Heather Hinsley, who many Durangoans will know from her baking talents that made her cakes and desserts the go-to sweet fix at downtown coffeehouses and restaurants, is now using her culinary talent to help change lives.
The former chef-owner of Cake Café and Celebration Cakes Catering is putting her skills to work in the kitchen to serve as culinary manager at Manna soup kitchen, where she just finished guiding her first class of seven students through a 10-week program to receive their Culinary and Food Handlers Certificate of Achievement.
The program, which works with the Durango Restaurant Association and has an 80 percent success rate placing students in jobs, is designed to assist individuals, many of them homeless, into a culinary career path and to give them skills to find more stable living arrangements.
For Hinsley, the career change is a chance to merge her skills as a chef with a path not chosen in college to pursue a degree in social work.
On Thursday, students in Hinsley’s first class in the Manna Culinary Program received their certificates, and they began their culinary careers by cooking and serving a showcase dinner for their guests and Manna soup kitchen supporters.
“In college, I thought about going into social work, so it’s a return to an earlier interest,” Hinsley said.
In guiding her first class, Hinsley learned that helping her students with life skills and supporting them through life’s challenges is essential to her job.
“There’s a lot of drama in their lives, and it can present challenges,” she said. “You’ve got to help them work through obstacles they are facing.”
Six of the seven students in the fall 2018 Manna Culinary Program have found permanent housing, which reassures Hinsley that she can successfully merge her passion in the kitchen with a new mission to help the homeless.
“At first, I thought we needed to focus on the kitchen, but I realized helping them wherever they were struggling was an important part of what I needed to be doing,” she said.
When Hinsley reached tough points with her first class, staff members at Manna provided support and knowledge to help her.
“It’s a team effort here, and I’m only a tiny cog in a big functional wheel,” she said of the effort that led to Thursday night’s graduation and dinner.
Hinsley joined the team on July 30, and the fall class began in mid-September. Ann Morse, executive director of Manna, said she was stunned by how effective and creative Hinsley proved in a short time.
“She essentially had one month to get the curriculum together and her game plan set,” Morse said. “But she has a passion for food, and she works well with people. You sit down with Heather and you know she’s a kind person and she’s organized. She has a passion for food and a talent for teaching.”
Karen Long, a student in the fall 2018 class, who described Hinsley as patient and thorough, said, “You can tell she has a big heart in there, and that’s what makes the culinary business work – a lot of love.”
Hinsley and Morse have also expanded the Culinary Program to add Catering for Cause, a catering service available in Durango that further sharpens students’ skills and aids in developing their business and life skills.
Hinsley’s own culinary career developed from her pursuit of art. She arrived in Durango in 1994, attracted by the ceramics studio at Fort Lewis College, but when learning she would lose more than 100 credit hours transferring from Western Washington University, she temporarily left Durango to finish her degree at the Bellingham, Washington, campus.
When she returned, she began creating installation art, often edible art, that allowed her to pursue a passion for baking that was instilled in her by her Aunt Angie.
“She had polio when she was young and was paralyzed on the right side of her body, but she was the best cook I ever met,” Hinsley said. “She taught me how to overcome any challenge you face to create good food for people.”
Aunt Angie, who died when Hinsley was a senior in high school in Connecticut, and Hinsley’s family would bring homeless immigrants into the house, and the people they helped would pay back the family once they had landed a job.
“When a seed is planted, you don’t always get to say thank you to a person,” Hinsley said of her aunt. “But I think passing on what she gave me comes with working with students now.”
The day after graduating high school, Hinsley left her home in Connecticut for the West Coast, where her serious cooking career began in Port Townsend, Washington.
Hinsley was hired to cook for the New Old Time Chautauqua circus.
“I joined a circus,” she said. “I learned to juggle when feeding them.
“That’s where I learned some creative cooking. It became like another family to me, and being able to cook for them, that’s when I was hooked – being able to feed lots of friends and to enjoy a good meal with them.”