Episode #1— Mastering the Secret Ingredients
Kendra Vallone Matthews is an Encinitas mom with a background in advertising. Today she’s also the budding entrepreneur of Hidden Foods Co. Launched in October of 2022, it’s Kendra’s role as mom to two sons, Rhys and Gavin—a picky eater—that carved this exciting path she’s traveling in the world of super-charged foods. Hidden Foods Co. features a product line ranging from pasta sauces to pancake mixes. They’re crowd pleasers that tempt the tastebuds of both kids and adults, while also fortifying diets with vitamins, protein and fiber.
In this first installment of our multi-blog, interview series, Kendra and I begin our conversation chatting about the influences of her Italian-American grandmother on one side of family tree and the southern sway of her her maternal grandmother, with whom experiments in baking often took centerstage.
María: Tell us about your Italian grandmother, and describe how her influence affected you and led you to explore creating your own pasta sauces.
Kendra: My Nonna Irene was very proud of her Italian heritage though it was her parents that were born in Italy, not her. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to learn to speak Italian because like many immigrants, her parents wanted the kids to assimilate in America. But she did learn a lot of the recipes she could pass down.
Her passion for the culture rubbed off on me and together spent time going with her to “Sons of Italy” meetings or cooking in the kitchen. We made pizza once and I remember taking a small piece of dough and just playing with it for hours, shaping it into a pizza. She warned me working with it too much would make it hard—and man it was a like a cracker after we baked it!
My favorite memories were Christmas eve when we’d get to her house and she’d have our ragu (meat sauce) cooking on the stove. The aroma would just take over the house. We never made that sauce the day of Christmas Eve because it takes all day to make. To this day, it’s my favorite recipe.
I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Betty, too—on my mom’s side. She was from Illinois and had all the southern recipes like cabbage and cornbread or fried chicken. She’s the one that taught me to bake and try new recipes if I saw something in a magazine I thought would be fun. We used to make a lot of pies and cookies and she would enter them in the county fair on my behalf. I think I still have some of the blue ribbons for an apple pie we made!
María: Sounds like you definitely inherited your cooking prowess! Do you also have a background in culinary arts or the restaurant industry?
Kendra: My first job at 16 was in an Italian restaurant as a hostess and waitress. I lived in that kitchen and was always asking the cooks to show me the recipes. This is where I learned how to properly shape a pizza and also dug into some classic recipes that my nonna didn’t make—like cream sauces or carbonara.
I thought about going to culinary school but I was also fond of advertising and business so I opted for that degree and went to USC. Now my education comes from traveling around and looking for good recipes. If I find one, I always ask the waiter or chef if I can have the recipe… most of the time they’re willing to give it to me because they know so much of a recipe’s success is in the preparation. They don’t know I won’t sleep until I’ve replicated it—even if it takes me 100 tries!
When I work with a new recipe for the first time, I always make it how it’s “supposed” to be made per the directions. Then, I go nuts and try a whole bunch of ingredients to get the flavors right.
A sense of taste
María: I’ve worked in the restaurant industry and have watched a variety of chefs create in the kitchen. They each seem to have a unique process for recipe creation and kitchen maintenance. So I wondered if, like them, there’s a process you go through when creating a new recipe or running your test kitchen?
Kendra: When I work with a new recipe for the first time, I always make it how it’s “supposed” to be made per the directions. Then, I go nuts and try a whole bunch of ingredients to get the flavors right. I was blessed with a weird ability to taste something and figure out what it’s missing or how to pack a punch if the flavor isn’t finishing the way I want it to—kind of like wine tasting. After that, I make it again and again and start to measure the amounts of ingredients—forget cups and tablespoons, it should always be in weight (like grams or oz).
Because our products are unique in trying to increase the nutrition, I also run a bunch of nutrition information on the ingredients we use to try and focus a recipe around certain things. For example, if I want to add more fiber, I’m trying to figure out how I can get more beans, legumes, flaxseed into the recipe—which means I might have to balance it with something else to dilute their flavor. I also play around with color and find the ingredients that can be most hidden within the recipes I’m working on. For example, cream sauce (alfredo) makes sense to include cauliflower but not beets.
That makes complete sense. Although a red Alfredo Sauce would be unique!
María: So tell us the inspiration that set in motion your pursuit to launch Hidden Foods Co.
Kendra: Well, if I’m being completely honest, it was God. Five years ago, I remember sitting at my kitchen table with my boys, watching them eat dinner and talking about their day. Out of the blue, I had this strong epiphany to tweak the recipes they were eating and add nutrients to it. I know moms have done this for some time, but it never once occurred to me.
I guess I need to back up a little… My older son, Rhys, is a great eater and very adventurous. My younger son, Gavin, however, is a bit more challenging. I blame it on introducing him to foods like chicken strips and ice cream much younger than his brother, mainly because his brother had developed a good palette, so if he wanted those every once in a while, it was ok with me.
The older kids always set the pace for their younger siblings. We did the same sorts of things with our middle son, i.e., introducing non-traditional, sometimes not as wholesome foods to him (earlier than we ever had with the first) because of the influence of his older brother. There is something to that “letting your hair down” approach to raising kids after the first. All bets are off when a time crunch often dictates your schedule with the second, or third… So I completely get it!
I was really surprised no one in the family figured out what I was doing. Everything had to be cut, steamed, pureed. It made me realize this wasn’t the “easy” dinner I was hoping for. So I started making it in mass amounts and bottling it.
A finicky eater
Gavin started to get really picky, but in our house, that doesn’t mean you can dictate what you eat if you don’t like what’s in front of you. It does mean I’m going to sit at the table next to you for an hour and make sure you eat it. I always tell him he can have whatever alternative meal he wants AFTER he eats what I’ve given him. Usually that works, but again, I’m still stuck at the table for a long time. I think every parent craves an easy night where we can put healthy food in front of the kids and they will just eat it.
I feel your pain. We so want our kids to connect with the ‘good stuff’ we want to give them, food especially — since proper nourishment is so critical for their developing bodies — that we’ll do the extraordinary to make sure that good stuff finds a way inside them! I’ve been there, as have so many of us moms. But, you found an excellent fix!
So, the first thing I did was play around with my pasta dough and sauce. These were always a hit without complaints. As much as pasta is “healthy” I thought there was an opportunity to improve it, specifically for Gavin, by focusing on increasing some fiber and protein. I made homemade raviolis and pasta dough with added protein. Then I played around with the sauce figuring out how much of the pureed vegetables I could get in without changing the taste.
I was really surprised no one in the family figured out what I was doing. I kept it up but it is actually a lot of work. Everything had to be cut, steamed, pureed. It made me realize this wasn’t the “easy” dinner I was hoping for. So I started making it in mass amounts and bottling it. Soon, I was giving it to friends that had picky eaters, and the parents on the sports teams we played on etc. The response was that everyone loved it!
That was the start of thinking this could be a business. I did that for about 5 years and started to roam the grocery stores looking for products or sauces with hidden vegetables. For 5 years, I never really found anything like what we were doing. So I took the leap to start Hidden Foods.
Wow! I love that product birth story! I especially love that the family had no clue what they were eating and loving! Secret ingredients wrapped in flavor got the job done. Bravo!
Where to find Kendra’s Hidden Foods
Hidden Foods Co. is a special line of products created with love. Shop Kendra’s sauces, pancake mixes, mac & cheese and more, locally at Seaside Market in Cardiff and Harvest Ranch in Encinitas. Hidden Foods products are also available on Amazon. Hidden Foods are delicious and wholesome blends that make many a mealtime more enjoyable and less of a tug of war pleading for kids to clean their plates.
Stay tuned for more from this incredible mom and visionary, Kendra, in our next installment of “The Biz Mom Interview: Hidden Foods Co.” In the meantime, be sure to check out some of Kendra’s recipes!
Learn more about Hidden Foods Co. in our Fall Fit-Wellness Guide!
The Biz-Mom Interview: Kendra Vallone Matthews — Hidden Foods Co., Ep. 1