Regina Nekola Hild’s upbringing on an Iowa farm instilled in her a love and appreciation of food. After a career in real estate, Hild went back to her roots in 2016. She founded Regina’s Farm Kitchen, a jam and preserves business, in her Dunwoody home when a farmer friend didn’t know what to do with a batch of accidentally-grown jalapeño peppers.

Her strawberry blueberry jalapeño jam went on to win in the “Preserves” category at this year’s Good Food Awards in San Francisco in January. Hild says she is planning to expand her product line and hopes to sell her preserves in retail stores and restaurants.

Chef Regina Nekola Hild. (Eric Valentin)

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Q: What was it it like growing up on a farm in Iowa?

A: I was born and raised on a 200-acre, centuries-old farm in the heart of Iowa. My upbringing was in a typical, rural Iowa family that grew their own vegetables, fruit orchards and gardens. My mom cared for us kids while my dad tended to the fields. We grew soybeans, corn and had a large herd of beef cattle and pigs. My dad farmed the acreage with his dad when he was young.
It was not easy life growing up in the middle of the country in a four-bedroom, one-bath house. As one of the five kids, you were expected to help and roll up your sleeves. There always seemed to be more than enough chores to go around. I am forever grateful for my parents, who sacrificed to teach all about growing up in simple times. We always had more than enough food and love to go around. I feel very lucky that my work ethic is strong because my dad and mom instilled the same in us.

At an early age I was independent, driven and always a natural in the kitchen. My parents were all about the gardens, strawberry patches, the apple grove and the animals. My mom loved growing strawberries. Hence, summers were spent picking fresh strawberries, selling the berries on the family’s roadside pop-up shop, and making jam.

Being in the kitchen cooking, baking and creating has always been an influence along with my rural, Iowa upbringing. It seemed natural that I would always be involved with having my own product line. I felt comfortable in the kitchen and the rules I could break could be my own. Perhaps that is why the corporate job did not please me.

Q: Do you remember the first meal your mother taught you to cook?

A: My mom taught me how to fry chicken in a cast-iron skillet. Each spring, my mom would load us kids in the car and go to the Toledo Feed Store where we picked up baby chicks. These cute, little fuzzy creatures once fattened up would become our lunch and sometimes supper. If only I had Ina Garten’s creativity when I began. I would have made chicken 14 ways in a week, not just Friday!

It was simple for Mom. All you needed was farm fresh lard, a cast-iron skillet, flour, salt and pepper, apron and tongs. From a young age, Mom started with her same recipe. She started with her mise en place which means “put in place.” Mise en place is deceptively simple but being organized and prepared in the kitchen saves time and frustration. I learned by doing it the old-fashioned way.

Q: What are the differences between jams, preserves, jelly and marmalades?

A: Everyone has their description of what make a jam and a jelly the other. The [Food and Drug Administration] really puts strict guidelines on sugar because it is the preserve in making a jam have a “governing” shelf life. That’s why our preserves are different. Because we only put the good stuff in — a bushel of fruit, and an apron full of love.

Preserves are whole pieces of fruit suspended in the mixture. Fruits that lend themselves best to be preserved are those with little natural pectin and are best preserved whole due to time consuming processing. When I first began making jam, I tasted everything commercially made. I liked our product the best because we people-tested our formulas and flavors. I believe low sugar and more fruit is the right combination. I think the products you find on the store shelf are ridiculously sweet. Our product is made free of the bad stuff and more of the good stuff.

Regina’s Farm Kitchen’s strawberry blueberry jalapeño jam won in the “Preserves” category at this year’s Good Food Awards in San Francisco. (Special)

We do not produce jelly. Jelly by definition does not have any pieces of fruit in it. Jelly is gelled fruit juice with added sugar, lemon juice and pectin.
Marmalades are a combination of one or up to three different kinds of citrus. They are made with chopped, pureed or sliced citrus cooked with sugar, lemon juice and pectin. Our marmalades have lots of citrus peel in the jar and you will be delighted when you open a jar of Regina’s Farm Kitchen Orange Meyer Lemon Marmalade.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on making preserves?

A: I am really a baker by heart. My younger sister is a master pastry chef. I had always wanted to own my own business.

The crafting and bottling of preserves happened by accident in my Dunwoody kitchen. A friend who owns a farm in North Carolina accidently planted jalapeño peppers. Being around Depression-era parents, I learned from my mom she would never throw anything out.

The chef and the farmer in me couldn’t find a reason to throw these perfect, green, spicy morsels out, so I decided to make a savory-sweet preserve that could be served with cheese, or turn into a lovely glaze for hot wings, or even spread over a Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit. My motto is, “Made from scratch by a farm-raised chef.” You would never throw away a perfectly, beautiful, petite, green jalapeño out when something exciting could become of it!

Q: Your business came after years of working in entirely different careers —marketing and real estate. What prompted you to decide to try your hand at the food industry?

A: In 2008, when real estate tanked, I came to the fork in the road and decided it was time to do what I have always loved, food. I enrolled in culinary school in 2010. Sadly, I lost my father in March 2010, and my mom in March of the following year. These life events called me to return to my roots and the kitchen. Our acreage is still in Iowa and being cared for by a family farmer.

Q: How do you decide flavors when creating preserves?

A: Our customers come to us with their wish list and we are always learning what is happening around the restaurant and bar scene. I found if you use simple ingredients and taste your end product, it doesn’t take a too long to formulate the next flavor.

Savory and sweet have always been a part of my palate. And people crave heat —the hotter the better. My customers ask for a “kick” and that’s what we will continue to do!

We also make peach habanero preserves, and we are working on crafting other flavors to use in savory ways. Burger toppings, grilled cheese, anything on the grill like seafood, pork, chicken and beef work with our preserves. Winning the 2018 Good Food Award for the Strawberry Blueberry Jalapeno Jam was something of an “aha” moment.

Q: What do you love about being in the kitchen?

A: It’s my place to plan, create, cook and serve whatever is in season. It’s a place of creativity for me and one of my favorite places to sow the seeds of creativity. More than anything, it makes me giddy with joy when the passion comes out in food. You know you’re in the right field when it doesn’t feel like a job. We have all had those, and I have stories. Perhaps the book will tell?

Q: Where do you sell your goods?

A: Selling to restaurants are in the plans as part of our expansion along with retail channels. You can find us at Kennesaw State University near the Commons area on campus every Wednesday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. until May 2.

We are also at the Alpharetta Farmers Market from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. And we will be at the [new] Dunwoody Farmers Market at Brook Run Park beginning May 5 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Q: Any surprising twists to opening your own business?

A: That you are working more than you ever thought. This is not a 40-hour-week business. I knew it would be 60 to 80 hours or more a week. Expect to put in what you will get out of it.

Hild shared the following recipe from her kitchen:

Caramelized bacon Brussel sprouts with RFK’s Orange Meyer Lemon Marmalade

Serves 6-8

1 jar of Regina’s Farm Kitchen Orange Meyer Lemon Marmalade

Olive Oil, use local Georgia-grown and as needed

20 ounces Brussel sprouts, blanched

8 ounces local bacon, diced

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cast-iron skillet

Wash and trim the ends of your Brussel sprouts. In a pot of boiling water with a dash of salt drop your Brussel sprouts for 3-4 minutes. Drain the Brussel sprouts. Next, submerge in a bowl of icy cold water to shock and stop the cooking. Let them cool for 3 minutes and drain again. Place them on a sheet pan lined with a kitchen towel and let dry.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Dice the bacon. Take a piece of bacon and drop into the cast iron skillet. If it sizzles, throw the remaining bacon into the skillet and place into the oven. Let the bacon render until crispy, stirring occasionally. Once crisp to your liking remove from the oven and place on top of a low flame.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.