Chuck Lemke doesn’t see his job as teaching cooking as so much as it is teaching togetherness.
That’s kind of the premise behind the cooking classes he hosts once per month at Spenard Builders Supply, simply called Bon Appetit Creative Cooking with Chef Chuck Lemke. For seven years now, Lemke has taught attendees how to filet, roast and saute, all while using food to bring people together.
“It rewards me because there are people who come back to this,” Lemke said. “I want to make it new and fresh each time.”
The classes take place at Spenard Builders, 2460 Phillips Field Road, usually the second or third Saturday of the month, in the business’ kitchen demo area, which features a fully operational kitchen. The classes are small, with maybe enough space to seat about 25 to 30 people. The classes are free and open to the public, and they regularly fill up. It’s a low-key affair, with Lemke and the crowd greeting each other and talking back and forth about food, what’s on the menu that day or what might make a good substitution for an ingredient should someone in the audience want to swap out a particular item for another while cooking at home. It has the feel of a made-for-TV cooking show but one that’s less rigid and more relaxed. And since Lemke has been teaching the class for seven years, a lot of audience members are return attendees, lending to the family feeling of the day.
“This is about people,” Lemke said. “People living their lives, and food is a part of everyone out there.”
Lemke is president of the Midnight Sun Chef’s Association as well as a board member for the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and Fairbanks Concert Association. His wife, Phyllis Pendergrast, and their daughter, Hannah Summerfeld, will often help as his sous chefs, prepping ingredients for the meal Lemke has planned. He’ll also invite local notables or visiting celebs to help him out in the class, lending to that casual, community vibe.
On Saturday, as Pendergrast and Summerfeld helped with prep work, Lemke bantered back and forth with the crowd, discussing the day’s menu, which include roasted pork tenderloin, roasted Brussels sprouts, homemade hummus and mini brownie bites with a blackberry jam filling. He cooks everything right there in the Spenard kitchen, keeping in mind the class is only two hours. That’s about his only constraint: The menu needs to be completed, from start to finish, in the allotted 10 a.m. to noon time frame.
In this class, he talks about the difference between pork loin and pork tenderloin (they are different cuts of meat) and offers tips on slicing and serving before searing the loin on each side on the kitchen stovetop. At the same time, Summerfeld is toasting sesame seeds for tahini, which will go into the hummus. The smell of the searing meat and toasted seeds wafts through the crowd. As the loin goes into the oven to roast, Lemke heats chopped bacon for the sprouts, filling Spenards with even more savory aroma.
“That’s the thing about food,” Lemke said. “We’re influenced by it. Those smells will take you back to where ever you were as a kid,” he says about the aroma of toasted sesame, called tahini, and the bacon and Brussels sprouts that are on the stove top.
One of the topics Lemke is passionate about is the connection food brings to people — it’s a way to come together, be it smells from childhood, cooking for people or inviting guests to your table. That passion is also evident in the audience.
“They cook with love,” audience member Marilyn Nigro, of Fairbanks, said of Lemke, Pendergrast and Summerfeld. “It’s so enjoyable to see them cook. It’s filled with love.”
Lemke strives to keep the classes fresh and varied, frequently changing the menu to incorporate what’s available locally or what highlights a season or holiday. He’ll create theme days, like a day of German cooking or a menu of French foods. And he’s hands-on with his cooking, displaying techniques each step of the way.
“If you’re doing flambe, you need to see what’s involved in that,” he said. “We typically do two or three things that can be a component of what’s going on. I’m not running out of ideas, even after seven years.”
He’s also big on what he calls “nonlinear cooking,” meaning, you have to make your time in the kitchen your own.
“You’re not confined to a cookbook or a TV personality’s recipes,” Lemke said. “You can do themes and variations on your own. Not every kitchen is going to be set up the same way. You may not have all the pots and pans and spices and untensils this kitchen has, so you can make it your own. Everybody needs to have this idea of you take good ingredients to begin with and know where you want to go.”
That’s why Jitra Samsa has been attending Lemke’s classes for two years now. Orignially from Thailand, Samsa said she enjoys Lemke’s cooking and wants to learn more.
“I want to learn how to cook Western food, and I want to feel confident to cook your food,” she said. “When I come here, I learn a lot from him — not only how to cook but how to use the kitchen. Like today, he taught us how to pick the pork meat. He has a lot of knowledge, and he’s willing to share. And he has the energy to keep it up for two hours.”
Samsa said after she’s finished the class, she usually goes to a local store and buys the ingredients she just learned about to recreate the meal at home.
“Normally, after the class, I go shopping. Like today, I plan to cook the vegetables,” Samsa said of the Brussels sprouts. “It’s fun, and his team makes this class lovely.”
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or at twitter.com/FDNMfeatures.
Roasted Pork Loin
Courtesy Chuck Lemke
Pork tenderloin, trimmed of the silver
Salt and pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Season of your choice (a dry rub or marinade, for example)
You can marinate from overnight to a little as an hour beforehand.
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.
In an oven-proof pan, heat the olive oil over medium temperature. Sear the tenderloins on each side for about a total of 5 minutes. This develops the flavor and color of the meat. Place the tenderloins in the pan into the oven in the same pan. It should take about 14-15 minutes to reach the desired temperature of 140 degrees. The tenderloins should be turned at about halfway through the cooking process.
Use your meat thermometer to make sure you reach an internal temperature of 140 degrees. Remove the pan from the oven, cover with a lid or foil and let it rest for about 10 minutes. Two things will happen. The internal temperature will rise to about 145 degrees and the juices will be reabsorbed.
Slice and serve with your favorite side dishes. Reserve the juices to pour over the meat.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Courtesy Chuck Lemke
Fresh Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and cut in half
Salt and pepper
Optional add-ons: bacon or pancetta, garlic, a balsamic drizzle
In a saute pan, heat the oil and season the sprouts with salt and peppers. Saute for about 5 minutes. Keep the sprouts in the pan if it’s oven proof or turn them onto a baking sheet. Roast in a 400-degree oven for about 25-30 minutes, turning several times.
If you’re not using bacon or pancetta, drizzle with the balsamic vinegar after they are crisped and browned. Turn to coast and serve. You could also finish it with some grated Parmesan cheese to finish.