Dan Bessler, recent winner of the Elgin Community College Culinary Arts and Hospitality program/ Fischer Nuts competition, may not be your stereotypical college student. But according to Dan, when it comes to ECC's culinary program, there is no stereotype.
"There is a range in ages of the students in the program, from ambitious 19-year olds, to people older than me. I don't think age has anything to do with it, we all love to cook and we have a good time," said the 60-year-old who recently retired after a career in labor relations. And while Dan freely admits he likes nothing better than a day on the golf course, he decided to stir up his retirement by enrolling in the ECC Culinary program just for the enjoyment of it.
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Each semester students in the program must participate in a cooking competition, so Dan decided to try his hand at the Fischer Nuts contest.
Students could enter in the appetizer, pasta, protein or dessert category and Dan's Quinoa Pistachio Salad took first in his category and earned best overall honors, leaving him with a scholarship to continue his culinary studies.
Dan shares a version of that salad with us today.
"Quinoa is a very healthy grain that was used by the Incas 3,000 years ago. It is full of protein, containing nine essential building blocks and its tastes good." Dan combines red pepper, chick peas, olive oil, jicama and of course, shelled pistachios, to create the dish.
The cooking classes are not Dan's first foray into the kitchen however.
"I've always messed around in the kitchen," said Dan recalling the fateful day when his wife couldn't cook and he volunteered to cook dinner.
"She never picked up a pot again!" he jokes. The Besslers enjoy entertaining and now that Dan has retired there is more time to devote to his hobby.
"My wife was worried that I might be bored when I retired. I haven't had a day go by that I've been bored."
Dan loves to collect recipes, particularly when chicken is the main ingredient. "I can cook chicken a thousand different ways," he boasts.
During the summer, the couple eats very light.
"We're almost vegetarians during the summer. We just like to take advantage of all the fresh produce and enjoy the short season that we've got. In the fall and winter, meals are more spur-of-the-moment and often depend on how my day's going."
Fridays however, are for drinks and small plates. The Besslers build their dinner around yummy treats like open-faced grilled portobello sandwiches and the mixed bean salad he shares with us today.
"I'm always looking for a good appetizer recipe," said Dan.
Dan says he has no plans to start a second career as a chef, but now that he's won his first cooking competition, who knows?