I've come to believe that a chef's hat is full of knowledge. Each of the 101 pleats crammed with secret recipes, flavor combinations and an encyclopedia of ingredients. The higher the rank, the taller the hat, thus the more knowledge floating around inside the starched poof.
When some chefs don their hats, they become infallible in all things cooking. They are the sole authority of the kitchen, but their pride is stifling. There are other, humbler chefs with the same cornucopia of knowledge and the willingness to impart it to others. I had the privilege of sharing a table with two local chefs of the latter persuasion, who take their hats off to young adults and teach them the art of cooking.
Michael Finch is the picture of a professional chef: tall and slim with a mustache, clean fingernails and an impressive résumé. I half expected him to have an accent. He is the chef instructor at Bricco, a restaurant project started in 2005 as a collaboration between the Olewine School of Culinary Arts at HACC and the Harrisburg Hotel Corporation. Students take a three-semester Restaurant Operations course there, while the H.H.C. takes care of the managerial side.
On the first day of class, Chef Finch has been known to hand out Band-Aids.
"They think it's funny," he says, "but about two hours later, you look around and see the Band-Aids on their fingers." This routine gag is a reflection of Finch, though, who admits he is not the sole authority on cooking and that he may use a Band-Aid himself once in awhile.
Despite the towering hat, Chef Finch is an approachable man. He recalls a time when a student was upset about her boyfriend. He had noticed something was wrong and offered an ear. "Sometimes you're almost playing the father role, too," he says. "I want students to feel like they can come to me and ask questions."
Which is exactly what level-three student Josh White does when Chef takes me on an unofficial tour of the kitchen.
"Notice how I didn't yell at him for asking a question," Finch says to me aside.
"That's because you're here," White jokes. We all laugh because the reality is, my presence has only shortened Finch's answer.
He wears many hats: chef, instructor, mentor and also vice president of the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation (ACF), a professional organization for chefs and cooks. "It gives them something to aspire to," he says, "because, in reality, we are grooming our future leaders."
Though he's had many successful students, his proudest moments are when he works with them one-on-one and sees their light bulb go off. "You realize that you are making a difference," he says.
Chef Anne Corr is also making a difference in students' lives. She is a professor of nutrition and food preparation at Penn State, and every summer runs a cooking camp for 11- to 13-year-olds.
"It works because we use nutrition majors working with kids, modeling good behavior at the dinner table," she says. She loves to watch students she mentors, mentoring the younger kids. Because her children are grown, she says, she needs to get her "kid fix." It's the generation, she believes, that needs guidance in the kitchen.
"There is a wide gulf in today's society, which in some ways seems so food-obsessed, yet in other ways seems horrifically impotent in the kitchen," she says. "My students tend to watch The Food Network, but they are still eating Kraft macaroni and cheese."
Recently, she invited an 85-year-old former PSU nutrition professor to observe her class. She says the woman was glad to see that people were still being taught the proper handling of an egg — a skill lost to the Egg McMuffin.
Corr enjoys working with people of all ages, but believes that college is a critical time.
"They're on their own for the first time, and I want to show them that it's not all that hard to cook for themselves."
From blue boxes of mac-and-cheese to cheese soufflés, Chef Corr emphasizes the importance of cooking at home and eating together. She leaves me with this:
"Food is the common denominator for all walks of life. The joy of life is coming to the table to share with your unit, your family."
Published in Voices
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