Jackie Page-Heidelberg is Catering to a Culinary Quest

The caterer's midlife career shift brings a new sense of purpose.

photo by laura petrilla

Jackie Page-Heidelberg’s graduated from culinary school when she was 47.

That’s not to say that the 53-year-old owner of Jackie Kennedy Catering didn’t already know her way around a kitchen. She first worked a hot-line when she was 15, frying fries and grilling dogs at a hot dog shop on Route 30. She continued to work at restaurants throughout high school.

But she never thought preparing food would be a career.

Her father worked for General Motors, and Page-Heidelberg participated in a program that extended job opportunities to family members of employees. She made car parts, everything from tiny hinges to hunks of metal turned into van hoods. But when her father died when she was 21, “I couldn’t go back into the place,” she says.

So she returned to restaurants, this time taking front-of-house jobs where she could earn a higher wage with tips, eventually running the banquet service at Nigro’s, an Italian restaurant in North Versailles, and as one of the first hires at an Eat‘n Park in the same township. She also worked at the Center for Creative Play in Regent Square while she raised her daughter.

Her sister, Raquel Hempfield, recognized that Page-Heidelberg was drawn to something bigger than running someone else’s banquet service and encouraged her to return to school. Page-Heidelberg listened to her sister’s advice; unfortunately, Hempfield died from cancer only 11 months after Page-Heidelberg’s graduation from Community College of Allegheny County. “She’s my little angel on my shoulder. I can always hear her saying ‘You got this,’” she says.

Page-Heidelberg picked up an occasional catering gig but mainly made money by bartending. And then, one day, she said to herself, “Either I’m going to do this or I’m going to bartend the rest of my life.”

“You can buy a bag of chicken nuggets, but a chicken nugget can only be a chicken nugget. You buy a chicken breast, and there are so many things you can do with it. It’s about changing the way people think.”

In April 2017, she officially launched Jackie Kennedy Catering. Her first year, by any account, was a good one. It began with a job as a craft services caterer for the NBC television show “Gone,” a gig that she sprung into craft service operations for multiple other locally produced commercials, film and television projects. She catered Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for the Tomlin family, the Union Project’s Martin Luther King Day dinner, numerous events at Repair the World and other private celebrations such as birthday parties. The secret to her success, she says, is being a good listener.

“The thing about catering is you cater to the client, so I don’t have any set menus. If that’s what they want, you make it for them,” she says.

Page-Heidelberg radiates nonstop energy, and that applies to her volunteer work, particularly with the hunger-relief organization 412 Food Rescue. She was the nonprofit’s 412 Ambassador of the Year last year and, earlier this year was named 412 Cooking Matters Instructor of the Year.

The Cooking Matters program is particularly close to her heart.

“I saw a girl at the grocery store, and everything in her buggy was in a bag, box or can. And I dawned on me — what I want to do is teach people how to eat better and cook better,” she says.

With Cooking Matters, Page-Heidelberg teaches 10-person, six-week classes on healthy cooking for older adults and classes for adults with families throughout Allegheny County. She teaches the participants how to read labels, learn about nutrition and how to shop for and prepare nutritious meals at home.

“Forty years of processed foods has changed the way we eat,” she says. “You can buy a bag of chicken nuggets, but a chicken nugget can only be a chicken nugget. You buy a chicken breast, and there are so many things you can do with it. It’s about changing the way people think.”

Categories: Eat + Drink Features, PGHeats