Denise Is Cooking's Denise Clayton: Caramelpalooza Candymakers 2013

As the chefs competing in Smeeks and Chow Bella's fourth annual Caramelpalooza -- coming 7 p.m. Friday, April 5, at UNION -- get out the candy thermometers, we've got our pens ready to introduce you to the faces behind the caramel.

If you've ever taken a cooking class with Denise Clayton, chances are you've felt right at home -- because it is her home. The private caterer teaches everything from canning and preserving to tamale making and baking basics inside an adorable 1920s bungalow in Phoenix's historic Coronado district. Although Clayton's been teaching full time only since August, her love of cooking has been with her since childhood.

See Also: Announcing the Caramel Makers for Smeeks & Chow Bella's Caramelpalooza 2013! 60: Denise Clayton

As we stand in Clayton's cozy vintage kitchen, admiring an eclectic mix of colorful dishware and antique canning equipment, Clayton tells stories of the real source behind her love of working in the kitchen -- her mom.

"She liked to entertain, and I got a lot of that." Clayton recalls her mother's New Year's Day tradition of hosting an open house and acting as short order cook to the hundred-plus guests walking through while a young Denise handed out menus, took orders, and collected tips. "It makes my heart happy to feed people," she says.

Well, we're happy to hear it, Ms. Clayton -- because on April 5, you'll be feeding a whole lot of people (tell your heart we said, you're welcome).

I love living / working in the historic Coronado district because . . . it feels like a home to me, but it's still close to downtown. I love my neighbors, and it's so close to so many great restaurants like Tuck Shop, Astor House, Rice Paper, and Nami.

I pursued a career in cooking because . . . food has always been my passion. After more than two decades working as a preschool teacher and nanny, I decided to finally follow my passion into cooking for a living. I sort of eased into it about four years ago by taking on a few personal chef clients and teaching some classes here and there. Eventually, I was able to make the leap into cooking full time and I feel blessed every day that I get to do what I love. 

My favorite food smells are: bread baking, onions, and garlic sweating. 

Caramel should be eaten with . . . popcorn. Popcorn is my number one comfort food, so combining the two is always a winner. I make a pretty killer caramel corn with chocolate and almonds, which my friend Vicky taught me years ago. I could eat buckets of it. 

My favorite cooking class to teach is . . . any of my canning classes, which are also my most popular. I also love my Moroccan class for the whole experience of eating on pillows on the floor and washing my students' hands with rosewater before we eat, etc. That is a fun class. 

First thing you learned to make in the kitchen: scrambled eggs. That is the first thing I can remember making as a little girl.  

Last meal on Earth: popcorn with tons of butter, nutritional yeast, garlic, sea salt, and Parmesan cheese. Like I said, it's pretty much my favorite food on the planet.   Three things you would have in your dream kitchen: an eight-burner professional gas range, huge double-wall ovens, a giant butcher block island with lots of seating for friends and storage underneath. Oh, and I can't live without my pink Kitchenaid mixer. I use it just about every day and it makes me happy to look at it. 

Pet peeve in the kitchen: People standing around asking if they can help. I sort of get "in the zone" when I am entertaining and I can get a "little" grouchy. Most of my friends recognize that look and know to just stay out of my way. 

Favorite person to cook with: My friend Katie D. She gets me and is great at anticipating what I need next, etc. She needs very little direction to do a great job, and she makes me laugh more than just about anyone else I've ever met. 

Most overrated ingredient: Truffle oil. 

Last vacation you took: I spent a week in Jerome -- just totally unplanned and I had the most awesome time by myself. Vacation for me is so unheard of, so when I found out I had the time, I took it. It's the kindest thing I've ever done for myself, just to take that time.

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