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posted: 3/18/2014 5:45 AM

Cook of the Week: Retiree returns to school to perfect culinary skills

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  • Video: Cook of the Week Marie DeMar

  • Not content to sit around in retirement, Marie DeMar enrolled in culinary classes at Harper College. She said the program helped formalize the techniques she learned from her mother.

      Not content to sit around in retirement, Marie DeMar enrolled in culinary classes at Harper College. She said the program helped formalize the techniques she learned from her mother.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

By Abby Scalf

After retiring from Oakton Community College, Marie DeMar went back to school.

Marie spent 32 year's in the college's accounting department and in retirement found herself craving daily structure. So three years ago she enrolled in the culinary program at Harper College in Palatine looking to perfect the skills she gained from many years from watching her mom, Rosemary.

"It was formalizing everything I knew," said the Mount Prospect cook.

Marie remembers her mother inviting neighbors over to help make Italian sausage, marinara sauce and homemade ravioli. Her mother died when she was 23 years old, so Marie took over cooking for her dad, Tony. Many of her mother's recipes were never written down, so she had to experiment to replicate. She said it was daunting because she was trying to remember what she saw and she never thought to look at a cookbook for help.

She recalls trying to recreate one of her mom's Easter dishes of Italian sausage, ricotta cheese and spices wrapped in a pizza-like crust.

"I ran over to my dad's house while it was still warm and I asked him what do you think?" she recalled. "He said, 'Well, pretty good but the crust is wrong.' I told him you haven't had this in 30 years and you are going to ding me about the crust?!'" Marie no longer cooks just for her father. She finds herself happiest when she is planning dinner parties with her husband, Jim. Each November they host a gathering to celebrate Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine produced in the Beaujolais region of France.

"Every year I have this elaborate cocktail party and every year I try to outdo myself," she said. "I can't do the simple recipe. I have to use the three-page recipe that says 'two days before, do this,'" she added with a laugh.

Whether it's a St. Patrick's Day gathering or a murder mystery party, Marie sends a menu card so guests know what to expect. The feast -- not always Italian -- always includes a mixed drink, appetizer, salad, entree and dessert.

While Marie has no trouble working around the kitchen, she knows there's always room to learn more. Taking a food production class, Marie was among students of all ages who prepared lunch for staff and students learning techniques such as braising, sauteing and roasting. Recipes included chicken Kiev with couscous and roasted vegetables and pork tenderloin with date and walnut pesto and Bing cherry demiglaze served over polenta.

"You'd make the same meal twice that week. The mistakes you'd make on Tuesday you'd correct on Thursday. Thursday was always a good day to eat in the dining room," she adds.

Marie finished the program in three years and earned her culinary certificate. Now she's pursuing classes in pastry and baking.

Unsure exactly where the education will take her, she hopes one day she can teach.

"After working with the students at Harper, these are kids who really want to learn. They want to be there," she said. "It's surprising how much they know. I really liked helping them."

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