A chef in the making

Alexis Smith, a culinary arts student at Temple High School, recently helped prepare meals for military families during the BNSF Holiday Express event.

Temple High School student Alexis Smith was given a unique opportunity last month to help hone her cooking skills.

Smith, a junior in the culinary arts program, was invited to ride the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Holiday Express, an annual train trip for military families. While onboard, she assisted BNSF chefs in preparing a four-course steak dinner in the train’s kitchen.

Smith was selected for the job out of several classmates through an essay-writing contest.

 “We had catered for BNSF and afterwards, (Joe Faust) contacted us and said that he would like to extend the opportunity for the kids to visit their dining train and work with an executive chef,” said Margaret Fyffe, THS culinary arts teacher.

Faust, BNSF regional director of public affairs, told Fyffe the executive chef suggested the students write an essay to help determine which one would be chosen. Fyffe spread the word to her students and told them if they wanted to go on a field trip and spend some time on the dining car of train, they would have to write an essay.

Smith said at first she didn’t intend to write an essay, but decided at the last minute to write something about why she loves to cook and how the opportunity would help her culinary career go further.

Fyffe said several students wrote in, and Smith’s essay was selected.

The Holiday Express left the Santa Fe Depot in Temple Wednesday, Nov. 29, for an hour and a half round-trip ride with nearly 350 people on board, including members of military families, local officials and BNSF executives.

Fyffe said she and several other students went with Smith to the station and got to tour the train before they dropped her off.

Smith said the chefs ate their meal first, then jumped in and began preparing for dinner, which was served at the conclusion of the event.

“It was really fun,” she said. “It was fast paced, but I knew what to do. And they gave me some difficult tasks, but at the same time I knew what it was.”

She said they were working in very small quarters in addition to being on a moving transport. Smith said the kitchen space was so small two people couldn’t walk past each other, so they had to pass items down the line.

“Because it was on a train, it was always moving and stuff,” she said. “I actually cut myself,” she said, indicating a small knick on her finger. “I cut myself with a knife because it was moving.”

Smith said she was able to adapt to working in the small space, and the other chefs told her how to stand to stay balanced while the train moved. She said she got a lot of instruction at first, but as she started to catch on to the pace she was able to move from task to task with ease.

The invitation-only dinner was served in the dining car after the train returned to the Santa Fe Depot and most of the riders departed. The menu featured Minnesota wild rice soup, spinach and romaine salad with pomegranate vinaigrette, steak Oscar with béarnaise sauce, duchess potatoes, roasted broccoli and Christmas bread pudding with bourbon sauce for dessert.

“I love to cook,” Smith said. “That’s just something I love to do, and this experience opened my eyes to how fast it is and what I need to do to get better, and I hope I can put this on my resume. I know it’s not going to make a difference, but it’s something more to put on there. I’m just trying to build it up.”

Smith said she wants to attend culinary school, preferable at the Culinary Institute of America, because she plans on being a chef. She said one day she should like to own her own restaurant and be “Chef Gordon Ramsey good.”

Smith said the culinary arts program at THS helped her a lot “because this is just practice for what’s to come in the real world.”

Fyffe said Smith is a very hard worker who isn’t afraid to experiment. She said her unique experience on the Holiday Express gives Smith a pathway to her future. She said it was a great taste of the real world to be cooking in a small space, begin pushed, working quickly and having to listen.

 “So often people will mess up, but it’s because they haven’t listened to the instructions, and Alexis is never one of those,” Fyffe said. “I tell her what needs to be done, and she goes right to it. She and a couple other kids will go right to it and get it done, and I know it’s going to come out pretty darn near perfect.”