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Chef combines unique flavors, local ingredients

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It took Charleen Tinley years to find the job that brings tears of joy to her eyes.

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Culinary Connections owner Charleen Tinley grills vegetables as she makes grilled summer squash crostini with goat cheese, nuts and basil for a cooking class.  SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
SARA CALDWELL/STAFF
Culinary Connections owner Charleen Tinley grills vegetables as she makes grilled summer squash crostini with goat cheese, nuts and basil for a cooking class.

Tinley worked for more than 20 years as an accountant at Savannah River Site before leaving to devote time to her cooking business, Culinary Connections. Her leap of faith has paid off, with a steady stream of business and a satisfaction in her work that she can’t believe she lived for so long without.

“I’ve never been happier,” she said. “In fact, I never thought I could be this happy.”

Tinley studied nutrition at Winthrop College, and through her culinary classes discovered that she loved food and experimenting with flavors. She never finished her degree at Winthrop, but her love of cooking stayed with her.

“I thought, well, no matter what I ever do with my food, having an accounting degree gives you a feel for business,” she said.

She didn’t start her cooking business until 2000, when she was in the middle of what she calls her “boring middle-aged years.” She and a friend brainstormed about ideas for a small business but, at the height of the dot-com era, kept trying to come up with something in technology or finance. Tinley said she finally realized her love of cooking might translate well into a side business.

Culinary Connections began in 2000 and was a side business until August, when Tinley retired from SRS. She offers cooking classes, personal chef services and catering, but the most recent expansion has been in the realm of farm-to-table meals.

These meals can take place on any farm that grows a variety of organic products, and Tinley creates a menu that consists entirely of ingredients made on the farm. The limited selection of ingredients makes planning an exciting menu more difficult, but the challenge is what makes it interesting to Tinley.

“The ultimate for me would be for someone to walk in and drop six kooky items and say, ‘Have at it,’” she said. “I think about something, and immediately almost, a recipe pops into my head.”

Tinley creates her own recipes fresh for each meal or class she prepares. One of her farm dinners featured carrot-ginger and minted beet ice creams with sweet onion sorbet.

Kim Hines, the director of Augusta Locally Grown, said she has seen the effect of Tinley’s enthusiasm and passion for what she does and the food she creates.

“She’s willing to go the extra mile, the ex­tra 10 miles in fact, for her customers to create something truly remarkable,” she said.
Eating local produce and more obscure items can be daunting for the average cook, Hines said, but Tinley manages to infect people with confidence to prepare and enjoy exotic ingredients. The farmers and growers of this produce have benefited from Tinley’s work, Hines said.

“She’s their biggest cheerleader,” Hines said. “She’s creating art out of their food.”

Tinley’s foray into the world of self-employment gives her satisfaction from not only doing something she loves, but also by knowing she is helping the farmers and growers.

“I get goosebumps,” she said. “Here’s this bounty, where the farmer’s the first step, and I’ve poured so much of myself into it and then when somebody enjoys it, when you have people applaud for your food – there’s nothing that could compare.”

CHARLEEN TINLEY

HOMETOWN: North Augusta

EDUCATION: attended Winthrop College; BBA in accounting and MBA from Augusta State University

HOBBIES: gardening, swimming, biking, hiking, traveling

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