We recently celebrated our seventh anniversary at the Oregon Culinary Institute.  There have been some choppy waters to navigate during that time, especially in the early years, but the sailing ahead appears calm.  With the wind at our backs and a sunny forecast in mind, the OCI management team agreed that the timing was right to create a new position for high school and alumni relations.  It didn’t take long for a stellar candidate to emerge in recent Culinary Diploma graduate Tera Fukuhara, and she was hired.  We sat down with her for this interview…

Tera behind OCI

Tera Fukuhara

Where are you from?

I am from Ft. Collins Colorado, the same place as Marla Hooch from the movie “A League of Their Own.”

What are your earliest food / cooking memories?

My father is Japanese, and so growing up I was exposed to many Japanese traditions which involved a lot of food.  I remember Great Aunts and the older generation, the females especially, getting together and cooking big meals for the family.  Introduction to food at such an early age brought me closer to my family and made food more than just a matter of sustenance.  It became a passion of mine when I started to see how it brought my family and friends closer together, and also introduced such a loving community into my life.

I started cooking in early elementary school…like 2nd or 3rd grade.  I’d come home from school and try to recreate all the favorite dishes my grandma would make for me – noodle and rice dishes mostly, udon was my favorite.

How did you end up attending OCI?

Culinary school had always appealed to me, even at a young age.  Because of family pressure I decided to forgo culinary school after high school and attended a university for a bachelor’s degree in Communications. I spend my 20’s developing a career in sales and marketing, mostly to please my family.  One night, on a flight home from a business trip I had a “what am I doing with my life” freak out, and realized that I needed to make a big life change before I hit the age of 30 (which was rapidly approaching).  I figured I had success in the corporate world, so why couldn’t I also succeed in a job field that I would enjoy?  Very long story short, I hatched a six month plan to escape and create a new path for myself.

Around the same time, a friend of mine had mentioned Oregon Culinary Institute in conversation.  I did some research and scheduled a visit to meet with Heidi in Admissions and tour the school on a Friday.  Right from the start, I realized that OCI was the place for me.  It took a second for me to actually get my foot in the door (mostly due to timing on my end with work).  Heidi didn’t hound me though, she just checked in every once in a while to make sure I was still on track.  I ended up starting in May of 2012 and completed the Culinary Diploma program in January of this year.

How would you describe your experience here?

It was amazing.  I had zero expectations coming into the school.  I remember feeling terrified that I wasn’t going to be at the same skill level as the other students.  My first term instructors did a really great job easing everyone into the kitchen, which helped me feel more comfortable with my new surroundings.  While I was at the school, I created goals for myself and was pretty pleasantly surprised how I met and exceeded them.  I was very pleased with the overall knowledge the instructors had of the products we were using as well as their ability to help each student.  The industry connections I made here were completely unexpected.  It was one of the best things that came out of going to culinary school.

What did you see yourself doing after school?

I wanted to incorporate my sales and marketing experience with food.  I knew that I didn’t want to work on the line in a kitchen, but I definitely wanted to continue cooking, whether it was doing farm to fork caterings or private dinners.

What did you do for an externship and after school?

During my first three weeks at the school, I was asked to stage (tryout) at Veritable Quandary.  I ended up getting the job, and was lucky enough do my externship there as well.

What was VQ experience like?

Great… I worked expo, pantry, and brunch sauté.   I learned a lot about technique, seasonal foods, and fine dining.   I also learned a lot about patients, pressure, and time management.  It pushed me to my limits for sure.  I can definitely say it was the hardest but most fulfilling job I’ve ever had.   After every shift I felt like I had just been in a fight (laughs), but it was a pleasant feeling, like I had worked as hard as I could to provide the best product that I could for the customer.   I still work at VQ one day a week just for the rush.  I guess I’m kind of a masochist in that way.

How did you end up coming back to work at OCI?

In August I sat with Woody (OCI Instructor and fellow alum) and picked his brain about becoming a part of the OCI team.  Being that he’s mostly a nice guy (laugh) He told me that it wouldn’t hurt to give my resume to (Director of Operations) Ray (Colvin) and (Executive Chef) Brian (Wilke).  I figured I would apply for the Admission Officer position because I had so much love for the school, but mostly I felt I could be a good person for prospective students to initially meet with since I had just gone through the school and had a great experience.

Blythe Tera Wilke

Can you describe your position?

In short, my job is high school and alumni relations.  For high school, I’m reaching out to students through their counselors and teachers and inquiring about their culinary career interests.  For high schools with culinary curriculum,  I’m offering classroom cooking demos with an explanation of our school programs.  I’m also offering the high schools a chance to come and tour OCI so they can see firsthand what the school is all about.

My job for the alumni is to create a graduate community that still feels welcome and a part of the OCI family.  The idea is to create a community that can build itself through their industry connections and, most of all, food.

Any final thoughts on this chapter of your life and career?

I look back at the past 11 months of my life and can’t believe how much my life has changed.  I went from an office cubical, to a classroom, to working at one of the best restaurants in Portland, to landing a job at the school that changed my life forever.  This job has the potential to be a dream job for me.  I feel incredibly lucky to be part of the OCI family.   There is nothing better than getting paid to build community around things you love.

Tera OCI front