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Let the culinary makeover begin: Meet our chosen home cook

Chicagoan Mary Jane Taldisplays her oven which will finally start getting used. (Rich Hein~Sun-Times)

Chicagoan Mary Jane Tala displays her oven, which will finally start getting used. (Rich Hein~Sun-Times)

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About this series

We’re giving Sun-Times reader Mary Jane Tala a culinary makeover in six weeks, with the help of chef John Bubala, a Chicago restaurant veteran and culinary school instructor.

Most of the instruction will take place in Tala’s Near North Side condo.

We’ll update her progress in the Food section and on our Digging In blog ( At the end of the six weeks, she’ll cook dinner for four.

Updated: November 22, 2011 4:52PM

It looks like Mary Jane Tala is going to have to stop using her oven as storage and start, well, using it.

Sun-Times readers chose Tala, 57, of the Near North Side as the guinea pig for our first Home Cook Makeover, giving her nearly half of the 1,012 votes.

In six weeks, with the guidance of chef John Bubala, we’ll take Tala from clueless to confident in the kitchen. At the end of it, we’ll have her cook dinner for four.

Tala, an accountant, needs help. Her oven largely functions as storage space for gardening accessories.

The appliance that gets the most mileage in her kitchen is the microwave — she eats a lot of Lean Cuisine meals. Salads and breakfast cereal also sustain her.

She’s never been much of a foodie. Never got into cooking when she was married because her ex-husband was the cook, and a good one at that.

“He would make vichyssoise from scratch,” she marvels. “Too bad we couldn’t remain friends.”

Recently, Tala has had more motivation to learn how to cook. Last fall, she had an emergency appendectomy. She figured the hospital was the best place to quit smoking, which she did; learning how to cook seemed a natural second.

Tala wants to have the ability to cook wholesome meals on a regular basis. “Because I tell you, processed food is no good for you — it’s full of preservatives and sodium. And it’s expensive,” she says.

So, let the cooking begin. Vichyssoise (which, Tala should know, is simply potato-leek soup), here we come.

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