Stir Crazy: It was an education and an honor knowing Chef Ollie

May 28, 2013 

When I first met Chef Ollie Sommer, his reputation preceded him. People he knew and worked with in the food community in St. Louis spoke with awe of his many awards and experience. The tall, white-haired instructor at Southwestern Illinois College died May 21 at age 87.

He was in his 70s when I first did a story about him and the Culinary Arts Club at SWIC. While others might be well into retirement, Ollie was well into a stint as a teacher there that lasted 21 years. He may have cooked for President Jimmy Carter (1979 Democratic Governors Convention in Washington, D.C.) and President Ronald Reagan (Granada Royale Hotel in El Paso, Texas), but cultivating young chefs was his passion.

That story I did in January 1997 helped cultivate my passion for food writing: I was new to the topic as a journalist, having just become the food editor in June 1996. It was strictly on-the-job training for me and Ollie was so gracious to this newcomer, answering all my questions and explaining techniques.

He and his students were catering a private dinner for Mel Tillis, his entourage and some guests while the country singer was in town for a concert. I tagged along to watch the team at work, and saw a patient man who not only knew all about timing, preparation and presentation of food, but how to use such events to direct, teach and encourage students while delivering an excellent meal.

"There is no hurrying around; people don't like to see caterers doing that," he said that night, when the guest list suddenly leaped from 50 to 65. If any students were panicked by the change, no one showed it.

It was my first time behind the scenes in a professional kitchen and I was in awe of his leadership and the excitement he instilled in his students.

At the end of the evening, I found myself lending a hand washing dishes. (It seemed kind of silly to just be sitting there when everyone else was cleaning up.) Later, we all sat around and talked food. Actually, I just did a lot of listening. I guess I made a good impression. From that point on, Ollie was always glad to see me, smiling, taking my hand. I never left an assignment without his giving me a recipe or cookbook or class handout. I felt honored.

Here are three recipes from the late (and great) Executive Chef Ollie Sommer.

This first recipe was served at the Belleville home of Joe and Linda Ciplf in April 1997, when Joe was president of then Belleville Area College. The late Dr. Michael Murphy, of Belleville, and his family had won an auction bid to enjoy a meal for eight prepared by Ollie and his students at the Cipfl home.


3 Russet potatoes, medium size, peeled and sliced 1/4 -inch thick

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons all-purpose seasoning

1 teaspoon paprika

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-quarter casserole dish.

Place sliced potatoes in dish shingle style (layered diagonally on top of one another).

Add 1 cup chicken broth to potatoes and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and seasoning.

Cover and bake 1 hour. Remove cover. Garnish potatoes with paprika. Bake 15 minutes more, or until potatoes are lightly brown. Remove from oven. Garnish with chopped parsley, if desired. Makes six portions.

These other recipes from Ollie were taken from the cookbook "Cooking with SWIC," a collection of recipes from faculty, students and friends of the college and compiled by the Culinary Arts Club.

Curry Carrot Soup

4 ounces onion, milked

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 3/4 quarts chicken stock

2 pound carrots, peeled and sliced in to 1/4-inch rounds

1/2 cup heavy cream

3/4 cup honey

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon clarified butter

2 teaspoons curry powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

8 teaspoons fresh parsley, chopped for garnish

In a large sauce pan over medium heat, add butter. When melted, add onion and saute about 5 minutes, or until onion is transparent but not brown.

Add brown sugar, stock and carrots. Bring to a simmer and cook about 45 minutes, or until carrots are tender. Remove from heat.

Strain soup and puree solids in a blender or food processor until smooth. Remove from blender and return pureed mixture to the reserved liquid.

Mix together well, then return to heat. Bring to a simmer, add heavy cream and honey. Mix together the clarified butter, curry and flour to form a roux. Whisk the roux slowly into the simmering soup. When the soup thickens, add the salt and pepper to taste; remove from heat.

Ladle soup into heated bowls; garnish with honey and parsley, if desired.

Note: To clarify butter, place in a small pan over medium heat. When butter is melted, skim off the foam that accumulates on top. Pour off and reserve the liquid butter. Discard the milky solids that remain in the pan.

Pecan-Crusted Catfish

1/4 cup dry bread crumbs, finely ground

2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning

4 catfish fillets

1/2 cup pecan pieces, finely chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1 lemon, juiced

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.

Combine in a bowl, bread crumbs and Cajun seasoning; mix well.

Coat fish with the mixture. Pat fish to coat well.

Place skin-side down on baking sheet. Press 1 tablespoon pecans onto each fillet.

In a small saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter.

Sprinkle fillets with lemon juice, then spoon melted butter evenly over fish. Place in oven and bake 12 to 14 minutes, or until fish flakes easily. Remove from oven and serve with tartar sauce.

Note: Any firm fish may be substituted for the catfish.

Elsie's Biscuits

3 cups flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

4 ounces butter

4 ounces buttermilk

4 ounces milk

4 ounces sour cream

1/8 teaspoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet.

In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients: Flour, salt and baking powder. Add the butter; mix together until crumbly, using a pastry blender or a fork.

In a bowl, mix rest of wet ingredients. Add to flour mixture; combine only until all ingredients are moistened. Turn this dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead together three of four times. Pat or roll dough to a 1/2-inch thickness. Cut dough into biscuits using a 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter. Place cut biscuits on baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Makes 36 biscuits.

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