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The story of Alcenia’s B.J. Chester-Tamayo

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BJ. Chester-Tamayo never cooked until she opened her restaurant, Alcenia's, in 1997.

"Had never been a waitress," she says. "Didn't cook. Didn't do anything."

The recipes came from her mother, Alcenia Clark-Chester. She called Clark-Chester, who lived in Meridian, Mississippi, and asked her how to cook greens and other soul food items. "She would call me from Meridian and say, 'It should be ready by now. Look at the color. The color should be dark.'"

More than 20 years later, Chester-Tamayo still uses her mother's recipes as well as her own. She's been on the Food Network four times. She was on Chopped last December. Her restaurant was voted as one of the 200 places to visit in the United States by the New York Times. "I've been in a Japanese tour guide book, a French tour guide book."

She was included in the July 2017 issue of O, the Oprah Magazine in the article, "The U.S. of Yum — Our Favorite Food Finds from all 50 States." She represented Tennessee.

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Chester-Tamayo discussed her first cookbook, Alcenia's Healing the Soul: Autobiography Cookbook, with Jenna Bush on the Today show.

She released her latest cookbook, Soul 2 Soul from Alcenia to the World in August. That cookbook is "about my customers. I have the world's greatest customers. When I say that, I mean that from the bottom of my heart."

Her mother grew up on a farm in Kemper County before moving to Meridian, where Chester-Tamayo was born. "My mom started cooking at the age of nine."

Growing up, Chester-Tamayo didn't hang out in the kitchen. "I didn't cook. I washed dishes. That was about it. She just never made me do it."

Singing was Chester-Tamayo's passion. "I remember writing Diana Ross ... and telling her I wanted to be discovered," she says. "It didn't go anywhere. I don't think I even mailed it."

Chester-Tamayo had one son, Will A. Tamayo III, but she called him "Go Go."

She went to seven colleges before she graduated from LeMoyne-Owen. "I majored in social work. ... But I changed it to business administration."

She graduated from Lemoyne-Owen in May 1996. Her son was killed in a motorcycle accident that August. "I shut down for two years."

His daughter, Alcenia Tamayo was born March 1997.

Chester-Tamayo wanted to pursue her dream of going into manufacturing. "My mom always had peach preserves, pear preserves in the summertime. I didn't want her legacy to die with her."

She opened as "Alcenia's Desserts and Preserves Shop." But, she says, "Everybody kept coming in and saying, 'Do you have any chitterlings? Do you have any greens?'"

Chester-Tamayo called her mother. "She gave me her recipes, and I went out and went shopping. As long as I had her recipes, I was confident. I told people, 'I don't need your recipe. I got my mom's. I got the world's greatest cook's recipes.'"

Her restaurant is filled with color. "I think my life is not brown and beige. I'm not a brown and beige person. I've always been that flamboyant person that just loves fashion."

Every customer gets a hug from Chester-Tamayo at Alcenia's. "That was just natural. If I saw family, we hugged each other."

Chester-Tamayo's real name is Betty Joyce Chester-Tamayo. People called her B. J. in high school and the name stuck.

Asked how many people think her name is Alcenia, Tamayo says, "Did you hear those ladies that just left saying, 'Bye, Alcenia'? People assume that when you open a business, you name it after you."

But she named it after her mother. "My mother is such a giving, loving person. She still cooks certain things today. Even at 97. Her hands are just in bad shape. I'll call her in a minute right now and say, 'Tell me how to do this, that.'"

Or, she says, "I'll take something home so she can critique it. I made some homemade apple butter. If it's not right, she's going to tell me. 'Cause that's her recipe."

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