The Ottumwa Courier

July 13, 2013

Dinner in Europe

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — It's time for Ottumwans to make friends around the globe.

"It's a small world, and it's getting smaller," said David Barajas Jr., Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation director.

Communities are working together even with thousands of miles between them. The people in Europe have been able to meet some of Ottumwa's brightest annually for several years. Chef Gordon Rader leads a team of student chefs from Indian Hills Community College on a trip abroad.

It's not a vacation, he warns them.

"This is a 12-week [cooking] course condensed into two weeks. The students have Spanish language lessons in the morning, then [study] cooking the rest of the day. It's very intense," said Rader, chair of the IHCC culinary arts department.

He's been trying, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to tell people back in Ottumwa what an incredible opportunity is available to our community. Chefs there are impressed with Iowa kids and have given them internships or jobs in well-known European restaurants. Business people from Spain want to talk about starting small, food-based manufacturing operations in Wapello County. And food suppliers want to hear more about the proximity of Ottumwa to food crops.

"Closing yourself off [from the world] is not what young professionals are looking for," said Barajas, who, along with other leaders in the business community, joined the IHCC group in Spain.

And the Spanish chefs, especially the young ones trying to make a name for themselves, want to come here or otherwise collaborate with us, Rader said. The Spaniards they met believe they can gain from an association with a small city in the nation's breadbasket. We have farmers doing their own thing out here, they said, like growing mini lettuces or using access to fresh produce to create, for example, interesting Iowa cheeses.

They want to take advantage of these resources and become part of a growing economy.

"They say, 'Chef, I want to get into the American market. But New York, Chicago, they're too tough to break into."

Barajas said there are things we could learn from the Europeans: Taking our time when interacting with each other is one of the cultural differences, including sitting down to a meal with friends to relax, to eat and to share. Much of their productive conversations in Spain took place around the dinner table.

"You know what you don't see? People [hunched over] their cell phones like this, [texting] when they're with each other. They look you in the eye, really connect with you. It's a sense of being here, now," Barajas said.

Rader said Spain has all sorts of camps for cooks, including student chefs. Why couldn't Wapello County have a summer cooking course for students from overseas?

"They desperately want to learn English," Rader said.

They come here, learn some cooking techniques, maybe take a trip out to where the food is grown, maybe watch how a professional kitchen in America works and polish their English skills.

But why would they come invest their time or money in Ottumwa?

What Barajas saw, he said, was that the people of Spain's former capital, Valladolid, were impressed with Chef Rader.

"They don't just give their trust to anybody," Barajas said. "It takes time."

Rader has spent that time showing his Spanish colleagues how serious he is about food and teaching the next generation of chefs. Barajas' insight tells him they notice that the chef is motivated to help his students and his community more than he is motivated to do things for himself. They know his word is good and that he looks for opportunities where everyone involved benefits.

That relationship puts us one step ahead of other small communities trying to get a foot in the door for international exchange.

"There are communities that would kill to have the opportunity Chef has made available," Barajas said. "Now, are we going to put together our plan and execute it?"

"I'm just glad to hear him say 'our plan,'" Rader quipped.

When it comes to economic development, Barajas said, "as a community, we don't want to be offering the same thing as everyone else. Success [may come from] not being afraid to be different. To try something different."

"If you challenge yourself, you will grow," the chef agreed.

In the past, he's said it's when you put the microwave meals away and try cooking from scratch a few times that you learn to become a better cook. That's true, both men said, about individual people and about communities wanting to grow.

"To do that," added Barajas, "you have to step outside your comfort zone. The American [communities] that get on board are going to be successful."

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark