This feature is part of a The Daily News series where we explore the diversity of local chefs in Onslow County called “A Taste of Onslow.”
Chef Lesonta Thomas, better known as “Booby,” didn’t used to care for cooking, but now it’s her life’s work as she runs successful Jacksonville Caribbean and soul food restaurant — Booby’s Kitchen.
Booby was born in Brooklyn, New York to parents of Caribbean descent. Growing up, she said her family always found a reason to cook, from parties to graduations and everything in between.
But there’s a twist — Booby didn’t like being in the kitchen.
“Food has always been a part of my life, from the very beginning,” Booby said. “But I didn’t care for cooking, never liked being in the kitchen, always avoided being in the kitchen. I would rather clean something up before being in the kitchen.”
Booby eventually went to college and graduated from Felician University in 2013 with her bachelor’s in business administration. She then went to cosmetology school but hated it.
And then ten years ago, she married her husband, who Booby said loves to eat.
“He would give me all these little tasks every day of what he wanted or what he was going for, little things like chicken parmesan and lasagna,” Booby said. “I was like, you know what, I’m going to pull it up on YouTube and I’m going to try it.”
It took lots of trial and error, but Booby was determined, and once she started to master her culinary skills and add her own twist, people started taking a liking to it.
She then got a job at Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen in February of 2015 as a server, and then a bartender. But just two months later, she was asked to be the restaurant’s culinary manager.
Less than four months after that, she became managing partner, working everywhere from Greenville to Fayetteville. Over the next several years, she worked at 13 total Cheddars’ all over the country, even getting her own franchise in Gastonia, North Carolina.
“I fell in love with it,” Booby said. “Cooking became second nature. There was not a recipe in sight that I didn’t want to try.”
At the time, Booby’s husband was working for a construction company, and she would make food for all the guys, but it grew out of control. So, she decided to take things a bit further.
She established Booby’s Kitchen LLC in 2020, doing catering and private jobs, before opening her brick and mortar late last year. Booby’s Kitchen has been nothing less than successful ever since.
The brightly colored restaurant and friendly faces welcome all who walk through the door.
“I’m very big on auras and how you feel when you walk into a building,” Booby said. “Yellow is definitely a happy color. I want people to walk into my restaurant and be happy. Even if you’re not happy when you come in, you’re going to leave happy. I love getting my hugs from my customers. A lady told me yesterday, ‘I’ve never hugged a chef after a meal, but I hugged you.’ I thought that was so sweet.”
Booby’s Kitchen offers everything from curry chicken and goat, to jerk chicken, oxtail, mac and cheese, Rasta pasta, turkey wings, signature drinks and more. Booby said she sells out of oxtail and jerk chicken every single day.
Her specialty, though? Her mac and cheese, a recipe she calls “golden,” adding a local restaurant’s kitchen even comes in at the end of each night to buy her mac and cheese.
But it’s Booby’s background that she said makes her and the restaurant so unique.
“I don’t come from money; I don’t come from a family that had businesses or worked for themselves,” Booby said. “I come from a mother and father that worked every day of their life, that still work right now, and I feel like I’m just a real person. People can come in here and they’re always going to see me.”
Booby said she doesn’t even allow anyone else to cook her recipes, she does it all herself. She starts each day at 4 a.m. and doesn’t leave until the restaurant closes.
Although she’s been looking for an apprentice to help her out, she hasn’t yet found one.
“Rather than giving somebody less value, I’d rather stretch myself a little thinner and I’ll be okay. I drink my water. I’ll stay alive like that,” Booby said.
With the success of Booby’s evident, she said she definitely is looking to expand. She also has a food truck they’re in the process of cleaning up to get back out on the road. The truck will be located in Richlands, which is actually where Booby lives with her husband and two sons, three and six.
But for Booby, the sky is the limit.
“I want more,” Booby said. “I want Booby’s to be a real empire. I want tv dinners in stores, I want it all. I’m not settling for anything, no boxes here. I’m breaking all the boxes.”
For all those out there wondering, where did the name Booby come from? She said her husband gave her the nickname ten years ago, and it was supposed to be just a pet name.
However, he would yell the name in public and used it so much, it stuck. Even her mom now calls her Booby. Her mom is also part of the small staff at Booby’s Kitchen, which consists only of Booby, her husband, mother, two nieces and one other who helps put her plates together.
“I love seeing my customers, I love keeping people happy,” Booby said. “If something goes wrong, I want to fix it now. I don’t want you guys to call me and ask me what’s wrong.”
When Booby isn’t at work, which isn’t much, she’s at home with her family. She said she and her husband make time to always do something with their boys, whether it be spending time outdoors or taking two-day trips to Disney World.
But she never gets a break from cooking. She said her family prefers her food over going out to eat, and she loves playing with new menu items.
“I want to keep it fresh,” Booby said. “I want you to be in a craving for something, but you know you can come to Booby because she has it. Not just those 18 items, I have more always coming.”
Booby’s Kitchen is located at 1002A Henderson Drive in Jacksonville and is open Wednesday-Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Check them out online or on Facebook for more information and for updates about what’s going on.
“I want people to always know my doors are open,” Booby said. “They can always come and talk to me. Even if you’re just having a bad day and aren’t hungry and just want to talk, come see Booby. You’ll leave with a smile for sure.”
Reporter Morgan Starling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.