This week's "Hail to the Chef" is Teresa Urkofsky, Chef Instructor at American River College & The Oak Café.
1. What made you want to become a chef?
I remember watching the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child on TV when I was a little girl. For some reason, it completely made sense to me that that’s what I should do. My mom took me to Raley’s one day when I was about six. I saw this big, tall guy with a huge pastry bag, piping a border on a cake and I thought, “I really wanna do that!”.
2. Where did you receive your training?
I went to the California Culinary Academy in 1983-84 when it was really a terrific school. It was the original location on Fremont Street – still small. Every one of our teachers was old school European and I really value that foundation.
3. Who have you worked with that you have really admired?
Kurt Spataro, Rick Mahan, Mark Gonzales, Shannan Berg, Margie Tose, Trudy O’Brien, Raymond Salladarre, Fred Reyes WOW! Too many to name. I learn something from everyone with whom I work. They’re all hard workers and that’s something I truly admire.
4. What is a typical day like for you in the classroom?
One of the things I really love about it is there is no typical day. We can be talking about and working with shellfish in an afternoon class, then tempering chocolate in a night class. In our café, we’ll be cooking Poulet Fafa for a Hawaiian menu one week, then breaking down a whole pig for Porchetta the next week.
5. What are/who are your primary cooking influences?
I love anyone who cooks with heart and integrity. I appreciate cooks who don’t fall into the trap of trends just for the sake of being trendy. I learned so much working with Kurt Spataro and Rick Mahan. Alice Waters food makes complete and total sense to me. Their food is honest and delicious!
6. What are your favorite and least favorite foods to prepare?
I still get so excited about cooking any and all foods – especially at the beginning of their season when I haven’t used them for a while. Quince really comes to mind because it has a short season and because it arrives looking and tasting rather lackluster. Once it’s cooked, it’s so exceptional!
If I had to pick a least favorite thing, I would have to admit that I am still deeply bothered when I have to prepare something live (lobsters, crayfish…)
7. Please tell me about your most overwhelming moment in the kitchen.
It actually happened in the car. I had broken up with my husband on a Thursday and had to make a weeding cake two days later. I was in no mood to make a wedding cake two days after my marriage ended. I made the cake and loaded it up in the car along with my daughter, who was two-years-old at the time. The car was new to me and the windows started fogging up and I couldn’t locate the de-fogger. There was an accident on the freeway and I was running twenty minutes late. At that point, I heard a little voice from the back seat “Ummmm, good cake Mama!”. My daughter had been eating frosting off the cake. For a split second, I felt completely overwhelmed but then, all I could do was laugh.
8. Who are your favorite chefs or famous chefs?
Any chef who is kind and willing to share what they know.
9. White wine or red wine? Do you have a favorite wine varietal/label?
I’m the only chef I know who doesn’t drink alcohol =)
10. What is your "can't live without" kitchen tool and why?
Immersion blender! Purees soups, emulsifies dressings, tempers chocolate!
11. Please tell me how you go about planning your menus.
SEASON, SEASON, SEASON!
12. If you had a different career choice, what would it be?
Helping people who are truly in need. I saw a show one time about lepers from a village that were sent to live on the outskirts of the village in isolation until they died. There was a woman who would go and pick them up and take care of them in her happy home. I would love to do what she does.
13. What are the most important things to remember (can be relative to anything) while working as a chef?
Be kind and patient but never a pushover.
14. What is the most important thing you have learned in your culinary career?
There are a million reasons to be a kind, cooperative and generous. There is no reason to be egotistical and unapproachable.
15. What has been the most gratifying about teaching for ARC?
I love turning people on to a career that has been so fulfilling and terrific for me. It has given me tremendous room for creativity and freedom. I’d love to be a part of something that does the same for the students.
16. What is your favorite topic to teach?
ALL of them. Fortunately, we are only scheduled to teach things we really love. I teach intermediate and advanced cooking in addition to beginning and advanced baking & pastry. I do love teaching garde manger but rarely get the opportunity.
17. From which of your colleagues at ARC have you learned the most?
Again, ALL of them! Each and every one is entirely dedicated to what we do. We all take continuing education – never resting on what we already know. We all put in tons of time on our days off. During breaks, we all get together for dinners just because we like each other and miss each other. Our program director, Brian Knirk is a masterful manager. I do learn so much about management from him.
18. Best meal ever?
Oh, I’ve eaten all over the country and had incredible food so it would be too difficult to say which one was the best. I do have to make mention that I’ve had food in Sacramento that is as good as or better than the most celebrated restaurants in Manhattan. “Craft’s” sweetbreads can’t touch “Waterboy’s”! Sacramento certainly holds its own!
A very memorable meal was years ago at Chinois East/West when it was located at Fair Oaks and Howe. I was dining alone and sat at the kitchen bar. David Soohoo took my menu away and made the most beautiful, delicious dinner right in front of me.
19. How does the program at ARC work with the Oak Cafe?
The Oak Café is a capstone class to our program. After completing Food Theory, Professional Cooking, Beginning & Intermediate Baking, Safety & Sanitation and Calculations, a student may take the Oak Café class. I put together the menus for the first 8-9 weeks of the semester while the students execute them while rotating through all of the kitchen positions (chef, line cook, pantry, prep…). Then during the last five weeks, the students write the menus and are responsible for every aspect of execution. Reservations are extremely high in demand as we can only seat 100 guests a day.
A cake Chef Teresa Made for her students.
A big thanks to Chef Teresa for taking the time to participate!