By Susan Weinstein

Shawanna Kennedy traces her path to teaching culinary arts and nutrition education back to her grandmother’s kitchen. She studied psychology at Southern Illinois University and began working in the mental health field, but found her way to Common Threads after meeting co-founder Chef Art Smith.

In addition to working as a senior chef instructor for Common Threads in Chicago, Kennedy is a wife, mother of two and a culinary instructor with UChicago Medicine where she helps teach nutrition to medical students.

We sat down with her to learn more about her professional background.

Common Threads: Could you tell us about your childhood; where did you grow-up and who was the biggest influence in your life? Who inspired you to be the person you are today?

Shawanna Kennedy: I grew up on the Southside of Chicago and attended the same elementary school as former First Lady, Michelle Obama. My grandmother was the biggest influence in my life. She was an extremely hard worker and a great cook. I’ve been inspired by so many people with so many walks of life. I think it is resiliency that inspires me.

CT: What were some of your favorite foods as a child? As an adult, what foods do you enjoy cooking and eating today?

SK: As a child, I loved tacos, pizza, hamburgers, the typical kid stuff. Now I enjoy trying new recipes, but tacos are still my favorite.

CT: What inspired you to pursue a career in culinary arts?

SK: I always loved cooking ever since I was 8 years old. Originally, I would watch TV commercials and try to duplicate what I saw. I decided to believe in myself and pursue the career of my dreams.

CT: How did you learn how to cook?

SK: I attended my mother and grandmother’s kitchen. I was self-trained. However, I have taken some classes at junior colleges to brush up on my skills.

CT: Where are some of the places that you’ve worked before joining Common Threads?

SK: Abraham Lincoln Centre and Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis

CT: How did you become acquainted with Common Threads and what motivated you to become a member of the team?

SK: I was volunteering at my kids’ school and had no idea that Art Smith’s children attended the same school. The principal at the time, noticed that I was always volunteering for everything that involved food. She suggested that I look into Art Smith’s organization Common Threads, and the rest is history.

CT: What do you enjoy most about being part of the team at Common Threads?

SK: Everything! It never feels like I’m at work.

CT: What have been some of the benefits and drawbacks of virtually teaching cooking? What adjustments have you had to make?

SK: I can teach classes anywhere around the world and I am able to meet new people, but at times, attendance is low. I also miss in-person learning. I like being right there so that I can correct them properly.

CT: What is the most memorable experience you have had while working at Common Threads?

SK: The grocery store tours where we teach the kids how to shop for food, weigh the produce and pay for the food. It’s all about teaching life skills. Also, I was involved in a Target commercial. That was a lot of fun; the cameras, the lights were most memorable.

CT: Working at Common Threads, what has been the most rewarding experience?

SK: Making a difference in the lives of children and their families that we impact.

CT: With your experience at Common Threads, what are your future career ambitions and goals?

SK: I will continue with nutrition education and want to open a restaurant on the South side of Chicago where people can get fresh and nutritious meals.

CT: What do you like?

SK: I love my family: my husband and kids. I like food science, interacting with people, new challenges, and cooking.

Chef Shawanna Kennedy was among the staff present for Senator Dick Durbin’s February 2020 visit to a Common Threads class at Jungman STEM Magnet Elementary School in Chicago.

Watch Chef Shawanna demonstrate how to make a classic soul food recipe – Catfish and String Beans. Although this dish is traditionally served fried, in this recipe the fish is baked in the oven for a leaner cooking method. Find this recipe and more kid-friendly recipes at

Chef Shawanna Kennedy led activities at Common Threads’ 2019 Family Takeover Day held at Dusek’s.


Common Threads is a national nonprofit that provides children and families cooking and nutrition education to encourage healthy habits that contribute to wellness. We equip under-resourced communities with information to make affordable, nutritious and appealing food choices wherever they live, work, learn, and play. We know that food is rooted in culture and tradition so we promote diversity in our lessons and recipes,