RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The chef and owner of a local meal prep service will soon be opening a new fine-dining restaurant in Monroe Ward.

“I guess I always liked to cook,” Theresa Headen said. “It started when I was three.”

Headen grew up in Monrovia, Liberia, surrounded by a full household of extended family. Inspired by her grandmother cooking for everyone, Headen would borrow the family pots and pans to play chef with her friends and family as customers.

“We would use candy wrappers as money,” she said. “I would pretend to cook and they would have to go find different wrappers to come back and pay.”

When Headen moved to the United States, her love for cooking only grew.

“I love what I can do with food,” she said. “So when I got out of school, I worked retail management for a little bit but while doing that I was like, ‘everybody needs a second job, maybe I’ll do catering.’ So that’s how Elegant Cuizines started.”

After some success in catering, Headen decided to pivot Elegant Cuizines into a meal prep business. The timing proved fortuitous, according to Headen, as five months later the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and turned the food industry on its head.

“I feel like that could have been the twist of COVID,” she said. “Seeing people really show their strength … It was either you’re going to swing or you’re going to sink … It showed how strong people can really be when they come together as a community.”

Following the success of Elegant Cuizines as a subscription-based meal prep service, Headen said she tried a number of times to open a restaurant but was consistently turned away.

“I always knew I wanted my own restaurant but I feel like … in any new business you kind of have to prove yourself,” she said. “We wanted something in the city, so we had been looking at other things in the city but those things didn’t work out. And then when this place worked out … we were definitely in the right place at the right time.”

Headen said she will continue to run the meal prep service while operating the restaurant but it will be at a smaller scale and exclusive to already established subscribers.

“I like doing meal prep, but I love when I can plate food and I can present it to you and [see] the look on your face and how it makes you feel,” she said.

She said her unique approach to ingredients will carry on in the restaurant’s new menu.

“My approach to making it unique is that all the meals [are] dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, raw sugar, raw salt … that kind of thing,” she said. “So I try my best to make sure that the [ingredients] are as clean as possible.”

(Photo: Tannock Blair, 8News)

Headen said her cooking is heavily inspired by her West African roots, but not exclusively — she said she loves to experiment with different styles of cooking to establish her own flavor.

“I always say our food is literally like art on your plate,” she said. “The plates, the pots, those are my canvas and my painting brush.”

Headen said the dining experience will be cozy, with an expected 45 seats and an enclosed patio area in the back.

“I feel like Elegant Cuizines will definitely be like a community,” she said. “And so people who might not know each other can be like, ‘Oh, hey, I saw you here last week.’ And so this kind of space can be more inviting.”

Headen describes the new restaurant as a dream come true — one that she has been thinking about for a long time.

“We had to write these letters … ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?'” she said. “In that letter, I said I was going to have a restaurant and a family. It didn’t really go as planned like that but it’s like this.”

Headen’s husband, Charles, helped her manage the meal prep service and will now be managing the restaurant with her as well.

(Photo: Tannock Blair, 8News)

“I like Richmond. I feel like it is a quiet place to raise a family,” Headen said. “We have kids so it’s [important] for raising my family. But I also like the whole idea of this community that we’re going to create — the kind that Richmond offers and is slowly becoming.”

Elegant Cuizines will have a soft opening in December and a grand opening sometime in the new year, according to Headen. It is located at 415 West Grace Street.