Milka Vergara is a new face in the community’s culinary industry and she might just shake up the chefs competition in A Taste of the Rim Country.
Vergara is the new director of food service for the Rim Country Health & Retirement Community and she is toying with the idea of bringing some of her Puerto Rican background to dishes she will have for the March 7 event to benefit the Library Friends of Payson.
She said she is also considering preparing with Thai influences or sweet Cajun spice, possibly a vegetarian item and a sample of the special desserts prepared for residents of the RCH&RC.
Vergara studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., earning not only her culinary degree but a food service business management degree as well. Before getting her degree, she had on-the-job training as a dietary aide in the health care industry. Her experience also includes work as a private chef in White Plains, N.Y., catering and working in the five-star room service of the MGM Grand condominiums in Las Vegas, Nev.
“I love cooking and I love health care. Cooking in health care you get to do it all from ordering the supplies and training the staff, creating menus and cooking from scratch. As I understand it, they were not cooking from scratch here before, but now we are and I am getting lots of raves from our residents.”
Cooking from scratch means making the tomato sauces and pastes that the recipes call for at RCH&RC.
Vergara said her favorite foods to prepare and eat are Italian and Asian, so it is a safe bet the tomato sauces are outstanding.
She had her first cooking lessons from her grandmother and mother and started trying her hand in the kitchen when she was just in the second- and third-grades.
“I’d cook for my friends, my sister and her friends after school. We called them Milka’s (pronounced Meeka) Creations,” she said.
Her catering ventures later in life have brought her the biggest disasters.
“I was doing a Christmas party for about 500 and made ribs with a hot guava sauce. I rented speed racks with Sterno to keep the ribs and sauce warm. We were working in the kitchen when all of a sudden we heard pop-pop-pop-pop. The pans with the ribs and sauce were not the right size for the speed racks. We opened the door and all the pans were tilted and the hot sauce was dripping down the front. The people I had working for me didn’t know what to do, so I pulled on my long oven gloves and set everything back in place while that hot sauce poured down my arms. I just worked through it because we had a job to do. Nobody at the party knew anything about it.”
Another challenge came when she did a wedding and discovered the electricity was out. Again she was using the speed racks and Sterno, so everything stayed hot. Still she had to run to a neighboring house to make her green beans almandine, but things went off without a hitch.
She said the hardest part of her job is taking recipes that are too wordy and translating them for easy, hands-on application for her staff. A complication no matter where you work is finding staff with a passion for working in the kitchen, she encountered it in New York and Nevada. “For most people working in a kitchen is just a job.”
“One thing people don’t know about cooking is how easy a recipe is to make and if it doesn’t turn out right, there is always a way to fix it,” Vergara said.
The exception is baking, she added.
Her advice to people thinking about a career in cooking, besides having a true passion for it — “You have to have knowledge of every appliance in the kitchen. Master every part of the kitchen. Cooking is no joke. When you cook, you have to clean up. There are safety matters. But don’t be afraid to experiment and go beyond the basic recipes. Try different seasonings.”
Vergara has created a soup cookbook, featuring recipes she learned from her grandmother and mother, but has not published it. She has made copies and passed them around to friends and family members.
As for the future, she said she thinks she would like to teach at the college level or in a small cooking school.
A Taste of Rim Country is at 5 p.m., Saturday, March 7 at the Payson Public Library. Tickets are $30 per person, with half of that tax deductible, and are available at the library. For more information, call Bessie Tucker at (928) 474-9260.