by Melanie Hammericksen, Chef Instructor in Culinary Arts and Baking and Pastry
I started cooking in the first grade with my Mom. I’d make Jello for dinner, or anything that involved a mix, like muffins. I could handle these on my own. Before long, I was pulling out her cookbooks and going through them on the couch, looking for recipes I wanted to make. I was promoted quickly by Mom to help her with dinners because I have seven siblings (Mom is Catholic and Dad is Mormon – go figure). On the weekends, my brothers and sisters would wake me up with their breakfast orders. There was a stable of recipes hanging from the inside of the cupboard that I’d make over and over again, things like cinnamon roles and pancakes.
By the time I was in fourth grade, my Mom started paying me an allowance to make dinner five days a week (she hated to cook). We’d meet on Sunday to talk about it and plan it out. I’d make tacos, casseroles, mac and cheese, or I’d find recipes in the “Made in Oregon” or Betty Crocker cookbook. One day I’d be cooking, the next I’d be baking — it was never one or the other for me. Through junior high and the start of high school, as my siblings got jobs, all I wanted to do was get a job cooking. Mom called a local catering company and pretended to be me. She got me the job, and I worked there for two years, cooking and baking. I was only 15 when I started, but trust me –I screwed a lot of things up. In fact, on my last day on the job, I did a barbeque event for 300 people. The owner was out of town that day, and her recipes looked like chicken scratches. I had trouble reading the baked bean recipe. It said something about adding four cups of corn starch. I made the mistake of adding the corn starch when the beans were hot, and immediately the whole batch turned solid. I ruined a lot of pots and pots that day, and the owner took it out of my paycheck. I quit that day. I was 16 at the time.
My next job was at a natural foods restaurant in downtown Medford. I was in charge of making salads when I started, but I slowly moved up. After seven years there, I was managing the restaurant and running my own catering business on the side.
I was 23 years old, and people kept telling me that if I wanted to be taken seriously, the next step for me was to go to culinary school. I moved up to Portland and did just that. My plans were to move home and open up own catering business after school, but I got a job waiting tables full time at the Multnomah Athletic Club and then got an externship at Oba doing prep and pantry, which lead to a job offer. Even though I had attended a culinary program, I got to know the pastry chef, who made me her assistant. I learned a lot from her and when she left, they made me the pastry chef there, which I did for three years. There were days that I felt like I had no clue what I was doing. I had to create a new menu with six new items each month. I found myself going to other restaurants to see what other pastry chefs were doing. One time I went to Roux, where Chef Josh Blythe introduced himself to me while I was eating the coconut shortbread grilled pineapple sorbet. Little did he know I was planning on “borrowing” his dish for inspiration, but little did either of us know that we’d end up working together at OCI.
A co-worker of mine was an alumnus of the same school I went to and he told me about OCI. I stopped by later that week to say hello to Executive Chef Brian Wilke and we talked about the program. He asked if I’d be interested in teaching. I hadn’t thought about it, but after doing so I told him I would be. It was August, and he said it wouldn’t be until closer to Halloween that the position opened up.
One day in early October I had a really bad day at work. I was on my way home, driving and crying, and Chef Wilke called and said they needed someone sooner than they thought and asked if I could come down the following day to interview. So the next day I was put through a bunch of drills, like flipping eggs and a knife skills test (I found out later I was the only one they made do that). I swear I only made it through because Chef Ramona White talked to me the entire time and that helped me to stay calm. Then they took me into one of the classrooms and I was grilled by a panel of the OCI chefs.
Chef Brophy: “What’s your favorite cooking method?”
Me, nervous: “Uh, pan fry.”
Me: “Crispy and crunchy on the outside, moist and delicious on the inside.”
Brophy: “Sounds flaky to me.”
I’m pretty sure to this day that they were just messing with me. But even when I had Brophy in school, he did nothing but pick on me. He gave me a ‘B’ but was never able to tell me why I didn’t deserve an ‘A.’ When I got the call from Chef Wilke with the job offer, it was the best day of my life. When they told me that I’d be working with Chef Brophy, it also became the worst day of my life. Although, he has since told me that he’s changed it to an ‘A’.
I never was able to fully commit to just cooking or baking, and now I teach in both the culinary and baking programs at OCI. I am still learning new stuff every day. I work with the most amazing chefs and people I could ever dream of.