Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
If you like to eat, you better know how to cook. And when it comes to learning how to cook, Chef Mark Olson is a recognized name in the realm of local cuisine.
A native of Hartland, where he graduated from Arrowhead High School in 1982, Olson currently toils as a culinary arts instructor at Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville. On a daily basis, he works to groom young food professionals as they work their way toward edible artistry.
Olson’s belief in education is obvious in looking at his own resume, which includes a culinary arts degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York; a Bachelor of Business Administration from Upper Iowa University (Fayette, Iowa) and a Master of Education from National Louis University (Chicago).
Personally, Olson and his wife, Darla, have two daughters, Kristin and Lindsey; four grandchildren—Josee, Oliver, Rubi and Arlo; and a chocolate Lab, Bella.
1. Is it hard to stay in decent physical shape when you’re constantly surrounded by food? Seeing that I’m one all-you-can-eat buffet short of 250 pounds, let’s move on to question 2. I’m a chef, not a personal trainer.
2. What initially led to you pursuing a career in the culinary arts? My first real nonfamily job was washing dishes at a local chef-owned supper club. About six months into it, they were short on cooks, and the owner/chef handed me an apron and tongs and asked, “Ya ever fried fish before?” I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere, pace, adrenaline and culture that a restaurant kitchen provides.
3. Have you had any past kitchen disasters you’d be willing to share details of? Two come to mind: 1. Christmas Day 1992, Interlaken Resort in Lake Geneva. The fire suppression system malfunctioned, flooding the kitchen with monoammonium phosphate (white powder) and turning off all the gas. We had about 700 people in the hotel we had to try and figure out how to feed while cleaning up and waiting for the fire department to arrive and turn the gas back on. Many of the guests didn’t have a clue to the chaos that was going on behind the swinging doors; and 2. A 300-person wedding in August at the Janesville Country Club, when a thunderstorm knocked out the power at about 4 p.m.—with guest arrival scheduled for 5 p.m. We fed them with vegetable trays, fruit trays and dry snacks while we cooked 300 filet mignons, 300 duchess potatoes and grilled vegetables on a portable charcoal grill outside. The power came back on at about 8 p.m. just as we were finishing cake/coffee service.
4. Share something about BTC’s culinary arts program that people might not understand. One of the misconceptions about our program is that we just teach students how to cook when we offer so much more. Cooking is roughly two-thirds of our curriculum with purchasing, menu writing, nutrition, food safety, supervision, table service, beverage management, ice sculpting and recipe development making up the remainder of our program.
5. You have the ability to create some pretty impressive dishes. Do you ever get a craving for fast food? I’m really not a food snob, but I just don’t eat much fast food. When I do, I look for a Culver’s. In my mind, they’re kinda the cream of the crop in that market.
6. You spend your days preparing and cooking food, and teaching others to do the same. When you get home, is cooking the last thing you want to do or not? My wife is a pretty darn good cook herself, but she prefers to have me cook. Our kids and grandkids also look forward to what “papa” has planned for meals when they’re with us. I enjoy it, so it’s not really a chore—and they always do the cleanup, so I look at that as a pretty good arrangement.
7. What is your favorite kitchen tool/utensil? I have a Kitchen Aid food processor I bought used in the ‘80s. It has saved hours and hours of prep time in 30-plus years. A close second is my mandolin.
8. What is your favorite ingredient with which to cook, and is there an ingredient you just can’t find a good use for? My favorite is naturally made veal and/or chicken stock. A close second would be heavy cream, heavy cream, heavy cream, sauces, ice cream, mousses, real whipped cream and soups. I don’t like ranch dressing. It has destroyed an entire generation’s palate.
9. People would be surprised to know that I: Curl. That game on ice with the granite stones and brooms, not lifting weights in the gym.
10. At the grocery store, what item always goes into your cart whether you need it or not? Cheese. Seems as though I can’t pass up a cheese display case without taking a peek and finding a cheese I haven’t had before or had in a long time. In connection with the answer to question 10, you can see I have developed somewhat of a dairy addiction. See answer to question 1.
11. If you weren’t involved in the food industry, what would you be doing for a living? Dentistry. My father was a dentist, and he really wanted me to go to dentistry school and eventually take over his practice. He had me work with him after school and during the summers developing X-rays, charting patients, sanitizing instruments, chair-side assisting, etc. As I said, he really wanted me to develop an interest in it. But at the same time, he was adamant about getting into something I really liked. I chose the kitchen.
12. When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? This question mistakenly assumes I have grown up. Veterinarian. I love animals.
13. In your experience, what is the single most difficult ingredient to work with? Unmotivated, disinterested humans.
14. Do most students who enter the BTC culinary arts program do so with some knowledge of the field, or are many completely oblivious when they start? The makeup of our classes is quite diverse and changes greatly from year to year. Over the years, I have had students in high school and students in their 60s and 70s with varying degrees of commercial kitchen experience. In general, most of our students have some cooking knowledge, and some have restaurant experience—but some are oblivious. Regardless of their experience level, students who have a thirst for knowledge and a true passion for food tend to make the best students. Many times, old habits are harder to break than new ones are to teach. We accept and teach ’em all.
15. Without looking in the dictionary, what would you guess a cibophobia is? Process of deduction tells me it’s probably some type of fear of a certain food such as seafood or something that has bones in it. My second guess is a fear of answering personal questions about yourself to the newspaper. (Editor’s note: Cibophobia is, in fact, a fear of food).
16. When it comes to cooking, why is presentation considered so important? There is no doubt we all eat with our eyes first. Really great food tantalizes all of the senses. Some of this is subconscious or instinctive as food is the ultimate sensory experience. Instinctively, the process was developed by our ancient ancestors as a determination to the safety of the food about to be consumed. First we look at it, then we smell it and, last, we taste it. If this sounds too mechanical to believe, watch your pets—they do the same thing. In a previous question, you asked me to divulge something about our program that people might not understand. This would be a great example, as we don’t just teach cooking—we teach professional plate presentation. Textures, colors, shapes, portion size, height, composition and ingredient integrity all go into plating.
17. The most difficult thing to do in any kitchen is: Timing everything properly, whereas all foods are cooked as closely to service as possible yet in a timely manner.
18. I know I’m not supposed to use the same cutting board for meats and vegetables/fruits. What are the best options, material-wise, for chopping up these items? Polyethylene (plastic) cutting boards are the best option. They are easily cleanable, and they don’t chip, dull knives, mold, warp, crack or affect the flavor of the food. By the way, using the same cutting board to cut up numerous items is OK as long as you do it in the proper sequence.
19. How realistic are televised cooking shows? If you had to choose one, which would you say is most true to life as far as professional kitchen behavior? I have never been one to watch reality cooking shows. That kind of answers the first part of the question, so answering the second part is really difficult. There are portions of some shows that illustrate certain aspects of everyday kitchen life, but overall, they are like professional wrestling—exaggerated, overblown, emotion-driven drama based on facts but sensationalized for entertainment. I applaud the chefs who have made a tremendous amount of money and notoriety from their shows, but there’s not much there for me as a chef. I think if you ask nurses, doctors, lawyers or police, they would say the same about those shows that depict hospitals, courtrooms or police stations. However, I do like some informational shows such as Alton Brown and “America’s Test Kitchen.” The sarcastic side of me also asks the question, “Do veterinarians go home and watch pet shows, or do contractors go home and watch handyman fix-it shows?”
20. You have two hours of free time. What do you do? If you were to ask me this question when I was in the industry, I would have laughed. Two hours of free time? Ha. Now I would bowhunt, spend time with the grandkids, work around the house and cook.