Longtime SWIC culinary instructor Chef Ollie Sommer dies

News-DemocratMay 22, 2013 

For decades, he's just been Chef Ollie.

Executive Chef Oliver "Ollie" Sommer shared his vast culinary knowledge in a second career as an instructor, the last 21 years with Southwestern Illinois College's Culinary Arts & Food Management Program.

He died Tuesday in St. Louis at age 87. While he cooked for presidents and ran corporate dining rooms, Sommer earned nearly all of his accolades for nurturing future chefs.

Sommer said his philosophy of teaching culinary arts was inclusive: Rather than have students at SWIC learn about one food area at a time, he preferred to put together a meal from his classic collection of recipes.

"So the students can learn to prepare it as they would in the real world -- as a whole," he said in a 2010 interview that included lunch during his Food Preparation II class in Granite City.

Leisa Brockman, the culinary program's coordinator at SWIC, said Sommer's last semester teaching at SWIC was spring 2012. He developed pneumonia and was unable to return that fall.

"I know he wanted to come back and we were ready to have him back," she said.

She worked with Sommer for seven years at SWIC, but said she knew of him for 20 years.

"Anyone in the culinary community in St. Louis knew Ollie," she said. "The number of lives he touched in our area, as well as around the United States, it's mind-boggling."

Aidan Murphy, former chef and current general manager of Old Warson Country Club in Ladue, Mo., said he and Sommer met while working on student competitions with the American Culinary Federation.

"He was so active, a total advocate for young culinarians," Murphy said. "And he was just a great human being. Awesome. You could ask him anything and he'd help you. That was Ollie."

Prior to working at SWIC, Sommer taught at Forest Park Community College in St. Louis. He also taught at Lewis and Clark College in Godfrey.

Chef Casey Shiller, of St. Louis knew Sommer through their work as members of Chefs de Cuisine, a non-profit organization of culinary professionals. He called Sommer a role model for young chefs.

"There was not a better educational mentor," said Shiller, who teaches at Forest Park. "What a tremendous loss for the St. Louis area, and the rest of the country. The entire city is in mourning."

Former SWIC culinary graduate Bill Forness, of Maryland Heights, Mo., said he was saddened by the news. Looking back at when he was a student there, he said he was always fascinated by one of Sommer's abilities.

"He could do this crazy thing where he would sit down and write out a recipe (from memory)," said Forness, who grew up in Belleville. "He could just do it and it would be perfect. I asked him how he could remember it was 2 cups of something and he said that after cooking for so long, you just know."

But while Sommer helped culinary students earn degrees, his own education began at 16 when he joined the Navy during World War II. Raised in St. Louis, he attended Cooks and Bakers School in the service. His list of culinary credentials includes names from St. Louis past: The Forum Cafeteria, Granada Royale Hotel, H.A. Pope & Sons Co., where he founded the Ideal Catering Co., and his final chef's position before teaching, as chef of the executive dining room at Emerson Electric.

Awards and honors followed, numbering more than 30. Highlights included being named the first Chef of the Millennium in1999 by the Chefs de Cuisine chapter in St. Louis. In 2001, the ACF had to number the Presidential Medallion (No. 39) that it gave Sommer for his continuing efforts to educate future chefs. That's because it was his second; the other was No. 23, making him the only chef in the 100-year history of the organization to receive two.

He also was a member of the Honorable Order of The Golden Toque, the highest recognition a chef can receive in the U.S. United States. It is restricted to 100 lifetime members.

In 2004, he was inducted into Les Amis d'Escoffier Society.

Looking back on his accomplishments, Sommer said that while honored by the accolades, he believed he'd received them for one reason.

"My philosophy is you train a student to do a job better than you, then you're a success."

Ollie Sommer was preceded in death by his wife, Naomi. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service