The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Denise Woodard is the founder and CEO of Partake Foods, a baking company that caters to a range of dietary restrictions. We sat down with her to discuss her heritage, as well as how her daughter’s dietary needs led her to build Partake into the business it is today.
I grew up the daughter of a Korean immigrant and a Black man from a country town in Virginia, so the food we ate reflected both cultures. I love Southern comfort food like baked macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and collard greens. My mom did most of the cooking at home, though. She cooked every single meal from scratch and would make lunch for me every day (I never had a school lunch!). I think that, particularly in Asian cultures, food is used as a way to show your love and care for someone — she really embodied that.
Food is used as a way to show your love and care for someone.
My love for cooking developed back when I met my now-husband, Jeremy, in 2008. We were in Chicago then, and we were so used to eating out — cooking was one of the most fun, therapeutic ways to spend time together and get to know each other. We did a ton of cooking classes, and that gave me an appreciation for the fun you can have in the kitchen.
I was forced to get creative in the kitchen.
I love American classics that are done well. I loved to make a good pan-seared steak and roasted vegetables. I realized that when you’re working with high-quality ingredients you can make the most basic of meals taste incredible. Eventually, my daughter came along, and I was forced to get creative in the kitchen and adapt some of my favorites because of her food allergies.
It took six months to a year of various elimination diets to figure out what was causing her to have eczema or various other physical and emotional reactions. It was crazy to see how much food impacts a child emotionally and physically. It was also interesting to see how Western medicine viewed and treated this. A doctor would say to just put steroid cream on it, but we realized that we could fix a lot of the things she was experiencing by adjusting her diet and paying really close attention to different foods.
That experience also made me pay more attention to how food made me feel.
That experience also made me pay more attention to how food made me feel. I realized that when I had certain things I’d be more tired or bloated. We cleaned up our diets quite a bit as a result. It actually helped my husband, Jermey, discover he had Crohn’s disease. He had been dealing with stomach pain his whole life and thought it was normal. So this process has really shown me the power of food to heal.
I started Partake as a food-allergy mom wanting to provide solutions to other food-allergy families. Our products were well received, but not by the people I expected them to be well received by. What I didn’t think about, and should have known, is that there is a really high barrier to those types of customers. We needed to build credibility first. It really opened my eyes to how much broader the company could be because there were people who were experimenting with a plant-based diet or who wanted to support a woman or diverse-led company that gravitated toward the brand immediately. That was a total surprise to me.
I stopped enjoying cooking, to be honest.
The early days were exhausting. It was such a grind. For the first nine months, we were a self-distributed and self-funded brand. It was important that the whole family was onboard because it was a sacrifice from a time and financial standpoint. I would spend my evenings doing demos or go to trade shows on the weekends. I stopped enjoying cooking, to be honest — I was rushing home to get meals on the table, and it started to feel like work.
I started saving cooking nice meals for the weekend, when I could actually savor the experience or try something new with Vivienne, my daughter. The joy of cooking is coming back, especially now that my team is growing and I can breathe a little more than I used to. My daughter is getting older, and it’s fun to get into the kitchen when she can be helpful and learn. She loves baking, and we make muffins and waffles on the weekend. I also feel like I have a lot more joy in cooking because of the food community. I know a lot of the people and the makers behind the products we use now, which feels so special.
The joy of cooking is coming back.
At our house, food and cooking feel really empowered, and it’s really cool to see that Vivienne knows there can be a safe solution that will meet any of her needs. In social settings, there is still an element of feeling left out. When she can’t dig into the same birthday cake that her friends do, I know it weighs on her. We are working on teaching her that everyone is special and different, and there are things she can enjoy.
At our house, food and cooking feel really empowered.
Today, I made chicken and dumplings. I love this dish because it’s the ultimate comfort food. I remember having this in college. Growing up in the South, I would have girlfriends over to watch trashy TV and eat chicken and dumplings and other comfort food. These days, we adapt the recipe for our diet by making the dumplings with our baking mix. I can get a lot of veggies like carrots and celery in there, too, but it still feels very indulgent.
I love this dish because it’s the ultimate comfort food.
Looking forward, there’s a lot that I’m excited about. For one, we’re expanding the baking-mix line this year. Second, when I started this company it was about providing solutions for my daughter, but I’ve realized that it’s a vehicle to support inclusivity and underrepresented groups through our social mission efforts. As our business gets bigger, the impact we’re able to have on organizations, like the Food Equality Initiative that we work closely with, also grows. That gets me excited, too.
Photos by Tory Williams.