Volunteer spotlight: John Heikka

June 11, 2012 at 8:37 am 2 comments

For the past few months we have had the invaluable help of John Heikka, our chef intern extraordinaire. John just recently wrapped up his internship with us and put into words his experiences and shared with us what brought him to the wonderful world of cooking. He is also teaching a class in Pontiac as a volunteer so we are happy to keep him among our volunteer ranks!

Chef John celebrates Bennett Elementary students’ success during Cooking Matters for Kids graduation.

Here’s his story:

I’ve been married to my wife Jan for 25 years, and while we have had some challenges like any couple. She is the absolute best. I appreciate so much her ongoing support throughout the last and very trying 6 years. Jan is the cook for a day care in Sterling Heights and amazes me with how many different dishes she can produce with a microwave and rice cooker (their facility does not have a stove).
We have two great kids, Robert and Sandra. Robert is now 19 and enrolled and excelling at CAD design at ITT Tech. Robert is a volunteer in our church’s children’s ministry and works as a counselor at “Kids Camp” every summer. Sandra is 12 going on 38. She is certainly an incredibly gifted and talented young lady. Sandra also is a volunteer in our children’s ministry where she teaches and sings. She is currently taking piano as well. Sandra is a straight A student and a member of a student organization dedicated to fighting hunger. She is also my “Sous Chef” at home. They are the best people I know and I am looking forward to going back to “hanging” with them, since my schooling is over.

I am a Detroiter and darn proud of that. I grew up the literal definition of a “fan (atic) of the Lions, Tigers, Pistons, Wings and Wolverines. I graduated high school in 1973 from East Detroit and studied for three years at Sacred Heart Seminary to become a Catholic priest. Got that one wrong! I like Catholics, nothing personal, but I’m not even Catholic anymore. In the early 80’s I met Jan, and left my pursuit of an accounting degree for marital bliss. Back then you could get a job, work hard and just keep moving up. I did just that working for a commercial leasing company and a sub-contractor for 20 years in collections and customer service. I also became an amateur baseball umpire while volunteering at church in the children’s ministry.

I lost my job with the now defunct sub-contractor in November 2005 and we ended up losing our house and basically, as it seemed, our life. I had two surgeries including a heart repair procedure, and after that it was just impossible to land a job that lasted. The four of us currently abide in a 950-square-foot apartment in Warren. I hope to change that soon!

Finally, someone told me that I need to go back to school. So I said, if I have to go back to school, then I am going to have fun. So I enrolled back at Macomb Community College in the Culinary Arts program. I had spent some time teaching kids how to make bread and thought maybe there will be something there for me. And thus, in my last semester I landed a wonderful opportunity for an internship as a chef instructor at Gleaners Community Food Bank in the Cooking Matters program.

My ultimate goal is to be involved with food education. Food is certainly a magical thing. Can you think of any major life event/celebration that does not involve food? Most of them do. Food culture is a part of our families and society. I want to see well executed and simple foods of our traditions come back to our life events and certainly our families’ tables as a way to bring people together again. Somebody has to teach the skills and recipes that have been laid aside by past generations.

But for now, I will pursue a career as a prep cook or institutional cook and further hone my skills. But if the opportunity presents itself, I’ll jump on anything that involves the educational end of cookery.

Why he wanted to get involved in Cooking Matters
I was never a “restaurant guy” prior to my enrollment at Macomb and I’ve always had a passion for teaching. So it was a natural fit to develop my skills and confidence while having fun. You should love what you do and do what you love.

It all started early last November when I was conversing with Kathy Grech, our table service instructor at Macomb about how people are just going to have to learn how to take a chicken apart again due to rising food costs. She immediately told me to contact Jake Williams and I did. I would have been happy to just volunteer as a chef/instructor, so being offered the internship was like winning the Super Bowl.

Overall, the class participants were the main highlight. The opportunity to be part of a team teaching a lot of the basics I learned in school in a manner that has such potential to effectively change lives both mentally and physically, is just phenomenal.

I recall early on in a Kids Class in Highland Park this little quiet girl who appeared to be shoved aside by her classmates, telling me after the class in a barely audible volume, “Thank you.” You never know if they are abused, malnourished, bullied or all the above. Her face, voice and those two simple words will never leave me. It’s also what began to build a passion for food education and I knew I was in the right place.

One week we were doing Banana Quesadillas and the coordinator for the class left the honey and peanut butter in her vehicle overnight in the middle of winter. Our coordinators are all great, however they happen to be human, just like the rest of us. The honey needed to be mixed with the peanut butter and some cinnamon. I looked over and saw the participant visibly struggling to mix these extremely cold items. As I saw the clock ticking, I then decided to just put the stainless steel bowl on the stove and whisk as fast as I could. I knew it work, but not a few people around the room were looking at me in an interesting manner. The quesadillas were great. (Editor’s note: This was me. Sorry, John! –dorothy)

Just recently we completed a Spanish speaking class in Mexican Town and the ladies on their way out telling me in their broken English that they learned so much and “Gracias” was really cool stuff. Not so much their words, but their facial expressions make my day, because people lives are being changed for the better.

Every Week One class I do now usually has a sauté’ opportunity and I love asking them why chefs toss items in the pan. Every time somebody will say,” To mix all the items?”. And I always respond, “Well…that is part of it, but don’t I look cool!?!”

His secrets in the kitchen
Attitude. Your determination to succeed will be influenced by your determination. There are two kinds of kitchen experiences, success and education. Granted education can be a little disappointing, but if seek out the knowledge you were missing and are determined, then success will be yours!
In my perfect world, every kitchen has some cast iron cookware. It is economical, easy to clean and heats very evenly. I’ve used my Dutch Oven as a deep fryer. This stuff lasts forever.

Thirdly, salads are generally under used in everyday home cooking. They are healthy and interesting. To me, 4 ounces of beautifully seasoned and grilled beef tenderloin on top of some leafy greens with walnuts, gorgonzola cheese, dried cherries, and red onions with a nice homemade vinaigrette is just heaven! Fruit salads are great all day as well.

My most humbling experience came this last semester in school. I was going to make a tomato fennel soup, which in the past was really good with a lemon/lime gremolata garnish. In the middle of winter I decided to use fresh roma tomatoes instead of canned. It was a very educational experience. The tomatoes being out of season were so acidic, that the soup was complete disaster. I just kicked myself all the way home.

My most memorable moment came at home prior to Christmas. I was baking cinnamon bread while my wife and the kids were decorating the tree. The pine scent and the cinnamon aroma just says family and Christmas like nothing I’ve ever encountered.

Relaxing
Everyonewho is involved in cookery has a “food” activity that they find relaxing. For me, it is grilling some sort of protein or baking bread. I will still knead my bread by hand periodically. It’s good exercise! “Foodieism” can be a bit of a mental illness for some us.

I enjoy playing “competitive putt-putt” with my family. It gets verbally brutal, but we have fun. Also, you can find us in the fall picking apples and other produce when it’s available.

The whole family is big sports fans. We all play and spectate, especially pro football.

A healthy recipe
This is one of my new favorite recipes for a side dish. Simple and elegant. Very nutritious.

QUINOA-PILAF STYLE

Onion, small dice 3 oz.
Olive Oil 1 Tbsp.
Quinoa, rinsed 4 oz, or ½ cup
Water or Vegetable Stock 8 fluid ounces or 1 cup
Kosher Salt To Taste
Pepper To Taste

1. In a small sauce pot, heat the oil and sauté the onions over medium heat for a couple minutes till they start to turn clear.
2. Add the quinoa and brown very slightly.
3. Add the stock or water and season with salt and pepper. For this recipe volume start with ¼ teaspoon of both.
4. Bring to a boil and immediately turn heat to low. Cover pot with lid and simmer till Quinoa has absorbed all the liquid.

Chef’s Notes:

You can add any vegetable with the onions. Any spice can be added with the salt and pepper. Any herb can be added at the very end.

You can adjust the salt and pepper at the end of cooking.

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Entry filed under: Cooking Matters. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michael Bulka  |  June 13, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I like John’s spotlight. I’m a new volunteer assistant and would like to sign on to work his next class. Or at least chat with him. How does that work? Vani? Could one of us get the other’s email for a start?

    Michael

    Reply
    • 2. dorothy hernandez  |  June 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm

      Hi, Michael,
      Thanks for the comment! I’ll pass along your email to John and he’ll be in touch. In the meantime, email Vani and let her know. John is actually teaching a class now; maybe you can be the assistant!

      -Dorothy

      Reply

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This material was partially funded by the State of Michigan with federal funds from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by way of the Michigan Nutrition Network at the Michigan Fitness Foundation. This work is supported in part by the Michigan Department of Human Services, under contract number ADMIN-10-99011. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Michigan Fitness Foundation or the Michigan Department of Human Services. In accordance with Federal law and USDA policy, these institutions are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, religion, political beliefs or disability. To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250-9410 or call (800) 795-3272 (voice) or (202) 720- 6382 (TTY). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides nutrition assistance to people with low income. It can help you buy nutritious foods for a better diet. To find out more contact the toll free Michigan Food Assistance Program Hotline at (855) ASK-MICH. Space-Limited USDA/DHS/MNN Credit Statement This material was partially funded by the State of Michigan with federal funds from the United States Department of Agriculture Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by way of the Michigan Nutrition Network at the Michigan Fitness Foundation. These institutions are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, religion, political beliefs or disability. People who need help buying nutritious food for a better diet call the toll free Michigan Food Assistance Program Hotline: (855) ASK-MICH.

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