JSRCC student’s culinary career heats up

On Feb. 10, the second annual Elby Awards drew 400 food experts, food lovers, and food industry professionals to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to pay tribute to the local culinary elite – and to Henrico resident and internationally renowned chef Paul Elbling, for whom the event is named.

Among the youngest honorees was another long-time Henrico resident who is just beginning her career in the food industry, but for whom teachers and Elby judges foresee a future ripe with promise.

Stephanie Boehles, a student in the J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College (JSRCC) culinary arts program, was one of three finalists honored as a Culinary Student of the Year. After the ceremony, she remarked that she had enjoyed not only the chance to meet Elbling, but the opportunity to prepare and serve a dish as part of the JSRCC catering team at the event reception.

But the Elby event was not the first opportunity Boehles has had to rub elbows with VIP's; nor was it her first opportunity to cook for prestigious diners.

Last summer, she was one of a dozen JSRCC culinary students who got a taste of Hell's Kitchen, the popular TV show featuring chefs in fast-paced, high-pressure cooking competitions. Clemenza Caserta, a local chef who recently appeared on the show, joined Executive Mansion chef Darren Rounds in challenging students to a 30-minute throw-down in the governor's kitchen.

"We got to completely take over the Governor's Mansion kitchen," Boehles recalled later with obvious relish. "It was really a great experience and a lot of fun."

Allowed just half an hour to prepare a dish using local seasonal items, Boehles and her partner, Robin Reeks, emerged victors among the six student teams with their pan-seared Virginia rockfish, summer-fruit salsa and eggplant parmesan. As their reward, they were presented with Governor's Mansion china plates signed by Caserta (pictured with Reeks, left, and Boehles), Rounds and First Lady of Virginia Maureen McDonnell.

Not bad for someone who began her formal education in culinary arts just a couple of years ago, after deciding to switch her field of study from political science. Although Boehles is passionate about her political studies and still plans to pursue a degree in that field, her lifelong interest in food and cooking simply overtook all other interests in recent years, and she was compelled to take the plunge into culinary school.

Making memories
Having an Italian mother, an Irish father and no shortage of role models in the kitchen, perhaps it was inevitable that Boehles developed an early appreciation for all things culinary.

"Food was always a big thing," she says of her childhood. "Even going to the grocery store was a treat. It was me and my mother and my grandmother in the kitchen; we always had something ethnic a couple nights a week."

Her interest in cooking eventually led Boehles to take an after-school job (she attended Godwin H.S. for two years and then was home-schooled) at Mosaic Cafe, where she continues to work to this day.

But despite years of restaurant experience, she found the pace and the learning curve at culinary school a challenge.

"It's been the hardest, but the most rewarding experience ever," says Boehles, pointing out that culinary students get less of a break than others because the program runs year-round, in three back-to-back semesters. "It's a marathon."

JSRCC culinary students learn not only about food, but about planning and creating menus and all sides of the food service and restaurant business. Boehles instructors are experienced chefs hailing from varied backgrounds, she says, and many of the adjunct professors are former restaurant owners. What's more, students enjoy frequent opportunities to get out in the community and work at events such as the Elby Awards, the Wine Expo, the Broad Appetit festival, and gala fundraisers; they also gain experience through internships, as Boehles will in an upcoming assignment to the Hilton Garden Inn downtown.

After she completes her culinary degree in August, Boehles plans to rack up more restaurant experience while she finishes her political science studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. As for long-term goals, she dreams of owning and operating a bed and breakfast inn -- one that might appeal to groups and families, in particular, for events such as weddings.

The bed and breakfast idea grew, in part, out of Boehles' frequent stays in B & B's while visiting friends in the United Kingdom; but it is also fed, she says, by the satisfaction she gets from catering events.

"With catering, you're helping to create a memory," she says, adding that she has found catering weddings and even funerals especially rewarding. "It takes the worry off the host, and that's a comfort at a funeral – or a relief at a wedding."

Splattered pages
Whatever career path she follows, Boehles is confident there will be food in her future; after all, she has associated food with happiness since she was very young, and she can't imagine that will ever change.

She quotes a professor who distinguished between the acts of eating and dining, describing eating as the basic act of "shoveling in food," while dining incorporates emotions, the senses, and the company at the meal into a genuine and satisfying experience.

Remarking on the countless times she has baked batches of her favorite oatmeal raisin cookies over the years, Boehles observes that even the cookbook page with the recipe adds to the enjoyment. She laughs as she describes the page – splattered, stained, and crusted "with bits of oatmeal all over it."

"When I'm happy, I bake," she sums up. "I love the smell, the anticipation, the thought that, 'Something nice is coming!'"

Take that sensory experience, combine it with a dash of warm memories and pleasant emotions, and all that's needed is to fold in one essential ingredient: the communal appeal.

It's that chance to unite and reunite, to break bread with friends and family, that is at the heart of Boehles passion for her culinary calling.

"Food," she says simply, "brings people together."
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Tuckahoe Library will screen the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” (2005, PG, 105 minutes) from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. The film follows New York City public school students as they enter ballroom dance competitions and transform their lives. Attendees are encouraged to bring a bagged lunch. For details, call 501-1910 or visit http://www.henricolibrary.org. Full text

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