First she gave cooking demonstrations and then wrote a cookbook. Recently she started creating greeting cards with rooster themes. And now she’s stirring up batches of her own chocolate sauce and gluten-free granola.
Mila Payne, 60, of Santa Ana, could be forgiven for feeling as though she has more than enough on her plate.
But that is not her thinking. She likes creating and keeping busy.
The certified chef of 25 years has had her line of all things food — known as Chef Mila — carried at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, Hotel Irvine and The Potting Shed by Carlisle in Orange. She’s also in discussions to expand the line at Santa Monica Seafood and The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach.
Cooking, welcoming people and sharing plates around the table come as second nature to Payne.
During her childhood in Paraty, Brazil, a historic coastal town between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Payne’s grandfather would take her to a farming village where she would get experience preparing food in clay ovens. She would also talk to her aunt, who loved to cook, about recipes.
So began Payne’s commitment to using only the best produce and ingredients, something that’s stayed with her throughout her years as a chef.
“I’m into easy and practical cooking,” Payne said earlier this month as she prepared dishes in the historic home she shares with her husband, Richard, in Floral Park, an upscale section of Santa Ana. “It’s all about passion.”
She turned her love for making food into a career. Payne worked at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel for five years and taught cooking classes at Sur La Table at its Newport Beach, farmers market and Carlsbad locations.
About 20 years ago, she walked into the Trader Joe’s in Costa Mesa to ask about selling her oven-roasted tomatoes, but the grocery store wasn’t buying her pitch. However, she did meet her future husband, Richard, who at the time, managed the store.
“I thought, ‘Wow, she’d make a great demo lady,” Richard said with a laugh.
And so Payne was hired to be the store’s food demonstrator.
For years, Payne demonstrated to customers how to create recipes using the grocery store’s ingredients. Today, Richard edits her labels and recipes.
She also began catering and providing personal chef services to residents in Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Corona del Mar. Today, she prepares food for friends in Floral Park.
Payne has no doubt spent much time in her home kitchen, preparing meals for her family. Gray and white cabinetry define the space, which is equipped with a Sub-Zero refrigerator and a 1940 upright O’Keefe & Merritt retro stove that she bought from a friend 28 years ago.
The 1916 craftsman-style home’s landscape includes a garden from which Payne can pluck herbs like mint and sage and vegetables such as peppers and asparagus. She and Richard host parties on the outdoor seating area to enjoy meals alfresco.
“When I’m down, I cook,” Payne said. “I give food to neighbors. For me it’s calming and relaxing.”
One of her most rewarding ventures was associating with Roger’s Gardens. She has created recipes for the home and garden shop and begun selling her Kahlua chocolate sauce and gluten-free granola in its gallery.
The chocolate, which Payne described as “so good it should be illegal,” doesn’t contain corn syrup or preservatives. She conceived the recipe after recalling a popular Brazilian hard candy that is commonly served at parties. Her signature chocolate sauce contains only unsweetened, 100% cocoa mass, butter, condensed milk and Kahlua.
She took two to three years to perfect it.
“You can do martinis, cake, pretzels, cold milk, coffee, anything with it,” said Payne, who pours the sauce into individual glass jars and seals the top with a decorative piece of fabric.
Jack Carlisle, owner of The Potting Shed by Carlisle in Old Towne Orange, said he knew Payne through mutual friends. He began carrying her cards, aprons, cookbooks and chocolate sauce in his store about six months ago.
Her items have been a hit, he said.
“When she comes in the store, the party can start,” Carlisle said of Payne. “She has such a passion for life, and it comes through her cooking. Her thoughtfulness and creativity show in her food.”
Her love of art, as seen in her greeting cards, extends to her cookbook — including the rooster theme. She hand-paints the covers, which are made of bamboo. She also does the printing and binding. The finished work sells for $150.
“I love what I do,” Payne said. “This is my happy place.”