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Heat in the kitchen

Visiting chefs give culinary students a taste of Yucatan cuisine

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Chef Minelia Romero adds a chef’s measure of salt to a habanero pepper puree being held by instructor Chef Geoffrey Phillipson. Student Robert Lenchanko, of Jefferson and Romero’s daughter, Paulina Espinosa, watch.

When Chef Minelia Romero, of Merida in the Mexican state of Yucatan, took a pan of frying habanero peppers off the stove Friday morning in the Culinary Arts Program kitchen at Iowa Central Community College several people nearby started coughing.

The peppers are a little hot and so are their fumes.

Several minutes later, after a student had turned the peppers into a puree in a blender, things got even hotter.

First year student Robert Lenchanko, of Jefferson, found out the hard way. He took a taste of the sauce.

“Ouch,” he said between coughs. “I’m OK.”

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Iowa Central Community College Culinary Arts Program student Robert Lenchanko, of Jefferson, tries to soothe his burning mouth with milk after trying a habanero pepper puree.

Then he ran to the nearest sink and began trying to cool off the heat with water.

Bad idea.

“Water makes it worse,” someone yelled to him.

The lesson in the Scoville scale, used to gauge spicy, was just one of many the students have taken in over the last few days working with Romero and her daughter, Paulina Espinosa.

The pair are visiting as part of an Iowa-Yucatan Partners of the Americas sponsored visit to help share the food, and culture, of the Yucatan area.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Chef Minelia Romero, of Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, stirs a pan of rice that’s just finished cooking Friday afternoon in the Iowa Central Community College Culinary Arts Program kitchens.

“Each experience is a little different,” Romero said through an interpreter. “It’s an opportunity to show the Yucatan cuisine to more people.”

Romero knows the cuisine well.

“She actually served Pope John Paul II,” Espinosa said. “He gave her a blessing and asked to speak to her.”

Yes, the pontiff liked it.

Espinosa shared her mom’s sentiments about sharing their food and culture.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
iowa Central Community College Culinary Arts program student Viktoria Grochut, of Munich, Germany, cuts up peppers for the meal.

“We like to be here,” she said. “We’re really happy to show the Yucatan cuisine and culture. It’s a lot more than what most people imagine. It’s not the typical Mexican food you usually find in this part of the U.S.”

She said that there are many more similarities in running a kitchen than differences.

“It’s the same in every kitchen,” she said. “They have to be on time, be organized, have a leader in the kitchen and be able to put each person in the proper spot.”

Chef Geoffrey Phillipson, an instructor in the Culinary Arts Program, was learning along with his students.

He said they were enjoying it.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Chef Minelia Romero, of Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, stirs a pan of habanero peppers that will go into a sauce.

“A lot of the students wish we could have visits every week,” he said. “They’re getting exposed to unique ingredients and methods.”

With an expert chef from the Yucatan, the meals the students are preparing are authentic.

“We have some amazing cultures doing amazing food,” Phillipson said. “You only really get to experience them when it’s authentic.”

First year student Viktoria Grochut, of Munich, Germany, was enjoying the experience greatly.

“It’s an incredible honor to work with them,” she said. “We didn’t grow up with Mexican food. Getting to cook part of the culture is amazing to me.”

In spite of his experience with the habanero puree, Lenchanko was enjoying it too.

“It’s been very interesting,” he said. “I like getting in there and learning as much as I can.”

That also included another lesson for him.

Habanero peppers, are hot and a glass of milk, while it makes it seem like it’s a bit cooler, only actually lessens the burning sensation.

What does work?

Time.

The meal the students were preparing on Friday was going to be enjoyed by the public later in the day at the Willow Ridge Restaurant.