OTTUMWA — Chef Gordon Rader said he never wants his current advanced class of students to leave Indian Hills. He trusts this class enough to let them develop the upcoming eight-course scholarship dinner.
"They're chefs already," he said as he watched them work on several international dishes he was testing them on.
Many of the students actually knew they were interested in food before they got out of high school. A few had even done some cooking at Indian Hills while they were still in high school.
Nick Duree studied food preparation while at Ottumwa High School. He even took some college credit classes. And while a student, OHS foods teacher Deb Kent brought her best cooks to Indian Hills for the high school level Iron Chef competition. Kids have limited time to prepare some complex dishes. Even the stress in the Hills kitchen re-enforced Duree's desire to study culinary arts.
"The stress part's the best," he said. "The fact that you're under time pressure to execute everything correctly, to keep your food hot and fresh, that's difficult. And when you execute it correctly, it feels really good."
Mason Altheide also did Iron Chef while he was a student at Davis County High School. He was used to working harder than the average student. When he completed all available foods classes at DCHS, the next step was an advanced class where high school cooks prepared breakfast for classmates. While some kids show up tired at 8:20 a.m., Altheide and the other cooks showed up ready to cook at 7 a.m. — then went to class an hour later. So was he able to do that because he's "a morning person?"
"I learned to be one," he said.
It was when he listened to a guest speaker that he finally decided cooking was for him. The speaker at his high school was a Davis County graduate who then went to The Hills before heading out into the work world.
Heather Nelson, another IHCC culinary student, said it's a good thing her classmates have a top work ethic. People may not realize all that goes into producing an eight-course gourmet dinner.
"The actual event, the scholarship dinner, is only a part of the work. We were just counting silverware, counting plates, counting glassware. We're testing for our menu, and Chef Gordon has basically absented himself from that process," she said.
They are in the third week of testing recipes.
"Our focus has been foods that are familiar served in unique ways," Nelson said.
It gets complicated, she said, because they need more than a delicious food item. There has to be a flow to a dinner like this, she said.
"Everything has to complement everything else," said classmate Miguel Acevedo.
For example, they test-cooked some cheddar jalapeño grits. And they were good. Really good, added classmates. But they just didn't work when paired with the next dish. Students tested a similar recipe without jalapeños. It was still good, and it seemed to work better with other dishes the students were trying out.
"It was the heat," said Acevedo. "The 'heat' wasn't working with the other dishes. It didn't flow."
So they tried again, and will work right through January until the student chefs vote every dish onto the menu.
“This will be an outstanding experience with an eclectic mix of favorite dishes from around the globe honed toward Iowa tastes,” said Rader, who is the Indian Hills Culinary Arts program director. “As always, all proceeds are used to help culinary students continue their education at Indian Hills.”
As for dinner, the full menu will be revealed the night of the event.
Fatima Perez, owner of Restaurant Fatima in Spain, will return to Indian Hills to work on the event with students. It will be in the Indian Hills Dining Room at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24. Social hour with wine and appetizers starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $85 per person when purchased by Jan. 9 or $100 after Jan. 9. Use a credit card at www.indianhills.edu/culinarydinner or go to the Indian Hills Business Office.
— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark