As a child, Onna Hepner didn’t watch Saturday morning cartoons.
“I would watch cooking shows all morning, then make my mom something for lunch and have it all set out for her,” said Hepner, now a professional chef and culinary teacher. “She would come home from her lunch break and I would give her this whole spiel about what I made.”
Since then, Hepner has become the owner and head chef of Full & Happy, her most recent endeavor, a cooking studio that opened on North 15th Street earlier this year in the Fairmount neighborhood.
“The mission of Full & Happy is to feed people really great food and expertly show them how to replicate gourmet meals at home,” Hepner said.
Hepner said that while selling jams and baked goods at a monthly flea market, she realized that she wanted to do more than just sell her products – she wanted to teach others how to make them.
“I am trying to reach people who want cooking skills and people who really want to learn how to cook,” Hepner said. “My overall goal for this business is to make cooking more approachable for people.”
As part of the learning experience, Hepner creates original Full & Happy recipes for her customers to take home. She has strayed from what she called the traditional list format of recipes and instead, takes a photograph-oriented approach in hopes of redefining the way recipes are written and understood.
Hepner said before Full & Happy, she cooked in six different restaurants, on food TV shows and as a personal chef.
“My experience is so broad that I can take from each one of those and tell you something useful that you can do at home in the kitchen,” Hepner said.
Hepner is a graduate of St. Joseph’s University with a degree in food marketing. She aspired to delve into the culinary arts but never pursued it immediately after graduation because of her family’s concerns about her ability to make a living with a culinary degree.
“Then my dad got sick,” Hepner said. “He was diagnosed four years ago with stage four colon cancer and he basically had a two-and-a-half-year life span. He told me, ‘Go get the culinary degree you want. You have to do this right now. So I can see you do it.’”
With the wish of her dying father at hand, Hepner immediately quit her job in marketing and enrolled in culinary school. She drove from Philadelphia to New York three days a week for the first two months of school until she found a place to live.
Hepner’s career quickly flourished. She soon landed a job with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse.
“He was filming a TV show at the time,” Hepner said. “Someone I knew was working on the show and I asked how she got involved. That’s when she asked if I wanted to fill in for her for five days.”
Her diligence as a chef-in-training paid off. Lagasse’s staff liked Hepner so much that they offered her an internship to help prepare food in the kitchen for shows.
Today, Hepner is still working for Lagasse, but instead of working as an intern, she works as a food stylist, preparing food for his QVC appearances.
She has worked with other celebrities as well, preparing recipes for The Martha Stewart Show and personally cooking for Richard Nichols, former manager of Philadelphia band, The Roots. Hepner also partnered with The Roots’ drummer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, for a project that aimed to provide food and music for special events held by companies such as Rolling Stone magazine and Food & Wine magazine.
Also an avid traveler, Hepner has traveled to places like Madrid and New Orleans where she recalled paying close attention to the people, the sites and most importantly, the food.
“I try to travel as much as I can,” Hepner said. “I love to eat, obviously, so I am all about going places and just eating my way through a city.”
She focuses on finding ways to weave her cultural exposure into her cooking lessons to give them an authentic cultural feel, frequently tailoring the studio’s ambiance to match the food’s culture of origin.
“Simply put,” Hepner said. “I want it to be a place where you can come to enjoy both good food and conversation. I want you to feel like you are at home.”
Gregory Forkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org