to do empanadas so the children could create their own with fillings provided at their table setting.

“I added a tasting session because more of cooking is also your palate and being able to experience cultural food,” she said.

“I chose to go the Latin influence because I felt like it was the closest thing outside the United States that the kids would be familiar with and I would be able to buy things indigenous to the Mexican Latin culture that they would be able to try, so I got about seven different snacks, four different fruits — dragon fruit, papaya, mango and Mexican guava because I wanted them to try different vegetables, different snacks. If I ever come back to do it again, I would love to go the Asian route,” she said.

“It’s home for me,” Boston responded when asked how it felt to be in town to teach the class.

“It’s crazy because I’m from here, we’ve been gone two and a half years almost but I always felt the need to be a solution even when I was a problem. I always envisioned myself in the future being the person who redeemed themself,” she said, noting she was in the area around Thanksgiving and partnered with Urban Mission to give away groceries and gift cards to Kroger.

“This is home and it doesn’t matter if I do it a thousand times any where else, it’s home,” she said.

Boston established her for-profit business called Living Proof Chef Service in 2018.

Be Living Proof, meanwhile, is something Boston said she started last year. “It’s a nonprofit and initially it was to target young women who are coming out of prison systems or rehab. However, since I’ve started the process with this nonprofit and educated myself, I’m changing my direction actually. I feel like Be Living Proof is bigger than just — yes, I’ve been in prison but it’s bigger than Be Living Proof of everything. It’s like the call to action,” she explained

“Be Living Proof is a call to action to be a better person than you were yesterday,” she added.

Boston had anticipated the day before that her talking point with the cooking class would be that “we’ve all got to start somewhere.

“And I say that to say we’re in a small town, and we might feel like our backs are against the wall, that we don’t have resources like other places, we don’t have opportunities like other places, but I’m here to tell you that the opportunity to cook for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the opportunity to get on the news, I’ve been on the news in Columbus five times, and on radio and podcasts, all of that came from me utilizing the resources that I had. And I want to encourage kids and teenagers to do the same thing,” she said.

“Everybody starts somewhere, everybody’s got to start somewhere is definitely my message because like people see the end result, and don’t realize that it had to start somewhere.

“We neglect to be transparent, and we neglect to show that there’s a process.”

She applauded the work of Bauman with youth in the area, that she appreciates what he does.

“We don’t have the same background, the same story, but we have the same goal, and that’s what matters,” Boston said, describing each as being a vessel.

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

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