Chef Keeton continues on culinary expedition

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By Kristen Snyder

Shawn Keeton’s life has been a “Culinary Expedition.”

After a lifetime of exposure to and learning about good cooking, Keeton has two cookbooks and a cooking show in the works, and he teaches cooking classes once a month at the local extension office.

His love of cooking was conceived as a child when he watched his grandmothers cook comfort food, which has had a major effect on his recipes and cooking style throughout his life.

“My love of food started back then,” he said. “That cooking influence really lead me to wanting to be a better cook, I really had a desire.”

In 1985, Keeton was a cultural exchange student in Japan in which he was exposed to new ingredients and techniques of cooking that he had never experienced before.

“It subjected me to types of food not available in this area,” Keeton said. “It really helped me develop my palate as far as the type of foods I’d cook with later on.”

Keeton’s college years are when his cooking blossomed. He said cooking in the dorm at Eastern Kentucky University was difficult, but when he transfered to the University of Louisville after his sophomore year, he moved into an apartment. Here, he really started cooking and developing all the culinary ideas he had, including canning and making jellies.

“I wasn’t just going to subsist on Ramen noodles,” Keeton said with a laugh. “Once I got my own apartment, it really came all together.”

After he graduated from University of Louisville in 1994 with a history degree and married his wife Shelley in 1995, he traveled to several Caribbean countries such as the Bahamas and Dominican Republic, which added more of a seafood flair to his cooking.

“Once I was married, our financial situation at the time dictated that we cook,” Keeton said. “Several of the recipes in my cookbook were developed during our first year of marriage.”

Keeton’s wife, Shelley said when they first got married she cooked because that was what she was accustomed to, but that quickly changed.

“He started cooking because he’s so much better at cooking than I am,” she said with a laugh. “Now we sometimes share the duties in the kitchen, which is very enjoyable.”

Two more heavy culinary influences in Keeton’s life were his in-laws Cajun cooking and the heavy Mexican food influence in the local area. Keeton said these five different culinary styles have had a profound influence on his cooking and are represented in his new cookbook.

Keeton’s cookbook, which is currently being edited and published by Acclaim Press, is not your normal cookbook. The book does not just include recipes but also tells of Keeton’s culinary expedition.

“Its different from most cookbooks because it is a book that you would just sit and read, and it happens to have recipes in it,” Keeton said. “It evolved into something totally different than I expected.”

Keeton said it was important to him to write his book for a local audience, using ingredients and techniques that are found locally and even choosing a Kentucky based publishing company.

“It is full of stories from growing up in Carrollton area. The recipes are based around this area and my family and are made with ingredients that can be found locally,” Keeton said. “It’s a regional book, I wanted to keep it local.”

Once the cookbook is published, which is estimated to be late September or early October, Keeton will be having several book signings to promote the book and it will be sold at Barnes and Nobel, Amazon.com, Acclaim.com and Keeton’s website, Keetoninthekitchen.com.

Keeton’s website also has weekly tips, recipes and any updates about the various projects Keeton is involved in. It is also interactive for the audience, so they can comment, ask questions and post their own recipes. Keeton said soon people will also be able to buy official “Keeton in the Kitchen” gear on the website such as a butcher block he has developed with Thorpe Woodworks in New Albany, Ind., as well as t-shirts and aprons. Keeton also has a Facebook page by the same name.

While one cookbook is going through the process to be published, Keeton is already working on a follow up cookbook.

“Book one is a very easy cookbook,” Keeton said. “Book two is more detailed and more bold foods. It is more a companion to the cooking show.”

The cooking show, Keeton in the Kitchen, is a project he has been working on with his son Clay, 12, as a co-host. They have already filmed eight of the 13 episodes needed for a full season. WBKI will be broadcasting the show, Keeton said. Each episode focuses on a different style of cooking such as grilling, canning, outdoor cooking and even gardening. Keeton’s goal for the show is for it to become a national broadcast and do holiday specials.

“We’re still on the sponsor search, looking for people interested in running commercials,” Keeton said “Hopefully the show will run next quarter when the cook book comes out so they can promote each other.”

 In the meantime, Keeton is still teaching classes at the Carroll County Extension Office once a month, with each class focusing on a different style of cooking ranging from Italian to quick and easy recipes. The classes are $5 and the next class is July 22. Call the extension office to register for the class, there is a limit of 30 participants per class. Keeton said the classes are light hearted and fun. He said people learn better when they feel they are actually involved in the class instead of just listening to a chef tell them how to prepare a dish.

Mandy Parker, who is the former 4-H agent in Carrollton, helped Keeton with some of the cooking classes when he first began teaching them at the extension office. She said what he does is unique, especially in Carrollton.

“He’s a very funny guy. He’s so creative and energetic when he does the cooking program,” Parker said. “He’s great with people and with cooking.”

Keeton said he really enjoys teaching the cooking classes.

“The classes are my way to give back to the community,” Keeton said. “Hopefully people will have fun, have a good meal and learn something from it.”

Keeton said he is blessed with a family that understands how important cooking is to him and they are always willing to help.

“I have been extremely lucky. My wife and son will literally try anything I make. They are adventurous eaters,” Keeton said.

Shelley Keeton said she and their son are Keeton’s biggest supporters and she is always available to help her husband with any necessary dish tasting.

“Its very exciting, I like to try a variety of foods,” she said. “I appreciate his abilities, your taste palate never gets bored.”

Keeton said it is a misconception that chefs get it right every time, he said he has to work and experiment to cook good dishes just like anyone else.

“When you make something from scratch, the first one won’t always be good. I’ve ruined a lot of stuff just trying things that didn’t work out.”

As well as being patient when a dish doesn’t turn out the way you planned, Keeton also had other tips and techniques that he uses when he cooks.

“There are three basic steps I use when I cook from scratch. I start with a base ingredient that I know I want to use, then I ask myself, ‘what ingredients do I have here to add to it?’ then the final step is just the fine tuning, just tweaking it here and there.” Keeton said.

He also strongly advocates the use of fresh herbs.

“Herbs are the number one way in my mind to dramatically alter a recipe, they add depth to a dish,” Keeton said. “They are so easy to grow and so easy to use. A lot of people are unfamiliar with herbs, but when they start using herbs, they can’t hardly live without them.”

Keeton is always open to answering culinary questions people may have whether its through the “Ask Shawn” forum on his website on in person.

“I do most of my shopping in the local area, so when you see me, feel free to ask me about some suggestions for dinner,” he said with a laugh.

Keeton’s culinary expedition has exposed him to several influences throughout the world and now he hopes to share his expertise to help people take more joy in this practical aspect of their lives.

“You’ll have to cook two to three meals a day for the rest of your life,” Keeton said. “You might as well enjoy it.”