COLUMBIA — When it comes to cooking, Cat Rehma likes to have it her way.
"I am very, very particular about my food," Rehma said. "I am very hard to work for. I am extremely careful because everything here is homemade, which doesn't come out of freezer prepared and heated. It's made from scratch."
After running a restaurant in Hallsville from April 2010 until October 2012, Rehma, 54, and her partner, Ray Frechett II, 52, opened Cats Kitchen on Nov. 1 at 1802 Paris Road to reach out to a larger population.
Rehma sees herself as an old-fashioned cook who believes in serving homemade, non-processed food. Although Frechett helps her prepare food, she still keeps a tight hold of her kitchen.
Frechett said Rehma runs the show in the kitchen. "She is the kitchen magician," he said. "When she bangs two pans together, food just tastes better."
Some of the most popular dishes include pork tenderloin and hot roast beef sandwich. Rehma's fried chocolate pies and fish fry are the specials on Fridays.
Rehma said her favorite dish to cook is homemade chicken and noodles because it raises fond memories for her customers.
"It takes them back 40 years," Rehma said. "You have no idea how many people say 'Oh my God, I haven't had chicken and noodles since my grandma died.' That's what I want. I want people to remember what it was like to go to grandma's house and eat."
For Rehma, whose family has been in the diner business since she was 13, becoming a cook was a destiny.
"It was just a little Mom and Pop diner in Lansing, Michigan," she said. "My brothers and sisters worked there. I washed dishes. Mom was the cook, and Dad was the cashier."
Some of her secret recipes have been handed down by her grandmother and mother, but those recipes exist only at the tips of her fingers. She said she doesn't use measuring cups.
"I can remember being a little girl helping my grandmother make noodles," Rehma said. "I can remember her putting ingredients together — again, she didn't measure, either. Watched her technique. She then let me roll out the dough, and she would say 'You need to feel this. See how thick this is? This is not thin enough, you need to roll it more.'"
Frechett works as the handy man and handles a variety of duties, including cleaning the floors and helping Rehma in the kitchen. Ruby Perkins, 71, has worked as the hostess since the diner opened in Hallsville. Perkins' daughter Marcia Bachtel, 42, and Rehma's niece Sara Browns, 25, work as waitresses.
They consider one another like family. Rehma's mother passed away in 1985, and Perkins has filled that missing space.
"I said to Cat, 'You know, Cat, I might as well adopt you. I have three daughters of my own, and one more daughter would not hurt.' She said, 'Do you mean that?' So I said, 'I truly do,'" Perkins said. "I've got a special place in my heart, and if she was there to come to me and need anything, and I could do it. I would help her."
For her part, Rehma called Perkins a rare find and said she values her strength and ability to deal easily with people.
"I admire that because that's how my mom was," Rehma said.
The website for the Association of American Diners says that what Americans think of as a diner started in 1858 when Walter Scott, a 17-year-old entrepreneur from Providence, R.I., began selling sandwiches and coffee from a basket to night workers.
American diners have evolved across the country and became a gathering place for family and friends to have inexpensive food and a cup of coffee, the website said.
Rehma intends for Cats Kitchen to serve that purpose for her regulars.
Tony Lindsay, 39, of Hallsville comes to Cats Kitchen at least twice a week. When he heard Rehma was moving to Columbia, he thought he was losing a restaurant in Hallsville.
Lindsay and Perkins have a routine together: When Perkins pours coffee into Lindsay's cup, he says, "Thank you," and she winks and responds, "All right, T."
"Just like you go to Starbucks to take your coffee break, I went to Cats every day in Hallsville. Do your Starbucks people know you by name?" Lindsay said. "You build a relationship, and it's the comfort. That's what she tries to provide: a comfort food."
Eva Ray, 49, said she comes to the diner every Friday for dinner. Her husband, Sterling Ray, 47, who works across the street, comes to the diner every day for breakfast and lunch.
"I love it," Eva Ray said. "It's the best homemade meal I've ever had."
Rehma said nobody leaves the diner as a stranger.
"They talk like they have known each other for 100 years," she said.
When customers leave, Perkins likes to give them a big hug.
"I always hug them," she said. "It never hurts."
Cats Kitchen is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Friday and from 6 a.m. until 11 a.m. on Saturday.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.