Most of us have experienced the comfort a meal provides during the mourning process.
For Brown Deer resident Lyncoya Ilion, food was a lifeline during a tragic time and a coping mechanism that led to a second career and connected her to a supportive community of fans. When her 19-year-old son, Michael Terrell, was killed in December 2019, Ilion turned to food, but she wasn’t eating through grief, she was managing it through cooking.
“My son wasn’t committing a crime or anything like that, but he was shot,” Ilion recalled.
“I was suicidal. I have three adult kids and grandchildren, too, but I just didn’t see making it to the next day. Cooking gave me something to preoccupy my mind. Michael loved my cooking, so it helped me feel closer to him, and it kept my mind off of a lot of bad thoughts,” Ilion recalled.
As she perfected her skills, Ilion had no idea where her cooking would lead.
“After Michael passed away, cooking was a stress reliever, and it totally helped,” she said. “I researched a lot of recipes. I’m kind of tooting my own horn, but I can look at a recipe on YouTube, and I pretty much mimic.”
When Ilion posted food photos in a local Facebook food group, accolades followed.
“Even before my son passed away, I would cook good food and post pictures and get tons of compliments. After my son passed away and I started making all this food, I would post pictures, but for some reason my posts got deleted from the group,” Ilion said.
When friends and family urged her to start her own group, Ilion took their advice and created Cooking With Coya.
“I wanted a place to post my own stuff; people from that other group followed me, and that’s how it got started,” she said.
Cooking With Coya has been active for over a year and has close to 4,000 members. But Ilion’s popularity goes beyond food; she intentionally sets a tone that unites food lovers.
“I belong to so many Facebook groups where people are bullies. If I see drama, I get rid of it right away. I try to keep the group positive. We were going through a pandemic, and we deal with enough stuff day to day. Then you come on Facebook wanting to look at food. Why should you have to listen to bullying?” Ilion said.
One of those 4,000 followers, Milwaukee resident Ashley Mitchell, appreciated the positive vibe and was compelled to reach out.
“Last fall when there was a lot of stuff going on politically, it felt like Facebook was a big dark cloud. Cooking With Coya turned into a safe space for me … It was all things food without the negativity,” Mitchell says. “I was not in a great personal space, so I asked myself: ‘What could I do to make myself feel better?’ Give to other people.
“I messaged Lyncoya and said, ‘If there’s one kitchen-related thing you could have to make things easier for you, what would it be?’ ”
Ilion was in the middle of a busy workday when Mitchell’s message appeared. (At the time Ilion worked as a health care software trainer; she currently balances her food career with a full-time role as a health care claims auditor.)
“I was training a doctor and I got this message asking me, ‘What’s one item in your kitchen you don’t have that you really want?’ My first thought was, ‘Why are you asking me this?’ But I’m always going to be real, so I said, ‘What I really want is a KitchenAid mixer.’ This lady Venmo’d me $350! I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to give the money back,” Ilion said.
At Mitchell’s insistence, Ilion kept the money. “I ordered that mixer and had it in two days,” Ilion said.
Another follower, Tim Collins, owner of St. Paul Fish Market, felt strongly that Ilion should share her skills beyond social media.
“I sat down and talked with Lyncoya, and I was moved by her story. It was obvious she had talent, and I was hoping I could help her,” Collins said.
He reached out to the owners of the Mequon Public Market and told them about Ilion.
“The lady who owns the Mequon Public Market contacted me and asked me if I was interested in hosting classes. It kind of took off from there,” Ilion said. Her classes are popular, and Ilion has taught her favorite Asian specialties, Italian dishes, soul food and more. She also likes making birria tacos and Asian dumplings.
“Tim is the one that put my name out there, and that’s how I got started making money, doing the whole cooking thing,” Ilion said.
But Collins hesitated to take the credit, “It’s not about me; I just made a couple of phone calls. It’s all about her, and it’s been really fun to watch her build her brand,” Collins said.
After taking classes and ordering food from Ilion, Erika Seid of Milwaukee’s east side wanted to give her favorite cooking instructor a Christmas gift and came up with an idea.
“Lyncoya’s food is amazing. You can tell she’s a perfectionist. … I was inspired to surprise her with the pasta attachment (for the KitchenAid mixer) to further her endeavors,” Seid said.
Ilion is touched by people’s responses to her posts. “The number of awesome people I’ve met through the group is astonishing … it brings tears to my eyes,” she said.
As Ilion continues to share her cooking with her followers and students, her career is a work in progress, “I’m not a hundred percent sure what I want to do with this. I’m not sure if I want to cater or try to buy a food truck,” she said.
What would Michael think of his mom’s popularity and budding cooking career? “He would tell me to follow my dream. and I know for a fact he’s proud of me,” Ilion said.
Fresh parsley elevates the flavor of your favorite pasta (spaghetti, linguini, rotini) in this recipe from Lyncoya Ilion. Top it with the piccata sauce, given below, for a side dish.
Recipes tested by Pete Sullivan
Makes 4 servings
1 pound of pasta
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Salt to taste
Prepare pasta according to package instructions. Drain. Toss in olive oil, parsley and salt.
Asparagus is an easy but impressive side dish to the pasta and chicken.
Makes 4 servings
1 pound asparagus
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Rinse asparagus and trim about an inch off the woody bottoms of each stalk. Toss in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Heat remaining olive oil in a skillet on medium heat. Add asparagus to the skillet in a single layer. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Flip asparagus and cook for an additional 3 to 4 minutes. Asparagus should brown slightly and should remain crisp.
Makes 4 servings
4 boneless chicken breasts
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup flour
¼ cup neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable
1 minced shallot or ¼ medium onion
3 tablespoons capers
4 cloves minced garlic
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup chicken stock
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
½ stick butter
5 fresh lemon slices
Additional capers for garnish (optional)
Pound chicken breasts until thin, a quarter to a half inch thick. If chicken breasts are really thick, slice in half prior to pounding. Season with salt and pepper. Dip each chicken breast in flour until coated, shake off excess.
Heat oil in a skillet. Add chicken breasts. Cook until lightly browned. Flip to cook other side until lightly browned. Remove from skillet to plate.
Add another tablespoon of oil to skillet. Add shallots or onions, capers and garlic. Sauté for about 2 minutes. Add wine and chicken stock and let simmer for 5 to 7 minutes, until slightly reduced. Add lemon juice and butter. Heat until butter is melted and sauce is slightly thickened.
Put chicken back in pan and cook for additional 5 to 7 minutes. Top with lemon slices and more capers when serving. Serve with pasta or mashed potatoes.