For the past few weeks, Cascade Culinary Institute chef instructor Thor Erickson has known that he was going to the White House to cook. He just didn’t know the details.
Would he cook for the first family? It was all very mysterious, and nerve-wracking.
Erickson was one of eight chefs chosen by the International Association of Culinary Professionals to go to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Friday and report to the kitchen.
“I got to D.C. on Tuesday to spend a couple days with my sister, Kaari, who lives here. She got the brunt of my pacing the floor and being nervous, and she reassured me, ‘Thor, just do what you do. You always adjust to what is,’ she said, and she was right, I did,” Erickson said.
After being welcomed by White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford at 10:45 a.m. Friday and hearing about the administration’s interest in American food practices, including fermentation and preserving, Erickson, 46, was asked to teach the White House kitchen staff how to cure and preserve a whole pig.
“They said, ‘Show us how to butcher a pig,’ and that’s one of the main things I teach at CCI. I produce prosciutto, and ferment meat, and preserve meat — charcuterie. It’s one of my favorite things to do,” Erickson said Friday night, right after he returned to his hotel room, exhausted and exhilarated.
For nine hours, Erickson did what he loves best: teach.
“I basically spent hours butchering a Berkshire hog. I started at the top, took off the jowl and save that for jowl bacon, which is called guanciale (in Italian), which can either be cured or cured and smoked. Then I went into the shoulder, and took out the coppa. I learned the Italian way to butcher from my father, and by spending time in Italy. My dad was a restaurateur and culinary teacher. He did exactly the same thing I do and he still does,” Erickson said.
The whole day was an educational experience, with the other chefs chosen by the international association teaching other topics.
“It was almost like team building for the White House kitchen staff, and it was great to be a part of that. I was very honored to do that,” he said.
This was Erickson’s first trip ever to Washington, D.C.
He grew up in California, has cooked in many top restaurants, and has been teaching at the Cascade Culinary Institute at Central Oregon Community College for the past six years. He has lived in Bend for 23 years.
First trip to the nation’s capital, and he’s in the White House while the president is in residence.
“I did not see the president or first lady, but I was told they were there. I was told the president was having a meeting with the secretary of the treasury,” he said.
The kitchen seemed smaller than Erickson had pictured, but it was impressive nevertheless.
“It was very exciting and beautiful, and it was clean. Very clean. Food is a very powerful thing, and where food is produced is even more powerful. Wow, I’m in the kitchen that sustains the people that run this whole country; that was pretty magical. I’m in the business of sustaining lives by cooking. It fulfills me — keeping people going,” Erickson said.
After hours of making sausage, liver pate and bacon, Erickson cleaned up.
“I refuse to let anyone do my dishes for me, because I’m not above doing dishes. I want to be an example to my students and the best thing I can show them is nobody is above doing dishes,” he said.
He joined his fellow chefs at The Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House after their long shift, and were surprised to walk in and see world famous chefs, Jose Andres and Daniel Boulud in the crowd of IACP colleagues, waiting to greet him.
“They said ‘How’d it go?’ It was a real mind blower to me,” Erickson said.
As days go, Friday was one of the best for the lucky chef instructor.
“I have an 8-year-old son, Jahn, who when he was born it was the greatest thing, and when I got married, it was fantastic. It doesn’t rank nearly as high as those, but as far as professional things, it almost ranks a high as teaching,” Erickson said.
“I like teaching so much that I think my students are the most important thing in terms of my professional career. I was completely flattered by this, and I tell my students, if I can do it, you can do it. There’s nothing special about me,” he said.
— Reporter: email@example.com