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Delicious way to learn: Duluth nonprofit offers food-training program in LSC kitchen

Bruce Wallis encouraged Chris Wark to get his pizza out of the deck-style oven quickly. "Hey, let's go; you gotta go, man," Wallis said, a broad smile making clear his friendly intent. "It's gonna burn if you don't get it out of there." Wark, who...

Lindsey Dandrea
Lindsey Dandrea places her cooked pizza on a rack to let it cool off. She and other adults either with disabilities or who are having difficulty getting employment learned a variety of commercial food and preparation skills by creating and cooking their own pizzas in the kitchen at Lake Superior College on Wednesday. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Bruce Wallis encouraged Chris Wark to get his pizza out of the deck-style oven quickly.

"Hey, let's go; you gotta go, man," Wallis said, a broad smile making clear his friendly intent. "It's gonna burn if you don't get it out of there."

Wark, who was ready with large oven mitts, wasn't about to let that happen. Wark and four other students from the Duluth nonprofit CHOICE, unlimitedwere completing a 40-hour food services class with a pizza party Wednesday that would feature their own creations. Wallis taught the class on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for a month in the kitchen of Lake Superior College, where he is food services manager.

CHOICE, unlimited is designed to help adults with disabilities surmount employment barriers. It serves 170 people annually and has a staff of 115, said Kristie Buchman, executive director. It has teamed with Wallis to offer the class each of the past two summers.

It's a natural fit, said Wallis, 44, whose culinary work has included the Damiano Center, St. Mary's Medical Center (pre-Essentia Health) and 10 years as chef at Chester Creek Café. The college has the facilities and doesn't provide regular cafeteria service in the summer, making it a logical site for the class.

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Besides, Wallis likes to teach. When Tess Dandrea, the college's customized training representative, told Wallis last year that the school and CHOICE would like to offer a food-service training program like they used to have at the Damiano Center, he smiled. Wallis had taught that class.

One day each week was spent in preparation and planning and the other on cooking. On previous Wednesdays, the results were offered to faculty and administrators at the school, but the pizza was only for the students, their five job coaches and Wallis. A sixth student took the class but was ill and unable to attend the final session.

The idea, Wallis said, is to give the students the skills they would need to work in food services.

"What this class is about is showing them professional kitchen etiquette, professional kitchen procedures, and doing them in a fun way by having them prepare all the meals," Wallis said.

Wark, 30, likes that idea. He works in cleaning at Bayshore Health Center on Park Point, he said, but he would prefer to cook. The class helped him work toward that.

"You get to learn a lot of new ways to cook stuff," Wark said. "You get to learn new techniques and new methods."

Tye Ostrom, 30, one of the job coaches, said the class went beyond just the cooking part of food services.

"It was really good as far as all-around goes," Ostrom said. "Instead of just doing the cooking thing, it was nice that (the students) wanted to help with cleanup."

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Wednesday's class was preceded by what Wallis called "pizza brainstorming" on Tuesday, and each pizza reflected the student's choices. Ben Gross, 24, topped his pizza with Italian sausage, ham, bacon and three cheeses. Pat Robinson, 52, chose Italian sausage, onions, anchovies and three kinds of cheese. Lindsey Dandrea, 24, used cheese, green peppers, mushrooms, pepperoni, sausage ... "lots of stuff," she said.

All five pizzas came out of the big oven with brown crusts and delectable-looking toppings amid an almost irresistible fragrance.

They got thumbs-ups all the way around.

"OK, Lindsey, I'm eating yours right now," Wallis said as the group gathered around two tables in the cafeteria. "It's pretty good."

In an interview earlier, Wallis had given his students perhaps the ultimate compliment from someone in food services.

"There are a couple of people who, if I were to start my own restaurant I would hire -- like that," he said, snapping his fingers. And then he reflected further: "This whole class, I would probably want them in my restaurant."

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