ISU chefs guide community through Culinary Boot Camp

Jenna Hrdlicka

Focus, take a deep breath … now chop!

The sizzling sounds of beef as it fried in hot oil, the gentle popping of sugar as it caramelized bananas on the stove and the rhythmic chopping as knives sliced through veggies filled the hallways of MacKay Hall Monday night as Iowa State faculty and students participated in this year’s second Culinary Bootcamp.

The camp, which was organized and co-sponsored by ISU Dining, the Culinary Science Club, the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department and the Iowa Beef Council, was a two-day event where participants not only had the chance to learn about intuitive eating, meal prepping and budgeting, but also had the chance to cook with ISU Dining chefs and refine their culinary skills.  

Participants, divided into small groups of around five people, were stationed at fully-equipped cooking areas located in the food labs in MacKay Hall. 

Organized chaos ensued as the groups delegated tasks to each member and immediately got to work chopping, sautéing and caramelizing different ingredients required for the night’s two featured dishes — “broccoli beef with jasmine rice” and “caramelized bananas.”

ISU Dining chefs worked one-on-one with the groups to teach various cooking skills relevant to the dishes and answer any questions that the participants had while completing their dishes. 

Although they were all preparing the same dishes, each group’s overall experience of the night varied slightly depending on which chef they worked with. 

Executive Chef of ISU Dining Scott Bruhn told personal stories to his groups, including the admittance of his own struggle with mastering the art of cooking rice, and gave his own recommendations on what utensils to buy to be successful in the kitchen. 

“It’s good to invest in certain things; it’s great to spend some extra money and buy some nice knives,” Bruhn said.

He added that an 8- to 10-inch chef’s knife, a sharpening steel, a pairing knife and a serrated knife to cut bread are the only knife utensils that are absolutely necessary to one’s collection, and that a good set of pots and pans, which don’t necessarily have to be expensive, and a rice cooker are also great pieces of equipment to have. 

Chef de Cuisine at ISU Dining Jeremy Bowker urged his groups to follow their recipes, but to not be afraid to make them their own. 

For example, the caramelized banana recipe that the groups used instructed them to place the bananas in the pan cut-side up, but Bowker said he would do it opposite, with the cut side down. “You can do it either way, but for presentation purposes for me, [I would put the flat side down] to get that nice, even caramelization throughout,” he said. 

The chefs also made sure safety precautions were being followed, such as washing hands prior to cooking, placing a wet paper towel under the cutting boards to avoid slippage, handling the knife correctly and tipping the pans to avoid being splattered with hot oil.

Instructions such as, “Don’t burn the sugar!” and “Incorporate the broccoli stems as well,” could be heard from around the room as the chefs explained the steps of the recipes and taught participants various skills, such as how to correctly slice the beef against the grain. They also gave personalized cooking tips based on the level of of experience of the individual groups’ members.

While some participants had extensive backgrounds in cooking, such as Kayla Hendrix, senior in hospitality management who worked as the head chef at a camp in California and participated with the Tea Room last semester, others had very little or somewhere in between. 

David Andrews, Iowa State staff member, attended the camp after his family urged him to learn how to cook.

“I put the recipes in my back pocket already,” he said. “Usually when I need something to eat I open a can or open a box; cooking from scratch is not my specialty,” he added with a laugh. 

Cheryl Robinette, groundskeeper at Iowa State, had cooking experience but wanted to refine certain skills.

“I’ve been cooking for a long time, but I stay away from knives … so now I won’t be afraid to use some of those big knives,” she said. 

The slightly spicy aroma of the soy-sauce marinated beef as it fried in the pans filled the air as the groups cooked, eventually mixing with the sweet smell of bananas caramelizing in sugar on the stove; surely tempting any passersby in the hallway. 

With so many preparations being done at once, Bower stressed the importance of cleanliness to avoid contamination. 

“It’s really important to clean as you go,” he said. 

After the dishes were prepared, the participants and chefs sat together and chatted while eating their meals. 

“Do you feel more confident in your cooking now?” Bruhn asked the group, which responded with a sea of nods and affirmative responses. 

If student interest stays high, the coordinating team hopes to continue to offer the boot camp every semester.