Culinary school dean dishes on healthy food

How many schools can say their dean is also a TV star, let alone a celebrity chef?

Kendall College can. It's Dean of the School of Culinary Arts, Chris Koetke, hosts his own cooking show, "Let's Dish."

The show debuted last year on Live Well HD, a new high-definition network devoted to healthy lifestyles, created by ABC7 Chicago. During the half-hour cooking show, Koetke and other well-known guest chefs prepare healthy meals, usually based on a theme such as hearty soups or asparagus. The show has an instructional approach, which fits perfectly with Koetke's approachable style. It is not too fast for a novice, but experienced cooks will learn something too. (For example, who knew asparagus was a favorite spring dish of the ancient Greeks and Romans?)

"I want 'Let's Dish' to be more than just entertainment," Koetke says. "As an educator, I want people to walk away from it and say, 'I've never known that.' The whole secret of culinary is being an empowered cook, not just able to follow the recipe but to understand it. Then you can change and substitute things. That's when cooking gets to be fun."

The show tries to bridge the gap between good cooking and good health. "The thing about healthy food is, you can make it, it's not difficult," Koetke says. "The problem is, that's not the type of food people are gravitating toward. I know there are many people out there who want to eat healthy and want to know how to do it."

According to ABC7 Chicago President Emily Barr, Koetke is right. "Let's Dish" is one of the top two shows on the channel.

So how did Dean Koetke get the gig? By being a good teacher, of course.

"We wanted to do a fun, tasty show with an emphasis on health," Barr says. "We started looking around for people who could explain that on camera. We wanted someone well known in the culinary world. Chris auditioned, he had a great background. We were impressed because as a teacher he has a great ability to explain and communicate. He didn't get nervous looking at the camera."

"As a chef educator, I've spent a lot of years in front of people teaching them how to do things," Koetke says.

He got the job and started working with ABC7 producer Cathy Vlahogiannis to develop the concept, which became "Let's Dish."

The show has filmed 48 half-hour episodes so far. It typically features several dishes, then ends with a tasting. Koetke answers viewer questions. Celebrity chefs might cook their favorite dish with the show's featured ingredient. "We've had chefs from all over the United States, and famous Chicago chefs such as Rick Bayless, Gale Gand, and Rick Tramonto," Koetke says. "We've also had buffalo ranchers from Kansas. There's a great diversity of guests."

Koetke's favorite episodes are the ones that emphasize teaching, such as Rice 101. "We jumped into a classroom setting and taught about rice. Then we made a number of recipes with different kinds of rice. People walked away from it knowing the difference between long grain, white and brown rice." The episode was nominated for a Chicago/Midwest Emmy.

Other shows that made an impact include a kid-friendly cooking episode that featured young cooks in the studio. Another focused on, cooking for college. "We had college students on and looked at how to cook in college dorms and do it inexpensively," Koetke says. "It's important to eat healthy in every stage in life."

A native of Valparaiso, Ind., Koetke began cooking professionally in 1982 and has worked in some of the finest kitchens in Europe where he studied cooking, pastries and wine. Upon his return to the United States, Koetke spent five years at the world-famous Le Francais in Wheeling. Later, he was executive chef at Les Nomades in Chicago, where he won international acclaim.

Koetke joined the faculty of Kendall College in 1998, then became dean of the School of Culinary Arts in 2005. In 2009 he was named Chef Educator of the Year in 2009 by the Windy City Chapter of the American Culinary Federation. He is a prolific speaker, contributing editor, consultant, and even an ice sculptor.

However, as dean, Koetke no longer teaches in the classroom. Instead, he spends time on big-picture projects like instituting sustainability practices at the school, and educating foodservice professionals across the country on the topic.

"But I love to teach," he says. "Teaching is one of the few sacred professions that exist. Someone gives you their time and their trust. You give them the tools that will make them successful in their life."

Indeed, Koetke's success is all around him, in the form of former students who have opened their own restaurants or become great chefs both here and abroad. "I can't count the times I have gone to a restaurant where the chef is someone I taught 10 years ago," he says. "It's pretty amazing." ¿