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updated: 3/27/2012 7:39 AM

Rekindling her love of cooking once she got out of the kitchen

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  • Erica Jensen says the demands of being a restaurant chef were too much, so she traded her whisks and spatulas for novels and notebooks and headed back to school.

      Erica Jensen says the demands of being a restaurant chef were too much, so she traded her whisks and spatulas for novels and notebooks and headed back to school.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Erica Jensen cooks

By Sally Eyre
Daily Herald Correspondent

From the time she was a teenager, Erica Jensen has loved to cook. So much so that friends and family encouraged her to go to culinary school, which she did, graduating from the New England Culinary School nearly 10 years ago.

The problem was, Jensen discovered a huge discrepancy between the ideal, creative moments she spent preparing food in her own kitchen, to the reality of many restaurant kitchens.

"The brutal truth is that the restaurant business is a man's world. I give a lot of credit to the women in Chicago who stick with it, but I didn't like the way I was treated and I didn't like the 60 to 80 hours I put in each week," the Fox River Grove woman said. "Basically, I decided that the lifestyle was just not for me."

So she has gone back to school, this time majoring in her other passion, English. She hopes to become a teacher of literature and creative writing. And, ironically, just as she puts cooking on the back burner so to speak, she's rediscovered her love for cooking.

"I love, love, love to cook. In fact, now that I've been getting back into it, I'm enjoying it much more than I ever did as a career," Jensen says. "Although, I wouldn't take that (culinary school) experience back for anything. I really learned a lot in the long run."

In sharing a shortlist of the "best things" she learned in culinary school, Jensen begins our lesson with the basics: salt and pepper.

"One of the first things we learned in school was to season at every step. Salt and pepper will take you far, and we use kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. The quality makes a big difference."

In fact, using quality ingredients makes the "best" list as well.

"I use good olive oil, fresh produce."

Third on the list is learning to pair flavors.

"We had a book we called the 'Flavor Bible.' It shows you what works with what. For example, sweet and savory, people think they don't go together, but they do.

One of the things I learned is that we all eat the same 20 foods over and over again. That's a very small number. Don't be afraid to try new foods!"

As for equipment, Jensen has three essentials: a good knife, a good mixer and a grill pan.

"I have a grill pan that is phenomenal. Cooking in it adds so much more flavor and I am a big fan of getting a nice crust on meat and this does that,"

Having recently learned that she is gluten-intolerant, Jensen has been making a lot of salads and soups.

"I like to just be simple, but I'm never very simple," she laughs. "There's always a lot of cutting involved."

So while Jensen may not be finished with her certification to teach, she is ready to teach her first lesson. Watch as she prepares Mahi-mahi with Pineapple, Mango and Avocado and then make it for tonight's homework.

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