Faces of Norwalk: Neena Perez, Culinary Business Owner
Perez, 40, has earned three degrees in the last few years – a certificate in culinary arts, an associate's in restaurant and food management and a bachelor's degree in hospitality management. With those degrees, she has started two businesses and essentially a new chapter of her life, Perez said.
"I know that I've been through a lot of struggles," Perez said. "I think struggles make you better."
Perez was raised in Stamford and was abused growing up. She became pregnant with her first child, a boy who is now 25, at the age of 14. She graduated from high school but could not go to college at the time.
"College, school, was completely out of the question," Perez said. "I worked two jobs, I lived in a shelter because I was battered ... College was just – it just doesn't happen when you have to take care of another human being."
She said after high school, she worked as a medical assistant for about 15 years but never gave up her dream of becoming a TV chef.
In 2007, though, Perez decided to change her life.
"Later in life when my kids got older, I said, 'I don't want to be 80 and regret never doing this.' So I quit my full-time job and I came to school. And I was scared because paychecks stopped coming but it's just something I always wanted to do," Perez said.
In 2009, Perez said she, her husband, Rudy, and their children lost everything and were homeless for a while, pushing her to work even harder in her studies.
When she graduated from Norwalk Community College in 2011 before heading to Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y., to earn her bachelor's degree, Perez was the commencement speaker as the class valedictorian.
Since then, she has started two businesses based in Norwalk with kitchens in New Canaan. The Kiddie Kitchen hosts children's cooking parties and offers camps and lessons, and the Kitchen After Hours focuses on instructing an adult crowd. Both draw customers mainly from Westport, Darien, New Canaan and Norwalk, but also from other places in the area, Perez said.
"Sometimes, once in a blue (moon), I'll get a call from upstate. They'll say, 'I'll pay for your travel if you come up here,'" Perez said.
Perez also teaches the culinary portion of the Norwalk Community College College for Kids camp, and she recently taped five segments of a kids cooking show that will be shown on public access TV to begin working toward her dream of being a TV chef, Perez said.
"That's really what I want to do one day," she said. "We're going to put it here on public access network in Norwalk and then I'm sending it to Microsoft Network, maybe Food Network, I don't know. I'm going to send it to different places and see who will want to have a kids' cooking show because there's not any out there that I know of ... I think it could be fun for them to have their own show."
No matter what happens, though, Perez said all of her ups and downs in life have taught her to just keep going.
"I think that your trials and tribulations are only there as a stepladder to push you up to your dreams," Perez said. "I feel like anything that's ever happened to me in my life, I just shake it off and step on it and move up."