Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first of this year’s Distinguished Dozen! The Daily Progress is happy each year to present 12 local residents nominated by others in the community as examples of generosity, kindness, leadership and service. The series gives us an opportunity to introduce the community to great people in our midst, and it is one of our most favorite parts of the year. We hope you enjoy meeting this year’s Distinguished Dozen.
The first time Laura Fonner ever cooked a meal it resulted in a hole in the kitchen floor and a basement fire. She was 10 at the time.
A few decades later she has become a venerated executive chef and owner of the popular downtown Mediterranean-style seafood restaurant Siren.
“My passion is food, and I was really, really lucky at a really young age to figure it out,” said Fonner.
While her earliest forays into the culinary arts ranged from 911 calls to over-microwaved “chewy cheese sandwiches,” she truly began her journey into the world of food when her mom enrolled her in a cooking class at CATEC. She then spent the next few years making cheesecakes and pastries at former Main Street mainstay Blue Bird Cafe before applying for a job as a line cook at Duner’s in Ivy at age 19.
During her 17 years at Duner’s, Fonner worked her way up the ranks to executive chef, but that isn’t what stands out about her tenure at the Ivy establishment.
Her gratitude for the chance that she was given as a young person led her to a desire to help the community. She reached out to local chefs and farmers she had met through her work, asking for leftover food from their restaurants and farms. She began creating meals out of those excess ingredients and donating them to the unhoused community once a week through People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry (PACEM.)
“It’s a basic necessity to live. You need to eat, and not everybody has the ability or means to do it,” she said.
Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everything changed.
Not only was she not able to continue her charity work, but she had also begun talks to buy Duner’s three months before the pandemic officially began. Although the talks ended up falling through, her optimism persisted.
“You gotta let life lead you in the direction that it leads you,” said Fonner.
Her life ended up taking an interesting turn.
Fonner received a call from Food Network asking her to compete in cooking competitions on TV.
As someone who battles with anxiety, the idea of flying across the country to compete on camera was daunting, but nevertheless she did it and she did it well. She has now competed in eight episodes of Guy’s Grocery Games, beating out other champions and earning $60,000 in prize money. While some of those earnings went toward the opening of her new restaurant, a portion of them went directly to PACEM.
A few days away from its one-year anniversary, Siren has been Fonner’s dream. She says that the restaurant, which she designed and worked on with the help of her parents and friends, is meant to feel like coming home, Its cozy interior of warm woodtones and mismatched art is welcoming by design, in an almost self-portrait of the talented chef. The staff is stocked with friendly servers and accomplished cooks, two of whom Fonner brought meals to for years through her program with PACEM.
Fonner was nominated and chosen as a member of this year’s Distinguished Dozen for her dedication to the community and her position as a role model for everyone who meets her. Her infectious enthusiasm is unparalleled and her humble optimism is inspiring.
“This industry really humbles you and teaches you,” said Fonner. “I was lucky finding my passion and my passion just happens to be a basic necessity. Everybody has to eat.”