Joseph Page started cooking as a defensive measure. He said his busy mother wasn't the greatest at it.
But he found he had both a knack and a love for it.
Now he's aiming to build a career around cooking.
Page, who is 45, spent his early adulthood earning a living by selling cars, selling jewelry and working in a pork-processing plant. He loved the 15 years he spent as a used-car salesman and said he was good at it.
But when that business faltered, he moved into other jobs, including working on the line at the Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel. He said he liked the job but it was taking a physical toll, so he pondered what else he could do.
Fittingly, his mother, Corinthia Uliasz, pushed him into his current direction.
"She said, 'Why don't you go to cooking school?'" Page said.
That's just what Page is doing. He's halfway through a 2-year culinary arts program at Fayetteville Technical Community College, where he's learning the ins and outs, dos and don'ts and rules and recommendations of food and the food-service industry. He hopes to use his training to get a job cooking on a cruise ship and one day open his own gourmet soul food restaurant.
Page developed a love for soul food when he was a boy. He lived with his grandmother while his mother was serving in the military. She made traditional soul food -- and she made it well. His mouth waters at the thought of chicken, collards, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese.
"It's just comfort when you eat and cook that food," he said. "It makes you feel like you're at home."
As an adult, he made his own versions of soul food dishes and won frequent compliments from family and friends.
And the dishes have evolved over the years, the result of new ideas and techniques -- and changing health situations. Five years ago, Page was diagnosed with diabetes. Since then, he's been on a mission to find healthier ways to make dishes that have traditionally relied on lots of grease, fat and frying.
He uses chicken and beef stock and seasonings to provide flavor in place of some fat. And he uses a bit of bacon instead of whole ham hocks.
He said one key to good cooking is doing it slowly and carefully.
"When you're in the kitchen, you can't leave the kitchen," he said. "You always have to pay attention to what you have in the oven or on the stove."
Another key, he said, is caring about what you're making, however complicated or simple the dish is.
"You have to put passion into your food," Page said. "I don't care if it's hot dogs and hamburgers. If you pay attention and cook them right, they'll taste real good."
Here are five tips from Joseph Page on making delicious and healthier soul food:
1. Add seasonings carefully, tasting along the way to see when it suits you.
2. For tender greens, cook them for three to four hours -- until they're "army green," not bright green.
3. To reduce bitterness in greens, use chicken stock and beef stock in place of sugar.
4. For flavor with less fat, use a piece of bacon in place of ham hocks.
5. Try breading chicken and baking it instead of frying it.