INA – Rend Lake College has found some new friends in Finland.
RLC Culinary Arts Instructors Brian Kalata and Loughton Smith recently returned from a 10-day trek to Joensuu, Finland where they presented a westernized way to prepare Finnish food, learned native cooking methods and embraced a wonderful culture of healthy cuisine and communal living. In the meantime, they were able to generate interest in a foreign exchange program that would swap RLC students in culinary arts, mining, agriculture and more with their Finnish counterparts abroad.
Smith and Kalata were invited to attend the North Karelian Food Symposium – a global get-together attended by representatives from Germany, Finland and Russia, among others.
Joensuu is a city of 52,000 located about three hours northeast of the country’s capital, Helsinki. It is in the eastern-most portion of Finland, bordering with Russia.
The school there is much like a community college here in the U.S., only it is about the size of Southern Illinois University and offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs as well as vocational and technical training through a consortium of schools branching off of a main facility.
“You would never know that 52,000 people live there,” Smith said. “It didn’t seem that big, but there are a fair amount of people there.”
Once the two touched down and arrived at the school, things started cooking right away – literally. On the first day, Kalata and Smith prepared lunch for a faculty and staff that had never tasted anything like it.
“They never had food prepared for them by Americans,” Smith said.
Kalata added, “The menu was sculpted to be an Americanized menu using their ingredients. We served grilled chicken and wild rice soup, sauteed chicken breast with fines herbs sauce.”
“And for dessert we made lemon curd tart and apple crisp,” Smith said.
Throughout the visit, the chefs dished their personal take on indigenous meat like reindeer, elk, wild boar, moose, and freshwater fish such as salmon and herring. They cooked with wild mushrooms, currants, lingonberries and other wild berries popular in a country latitudinal to just under the Arctic Circle. The location makes for very short growing seasons and months of constant sunlight or darkness.
“They are really into taking advantage of hunting seasons and jams and jellies,” Smith said. “Everything is so seasonal. I tried to get fresh blueberries and there were none. We had to use frozen because the berry season was over. We simply just couldn’t get them.”
The chefs operated in unfamiliar kitchens, under short time constraints and with equipment they had never used before. Kalata said it was like a combination of “Iron Chef” and “Dinner: Impossible” – two popular television programs about cooking.
“Every situation was like that,” he said. “There was no looking back and thinking, ‘You know, I only needed half of the time to do that.’ It was go, go, go.”
A language barrier between chefs from other countries was noticed, but it could not stand against a common theme. Smith mentioned his work with a German baker and pastry chef named Stephan. The two could not have communicated without a translator. But, they didn’t need to.
“We spoke the international language of food, but with two very different accents,” Smith said.
In addition to feeding their new friends, Smith and Kalata tasted food prepared for them by local restaurateurs, chefs from the area and fellow international guest cooks. They enjoyed Esa’s and Matti’s freshwater fish smoked over an outdoor open-pit at a scenic lake side restaurant.
RLC’s chefs were introduced to approaches using dried berries and vegetables which are high in flavor and low in fat and cholesterol. In the early 1970s, Finnish officials lead a nationwide campaign for a healthier diet and lifestyle. The custom stuck as the country continues to benefit from a healthy diet, exercise and one of the fastest growing economies in the European Union.
“They don’t overdo anything,” Kalata said. “They focus on using the freshest ingredients ... not a lot of can and bag ingredients.”
The birthplace of Fiskars scissors and Nokia phones, Finland is also known for its fine linens and textiles, glass products, forestry and open-pit soapstone quarries where minerals are mined and turned into the brilliant, giant soapstone ovens found in households throughout the nation and beyond. A testament to Finland’s focus on efficiency, these ovens not only cook the family’s food, they also warm the home for days.
These industry staples spawned an idea to include other fields of study in the exchange program. Agriculture, mining and forestry are huge industries in Finland, making the new endeavor a great opportunity for RLC students enrolled in related training programs, Smith explained.
“I think it’s impressive that there is a good-standing, working relationship between our two schools,” Kalata said. “Especially when it comes to our exchange program with faculty and now, even more impressive, an agreement in principle for a student exchange program. Equally as important is that we went over there – not only for our own professional development and for the benefit of students in the culinary arts program – but we talked about making this accessible to students in other programs here on campus, such as agriculture and mining.”
Smith added that officials on both sides, along with RLC Professor Sue Tomlin, are already hammering out the details of the exchange program. Tomlin is the main liaison for overseas faculty exchange programs which RLC takes part in. Kalata said RLC students will conduct fundraising events to cover the cost of travel and other expenses associated with the exchange program. Some funding from the college may also be possible and would surely help make the program a success. According to RLC Culinary Arts Club President Susan McKinley, student-driven fundraisers are already in progress. Club members will be outside the Mt. Vernon Super Wal-Mart from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17 selling various baked goods, holiday recipe gift jars, Club merchandise and more.
In regard to professional development, Kalata said he liked the opportunity to work side by side with chefs from other countries who teach students of similar age.
“Anytime you have a chance to interact with professionals from another country, and see how they put their spin on using similar ingredients, it is a great thing,” he said. “We shared ideas on cooking technique and I was able to see how they prepare certain things. They prepare things differently than we do.”
Smith said he picked up some valuable baking tips from Stephan, the German chocolatier.
During the trip, Smith and Kalata were invited to visit the restaurant scene in Russia and attend a February event in Germany. Stuttgart, Germany is the site for an annual culinary event called the Intra-Gastra Food Symposium. It is the largest food convention in Europe, Kalata said. The chefs also extended their invitations to foreign chefs who may be interested in visiting the RLC program.
Their trip to Finland was a 10-day affirmation of the level of quality in the program at home, Kalata said.
“I found that we do a lot of the same things,” he said. “There, they are learning many of the same things that we teach our students here. The experience supported my feelings that we are doing an outstanding job. What we are doing here at Rend Lake College competes well with others in the industry here and abroad.”